Any of you buy The Godfather: Blackhand Edition when it dropped last week?
Electronic Arts hasn’t really done much to promote its violent sandbox movie based game. The company has preferred to pump cash into its more marketable and mainstream friendly Tiger Woods title instead. Which is fair enough.
However, in terms of importance, Blackhand Edition is huge. It's a seemingly innocuous step towards offering the sort of change to the gaming landscape Wii has been threatening since the machine was fully uncovered by Nintendo last year.
Regardless of whether you think I'm swimming among hyperbole or not, Blackhand Edition is extremely important because it does so many things right that numerous third-parties have been doing wrong since Wii's release. Instead of tacking on Wii remote controls into a predefined framework with little time for thought or execution, EA has made sure it all fits. That it works and entertains. And the result is a game that's actually ended up being the best version of the title across the numerous formats because it delivers on a promise of integrating the player within the universe successfully via well devised use of the Wii remote. You shoot, punch, choke and maim people using a projection of your actual hand movements and so you feel that much more part of the game (moral implications be damned).
It's not perfect, but it's leaps and bounds above what's been done before, enhancing and improving an already competent game. And as such, the whole third-person genre (sandbox or no) has benefited. So much to the point where it's hard to see many -not all, but many- other games of this type being quite as compelling, by consequence. Which, I would imagine, creates a moderate conundrum for the talented bods at Rockstar.
As you may know, Grand Theft Auto 4 is coming. Hell, by the time you read this the first official ad will be barely days away from being unveiled. It's easily one of the most eagerly anticipated titles for this year, made even more exciting from the fact it's coming across both PlayStation3 and Xbox 360; a wider audience will be able to enjoy the fruits of Rockstar North's labour.
Although not Wii owners. Obviously.
But at the same time, I can bet you the team at Rockstar are taking a good look at Blackhand Edition and silently cursing that EA managed to do such a sterling job against all expectations. From all the designers in the industry I've had contact with and read about over the past six months, very few are not excited by the possibilities Wii brings to gaming, and if there's one thing that spurs creativity and quality, it's seeing others do well. Especially seeing others do well in a field you specialise in. With Blackhand Edition changing the way we play third-person action games (free roaming ones to boot), even on a small level our prospects and appetites for the genre have changed with it. And suddenly, I'm wondering what Rockstar North can come up with given the same opportunity to shine. I'm pretty damn certain the company is doing the same. After all, you can't let these Godfather punks come on to your turf and show up the kingpins, right?
It's likely GTA4 is going to blow us away in terms of scope, physics and vision alone; Rockstar North has a damn good track record that makes me very willing to bet the latest in the popular franchise will turn things on its head. Although anyone expecting another GTA3 style effect is arguably only gearing up for disappointment. The veritable sleeper hit that was the PS2 original (for many people were jaded by the series up until that point thanks to some rather mixed prequels and spin-offs) pushed things to a new level in a similar fashion Zelda: Ocarina of Time did. Expanded universe, fully 3D world, vastly marked-up presentation and so on, but with the added effect of the closest thing we'd seen to a 'realistic' and persistent game world in the third-dimension, and utterly engaging sandbox gameplay. Stuff that we now almost take for granted. And like many of the medium's genres now, there's a desire to see what else can be built on that framework to give the fresh outlook 3D and sandbox gaming initially provided. Like it or not, motion control/feedback is currently doing that and at this early stage it's pushing in a direction that has the potential to blow the whole genre open.
PS3's motion control could well be used for GTA4, although it leaves the Xbox 360 version floundering somewhat by comparison given the machine's lack of such capabilities. So it should be interesting to see what happens on that front, because Rockstar will be looking to trump rivals out there any way it can without upsetting its format benefactors. Something now made harder because Blackhand Edition has turned out so good. When a game's new controls can make melee combat so much fun, can turn the most basic button grind into a blast of fresh air and can change the whole way you see a genre being made, the challenge suddenly gets a hell of a lot steeper.
The shape GTA Wii would take, however, is something of a larger question. The way I see it, given the lack of competitive hardware to make a downgraded GTA4 mimic, Rockstar really only has two main routes it can truly take.
The first option is forming a compilation of versions that already exist, a PlayStation Portable combo, for example. Rockstar North could take those games (which they've already remade for PlayStation2) and remodel them for Wii in the same way EA remodelled The Godfather. Clearly there's property differences and exclusivity issues in this case, but the concept could still easily fly. It's cheap, relatively hassle free and quick, creating maximum potential profits from minimum labour should the job be done competently. The effect may be muted because it may be seen as the 'lazy' choice, but it's a good testing tactic at least.
The second option follows a similar route, but is specifically geared towards creating something more Wii centric. Essentially doing what Rockstar has done when it first devised a GTA series on PSP, this method would involve combining all the designs and locales from the established GTA universe (across both PSP and PS2) into one wholly separate title. Developing something from scratch may not be too attractive for the developer at first, so taking an established set of assets offers a safer choice even if it's initially likely to generate unfavourable comparisons to the latest pumped up Xbox 360 and PS3 iterations. Such contrast would be more accepted though, if the game was -relatively speaking- made for Wii from the ground-up allowing for greater scope over the possibilities of what Rockstar can form; which is surely the whole point given EA and Vivendi (with Scarface) among others are already trying to capitalise. This would also make pushing the series into a fresh direction less painful and eventually stymie the unfair comparisons to GTA 4, much in the same way Capcom is doing with Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles vs. Resident Evil 5.
As obvious as this all may sound, the difference in power and control method between Wii and its rivals creates a perceptional barrier that's so far made for mixed reactions and would likely make any announcements for GTA on the format a contentious issue. Should such an revelation be made, you can guarantee the internet will explode with "Wii can't handle physics necessary for GTA", "GTA is impossible and unsuitable for the format!" and other fallacious statements rise to the top of every argument, disregarding the fact the PS2 versions have been doing just fine all this time. It's easy to get carried away in next gen flash-bang and totally disregard everything that's helped us get to this point in the first place.
Personally, as long as Wii continues its strong sales and the relationship between Rockstar and Nintendo continues to improve, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a version of GTA will be coming to Wii sometime in 2008/09. A stretch? Maybe. Impossible? Well, who'd thought Manhunt 2 would be coming to a high selling Nintendo console? I'd say both concepts would have seemed unlikely barely six months ago. Who knows what can happen in another six?
But in the meantime, I'd be more than happy to see a Wii designated sequel to one of my favourite games of the generation; Bully/Canis Canum Edit.
How about it, Rockstar?
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