Dene holla’s at his boy CJ
We're more than halfway through 2013, eagerly awaiting the birth of the next generation of gaming, and something's happened that I never expected. I'm starting to think that the best videogame ever made may have been bumped from the top spot.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may not be the world’s greatest videogame any more.
If you think this is surprising; it's nothing compared to how I feel. When I first considered this I went through all the classic stages. Dismissal. Disbelief. Denial. There were random violent outbursts in fast food restaurants usually involving throwing chicken wings, while shouting 'cock-a-doodle cluck'. But, I finally accepted it. San Andreas may no longer be the best.
To understand how hard it's been for me to accept this you have to go back a few years. Back to when I got really lucky. Or back to when the powers behind NZGamer.com (the top-secret Gamer Community Executive Board - or the GCEB, to give it it's official government title), screwed up. Somehow, on the back of a review of Bully and a Tony Hawk game, I was cleared to write for NZGamer.
Since then I've written previews, reviews, hands-on. Top 10s, ‘what I wants’, and the cathartic and epic Life Changers. Life Changers were awesome. You didn't have to worry about being objective, didn't feel obligated to point out faults, you could forget about all the complaining and criticising , and just plant a big wet kiss on the backside of your favourite game.
The first Life Changers I wrote was about San Andreas. I loved San Andreas the day it came out. Loved it for the last three years it's been sitting on my shelf untouched because I haven't owned a PS2 for ages. And loved it all over again when it went up on the PlayStation Network and I spent almost thirty dollars on it all over again.
Thirty dollars well spent. I loaded it up and heard the Rockstar logo spray can shake, and that was it. San Andreas was great; is still great now; and will be great forever. However, back in 2004 there were those appallingly negative people who pointed out the game's faults. Playing it now, almost ten years later, the faults are still there and are even more apparent.
Pop-up is bad. So bad it'll make you weep. It's so bad it actually makes you fail missions. In the cut-scenes everyone's hands are like mittens, whenever someone talks they wave them around like they're on an episode of Thunderbirds. And the auto-aim is horrendous. If you get caught in a gang war you're just as likely to turn around and shoot the woman across the road as opposed to the three Ballas standing right in front of you with AKs.
And sexist and racist! The stereotypes in San Andreas are appalling. Forget Riptide, Lollipop Chainsaw, or the Mexicans and Africans in Resident Evil. When you step out of your house in Los Santos all the women are sexual targets and the first thing any black man says is “where's da weed at?”.
So, if San Andreas is so bad, what makes it so great? For a start there are the voice actors and the music. A couple of minutes into the opening cut-scene, Samuel L Jackson takes over. Then you have Chris Penn, James Woods, some perfectly cast relative unknowns, and cameos from various character actors and musicians. There has never been a cast in a videogame like it, and there never will be again.
Then there is the music. San Andreas has a staggering list of song licences. There hasn't been a movie sountrack, not this side of Forrest Gump, that has evoked a time and place as perfectly as the tracks on Radio Los Santos and Radio X. Love them or hate them Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, and Guns 'n Roses, transport you directly to the west coast of America in 1994. If it stopped there, the soundtrack would be remarkable. But it's so much more than that. Classic rock, soul, house, country - every station packed with gems. In San Andreas I'll happily park up and listen to Kiss, Willy Nelson, Toots & the Maytels, or En Vogue. That's what videogames are all about. Doing stuff that you'd never consider doing in real life.
But the best cast and the best soundtrack doesn't automatically make the best game. The other reasons why San Andreas is the greatest, are less tangible. They're a matter of taste, of personal preference. I like long games, and San Andreas is long. I like violent games, and it's violent. But, also the whole world of San Andreas is so brilliantly designed. When I first played the game, San Andreas felt big. Strangely it doesn't now. Now it feels tight, almost compact. But absolutely packed with detail. Deserts, forests, and three amazing cities. Compared to San Andreas every open world game from Saint's Row to Skyrim, Just Cause to Far Cry, and even Red Dead Redemption, just seem one note and repetitive.
There's just too much that I like about San Andreas to go into it all. I love the movie references, I love flying big planes, and the way arriving in each new city changes the tone of the story. I really love the freaky Catalina, the really hard missions, and finding all the spray tags early so you've get rewarded with a house full of guns right from the start. I love bicycle races, instant five star wanted levels for flying too low over military bases, and all that money you can win playing mini-games in the casinos.
So how could any game be better than San Andreas? For almost ten years I didn't think it possible.
Then, something really weird happened. I played the Tomb Raider reboot. Just after the opening chapter when a beaten and bloody Lara Croft crawls out of the cave and looks out to an amazingly rendered new dawn, I let out a breath that I didn't know I'd been holding. And I realized I'd just played through the best opening ever. I may have even said it out loud.
But, by the time I'd finished, I'd changed my mind. While Tomb Raider's a stunning game, with great set pieces and the brilliantly reimagined Lara, it's too short. Just another game that follows the modern model for big budget releases. A linear game with a formulaic story that you finish inside a weekend, and online multiplayer added on to make it seem like it’s worth $100. It's my not-so-secret hate. If short, pretty, linear games (with a tacked on multiplayer) had a page on ask.fm - I'd hate bomb it.
So, San Andreas was still the best. For a few months. Until I played The Last of Us. While I'm aware that all the criticisms I had for Tomb Raider applied to The Last of Us - you could play the story in a solid weekend, it was a straight line from beginning to end, and at the end waited the online multiplayer. Despite knowing all this, for the entire twenty hours it took to play through the story, I knew I was playing the best game I'd ever played.
While it probably hasn't been out long enough to casually drop a load of spoilers, I'll just say that for a story about zombies, it feels original right from the shocking opening to the beautifully understated end. Although the central part of the game has a lot of the typical zombiesque characters and situations, the post-post apocalyptic setting keeps the story fresh. Aided, in a very big way, by the two lead characters.
Ellie and Joel are amazingly well drawn. Well drawn in every way. People have never looked better in a game and no game has ever looked better. And their journey across America is like a journey into their pasts. Every murdered innocent, and every abandoned enclave they stumble across reveals another part of their past. While something may be new and shocking to one, you know that it's nothing new to the other. By the time you reach the end you have a real sense of who Joel and Ellie are, what their lives have been like, and the changers they've gone through.
But, is it a good game? The simple answer is yes. Violent gunplay, weapon mods, silent takedowns, and smashing zombies in the head with a baseball bat. It's the kind of gameplay that's been good enough for me for the last twenty years. But, the bigger answer is that the gameplay hardly matters.
The Last of Us is the first game that transcends the limitations of being a videogame. Like D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Alan Moore's Watchmen, The Last of Us changes the expectations about what a videogame can be, and should be. From now on you won't just judge a game by your completion percentage or kill/death ratio, you judge it on your emotional response to the characters and story. The Last of Us is the first game that can be put on the shelf between your favourite French novel and box set of Breaking Bad.
If The Last of Us closed out the year I'd put a line through 2013, very satisfied. But, there are still a couple of important events to look forward to. The next generation consoles are on the horizon, but more important than that is the release of Grand Theft Auto V.
Yes I'm still obsessed with San Andreas and I can't wait to get back there in GTAV. Down deep I'm hoping that The Last of Us is just a blip and soon I'll be able to say that GTAV is the best. I've spent the last ten years complaining about short, nice looking, linear games, and it makes me feel like a traitor having to heap praise on games like that. And talking up The Last of Us is such a serious business. I can hear myself in my head; I sound like some self-important media studies douche trying to stay relevant by likening a zombie game’s artistic and cultural significance to that of Birth of a Nation.
I'd much rather talk about GTAV. It'll be awesomely sexist and racist, stupidly gross, sexually inappropriate, pointlessly violent, definitely non-linear, and hopefully very long. I know GTAIV was all those things, and ended up disappointing. But, I don't care. My head might say The Last of Us, but my heart is in San Andreas.
Bring on the world's next best game.