I finished Red Faction: Guerrilla a couple months back and decided that I definitely needed to play more games from Volition Software. This in turn led me to Saints Row 2, and a startling realization: there were dev studios out there doing open world games just as well as Rockstar was, and in the case of Volition, in many ways they were doing a better job. Saints Row 2 has its share of problems—predictable story, a host of bugs and glitches. But it takes the over-the-top approach to sandbox gaming that felt tacked on and out of place in GTA 4 and runs with it. What’s more, most of the problems in Saints Row 2 were fixed in its spiritual successor Red Faction: Guerrilla; Volition learns from its mistakes and corrects them.
If Rockstar had been acquired by Sega circa 1999 and subsequently released GTA 3 as a Dreamcast exclusive, it would have essentially been Saints Row 2. The attitude, presentation, licensed music and general insanity of Saints 2 felt like Sega’s take on a GTA. Like Crazy Taxi, Seaman or Space Channel 5, Saints 2 knew exactly what it was and didn’t care what anyone else thought, probably because it didn’t have the massive fanbase and expectations attached to a GTA. There was none of the gangster movie worshipping or macho insecurity that have always tinged Rockstar’s series. In spite of its problems, that is what I loved about Saints 2—it lacked the sense of identity crisis that plagued Niko Bellic’s maudlin journey through Liberty City.
Do I think the next GTA should emulate the Saints Row series? Absolutely not. Volition is doing their own thing. At most, GTA should take pointers from Saints Row in terms of gameplay and playability, not theme and story. Saints 2 might not have the plot complexity or realistic physics of GTA 4, but I noticed something about an hour into the game: I was having fun. I was mostly frustrated for about 80% of GTA 4. GTA 4 sacrificed fun, intuitive play for realism. It was a decent stab at serious crime drama but in the end it came off as pretentious and self indulgent. In terms of gameplay, it’s merely a thorough next-gen polish of what came before. To paraphrase one of my favorite game commentators, GTA 4 did not change the landscape of gaming; that’s what GTA 3 did. At most GTA 4 did a very good job of mowing the lawn.
I have no doubt that Rockstar could release the equivalent of GTA 4 expansion packs for the next decade and the fans would be happy, but as a gamer I can’t be satisfied with that. I like the GTA series a lot, but I want to see it evolve. I want to see Rockstar challenge themselves and what their crime franchise can be. GTA can be unabashedly fun again, and without going the goofball route that Saints Row takes. GTA just has to get a lot better at being serious, and not divide itself between immature cultural parody and mature storytelling.Step 1: Tighten up that gameplay
Say what you will about its rampant immaturity and glitches, Saints Row 2 had much tighter and intuitive basic gameplay than any game in the GTA series. I think it has something to do with Volition guessing that players don’t want to be fighting the game mechanics half the time, while Rockstar assumes anything with Grand Theft Auto printed on the box will sell a million copies. The hard truth is that GTA has a number of gameplay conventions and quirks that are too inefficient or awkward for today’s gaming environment. The theme of GTA should definitely get more serious than that of Volition’s crime franchise, but in terms of basic mechanics GTA should learn some lessons from Saints 2.
GTA 4 is chock full of annoying quirks that kept me from enjoying the core game. Why do I have to pay the rude cabdriver more money just to skip past the long, boring travel time to get to my destination? Why are there only a handful of safehouses in the city, requiring tedious transportation to missions in a distant corner of the map? Why am I playing darts with my depressed, co-dependent AI pals or worse, taking the game’s various emotionally damaged women on boring dates? These features aren’t realistic or challenging or even entertaining, they just break the flow of gameplay.
GTA 4 finally addressed a couple of the series’ issues by automatically saving right after a mission, or letting you replay a failed mission right after you failed it. However, when you were busted or killed you’d still respawn without any weapons. There were certain perks late in the game that prevented this—unlocked through the aforementioned dating grind—but for most of the game you were forced to re-purchase or relocate all of your stolen arms.
Saints Row 2 had a similar penalty, but you could always return to one of your many safehouses and rearm. Once you purchased a gun it was permanently unlocked in your safehouse—I guess the assumption was your gang kept its safehouses well stocked, or your character picked up plenty of duplicate guns while scrounging ammo from fallen enemies.
And really, why wouldn’t Niko Bellic have extra guns stored up? Would he carry his entire arsenal with him all the time? In my opinion it would be more realistic if he could only carry a set number of weapons at a time—in other words, you could plan your mission by pulling certain guns out of your armory. If he loses one, no big deal; he can pull another from storage when he gets home.
The safehouse system in general should be reworked to imitate Saints 2. That game made every single one feel like a separate base of operations, with full access to vehicles, weapons, outfits and even teammates. There were also a lot of them—once you had enough cash you could purchase strongholds in every major district. Some of the features, like an infinite supply of any car you’d stored, were a bit too unrealistic. Still, the rest of the safehouse abilities were just common gameplay features that prevented a lot of headaches and extra steps.
GTA4’s other main stumbling block was the car physics. They were certainly realistic but as a result they fell straight into the uncanny valley of game physics. At first I didn’t mind that every vehicle handled like a 1960s Volvo cinderblock on square wheels—hey, if that’s what Rockstar considers realism—but when I was forced to race in the damn things I got a little annoyed. Every other driver apparently held an expert stunt racing license, weaving in and out of congested traffic while I clumsily wrapped my vehicle around strangely obstinate trees. If you’re going to put sluggish, molasses-wheeled cars in your game, make sure they’re a pain for everyone to control, not just the player. Otherwise go with the elegant, just-realistic-enough vehicle handling from Saints Row 2.
Last but not least, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the next GTA should use some form of recharging health. I typically hate recharging health—it’s a lazy gameplay technique—but in a sandbox game where you don’t always have access to health restoring items, it just makes the most sense. Saints 2 handled this brilliantly. Your health would recharge very slowly, but you could use stored health items to give yourself a quick boost.
Rockstar could use this method, or something similar to FarCry 2. In that game, as you got injured your maximum health diminished sequentially. Until you used a health item or returned to a safehouse you’d never be restored to full health. It’s more realistic and less cumbersome than Niko’s old school method of pilfering random medkits.Step 2: have some self-respect
Instead of falling back on the two-dimensional sophomoric humor that has become the GTA series’ trademark, Rockstar should go full steam ahead on the more serious approach to crime that they toyed with in GTA 4. I can’t take Niko serious about his horrible entropic spiral into crime if Lazlo pops onto the radio every few minutes with a dick joke. I’m not saying that GTA should abandon its sense of humor. Dark humor has always been a big part of the series, but it should be just that: dark, ironic, cuttingly self-referential. It’s time to move on from the one-liners and lowbrow gags ripped out of bad 90s comedies. That’s going for the low-hanging fruit.
GTA 4’s story and characters were at their best when Niko was making observations about just how pointless his existence was and how he still clung to it. Instead of making him sound like Alan Alda in the later seasons of MASH, why not work a bitter joke or two in there?
And about the barely-concealed racism underlying each of the games’ factions. It was a little bit funny back in GTA 3 when all the Jamaicans were unintelligible potheads, all the Italians were gesticulating spaghetti-eating Mafioso, all the white guys were fat WASPy republicans or beer-swilling rednecks and all the Asians talked like some buck-toothed beady-eyed caricature. With games like GTA 4 and Chinatown Wars in the series now, that kind of stereotyping isn’t just inordinately offensive, it’s uncharacteristic of the more complex world the GTA pantheon has become.
Step 3: Let the players add some character
Niko Bellic might be Rockstar’s most original character, but that’s only because he isn’t a blatant Xerox of Tony Montana or some other gangster film archetype. I liked Tommy Vercetti specifically because he was a shameless ripoff of Montana, and GTA Vice City was Scarface: The Game, only more playful and irreverent. Vice City was a blunt pastiche of the Reagan 80s by means of the trademark GTA humor—the perfect application of immaturity, social commentary and self awareness that still makes Vice City my favorite entry in the series.
Carl Johnson of San Andreas was a disappointment in comparison. I sympathized with his plight and family tragedy, but after a time I tired of his contradictory behavior. CJ wasn’t searching for redemption or even trying to be a better class of criminal, he was just trying to keep his gang strong and in the process he was manipulated by most everyone in the game. The big gimmick in San Andreas was reworking CJ’s appearance to fit your tastes, but I could never change CJ the way I really wanted to. I couldn’t make him escape his lowly origins to be feared and respected by all as a master criminal.
It really bothered me that the first identifiable gang-banger in the GTA series was African-American. At the end of the game, despite being a successful business owner, gambler, stunt driver, pilot and criminal-to-be-reckoned-with, CJ just returns to the ghetto that bore him. The underlying message, intentional or not, was that CJ fit the urban gangster mould to the letter and could never be anything more. What that story told me in a sick kind of way was that CJ had a place in society and he needed to stay there. If that was a sharp commentary on racial profiling and ethnic social immobility then bravo, Rockstar, but considering the context of the rest of the game, somehow I doubt it.
GTA 4 started out promising but got irritating quickly. Niko was a great character with considerable depth and a real past, but I got fed up with his whining about how he could never change or be free of his bloody lifestyle. It was an intriguing statement about the self-destructive nature of crime life but in a self-deterministic genre like video games, Niko’s ultimately futile adventure in Liberty City was frustrating because it robbed me of big choices to make big change.
GTA 4’s characters were the most entertaining and interesting in the series, but they never went anywhere. Most of them died anticlimactically, while the rest fell into tired crime movie stereotypes. Brucie remains a ‘roided-up spaz and Little Jacob is still an insightful Jamaican stoner—neither of them have much depth. And Niko? After all he endures he is left a disenfranchised immigrant, a foreign ghoul wandering the Worst Place in America. Realistic? Definitely. Satisfying? Maybe in an ironic melancholy way, but only until those dumb jokes start playing on the radio again and ruin the mood.
GTA has always put a predefined player character front-and-center, but what if Rockstar let gamers tweak their avatar a bit? GTA 3’s voiceless Claude had little or no past and that let players inject whatever backstory they wanted. I don’t want the full-on customization you get in big RPGs or even Saints Row 2, but letting me choose my character’s gender and ethnicity and then attaching social implications to those choices would be great. GTA 4 occasionally let you take the high road, giving you the option to execute or spare an important target, but those choices never had a huge impact on the core plot.
The next GTA could work like Mass Effect—give me a few choices at the beginning to determine my character’s background, reputation, circumstances and personality. Mixing and matching Shepard’s possible life paths made Mass Effect great to play through a second and third time, but it also made me feel like I had some power over who Shepard was and how he’d turn out. Rockstar can do the same thing. They can make the big choices my character faces tough, life-changing decisions, but they should at least give me the choice. I don’t want to be forced into a no-win situation again, where a loved one inevitably dies and the game ends with empty revenge. I want who I was and what I did to ultimately mean something.Step 4: Give me someone interesting to play as
If Rockstar decides to go the predefined character route, which is probable considering they’ve done it in every previous game, I’d like to be someone different for a change. They’ve had me climbing the ladder of professional crime as one thug or another for over a decade now, and regardless of the individual characters’ backgrounds, the formula remains the same. By this point I’m a little tired of being some clueless heavy who gets used and abused by every criminal organization in the game before he figures out what’s going on.
What if my character isn’t some thug with a checkered past? What if he’s a bent cop who uses his influence to commit horrible crimes, i.e. Nicholas Cage in Bad Lieutenant? What if he’s a corrupt politician who moonlights as a mafia boss? Or what if he’s completely out of his mind?
Imagine if one of Lionel Starkweather’s biggest “stars" got out of Carcer City while James Earl Cash, of Rockstar's murderous Manhunt title, was cleaning house. He wanders the country for a while and ends up in San Andreas. He sees bickering gangs and a corrupt government ripe for the pickings, but the scary thing is this madman is smart enough to pull all of their strings, and nuts enough to do anything it takes to own the city. This man happens to be you.
A raving madman is easy enough to put down, but crazy does not always equal dumb or disorganized. Remember Heath Ledger’s Joker in Dark Knight? He was certifiably insane, but mentally collected enough to turn all of Gotham’s gangs inside out and throw the city into chaos on the side. Imagine if you were that guy but there was no Batman to clean up after you. Smart psychopaths are the scariest because they have the intelligence to focus their insanity and aim it like a cannon. They’re smart enough to do anything and insane enough that they will
If Rockstar wants the GTA series to be more realistic, then a lunatic is about the only protagonist that fits the gameplay anymore. Essentially, the main character’s potential actions should fit his characterization. In GTA 4 I could go on a rampage through the city, murdering thousands of innocent people and police officers and as long as I could evade the law long enough, I could get away with it
That is not normal behavior for the most crooked of mob bosses or the nastiest of thugs. That is horrifying psychosis at its purest. And yet the next time I started up a story mission, Niko was his usual boring, regretful and emotionally scarred self, moaning about all the bad things he’d done. Plain and simple, Niko the character isn’t psychologically capable of the depth of depravity possible in GTA 4. Within the context of the game world, someone depraved enough to go on a rampage like that isn’t capable of regret. If the game lets me commit a heinous act like mass murder, Rockstar should make it at least plausible that the character I’m playing is unhinged enough to do it.
Step 5: Go somewhere interesting
Many critics raved about how eerily accurate GTA 4’s Liberty City was to New York. It hit on all the major landmarks, boroughs and islands of the Big Apple and applied GTA’s trademark glaze of raunchy parody to each of them. There was just one problem: I’d seen it all before.
Sure, Liberty City was bigger, more accurate and more realistic in GTA 4 than in any previous game, but that doesn’t change the fact that six of the ten main GTA games and two of the expansion packs take place in the bizarro-Manhattan. Vice City and San Andreas were so refreshing just because you weren’t confined to the same drab skyscrapers, subways and ghettos. It’s time for Rockstar to leave Liberty City behind, permanently.
So where to next? Personally I’d love to see GTA in London again, and after Chinatown Wars, Taiwan, Hong Kong or even Tokyo would be a nice change. Heck, if they wanted to be really creative and work in a lot of raw social tension they could do Johannesburg—District 9 showed us how ripe that city is for gritty storytelling. Unfortunately the Scotland-based Rockstar North has an odd aversion to anywhere outside the continental U.S. so for the foreseeable future, we’ll probably be jacking cars in Yankee towns. Still, there’s plenty of ground to cover in the States.
As much as I enjoyed the locales of Vice City and San Andreas, I’d prefer that Rockstar leave their comfort zone and try something less obvious than Miami or LA. Chicago would be cool but it’s a bit too similar to Manhattan. Southern cities like Atlanta or Houston would allow for more of the racial/regional stereotyping Rockstar loves so much, but what I’d like to see most is something like Seattle. A GTA game doesn’t have to start in an overpopulated urban shithole to be interesting—what if the city didn’t start out bad, but was pristine, prosperous and high tech and you
make it go to hell in a handbasket? Placing the next GTA in the neighborhood of Microsoft and Nintendo of America would set up some great game industry in-jokes too.
Aside from being overdone, Liberty City was also big and empty; in GTA4 it was superficially realistic but without much nitty-gritty interaction with the game world. Fast forward a year later to the Liberty of Chinatown Wars and suddenly you have a ton of nuances and idiosyncrasies that make it feel like a real place. Jacking cars required that you actually hotwire them; you had to break padlocks or smash keypads to open secure gates; you needed to assemble your sniper rifle before you could use it; you could buy lottery tickets and if you were lucky, even win a house. And all of this was introduced on the DS. Rockstar Leeds has the right idea here, and I’d love to see Rockstar North push it even further in their home console GTAs.Step 6: Let me be a criminal
The whole point of GTA is to do things that are explicitly against the law, things that other games won’t let you do because their protagonists are too “good.” So why limit lawbreaking to the most obvious things—mass killing sprees, robbery, general mayhem and motor vehicle theft? Sure these acts are fun in a cathartic way but they get boring quickly. True Crime New York City at least let me sell drugs I’d confiscated, issue bogus traffic tickets, take bribes and dish out some police brutality.
Think about the ironically addictive drug dealing minigame in GTA Chinatown Wars. In that game you were basically just passing product between dealers, buying low and selling high, but that one minigame was just as compelling as the main story. Add the element of selling directly to the customers and things get more interesting. You could exploit more desperate neighborhoods by hiking up your prices, extorting or blackmailing the population. If you had your own personal lab in your safe house you could mix up designer concoctions, selling a better product than the competition. Conversely you could cut your stash with toxic substances to make it go longer, but have to balance that against the risk of poisoning and killing your customer base. The whole drug dealing concept is rife with potential for nasty manipulation of hopelessly addicted junkies.
Drug dealing is all well and good and should have shown up much earlier in the series, but what about other comparatively simple crimes? Usually the tutorial missions have you driving people around or rubbing out an inconvenient low-level gangster, but why not combine these with more interesting illicit activities?
Maybe if you get pulled over enough times you get your license revoked, and have to forge a new one. You could even make this profitable, forging fake ID’s and selling them to wealthy (or desperate) bidders. Gun running would be a cool mission. It would teach players how to drive around and evade enemies and combine it with the illegal smuggling business of the drug dealing, but what if you had to file serial numbers off the weapons first? Those Chinatown Wars scratch cards were fun, so where the heck did the gambling go after San Andreas?
If Rockstar wants to take off the kid gloves, they could get nastier on the other, severe end of the crime spectrum. The single kidnapping mission in GTA4 was played for laughs, but why? If GTA is really about being a criminal, where’s the ransom, the torture, the gruesome message-sending executions? Where’s the human trafficking Niko alluded to? Where’s the stuff that really makes me feel like a horrible person for being involved? Gangster films have been doing these things for decades. It’s time for GTA to grow up and include a wider palate of colors in its crime drama.
The consequences for these actions should be proportionately severe and more difficult to avoid. Once you’re done with a crime, you shouldn’t be able to just walk away Scott-free. For instance, I always wondered about the huge trails of evidence Niko left behind him in the wake of a firefight—fingerprints, brass from multiple firearms, even his own blood. You should have to clean up crime scenes, erasing evidence of being there, and if you don’t it should be much easier for the cops to hunt you down.
That leads me to my next point—if I’m a master criminal, my actions should make me notorious. The cops’ impotent racial profiling of Niko as “an ambiguous man with a European accent” was funny as a Bush-era allegory, but after potentially hundreds of felonies and at least one major bank heist it wasn’t realistic in the slightest. No matter how traditionally incompetent and stupid the cops are in the GTA series, by that point Niko’s face should have been more recognizable than Saddam Hussein’s, at least to the LCPD.
The next GTA should ditch the antiquated “wanted” meter and implement a dynamic notoriety system. Once you’ve committed a serious crime cops should be able to spot you tooling around in a car or walking the streets, and their response should range from attempted arrest all the way up to the now standard barricades, tanks and attack choppers, depending on how seriously you’ve broken the law in the past.
This in turn generates more interesting gameplay for eluding the law. Instead of just avoiding a flashing cop radius on your radar by driving at high speed through the city, why not hide or disguise yourself? Maybe you get so notorious that you can’t show your face in public, requiring you to take more drastic measures. Saints Row 2 let you go under the knife of a plastic surgeon to erase your wanted level, although that was more of a side-benefit to customizing your appearance. That’s one feature I’d love to see in the next GTA, but for the sake of realism surgical face-rearranging should come with all the drawbacks it has in real life.Conclusion
GTA is the game franchise most commonly attacked by the media, opportunistic politicians, and everyone else who can’t and won’t understand what it is about. Gamers have a knee-jerk reaction to defend GTA against any attack, but this can also lead us to place it on a pedestal and withhold any legitimate criticism of the series’ flaws. Was GTA groundbreaking? Absolutely. But it still has a lot of little faults that make it frustrating to play and narratively unsatisfying.
Back when GTA 3 first came out it was the definition of edgy line-crossing video games. Driving a red sports car through a crowd of pedestrians hadn’t been done in such a high profile, morally apathetic way before. Today, GTA is what angsty tenth-graders play when they want to show their parents and friends that they’re “hardcore.” Hell, it was what surly kids played to get attention back when I was in tenth grade, but you get the point. Anymore, GTA is as much a crime simulator as Mario Galaxy is an astronomy simulator—it can give you the basic idea but it lacks texture and realism.
GTA has always given you the bare bones of criminal activity but none of the grit or subtlety. You can jack a Hummer and plow it through a building but you can’t even hold up the hotdog stand guy. I want the next GTA to make me feel like a real criminal: desperate, suspicious, angry and guilty, really guilty, for what I’ve done.
In the teasers for GTA 4, Niko coldly and a bit remorsefully states that he’s killed people, smuggled people, and sold people. So why can’t I do that? Why is my guy always a low-level thug working his way up, and not a broken crime kingpin with a mountain of regrets and a crumbling empire? Let me be a morally bankrupt human trafficker, unable to change his nature but trying against hope to salvage his ravaged sanity.
Imagine, the next GTA has something like Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level early on, something that gives the main character a horrific psychological scar. Maybe he turns to drugs or alcohol to cope with the guilt. When and how you use these substances not only affects gameplay, but ultimately determines if your character redeems himself as an ethically conscious criminal mastermind, or if his broken, addled mind descends into nihilistic madness. I want a drama that takes a hard look at the mental and moral consequences of a life of crime, a game that shows how easy it is to compromise your principles over and over until you can’t recognize the guy in the mirror.
Someone once said that video games are the only storytelling medium where you can feel guilt from the actions of a fictional character. I want the next GTA to explore the potential of that statement. I want to be the criminal scum selling people and breaking up families, exploiting the addictions of junkies and prostitutes, and murdering innocents simply because they are in my way. And I want to feel truly, sickeningly, gut-wrenchingly awful for it. But I also want a choice, a conscious decision to avoid that behavior.
Interactive games have a power that no other genre has: the ability to let us live vicariously the darkest aspects of the human condition. As voyeurs in the lives of soldiers, wizards, ruthless criminals and yes, even plumbers, they give us insight into every facet of our imaginations. Sometimes it is most important to peer into the murkiest shadows of that imagination, to see our potential for wrongdoing and, after a brief vacation in the debauched and profane, reject our negative qualities. Our books, films and games reflect our fascination with criminals and their shocking ability to cross lines the rest of us wouldn’t go near. The Grand Theft Auto series has the potential to take that fascinated reflection to a new height, to let us see ourselves at our ugliest and understand how and why some of us can get there.
To waste such potential on clichéd stories, flat characters and puerile humor is a crime of the highest order.