Category Archives: Rockstar

Three characters in search of an explosion

GTA V: Rockstar’s Magnum Opus

Grand Theft Auto V has hit stores, adding another chapter in the historic GTA franchise developed by Rockstar Games. Starting as a top-down, open-world pseudo-3d action shooter in 1997, the series progressed into full-blown 3D graphics in 2001′s Grand Theft Auto III and has continued forward in visual prowess and player interactivity ever since.

Old school vehicular slaughter: GTA 1997

Old school vehicular slaughter: GTA 1997

GTA V continues this tradition of progress, offering a further advanced graphics engine that renders a spectacular and expansive landscape for gamers to traverse. It also offers a narrative featuring three separate protagonists, whose lives can be jumped into by the player at nearly any time. In 1980, arcade game Defender created a world where events transpired outside of the player’s immediate view, giving just a hint of being inside an actual place where things are happening elsewhere and you better do something about it. The appeal of open-world games such as GTA hinges on the complexity and verisimilitude of the worlds they construct, but none have succeeded in crafting such a living clockwork like GTA V. There is something truly wondrous about flipping back to a character you had left at one location and finding them somewhere else on the map and involved in some other bit of chicanery. It truly feels like Los Santos is alive. The GTA games have always lent themselves to hilarious situations that players report about the crazy goings on in their various cities. In GTA V… well, to paraphrase the opening of an old TV drama, there are a million stories in the city of Los Santos.

Moon over Los Santos

Moon over Los Santos, GTA V 2013

Such stories abound in the overwhelmingly positive critic’s reviews the game has received. As of this writing, the Xbox 360 version of the game is the highest ranked game ever on the Metacritic review aggregate site, with a score of 98. You only need to play for a short while to know all the perfect scores are not being thrown around lightly. It’s not a perfect game… I don’t know that such a thing could even exist. There’s still some weirdness to the controls, a lack of precision that has persisted all the way from the original GTA III. This is especially accentuated in GTA V, which has multiple actions mapped to the limited set of buttons and keys that consoles can offer. However, it’s nothing that you don’t quickly get used to as you ravenously consume this incredible feast that Rockstar has provided. “A living, breathing world” is a phrase often bandied about concerning open-world games.  In GTA V, it’s enough to take your breath away.

Another amazing story is how the GTA series, one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, almost never got out of the gate.  It is related in this video from The Guardian, here.  Of course, The Onion has to chime in too.  I’ll close with this compilation of all the trailers for the game:


Just the Laughs, M’am: L.A. Noire and the Gag Reel

Featured in today’s post is a video fascinating to me.  It was released by Depth Analysis, the Australian sister company to Team Bondi, developers of L.A. Noire for Rockstar.  DA was formed to do the ground-breaking motion capture work for the game.

L.A. Noire was a great title released in 2011, a third-person police procedural set in 1940′s Los Angeles.  While it appears on its face to be a historical version of an open-world game in the style of  Rockstar’s flagship Grand Theft Auto series, the guts of the game actually harken back to classic dialog-tree games such as Accolade’s Law of the West.  While the gamer does find themselves tooling around L.A. in classic cars chasing cases, once a suspect is approached the game moves into an interrogation mode where questions are posed by the player.  Depending on the attitude tack chosen with each question, those being grilled either clam up or spill the beans.

While the interrogation scenes may have reminded one of games of yore, the facial capture technology on display was a look into the future of gaming, startling in its realism, and not just another pretty face.  Dubbed Motionscan, it played a key role in gameplay, allowing the subtle ticks or stoney stares of the actors’ performances to give clues to the player about guilt or innocence.  To achieve the effect, actors were put in a chair surrounded by a rig of cameras capturing their performance; not just the front of their face, but all around and even from above and below.  All this tech allowed for a perfect 1 to 1 recording of facial movements without any subsequent processing needed to complete the look in the game.  The actor’s emotions are wonderfully exposed via this technique, and as I said it is startling to behold.  Before we get to the main event, the following is a short video on the process, produced for the game’s release:

Team Bondi unfortunately went belly-up in the later part of 2011, having burned their bridges with Rockstar during an incredibly long development time, and accruing a large amount of debt through owed bonus and payroll to the staff.  I lament the loss of Team Bondi; they created a new, original IP that has great potential.  It reminds me of the case of Red Dead Revolver.  This was another Rockstar game set in a historical period, this time the old West, released for the Playstation 2 and original Xbox back in 2004.  It was a kind of on-the-rails shooter that also harkened back to earlier gaming days, and was met by a middling reception from critics and gamers.  That game did, however, spawn a sequel:  the astounding Red Dead Redemption, for my money one of the greatest video games of all time.  Team Bondi’s IP has been picked up in liquidation by a multimedia firm co-founded by Mad Max creator George Miller, so something interesting might happen there, but it seems unlikely we’ll get a game sequel based on the material akin to an RDR blockbuster.

On a lighter note, however, we are still left with a great game that helps bridge the gulf between real life characters and computerized ones, with a slight detour into the uncanny valley.  At this point in this article, a lot of people right now might be thinking that the real mystery is when is this guy gonna get to the video in the title!?  Well, here we are, a blooper reel of the game’s actors flubbing their lines during facial capture sessions.  The spontaneity on display here is perhaps the best demonstration of what happens in the attempt to inject as much humanity as possible into video game characters.  It is both wonderful and weird at the same time:

L.A. Noire Hits the Streets

In the tradition of Sierra’s Police Quest series or the Tex Murphy FMV games from Access comes the latest from the-studio-that-can-do-no-wrong, Rockstar. Acting as distributors, they have obviously given developer Team Bondi the proper lessons in how to make a completely compelling video game product.

L.A. Noire is a startlingly polished game experience, ostensibly considered an open-world TPS along the lines of Red Dead Redemption or the perennial GTA series, only this time set in 1940′s Los Angeles. But players aren’t really free to run roughshod over a meticulously re-created LA, mowing down pedestrians and shooting shopkeepers in the face. Instead, there is just enough range for the player to avoid feeling like they’re on a Tunnel-Of-Love ride, but reigned in enough so that they can’t break the storyline that Rockstar has created.

And what a storyline. As Cole Phelps, a newly-minted beat cop who works his way up through the LAPD to detective, gamers delve into a fascinating story with many facets, twists and turns, all the while hewing to police procedure and proper investigative and interrogation tactics.

The whole thing comes off wonderfully well, including the vaunted MotionScan technology, which captures a complete likeness of the various actors’ faces as they read their lines. Put into practice in the game, the results are startling, and more than just eye candy; it allows players to read the faces of interviewees for tell-tale signs of fibbing.

Really, if you have any kind of interest in video games, you should sashay over to your nearest game store and pick this up. Rockstar and Team Bondi just raised the bar for video game excellence.