Last weekend I shot Dimitri Rascalov. Actually I shot him twice, once for each of the two possible endings in GTA IV (a video game). Since getting a new computer at the start of the year, I have started playing a few games. Before this year the last game I played was Homeworld around 2003, a bit of an aberration really. The last time I often played games was in the early 90’s - Doom, Civ (the original), Dune 2 and SimCity. Good times. So my experience of the last 20 years of computer games is minimal, but the 10 years before that (basically my teenage and uni years) I played quite a bit. So based on the small sample size of four games in the last 6 months, I would say computer games now are far better.
Admittedly, I’ve only played some of the better modern games - the excellent GTA IV, Mass Effect 2 (ME2), Portal and the merely good LOTRO. Apart from the obvious improvement in graphics over time, what stuck me was the appearance of proper storylines. The only detailed storylines I remember from older games were from the Infocom text games. Now a storyline seems to be mandatory. Over four months I played 73 hours (or so Steam tells me) of GTA to complete the main story. Still I am only at 78% complete due to the side missions and tasks I skipped. The only games I have ever played more are Civilization and Elite. The reason for this is I wanted to see if Niko (the GTA player character) achieves the American dream he is chasing (although in a criminal manner). In other formats the story would be like an overly long B gangster movie. However, it is quite involving when you are actually playing it - it certainly didn’t feel like a grind to complete. Also, the world in GTA felt almost alive with people walking around and rush hour traffic. A couple of time I just cruised around Liberty City sightseeing and listening to the radio. Ahh, the music in all the games is good, so much better than the reactive beeps I remember from past games. Now there is proper music mixed with games effects.
The only downside to GTA was the clunky controls. If GTA had the silky smooth controls of ME2 I would have no complaints. Mass Effect had a space-opera scifi plot that again got me involved. When one of my team mates (played by the computer) got shot in the final mission (nicknamed “the suicide mission”) I was a little upset. With the best and smoothest graphics I’ve seen so far and an atmospheric soundtrack, the experience is quite cinematic - only controlled by the player. Portal is the shortest game I’ve played, but that is no complaint - it was just right. I was utterly gripped by last hour. My hands were shaking a little from the tension when I finished. The 10 hours or so of gameplay leading leading up to the end perfectly built atmosphere at same time as entertaining me with puzzle solving. So much thought must have gone into structuring the finely balanced final product. Genius.
So no complaints or nostalgia from me. Hopefully this is part of a trend of continual improvement and it only gets better from here. I am very much looking forward to the next set of modern games. I’ve lined up Modern Warfare, Bioshock, Just Cause 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (mainly so I can cruise around a recreation of medieval Rome!). The only downside is that it is clear that it took large teams to finish these games - so there is no hope of me creating anything nearly as polished. The end credits are as long as those at the end of a movie. No longer can just a couple of people create a cutting edge game (like Elite). Still, well done to everyone who helped make them.