(Please don’t) Take me down to the paradise city

As much as we like Guns ‘n’ Roses here at Critical Gamer (you know, when Slash was doing his bits) we have to disagree with their view on the city when it comes to games. If games are anything to go by, the grass isn’t that green, if you can even find some, and whilst a few of the girls may be pretty, they seem to be lost in a sea of plain Janes and prostitutes.

Open world sandbox games seem to be coming in thick and fast since Grand Theft Auto highlighted the trend, more and more of the things seem to be set in cities filled of violence. Huge towering skyscrapers, packed roads full of taxis and every colour in the grey rainbow that you can imagine. Isn’t it all starting to get a bit dull?

Off the top of our massive collective head, we can think of at least eight million (citation needed) high profile games that have been set in some of the most bland concrete jungles set in fact and fiction. Three that were released recently(ish), Spiderman: Web of Shadows, Prototype and Grand Theft Auto IV are all guilty of being based in what seems to be a largely copied and pasted mass of tall buildings reaching skyward. Is it really necessary? A bit more variety would have been nice, especially when it comes to navigational landmarks; as maps just aren’t as fun.

Some games we will admit need the sprawling mass of thousand feet tall buildings. Spiderman for example, is not only cemented in New York City through decades of comics, but he needs it, as trying to swing around anywhere else such as London would not have provided him with the high altitude fast transit he is accustomed to. He’d have to take the tube like everyone else. This is excusable because it is made use of. It is actually essential to have tall things for webbing to latch on to. It certainly made it more plausible since the first Spiderman game on the PS2, where web could latch on to the clouds.

Mid air or mini city, you decide

Prototype being set on Manhattan Island is again, a bit more understandable. It is Alex Mercer’s playpen allowing him to run up walls, jump over buildings, glide over military bases and smash down to earth with enough force to destroy a tank. It would not have been nearly as successful if it was based in Birmingham, not just because of the relatively low skyline of the city, but can you imagine the sound of 1000 Brummy accents screaming in terror? The thought of it is enough to make your fingernails curl back on themselves.

So far the only passable excuse for basing yourself in a city, is that game characters can use the ridiculous architecture of the monolithic buildings to gain an advantage. Everything can be utilised and (potentially) not an inch is wasted. After all, if you had the power to climb up the side of a building in an instant, using it to get a higher vantage point or lose pursuers is a very good idea. What really tugs on our nads though is when there are massive dull looking buildings placed everywhere that can’t be interacted with at all, where the only point to them is as a decorative barrier for the player.

In our mind, Grand Theft Auto IV had already committed a cardinal sin visiting its parody of New York for the third time and not really adding a great deal. Yes there was a very impressive lick of paint by graphical standards, but a similar look could have been achieved by blowing up a series of cement mixers in a massive car park. Grand Theft Auto III had already done the whole living city thing the justice it deserved, and we do not feel that IV added sufficient to be that revolutionary. Oh yes, there are bin men and TV channels now, but not much that adds to the gameplay.

As if rush hour traffic wasn't already bad enough

The one thing that we cannot understand is that how so much of the city setting is wasted due to the limitations of the player. The only way to really interact with the skyline is to take a helicopter and land on a building, and even then there is not a great deal of point to it. Yes it looks impressive, but you can not really justify jumping off from a gameplay perspective. The best use of this so far has been the youtube videos of people base jumping into helicopter blades with hilarious consequences.

It would have been different if you could go inside most of these buildings, or even taken a lift to the top with something to do up there. Instead they just seem to stand there as criminally wasted space in a game with so much potential if only it didn’t take itself so seriously from a gameplay perspective.

Maybe targeting Grand Theft Auto so specifically is a bit harsh, but most games featuring a city with towers trying to pierce the clouds are all as guilty as each other. The setting is just starting to feel a tad overused now, as going by rows and rows of bricked up surfaces separated into uninspired, yet practical blocks of streets is not the best setting for engaging in escapism. It’s a bit like going out to an Indian restaurant and ordering porridge. Yes you’ve gone out for a nice experience, and maybe you really love porridge that much, but at the end of the day, it is still an incredible boring choice in a sea of potential marvel.

Just like a corridor, only outside

Burnout Paradise is a slightly different take on the sandbox city game, but faces similar flaws to GTA, only now you are permanently welded inside a car. The thing we love about the Burnout series is the feeling of set racing tracks within busy cities which created exhilarating thrills in dodging traffic at fast moving intersections and all that slow motion jazz. In all the games prior to Paradise, the roads would be full of cars and each track would take you through nice and unique scenery on a pre-determined path of fun, mayhem and carnage.

Paradise, taking place all in one city, meant that a lot of the time it felt incredibly samey, with all the races taking place within a city that you were free to roam around in and find your own route. This meant that the feeling of being funnelled in to heavy traffic was removed slightly, with more choices to avoid it and the other racers. The fact that you could explore all the ins and outs meant that the races started to feel a bit dull after a while.

Cities must be peppered with buildings at least this tall to qualify

The city thing has been done so much now it’s not even funny. GTA, True Crime, Mafia, The Godfather, Saints Row; we’re not saying these are bad games, but all have been set in a bustling city which shows how unoriginal it is to do now. How about just giving the city life a bit of a rest before doing it again? Commuting in real life is ball aching enough, so doing it again in a game, no matter how destructive the end result is, just feels a tad bit uninspired.

It would be nice to see more games get out of the city a bit more. We’re not talking about Grand Theft Auto: Shanty Towns or anything, but a bit more variety than packed city life, just not quite as mind bogglingly dull and open as 70% of San Andreas.

Perhaps the pursuit of realism is to blame for coma inducing, uninspired cityscapes becoming a bit too commonplace. Does this mean that we need some more creative minds in the games industry? Possibly. We just hope that the next GTA will be a bit more revolutionary than pretty graphics and an aiming system that took almost a decade to get right.

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Written by Anthony H

Anthony has been playing games for far too much of his life, starting with the MS-DOS classic Mario is Missing. Since then his tastes have evolved to include just about anything, but his soft spot lies with shooters and the odd strategy game. Anthony will inspire you with his prose, uplift you with his wit and lie to you in his biography.


  1. KrazyFace /

    I know what you mean. When I first got myself into the city from Jak & Daxter’s second run (I think) on the PS2, just the fact that cars could fly was refreshing enough to spend a while nicking them! Something a little bigger, without loading screens for visiting forrest areas or large lakes (maybe even under water?) would be cool. Rather than just reams of ‘side walk’ to cruise through, I’d like to see new worlds or even an alien city in space would be enough of a refreshment.

    La Nior sounds cool!

  2. Sayyiduna /

    Your article started out so promising, and yet, it became a complete letdown by the last paragraph. I suppose my biggest issue is that you specifically target GTA. A commentary on the quality of the city notwithstanding (I’m biased, I loved the game) I think you’re looking at the open-world trend from the wrong perspective. Grand Theft Auto III did not “start” the open-world craze, but it did open-world well enough that game developers embraced it as a way of emphasizing player freedom and emergent gameplay. In this case, the open-world city environment is part of GTA’s “pedigree” and essentially the cornerstone of the entire series. Criticizing GTA for being set in an open-city environment is like criticizing Starcraft for using worker-driven resource gathering or taking issue with Bioware over conversation trees. Either way, you’re diminishing a classic series-defining mechanic based on the relative quality of clones or other developers that have implemented similar mechanics to varying (or lower) degrees of quality.

    I also seem to recall GTA IV’s competitive multiplayer modes being particularly interesting due to the myriad unique environmental features. A moss-ridden boatyard with a load of boarded up buildings full of alcoves to shoot from and a bell tower above a college dormitory from which to snipe are just a few of the more amusing environmental locations available. Not to mention that several missions involve rooftops or tall buildings as optional routes, in some cases changing the entire dynamic of the mission (Truck Hustle comes to mind.) You also neglect the rather elegant change of purpose Alleyways received in GTA IV; they became an invaluable tool for escaping police and many of them had unique series of obstacles or environmental features.

    Many buildings also had interior stairwells, elevators, ladders, and other ways of accessing balconies or rooftops. I would rather prefer that developers didn’t waste years of development time developing interiors for every building when, honestly, most people aren’t going to explore every interior in the game, probably sticking only to areas where they shop or complete missions. Are you sure that you’re not levying criticism against a game you haven’t really played or explored beyond the story or side missions provided? You can see a lot of interesting things when you tread off the beaten path for a while.. A city is an ideal place for such exploration (GTA IV being a rather excellent example of a city in a videogame) that few developers have managed to get right (as your examples of poor implementation testify.)

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