Grand Theft Auto 6: a wishlist

If you haven’t heard that Rockstar just confirmed the worst-kept secret in gaming – that Grand Theft Auto 6 is in production – then you must be living under a rock! The news has been everywhere in recent days, and even made it into mainstream (i.e. non-gaming) news outlets here in the UK. It makes sense: Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling entertainment products of all time, eclipsing films, television shows, and even entire franchises. What comes next is going to be of interest to a great many people.

It’s been eight months since I last looked ahead to Grand Theft Auto 6, and with the game’s official announcement doing the rounds I thought it could be fun to put together a short wishlist of things I’d personally like to see the next entry include. It goes without saying that all of this is subjective – I don’t have any “insider information” and I’m not trying to claim that the next Grand Theft Auto game needs to have any or all of these features. It’s just a bit of fun from a sometime fan of the series – and given that we know next to nothing about what the game will actually look like, why not throw some ideas of my own out there?

So without any further ado, let’s jump into my Grand Theft Auto 6 wishlist!

Number 1:
A proper single-player campaign.

A single-player mode is an essential part of the Grand Theft Auto experience.

At this stage there’s been no indication that Grand Theft Auto 6 will go all-in on its inevitable online mode… but I’m still wary. Grand Theft Auto V didn’t become the second-best-selling video game ever because of its single-player campaign (Minecraft is number one, in case you were wondering). It was the online mode that kept fans coming back – and crucially from Rockstar’s point of view, kept them spending money.

There has to be a temptation to skip the single-player campaign altogether, or else direct the vast majority of development time and resources into Grand Theft Auto 6′s online mode. I hope that some senior folks at Rockstar are pushing back on that!

Grand Theft Auto V’s online mode has been crucial to the game’s success.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that less than one-third of players have actually completed the Grand Theft Auto V single-player campaign. Rockstar’s other big release, Red Dead Redemption II, has comparable figures for completion too, so it seems that a significant number of players either don’t make it to the end of the campaign or, more likely, only turn up for the multiplayer online mode.

Despite that, Grand Theft Auto 6 would lose something significant without a decent, long single-player campaign – and I don’t just say that because it’s the part of the game that I’m most interested in! There’s still a lot of people interested in single-player titles, and Rockstar has demonstrated time and again its ability to write truly excellent stories. Moreover, a lot of people would want to play the game in single-player mode to learn the ropes before jumping into multiplayer, or just for fun in between multiplayer sessions. There are plenty of reasons to make sure that Grand Theft Auto 6 retains a solid single-player mode.

Number 2:
A customisable protagonist.

Despite its faults, Cyberpunk 2077 has a great character creator.

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether Grand Theft Auto 6 will include – shock horror – a girl as one of its protagonists. Cue the usual outrage from sexist morons and Twitter trolls. But I’d like to see the game go further than that, and use the character creators from games like Cyberpunk 2077 and the Saints Row series as inspiration, allowing players to craft their own, fully customisable protagonist.

A customisable character could be male, female, non-binary, trans, or anything else players want them to be. With a relatively small amount of effort, it should be possible to craft a story that a custom character can slot into, and I’ve long felt that a custom character can make a game feel more immersive. Rockstar has allowed a limited version of this in Grand Theft Auto Online – but I’m thinking bigger!

I’m thinking of a massively expanded version of the current Grand Theft Auto Online character creator!

With Rockstar’s resources, the company could build the best character creator that any video game has ever seen. Grand Theft Auto 6 could set a high bar and become the new gold standard that other games would be compared to. Maybe I’m getting over-excited, but I think there’s a lot of potential for a truly outstanding character creator considering the amount of money that Rockstar has at its disposal.

The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its sense of humour and sarcastic style, and that could absolutely carry over to the character creator too! Making incredibly silly-looking characters, or replicating the appearances of famous figures could all become part of the fun. And it would be an easy way for Rockstar to include trans and non-binary people – allowing us to feel represented in the new game.

Number 3:
Multiple protagonists.

The trio of playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V.

If a custom character creator is off the table for whatever reason, then I hope that Grand Theft Auto 6 won’t abandon the multiple protagonist approach that worked so well in its predecessor. Being able to unlock different characters, then switch between them on the fly, added a fun element to gameplay, and with each character being different and coming from a different place, there was scope to tell three very different stories that ultimately came together.

My preference would be for a custom character, I think. If handled properly, and if the character creator was well-built with plenty of choices and options, that would be the best way for Grand Theft Auto 6 to truly represent as many different folks as possible. But a group of three or four main characters, including at least one female protagonist, would be a good option too.

How about we play as a female character for once?

That being said, I can already predict that there will be a backlash from so-called “fans” in the gamer community if Rockstar shows off a female protagonist or a group of protagonists that include people from different backgrounds. “Grand Theft Auto 6 is going woke” will be the familiar, disappointing cry from too many people.

A custom character would get around that, in large part, and that’s another good point in its favour. But there’s still something appealing about having multiple playable characters, as I feel that was a feature that worked well but went underappreciated in Grand Theft Auto V.

Number 4:
Way more clothes and other customisation options.

Grand Theft Auto 6 can do better than this!

Continuing a trend from the entries above, I’d love to see Grand Theft Auto 6 offer players a lot more outfits, weapon mods, vehicle designs, and the like. Red Dead Redemption II offered a pretty wide range of outfits and some gun modification options, but I’d like to see this expanded in a big way for Grand Theft Auto 6. Again, Rockstar can look to games like Cyberpunk 2077 for inspiration – despite the myriad problems with that title, there’s no denying it has a lot of customisation options!

Part of the fun of an expansive open-world title like Grand Theft Auto 6 is getting lost in the world and feeling like you’re participating, living out an alternate life. How your character appears is a big part of that, and being able to change up the protagonist’s style – going from street to preppy to old-fashioned and beyond – is a big part of that. Making my character look the way I want them to look is all part of the immersion.

Customising a rifle in Red Dead Redemption II.

This can extend to vehicles and weapons, too. Red Dead Redemption II allowed for a degree of cosmetic weapon customisation, and that was great, but that title was set in the 19th Century and thus the cosmetic options were somewhat limited! But for a game with a more modern setting, it should be possible to have cars and guns in every shade of the rainbow for starters, and with plenty of designs, logos, and more to add to them and fully customise them. Forza Horizon 5 offers a pretty extensive vehicle customiser, and it never ceases to amaze me to see the creative designs that folks in that game have come up with!

So let’s think about adding plenty of different clothes in a variety of styles and from a variety of fashion trends! Depending on when and where the game is set there could be limitations on this, and that would be understandable, but I’d still like to see an extensive range of clothes, vehicle designs, weapon skins, and the like so I can really get stuck in and make my character stand out!

Number 5:
A brand-new setting.

Grand Theft Auto Reykjavik, anyone?

I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot because now I can’t find it, but I saw a poll on social media within the last couple of days asking participants where they’d like Grand Theft Auto 6 to be set. Vice City – the franchise’s Miami analogue – put in a creditable showing, but by far the most-requested setting was “somewhere new.”

Grand Theft Auto V was successful by reimagining Los Santos – a city that had first appeared in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2005 – but I’d like to see the next entry in the series pick a brand-new setting to explore instead of returning to somewhere that fans of the series have already been. The franchise should also avoid, in my opinion, settings that would be too similar to its recent Los Angeles stand-in, so I’d recommend avoiding coastal, tropical cities.

I wouldn’t take Grand Theft Auto back to Vice City this time if it was up to me!

I also believe that the Grand Theft Auto series works best in an American setting. The series is geared up for America, and trying to transpose it and set a new game in Asia or Europe would, in my view anyway, take away something significant that defines what Grand Theft Auto is. I know there was that London spin-off in the days when Grand Theft Auto still used a top-down perspective, but every other title has been set in the United States.

There are several really interesting choices for cities that a new game could be based on. A Washington DC analogue could look at things like power and corruption, or the game could hop over to Chicago for a story about the mob. A city based on Detroit could look at the decline of America as a manufacturing powerhouse and what effects that has had. Or Grand Theft Auto 6 could show us an updated, modern-day look at Red Dead Redemption II’s Saint Denis – a stand-in for New Orleans! Those are just a few interesting ideas, and it could be really neat to see any show up in a future game.

Number 6:
A different time period.

Back to the eighties or nineties?

Some of the best-loved Grand Theft Auto games didn’t use a modern-day setting. Vice City was set in the 1980s and San Andreas was set in the 1990s, and both games are well-remembered – despite being soiled by a recent sub-par remaster. In addition, Red Dead Redemption II took Rockstar’s signature open-world concept all the way back to the 19th Century and proved it can still work! So there’s a lot of potential, in my view, for the next Grand Theft Auto game to step out of the modern day.

There’s a lot of eighties nostalgia floating around at the moment, with films like Ready Player One and TV shows like Stranger Things cashing in on that, so that’s one possibility. It would also be interesting to step back into the 1990s and re-live the turn of the millennium all over again! There’s a lot of potential in taking advantage of a distinct time period or moment in time, and Rockstar has already demonstrated an ability to do so with past titles.

How about the seventies?

Grand Theft Auto 6 will have a difficult task to distinguish itself from its phenomenally-popular predecessor, and one way to immediately change the look and feel of the game and make it distinct would be to set it in a completely different decade. Combined with a setting that would take players away from the palm trees and beaches of California (sorry, San Andreas) I think an earlier time period could be an exceptionally interesting way to draw a line under Grand Theft Auto V and demonstrate that the new game has something very different to offer.

Somehow, Grand Theft Auto 6 has to do things that its immediate predecessor couldn’t offer. That realistically means that the new game needs either a brand-new setting or a time period that the series hasn’t visited in a while. Ideally, Grand Theft Auto 6 will offer both.

Number 7:
Cameos are fine, but let’s have new characters and a new story.

Claude from Grand Theft Auto 3 (right) had a cameo in San Andreas.

There’s going to be a huge temptation for Grand Theft Auto 6 to be an overblown sequel, stuffed full of callbacks, references, and nostalgia plays for Grand Theft Auto V – and other entries in the series. Depending on when and where the game is set, this could mean the return of familiar characters.

Cameos and the occasional reference are okay – and good fan-service in some respects – but I hope that the new game’s story will be able to stand on its own two feet. Grand Theft Auto isn’t a series that needs this kind of backwards-looking nostalgia, and every game thus far has been a distinct, standalone title. Because of the success of Grand Theft Auto V, though, there may well be some senior figures at Rockstar who aren’t prepared to fully let go.

Number 8:
Visual and gameplay improvements.

There have been some visually amazing games in recent years.
(Pictured: Kena: Bridge of Spirits)

Grand Theft Auto V is now almost nine years old, and was originally released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Updates, patches, and new versions have certainly kept things fresh, but the game is now showing its age. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were decent consoles, capable of producing some excellent games, but with the technological improvement of two full console generations, there’s scope for Grand Theft Auto 6 to be bigger, prettier, and a better all-round experience.

Realistically this means that Grand Theft Auto 6 has to be an Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5 exclusive – trying to make a game that could also work on last generation’s consoles might be tempting, especially given the perennial problems of shortages and stock availability that have plagued the new consoles since launch. But going down this road will be a massive mistake – as Cyberpunk 2077 developers CD Projekt Red found to their cost.

Cyberpunk 2077 looks good (when it works).

Cyberpunk 2077 was crippled at launch by a catastrophic litany of bugs and glitches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One specifically, and a big part of the reason why that happened is because the game is right at the technological limit of what those machines are capable of. If Grand Theft Auto 6 is going to be the game that fans are expecting, it needs a world at least as big and dense as Cyberpunk 2077′s. That means it needs to be built from the ground up with new hardware in mind.

Part of the appeal of Grand Theft Auto games is how silly they can be – so I don’t necessarily think that Rockstar needs to implement a realistic physics system or anything like that. But there are some areas where the standard open-world gameplay could be improved, and in addition to next-gen graphics it would be great if the game could feel like something new as well.

Number 9:
Proper difficulty and saving options.

Examples of difficulty settings present in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

Most Rockstar games don’t offer proper difficulty options. This was a complaint I had with Red Dead Redemption II as well as Grand Theft Auto V – and as I’ve said on several occasions, in 2022 there’s no excuse for not providing players with the option to change the game’s difficulty. This is such an incredibly basic feature that has been part of so many games going back decades that it amazes me that Rockstar didn’t bother with it.

Red Dead Redemption II had a feature where, after failing a specific part of a mission 3 times, it would be possible to skip ahead to the next checkpoint – and this is the only reason I was able to make it to the end of the story! But Grand Theft Auto 6 needs to do better. Difficulty settings are an accessibility feature, allowing players with disabilities and players of different skill levels access to a game. Rockstar needs to realise this and act accordingly.

Games that are too difficult aren’t fun for many players.

Also, if I save a game in a specific location, I feel like my character should still be there when I load up my save file later on. I can’t count the number of times in Red Dead Redemption II where I loaded up my save and then had to figure out where I was, where my horse was, and where my next objective was, all because the game seems to pick arbitrary locations for the player character to be when loading up a save file.

Grand Theft Auto V had a “quicksave” option which got around this – but past games in the series have relied on players returning to a safe-house or other specific location in order to save progress and load up save files. This wastes time and is an inconvenience – one that modern game design allows practically all titles to get around. So a decent save/load option, please!

Number 10:
A simultaneous PC release.

Don’t leave out PC gamers!

Grand Theft Auto V was released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2013, but didn’t come to PC for almost eighteen months. Red Dead Redemption II likewise didn’t arrive on PC for more than a year after its debut on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But with PC gaming having grown ever more in just the last few years, it would be a mistake to leave PC players behind.

With the game having taken so long to develop already, what’s an extra few months if it means a PC version can be released alongside consoles? It would make so much sense to bring the game to all three platforms simultaneously, making for a bigger and bolder launch than either Grand Theft Auto V or Red Dead Redemption II enjoyed. And yes, I admit that this one is pure bias – my primary gaming platform these days is a PC!

So that’s it.

Remember when Grand Theft Auto looked like this?

That’s as close as I can get to describing my “perfect” Grand Theft Auto 6! It took me well over two years from Red Dead Redemption II’s PC launch to finally get around to playing it, so don’t expect an instant review here on the website the second the new game is out! But I daresay I will pick up a copy – provided it has a single-player mode, at least – and share my thoughts and impressions.

Rockstar has previously announced games fairly close to their expected release window, so I wouldn’t be stunned to learn Grand Theft Auto 6 is currently gunning for a release before Christmas – but take that with a grain of salt. There’s been online chatter and rumours suggesting late 2023 or early 2024 as possible release windows, so I guess we’ll have to watch and wait for more information.

I’m curious to see how Rockstar will follow up one of the biggest games of all time. Grand Theft Auto V has been a juggernaut, clocking up sales for almost nine years and hardly ever dropping out of the top-ten or top-twenty bestsellers and most-played games lists. Rockstar will be hoping that Grand Theft Auto 6 can recapture the magic this time around, and will bring its significant financial resources to bear to ensure it happens. As for me, I’ll be happy if the game is fun – and if it meets some or all of the entries on my wishlist, I daresay it will be!

Grand Theft Auto 6 is currently in development and is the copyright of Rockstar Games and/or Take-Two Interactive. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

How long is too long?

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers are present for Dying Light 2, Red Dead Redemption II, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

I’ve talked a couple of times about video game length here on the website, and specifically about how some games can feel too short to offer good value at their price point. Games which cost £65 or $70 but only last five or six hours routinely get criticised for being too short, but my argument is that they’re really just priced incorrectly – had a six-hour game cost £25 instead of £65, it feels like a better price point and thus better value.

Take Ori and the Blind Forest or Kena: Bridge of Spirits as examples – relatively short games (under twelve hours) yet priced around the £30 mark. Both games felt like great value at that price point, and no one seemed to argue that they were somehow “too short.” In my review of Kena: Bridge of Spirits I even argued that padding out the game much beyond the 12-hour mark would’ve been too much.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits was the perfect length for the kind of game it wanted to be.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve seen a different argument arise online, particularly in relation to upcoming action-horror game Dying Light 2. Developer Techland recently claimed that total completion of the game is expected to take in excess of 500 hours – longer, they say, than it would take to walk from Warsaw in Poland to Madrid in Spain. That’s a distance of 2,631 kilometres, or 1,634 miles.

Long-distance hiking aside, I’ve seen a lot of folks online actually criticising Techland and Dying Light 2, proclaiming that its length “isn’t a selling point,” or that the game is “too long.” Having tackled a similar argument before with games that were said to be too short, I wanted to take a look at this and consider whether a game can indeed be too long.

This recent boast from the Dying Light 2 developers hasn’t gone down well with everyone…

In 2020 I spent in excess of 120 hours playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and the longest I spent in any single game in 2021 was Red Dead Redemption II, which took me 103 hours to complete the main story and the epilogue. I’m not a completionist who has to get every single achievement and discover every single hidden item or collectable. According to Red Dead Redemption II’s in-game progress tracker, after my 103 hours I’d completed 84% of the game.

However, the remaining 16% was – for want of a better term – fluff. It consists of collectables, travelling to obscure locations, catching at least one of every fish… in a word, boring nonsense that I had no interest in! Likewise with Animal Crossing: New Horizons – after 120+ hours I felt I’d done everything that the game had to offer at least once, and I had no real interest in continuing to dig up fossils or buy random junk from the shop to keep playing.

After more than 100 hours, I’d completed 84% of Red Dead Redemption II.

Games have a natural lifespan, just like any other entertainment product. That length will depend on what the game has to offer, how repetitive some of the tasks and missions are, and many other factors. If Red Dead Redemption II had offered another 103 hours’ worth of proper story missions, I daresay I’d have kept playing because I found the story to be engrossing – but I wasn’t going to spend that time in a fairly static endgame world where all of the missions were complete and all I had left were collectables to find and minor tasks to perform. That doesn’t hold my interest.

For some folks, though, it does. Some games encourage players to keep playing over and over again, and in some quadrants of the gaming community, it isn’t uncommon at all to find players who’ve dedicated literally years to a single game, sinking thousands or even tens of thousands of hours of playtime into titles like Minecraft, EVE Online, or even the aforementioned Animal Crossing series.

EVE Online is well-known for having very dedicated players who play for years and years.

But statistics would seem to suggest that those kinds of players – and those kinds of games – are comparatively rare. For example, in Red Dead Redemption II, most players have unlocked the achievement or trophy for completing the game’s first chapter. Yet on all platforms – Xbox, Playstation, and PC – barely one in three make it to the end of the epilogue and see the credits roll. Red Dead Redemption II has been out for more than three years, so there’s ample time for most players to have progressed that far if they’d wanted to – but it seems that the game’s length sees more and more players drop out as the story goes on.

I like a long story. I’ll happily watch a television show with seven seasons or something like the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings films. And I enjoyed my time with Red Dead Redemption II. But perhaps players who seek out these very long experiences are in a minority – achievement stats for a number of big titles would seem to bear that out.

Scarcely one in five Steam players who started Red Dead Redemption II actually managed to finish its story.

I mentioned the length-versus-value debate at the beginning, and I think a variation of this argument comes into play for long titles just as it does for short ones. If a game is unnaturally “long” because it’s padded out with repetitive fetch-quests, a massive open world that takes ages to traverse, and hundreds of hidden collectables that make no impact whatsoever on gameplay and story, then a developer shouldn’t be bragging about length. That isn’t a long game – it’s a bloated, padded one, and one that probably won’t be much fun for 80% of the time!

This is what I think people were getting at with the Dying Light 2 situation. While some folks may feel that any game can be too long to be enjoyable, the real criticism seems to be that players are concerned that the developers of Dying Light 2 are making a nonsense brag based on how the game world is going to be stuffed with minor, inconsequential fluff. Tasks like shooting 200 pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV aren’t actually a lot of fun for most players who wanted to complete the entire game, and while finally unlocking that last achievement or trophy may provide some folks with a brief hit of dopamine, the frustration of having to track down 200 obscure, hard-to-reach locations across a large open world probably wasn’t worth it.

Shooting pigeons was a minor task in Grand Theft Auto IV.

So is Dying Light 2 “too long” at 500 hours? Until the game is in reviewers’ hands and we can find out how many of those hours are spent on fun, interesting, or original quests, I don’t think it’s possible to say. Some people may argue that 500 hours will always be too long, and for them that may well be the case. Aside from Civilization VI, I can’t think of any game in the past decade that I’ve spent much more than 100 hours playing – so I guess I’m part of that crowd as well.

In principle, though, I don’t think 500 hours has to be too long for Dying Light 2. But it depends what the game has to offer by way of story, exploration, and engaging gameplay. If the bulk of players’ 500 hours is spent chasing boring collectables or slowly trudging across an open world that’s too large for the game’s mediocre level of content, then yeah, I’d agree that it’s too long and has been overstuffed with meaningless fluff. But if there’s a long story that manages to hook players in and keep their interest, then it’s a whole different conversation.

At the end of the day, we all want different things from our games. Folks who have busy lives and other commitments might feel the need for a shorter game, or a game that they can dip in and out of easily. Players with more free time or who like to stream their gameplay on Twitch might prefer longer, open-ended games that are chock-full of collectables. We all like different things, and there really isn’t an answer to a question like this that can satisfy everyone. If you think Dying Light 2 is going to be too long for you to enjoy… don’t play it, I guess. There are plenty of shorter games out there to take your interest instead. For my two cents, I’d rather see a game have too much content than too little, and be too long rather than too short – especially if it’s charging me £60 or $70!

Dying Light 2 will be released on the 4th of February 2022 for PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series S/X, Nintendo Switch, and PC. All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A handful of older films, games, and TV shows that I enjoyed in 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.

I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!

Film #1:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.

The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.

Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.

The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.

There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!

Film #3:
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.

The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.

There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.

Game #1:
Control (2019)

Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.

One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.

I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.

Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!

Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”

I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!

TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)

I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.

The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.

There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.

Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!

TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)

Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.

There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.

I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.

So that’s it.

There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!

All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Red Dead Redemption II – First Impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the opening act of Red Dead Redemption II.

Red Dead Redemption II has been out for three years now – two years for the PC version – so it’s a bit late to just be getting started with the game! However, if you’re like me and missed it when it was new, maybe you’ll find my first impressions of the game helpful or interesting.

As I said when I included Red Dead Redemption II on my list of some great games I haven’t played, there was nothing about the game that put me off. In fact, Red Dead Redemption II was incredibly appealing to me – I find American history fascinating, particularly in the 19th Century, as it was a field of study while I was at university. Rockstar is also a developer whose titles are usually well-made and fun to play; they basically perfected their open world style with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 and haven’t looked back. So there was a lot going for Red Dead Redemption II in 2018, but as someone with limited funds for gaming I couldn’t afford it at the time. The game ended up in what I call “the pile” – a long (and growing) list of games that sound great that I just haven’t got around to playing for one reason or another!

I finally got around to playing this game – it’s widely hailed as a masterpiece.

However, Red Dead Redemption II was on sale on Steam at some point in the last few months (I forget exactly when) and I was able to pick it up at a reasonable discount. The game’s massive 119GB file size took an eternity to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but I was able to eventually get the game installed and start playing.

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge something important that too many fans and players have overlooked: Rockstar’s treatment of some of its employees. Though not at the same level as companies like Activision Blizzard or Ubisoft, both of which have wrangled with major scandals in the past couple of years, Rockstar pushed its staff hard in the run-up to Red Dead Redemption II’s launch. “Crunch” has been a part of game development for years, and when I worked in the video games industry I experienced it firsthand. In Rockstar’s case, “crunch” wasn’t always voluntary and some members of staff and ex-members of staff have gone on record sharing the physical and mental toll it took on them and their colleagues. In short, producing Red Dead Redemption II was difficult and even harmful for some people, and it’s important we acknowledge that and call out Rockstar’s poor working environment.

Is there a visual metaphor here? Surely not…

Setting that aside, let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption II itself. If I were to pick one word to summarise the game from the perspective of a complete newbie it would be “dense.” The game has a huge amount going on, and drops you into a story that’s already ongoing from the very first moment you boot it up. Red Dead Redemption II is a sequel – technically the third entry in its series – so on the surface that seems to make sense. But the game is actually set before the previous entry in the series, despite the confusing numbering!

The opening chapter of the game serves partly as a tutorial and partly as an introduction to the story and characters. As mentioned, though, it really did feel like protagonist Arthur Morgan’s story was already in progress. He and the gang are in the process of escaping a city after a job gone wrong, and maybe players of the first two games in the series know a bit more about what happened and why, but I certainly didn’t! I still don’t, in fact!

The game’s opening chapter sets up parts of the story and some of the characters, as well as introducing players to some in-game systems.

The opening sequence also gets you acquainted with some of the game’s systems – but by no means all. The signature “dead-eye” mechanic – which works similarly to the VATS system in the newer Fallout games, allowing Arthur to slow time and lock on to specific enemies prior to shooting – was one important gameplay element that the opening act of the game didn’t go into much detail on at all.

There’s hunting wild animals, combat with guns, unarmed combat, horse riding, horse care, picking plants, doing chores around the camp… and so much more going on in Red Dead Redemption II that it’s difficult to know where to start. The game’s opening act is mostly linear, taking place in a smaller area and with only a handful of missions that Arthur has to undertake in a certain order. But after departing the opening location in the high mountains and making camp, the open world is at Arthur’s feet – and it’s a big one!

Red Dead Redemption II’s game map.

Rockstar has always excelled at world design, but I confess I wasn’t sure how well the open worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series would translate to the 19th Century. The open worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto V were based around large modern cities with roads laid out for traversal by car. The world of the 19th Century was, in many ways, bigger because of how slow travel on foot or by horse and cart was. Red Dead Redemption II’s world captures that feel perfectly, and any doubts I might’ve had about an open world game using this kind of setting melted away faster than the snow in the mountains!

The game’s open world feels authentic. If you’ve ever seen old photographs of America in the late 19th Century, or even modern depictions of the era in television shows like Deadwood, you’ll instantly recognise the look and feel of everything from small farmsteads and frontier towns to the bustling big city with its industrial revolution influence. The visuals and graphics used to bring this world to life are stunning – the game is one of the most realistic-looking I’ve ever played, with moments of genuine beauty as I traversed its open world. I feel Red Dead Redemption II sucking me in because of how impressive its world design is; I want to spend more time in this incredibly real-feeling depiction of a time and place that has long fascinated me.

Arthur on horseback in the town of Valentine.

If you’ll forgive a history nerd geeking out about small things for a moment, things like the mud on the main street of the town of Valentine – the first major town Arthur is able to visit – and the wooden boards put down to the side to walk on do so much to capture what it must’ve felt like to actually walk through a town like that. These places were dirty and muddy, just like the game depicts, and even though it might seem like such a small thing it’s actually a huge part of the immersion for me.

The colour palette is likewise exceptionally important when it comes to capturing the look and feel of the time and place that Red Dead Redemption II is set. Most things in this era were made of wood or metal, so seeing Arthur walk over dirty wooden boards or eating stew from a beaten up old metal bowl are again minor details but they add to the immersion. Brighter colours were the preserve of the wealthy, so most townsfolk Arthur encounters are wearing drab colours: browns, tans, creams, and so on.

The game makes excellent use of colour.

Many buildings have a hitching post outside for patrons’ horses – because traveling by horse was the main way folks got around in the 19th Century. Life in those days was very different – and so much worse for practically everyone than it is today! But Red Dead Redemption II gives us a taste of what it might’ve been like thanks to all of these smaller details, and because I’ve had such an interest in the history of America in this era I find it absolutely fascinating.

Countless smaller details come together to present a game world that feels real and lived-in. And that’s before we get into all of the myriad realistic elements that Red Dead Redemption II includes through its gameplay systems. Obviously a lot of games have a day-night cycle, and as far back as Shenmue in 2000 I can remember seeing things like shops closing after dark and NPCs having their own daytime and nighttime routines. But Red Dead Redemption II goes all-in on the realism. Arthur has to eat and sleep. If he gets dirty he has to change his clothes or take a bath. In cold weather he needs appropriate clothing – likewise for hot weather. His horse needs to be cleaned, fed, and taken care of too. So do individual weapons – without proper care they stop working reliably.

Gang leader Dutch van der Linde.

Around the camp Arthur has chores to do. Some of these are basic things like chopping wood – which took me back to my youth as I was often assigned that chore at home in the late summer and autumn months! But it also seems to be largely the responsibility of Arthur to keep the camp supplied and to bring in money – without regular donations of food and other supplies, the camp quickly runs out.

At points I felt like I was playing Barbie Horse Adventures and not an authentic 19th Century outlaw simulator because of how much time I was spending playing with and caring for Arthur’s horse! Brushing the horse, feeding it, giving it pats, calming it if it got scared… horses need a lot of attention in Red Dead Redemption II! Luckily as an animal-lover – both real and virtual – I had a blast doing all of these chores, and even found time for Arthur to befriend several dogs as well!

Arthur with his horse. Horse care is a big part of the game.

On the flip side, Red Dead Redemption II offers a whole lot of animals to hunt. I confess to being squeamish about hunting in person; bird shooting, rabbiting, and even fox hunting all took place in the rural area where I grew up, but even as a kid I was uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals like that. That squeamishness has extended to the virtual world too – I can’t imagine playing a hunting simulator, for example. But Red Dead Redemption II makes hunting feel like a necessary part of Arthur’s life – and there are many in-game reasons to hunt as well, from making money to crafting upgrades.

There’s an in-depth tracking system that the game uses, allowing Arthur to investigate an area using a similar “slow time” animation to the aforementioned “dead-eye” system. After detecting an animal’s track, Arthur can follow it stealthily and then use an appropriate weapon to take the animal down. Some of the animations involved in hunting are very gruesome and gory, particularly when it comes to skinning an animal for its meat and hide. But as we were talking about, these details add realism to the game. Whether you think that’s a good thing in every instance… well, that’s up to you!

An example of the game’s “dead-eye” system.

Gunplay in Red Dead Redemption II is helped immensely by the dead-eye mechanic. However, even without this the game does offer a degree of lock-on targeting – something I find incredibly helpful. The game doesn’t have difficulty options per se, but there are a few ways to make things slightly easier, such as by making the lock-on targeting easier. Proper difficulty options would definitely be an improvement, though. I haven’t been involved in that many big shootouts yet, but so far I’m impressed with the third-person shooting aspect of the game. It stands up well when compared to many other action-adventure titles.

I find the game’s characters to be compelling. The excellent voice acting and beautiful, realistic animation brings them to life in a way many games simply can’t manage. Though Arthur is the main protagonist, the bond he has with the members of the gang makes each of them feel important to the story and worth helping or protecting.

After almost twelve hours of gameplay (including a short section I had to replay after messing it up) I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of Red Dead Redemption II. I’m only at chapter two of the game’s story, I’ve barely seen any of the open world, and I know for a fact that there are still in-game systems that I haven’t even unlocked. Red Dead Redemption II is a long game and an incredibly detailed one. I’m having a lot of fun with it right now, and it’s one of those rare titles that I find myself thinking about even hours after I stop playing. I honestly can’t wait to jump back in and play some more. It was definitely worth the wait!

Red Dead Redemption II is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Red Dead Redemption II is the copyright of Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of Rockstar Games and/or IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.