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Changing the Video Game Business

A look at five games that set the standard for the entire industry.

This week, I’d like to talk about games that made me marvel at the direction the industry is headed. So instead of a review, I’d like to take a quick look back at some of my favorite games over the past several years.  

5. Saints Row II

While we’re all about Saints Row the Third nowadays, it’s worth remembering where that drunk, foul-mouthed, psychotic blob of whacky fun that didn’t make the slightest bit of sense got its roots, and that was with its predecessor, Saint’s Row II.

Why not the first installment? Well, it was alright, but it was a gangster game -you know, the kind where you start off with nothing but the clothes on your back, a shiv and a dream. You rob, steal, cheat and murder your way to the top and then end up owning everything in the world and making more money than Bill Gates.

Saints Row II has the same premise, but a detatchment from reality is what makes it shine against other crime games. It also had tons of completely absurd mini-games to play around with, like injuring yourself to collect insurance money, pimping out military vehicles and streaking. It's just pure, unadulterated fun.

Now we have Saint’s Row the Third, and while fun, the craziness was taken a little too far. So Saints Row II beats out the other two for being fun and varied in the era of the brown and murky Grand Theft Auto IV. 

4. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Let’s face it: Star Wars has seen better days. As a long-time fan, I’m not really keen to all the new media that it’s been releasing over the past decade. I hated The Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars, and even Revenge of the Sith was only okay. Also, I haven’t even bothered with all the CG series they’ve been putting out.

Suffice it to say I don’t get terribly excited about anything with the label “Lucas Arts” stamped on it, so let’s talk about a rare exception to all of Lucas’s recent bile - The Force Unleashed.

The Force Unleashed introduces us to Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, one Galen Marek (more commonly known as Starkiller, which was the original last name that Lucas intended for Luke back in the 70’s). You’ll guide him through various linear sequences and battle various enemies. It all sounds pretty slapdash, but it’s executed so well that I thought it was worth mentioning here.

What The Force Unleashed did was remind me that linear games can still be great fun. With more companies turning to sandbox-style free roaming games to keep the masses entertained, The Force Unleashed showed us how linear games are done: You are a Sith Lord tasked with killing anything Vader wishes, and you have the means to make that happen in the form of your lightsabre and a plethora of telekinetic abilities through the Force.

What makes this game so much fun is that you get a real sense that you’re dominating everyone around you. There’s also plenty of ways to kill enemies, whether it’s tossing them hundreds of meters with the Force, running them through with your lightsabre (which can also be thrown), or ripping pieces of the world around you from their roots and hurling them.

I don’t know what else to say; it’s just a lot of fun. Who didn't want to be a Jedi growing up?

3. Red Dead Redemption

I know I ripped on Rockstar Games earlier by mentioning that GTA IV was brown and murky. Well, I stand by it; the environment was dark and gritty, as was the plot. This is actually something that Rockstar has been doing a lot lately. Let’s take a look:

We have GTA IV, a tragic story about an Russian ex-mobster looking to live a normal life in America and we have Red Dead Redemption, a tragic story about a former outlaw of the Old West who is blackmailed into doing the dirty work of a corrupt FBI agent.

There’s something about Red Dead Redemption, though, that makes it stand out from the other works of Rockstar. I think what I liked most about it was the characters, which is a testament to how plot has become an essential part of mainstream gaming.

As I played through the campaign I remember becoming quite attached to the protagonist John Marston. I loved him as a character, seeking absolution from his past as a gunslinger so that he could live a normal life as a rancher. I also thought the voice acting was very well done, and I particularly liked the face capture mechanics which allowed the characters show emotion via face contortions. 

2. Skyrim

Without a doubt, Skyrim is a masterpiece of gaming art that has single-handedly raised the bar for the better.

Everything second of the five years put into developing this game is on display. The environment is richly detailed, the weapons are well designed, the combat itself is tons of fun, and the storyline is extremely well written. Also worth noting is the soundtrack, which really helped create the sense of a huge, epic fantasy world.

There was little I didn’t enjoy about this title. I played through it three times, as a warrior, mage, and archer. During those three playthroughs I also experimented with playing as a good and evil character. I joined every guild and I fought the civil war on both sides. I poured dozens of hours into this game, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

Skyrim also has generating quests, which means that the game can theoretically be played forever. Not that I would, but I will say that it takes quite a game to hold my attention for as long as Skyrim was able to. 

1. Just Cause 2

This is probably one of my favorite games ever. I still pick it up every once in a while just to goof off. If you haven’t played it, it’s available for download on Xbox Live and I believe it’s also available for download on Playstation. You can also get it on the PC.

Just Cause 2 takes place on the fictional island nation of Panau, which seems to be modeled after an Eastern nation. You play as Rico Rodriguez, an agent for the United States with a horribly stereotyped Hispanic accent. He’s been sent by his agency to destabilize the nation for political reasons. He is to do this by destroying everything in sight.

There are several things that made Just Cause 2 so great. First was the world map. It’s gigantic and features varying environments, from lush jungles to arid deserts to sprawling cities. I’m pretty sure it’s the largest of any game I’ve ever played. Even in the fastest jet the game offers, it takes about six minutes to fly directly from one end of the map to the other. Even then, you can continue into the ocean indefinitely.

Next is the grappling hook. This device tethers you to any surface within range and then pulls you to it. It also cancels momentum, so you fly straight to the surface regardless of what angle it happens to be at. This leads to a few rather silly scenarios, like the fact that you can hookshot into the ground and avoid death regardless of what height you fall from.

In fact, if there’s a single word to describe the action in Just Cause 2, “silly” is certainly the leading candidate. Rico can live through falls from heights of hundreds of meters (this has actually led to my invention of a sport I like to call “concrete diving.”), he can pull unlimited parachutes out of his pack, and he is capable of leaping about thirty feet into the air when he hops from the ground to the top of a 747. Also, his feet are apparently magnetic because he can stand on the top of any vehicle, including aircraft, regardless of how fast it is moving.

Still, all of this silliness is cancelled out by the incredible amount of fun there is to be had with the dim-witted enemies. There’s plenty of ways to have the sort of cathartic fun most gamers expect out of a sandbox. Example: strap an enemy’s leg to a bus, hijack said bus, and drive it down a snow-covered slope at a ski resort. Or even better, strap your sports car to an enemy harrier and let it take off with you dangling underneath it, then hop onto the hood of the car, detach the cable and surf it as long as you can before it flips over or it hits the ground.

Just Cause 2 is a shining example of how a game has one main objective among all others: to be fun. There’s plenty wrong with it, trust me. The story is completely idiotic, and the voice acting is like having a cheese grater rubbed against my eardrums. The accents are horribly stereotypical, and the AI is very stupid at times.

Still, none of that matters, because Just Cause 2 got the most important part right: they made the game fun. They didn’t follow a formula, and they didn’t chicken out and do what everyone else does because it’s guaranteed to work. Other gaming companies need to learn from this: in an era of shooter clone tyranny, coupled with repetitious sandbox crime games, innovation and a willingness to step away from what’s safe will be rewarded.

The above is only my opinion.  It just happens to be right. 

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