Letter from America

A game might make a billion dollars, but it doesn't mean it's perfect.

With depressing predictability, I thought I might as well bookend last week's pre-GTA5 Letter from America with a post-GTA5 piece. Because let's face it, how could I not talk about the most-talked about game this week? And indeed the most shouted about, complained about, controversed about etc etc etc.

I decided not to evoke executive privilege and review the game myself, and instead let our guy Mike Williams do the honours. His take - like many others' - is that GTA5 is a phenomenal game, but one that left him feeling somewhat conflicted. He enjoyed playing it, but sometimes felt disturbed by the characters' actions and choices. I felt the same way, but even more so. So much so, indeed, that I ended up writing an editorial on USgamer about my love-hate relationship with the game. I started out with an open mind, but it didn't take long before I began to skip the character dialogue, simply because I didn't find the story or the characters particularly compelling or likable.

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I watched every cut scene and listened to every piece of dialogue in Red Dead Redemption. Unfortunately, I'm just not finding that same level of engagement from GTA5's plot, mostly because I don't like the characters as much.

For me, GTA5's magic is easily summed up by my two-and-a-half-hour play session last night, when I decided it was time to completely open up the map and spent the entire time driving around every road I could find (and some areas that didn't have any). It blows my mind just how expansive, rich and detailed GTA5's environment is, and how stupendously terrific its lighting and atmospheric effects are. One of my most jaw-dropping moments so far was when I drove around the corner of a side road and found myself looking across a small reservoir with Los Santos in the distance, just as the sun was setting. I sat there for about 10 minutes watching the sun go down, marvelling at what I was seeing.

Another thing I did was follow a hiking path that looked like it was heading up to Mount Chiliad, and was delighted to discover that it actually did lead all the way to the top. More entertaining, however, was the fact that I drove up it in a Mercedes C63 AMG-a-like, which tackled the narrow, bumpy path with aplomb. While clearly ridiculous, it was nevertheless an awesome experience that was much enhanced by using the first-person perspective view. When I reached the peak, I parked next to the cable car terminus and wandered around a bit, taking in the breathtaking views, before jumping back into the car and continuing my journey along the ridgeline - a much more challenging drive going downhill, it must be said.

I'm regaling you with this because when I think of the many hours I've already poured into the game, the majority of that time has been spent just mooching around, exploring San Andreas and seeing what I can do. I'm a fair bit into the story, but I'm having much more fun playing in the game's “sandbox” than following its plot. Don't get me wrong - I'm having fun doing the missions, but I'm simply treating them as yet something else to do. The storyline is something I don't even feel a part of any more. I'm just enjoying being in the game.

In the editorial I linked to above, I talked a lot about how I'm surprised that given the huge technical leaps the GTA franchise has made, it's still largely mired in a 12-year-old design construct. I'd love to see branching storylines with meaningful choices and interesting consequences - and I wonder whether that would make the game better or worse in the eyes of most players. In other words, do most people like the idea of playing out a linear story to find out what happens next, or are they more interested in creating their own storyline through their own choices?

Sometimes I wonder whether the story and its characters are more a vehicle to excuse the kind of behavior you can perpetrate in the game. These are bad guys who do bad things, so it's understandable that you might nick cars and run down pedestrians. But that said, there's no reason why these guys need to be all “bad”. For me, I'd love to be a little more vigilante/anti-hero. You can do good things and bad things - but you have that choice. Anyway, I'm rambling on, and I'm sure many will argue that why would anyone want to change a clearly winning formula that makes boatloads of cash? Which is a fair point, but even so, there's no harm in wishing for something even better. Which I'm hoping perhaps GTA Online might be.

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GTA5's landscaping is just phenomenal. So much to see. So much to do.

Before I move onto other things that happened in the news this week, don't forget that if you do toddle over to USgamer, thanks to the miracles of modern information super highway magic, you can log in to the site using your Eurogamer credentials and leave comments, should you so wish.

Something else I enjoyed playing this week, but in a really weird way, was Etrian Odyssey. Two other USG team members also played it, and we ended up with a preview-a-trois, with three very different perspectives - and I also confessed to being a low-down, cheatin' bastard.

New regular USG columnist Bob Mackey wrote a really interesting piece about the way games teach you how to play them - and the fact that many older games did it a lot better than the spoon-feeding nonsense you see in some of today's painfully condescending “tutorial” modes. He also wrote about the Pokemon X and Y games, should you be interested in reading about them.

Tokyo Game Show happened this week, and we had plenty of stories from that. The highlights include why dying sucks more than ever in Dark Souls 2, our short, but entertaining interview with the designer of the DualShock 4, and our hands-on impressions of the new, redesigned Vita, which is really quite spiffy.

On a personal front, the new Strider game was of most interest to me. Being old of school, I'm really hoping we'll finally get to play a really great Strider game, and won't once again be disappointed by a load of old codswallop, as we have been in the past.

And finally, perhaps the greatest gaming idea so far this decade - the mashing up of Tetris and Puyo Puyo (aka Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine) into a versus puzzle game. I'm really, really excited about that. And also scared of its potentially horrendous addictive qualities.

Until next week!

Jaz Rignall is editorial director of USgamer.net, a version of Eurogamer written with a funny American accent.

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