Podcast Episode 54: GTA5, Blur: Overdrive, Saint’s Row 4, Gravity, The Counselor, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, and Ender’s Game

Awesome Friday

It’s been two long months since we’ve been able to sit down and record a podcast episode for you but now we’re back and we have a lot of stuff to talk about! This episode we look back over the last could months and talk a little more in depth about Grand Theft Auto 5, Blur Overdrive, and Saint’s Row 4 as well as the movies Gravity, The Counselor, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, and Ender’s Game.

It’s a lot to get through so grab some popcorn and let’s get cracking.

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Winning The Clone War: Saint’s Row 4 vs Grand Theft Auto 5

GTA1

Wow

This is a word you’ll use generously throughout your first journey into Grand Theft Auto 5, Rockstar’s latest and staggeringly expansive new virtual playground. Wow at the graphics; there has clearly been some voodoo magic employed in making hardware that’s moments away from being superceded maintain a world like this without loading screens. Wow at the acting; Rockstar’s Hollywood aspirations have never been clearer with a gritty crime saga split across three interwoven protagonists. Wow at the construction; the opening tutorial alone is probably the most perfect way to combine instruction with action. Wow at the design; the attention to detail is so granular that every street corner, every block, has real character and architecture and story. Wow at the animations; just run for cover into a car and watch in awe as the Police bullets shatter the vehicle piece by piece. I could go on; if your gaming preferences revolve around pure spectacle, this could be the best thing that’s ever happened.

The most prevalent Wows, for me anyway, were the Wows concerning the game’s content and narrative structure. These two Wows rise out of Los Santos like glimmering skyscrapers: Wow, this is a mature game. And,Wow, why is he doing that?

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GTA Online Announcement Trailer is Full of Amazing

GTA Online

Rockstar have announced a new Grand Theft Auto game. No, not GTA 5 coming later this year but GTA Online, coming a further two weeks after that. Free for all owners of GTA5 and you know what? It looks like it might be an MMO that actually makes me want to play an MMO. Here’s a trailer

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Awesome: Dan Houser on making a sci-fi Grand Theft Auto

OXM has an interesting story covering an interview with key Rockstar figure Dan Houser about the possibility of making a science-fiction themed Grand Theft Auto:

Science fiction Grand Theft Auto is “very tempting”, says Rockstar boss

We will do it the very second we have an idea,” Houser replied, when asked whether the franchise would ultimately transcend the present day. “One of our strengths is the consistency of the game world. We’re not necessarily the best writers in the world, but we how to write a video game.

When we decided to make a Western, it was because we knew we had something to say,” he went on. “We have no interest in going into science fiction for the sake of flying cars and laser guns. The best science fiction stories are those that speak about the human condition. So while this idea is very tempting and, by definition, anything’s possible in a videogame, we lack the essential thing for the moment: a good reason.

It’s good to know Houser recognises that a good story is at the heart of quality SF instead of just “flying cars and laser guns”. As each GTA seems to get bigger in both scale and ambition, I wonder if the shift into the coming next generation of consoles will finally see this dream realised. A space-based GTA? I’d be there in an instant.

It does, however, beg the question of what is happening with Prey 2. The enthusiasm based on the amazing trailer soon fizzled away as it got repeatedly postponed, then troubling stories emerged of the developers being on strike. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappear completely – an open-world space bounty hunter game would certainly get my interest.

Reflections On The Past: From Driver to San Francisco

John Tanner – the driver of Driver – has had a tough journey, but it wasn’t really his fault. You can lay the blame at the feet of Rockstar, or at least at the metaphorical feet of their ambition, as their success in opening up video game worlds became the forced design aspirations for many a dev team. Reflections – one such team – fell into this trap and managed to turn an epic franchise into a despised mess.

The first game, released on the PS1 in 1999, was all flashing sirens, screeching tyres and alleyways stuffed with cardboard boxes. Featuring an ex-racecar driver as a cop so deep undercover that even his NYPD colleagues wanted to trash him, it was a wild taste of how cases would be solved if Starsky & Hutch was the official training reference.

The key element was the handling. Each car that Tanner threw around the game’s cities had a throaty backend with just a bare understanding of grip. What felt uncontrollable at first soon slid into place, and the feeling of taking corners sideways with raging police cars speeding up behind you was a sheer visceral thrill. To make things even more filmic, your every move could be viewed and manipulated visually within a replay mode that placed you as a film director of a 70s car chase movie. Imagine Bullitt: The Game, and you wouldn’t be far wrong.

So: a great game with a sturdy engine and critical appreciation to match the sales. What could possibly go wrong?

Reflections decided to open the car door and gave Tanner legs. Letting him escape his vehicle for the sequel was a bold move that didn’t entirely succeed. It preceded the singularity point of GTA 3 by a whole year but, while the ambition was commendable, the poor old PS1 just couldn’t take it. My main memory of Driver 2 is not about the tight freedom of driving, but of getting out of the car and trying to wrestle Tanner across the street as the frame rate dipped to flickbook levels. And his staggering amble couldn’t be ignored, with missions being written to incorporate the protagonist’s new trick. It sucked out the fun of what could – should – have been a generation classic.

Then the world gasped as the PS2 smashed what was thought possible, Rockstar showed us the shining grime of Liberty City, and Driver lost its relevancy. The pre-release hype machine whirred into place as Driv3r was announced and only increased in volume as it neared release. A few previews were positive, casting more hope onto Tanner’s comeback. Building to a massive buzz, Driv3r was finally released in 2004, and it was truly awful. Unbelievably buggy, ridiculously clunky and seriously outdated, it was crystal clear that it had been sent out before it was anywhere near finished. Of course, in these days of day-one patches, that’s becoming more normal (see the recent Medal Of Honor Warfighter – or even better, don’t) but the PS2 didn’t share this luxury.

The game quickly became a joke as word spread through gaming circles. It even got to the point where the few magazines that had published glowing reviews fell into scandal with accusations of under table payments, and it was hard to argue against them. Driv3r, for whatever reason, had just turned out to be a terrible game, made more disappointing by the marketing promises thrown around in pre-release.

The series hid after that, occasionally showing its face as a PSP title (Driver 1978) and a weak console offshoot (Parallel Lines), neither of which even trying to pretend that the crown of the PS1 original could be reclaimed. Many people – myself included – occasionally dreamed about how a modern version might look and feel, but it was always accepted that daydreams would remain just that.

So, when Ubisoft (who had bought Reflections) announced that Driver was having a full-blown Tanner-led sequel on modern consoles, the reaction was a pretty even split between glee and trepidation. After all, the effect of Driv3r never really disappeared and it was easy to imagine that the GTA legacy would surely dictate another on-foot disaster. However, it wasn’t to be. Maybe anticipating this suspicion, Ubisoft made it very clear from an early stage that the player never actually moves from behind the wheel. One car? Wouldn’t that get boring? Nope. One driver but multiple cars, made possible by a wonderful stroke of true high-concept imagination.

In the opening few minutes, Tanner is rammed into a coma by returning series baddie Jericho. The rest of the game takes place in his head, with every successful move towards the pursuit of his main target crossing over to aid his recovery in the real world (much like in the BBC drama Life On Mars). And it’s within this subconscious sandbox that Tanner finds he can jump from one body to another, effectively taking control of them – and their car – like a travel-happy ghost. It’s all expertly measured to fit into the structure of a video game, of course, but the fact that we know he’s in a coma from the beginning allows us to take whatever happens at face value. From the snappy script to the permanent magic hour golden twilight, it actually feels like a dream.

As you proceed through the game’s main missions, your power to jump grows stronger until you’re able to pull out to a map of the entire Bay area in order to travel quickly to your next target. For me, this kind fast traversal in an open-world sandbox is becoming more and more vital (perfectly epitomized in the amazing Just Cause 2) to the point where I know I’ll be subconsciously reaching for the hookshot button when GTA V finally releases. Being able to jump from behind the wheel of a cop car into an oncoming truck in order to swerve head-on into the getaway you’re still pursuing is pure magic. Actually, even though the game’s missions are generally good fun, I’ve been spending most of my game time just speeding round, finding new rides, enjoying the sunset. And it helps that every third vehicle is a car transporter with its rack in the declined position.

Once again, the handling is the star of the game. As meaty and thrilling as its PS1 forebear, every time I try to describe how it feels to drift around a corner at 80mph, I can’t help but rub my thumb and finger together. It’s incredibly tactile and, to steal from a better writer than I, to be any closer to the road would be to rub your face along the tarmac. The fantastic cars, clever missions, compelling story and many fan-service challenges (including a drive round the original’s garage testing ground, unlocked by driving a certain speed in a DeLorean) add up to an essential package that should have garnered far more appreciation than it did.

In the world of video games, just like in language, context is everything. I may have taken a long and rambling road to convey just how much I love Driver San Francisco, but its success is made all the more important because of the history it shares. To reverse the downfall and in turn make a game that’s actually better than the original is no mean feat, and one that should be applauded. I can’t wait to find out how it ends for Tanner, but in the mean time I’m happy to drift in the glow of the ever-setting sun.