Published Aug 01, 2005If N.W.A.'s seminal single "Gangsta Gangsta" came out now, it's quite likely the sampled hook would say "it's not about a salary, it's all about virtual reality." Thug-themed games or rather, "urban action" games have been bum-rushing the console scene, much to the consternation of pop culture critics, pundits, and politicians.
As the prepping for America's 2006 mid-term elections kicks off, weasely Democrats are aiming for red-state cred by bravely taking on hip-hop-inspired video games. Due this fall, Eidos's 25 to Life was blessed with priceless PR when New York senator Charles Schumer launched efforts to ban it. "Little Johnny should be learning how to read, not how to kill cops," the senator said, adding it "makes Grand Theft Auto look like Romper Room."
Perhaps he spoke too soon about 2004's biggest-selling game. Last spring, his fellow New York senator Hillary Clinton joined right-wingnut Senator Rick Santorum (known for equating homosexuality with bestiality) to call the ghetto-themed Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas a threat to morality and demand a $90 million investigation into the effects of video games on children.
Clinton's knickers got further twisted in mid-July when she found out about San Andreas's now-infamous "hot coffee" mod, which enables a rhythm-based sex mini-game when visiting your girlfriend. Ignoring that this is a 17-plus rated game, that someone would have to wilfully download and install this mod, and that the sex is rather poorly pixilated, Clinton has called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation. "The disturbing material in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children," she complained.
Of course, as far as violence goes, kids have been playing non-virtual cops'n'robbers forever and paintball is an increasingly popular pastime, but these critics are picking their battles, just as their political predecessors did with Ice-T, N.W.A. and Tupac while ignoring the sins of Schwarzenegger.
Speaking of cop killing, 25 to Life is no simulator. It's a 16-player online squad shooter similar to the war-on-terror series SOCOM, a game that has caused no political furore despite allowing gamers to, gasp, play as terrorists and kill Navy SEALs. There have also been no complaints over America's Army, a taxpayer-funded first-person-shooter that the U.S. government distributes for free as a recruitment tool.
So this isn't simply about sex and violence, but that the excesses of hip-hop culture make it an easy target one that will only increase as a new wave of gangsta games comes out.
Many of these titles are simply adding an "urban" edge to a pre-existing genre. Def Jam arguably started the trend with Vendetta and Fight for New York, which re-invigorated wrestling games by including the likes of Ludacris, Ghostface and Busta Rhymes as playable characters. NBA 2K6 has followed suit with less-commercial rappers Common, Lyrics Born and Little Brother.
This month's big ghetto game is Ubisoft's new combat racer, 187 Ride or Die, which beefs up its well-worn genre with drive-bys, po-po chases and voice work from Menace II Society actor Larenz Tate and Compton rapper Guerilla Black. 187 tries a little too hard to be street the tutorial actually said "peep this then you can get gully with it, playa," as if they'd ran the instructions through Gizoogle's translation tool but it's most definitely a fun ride as you race through the mean streets while engaging in a turf war.
San Andreas, of course, really sparked this surge when they rejuvenated GTA by moving from mafia-filled Miami to Boyz N The Hood-era southern California. Unlike some rapwagon-jumpers, San Andreas truly understood the culture peep the radio, the low-riders and a script by Ice Cube's Friday co-writer DJ Pooh that made CJ one of the more nuanced game characters in recent memory, a feat lauded when it happens on The Sopranos.
In fact, Emmy-winning Sopranos writer Terry Winter is penning the upcoming 50 Cent game Bulletproof, which will track Fiddy's career if he'd never made it into the studio, and features cameos from Eminem, Dr. Dre and G-Unit. A slightly more socially-redeeming project is likely to come from next year's Fear and Respect, a South Central-set game scripted by Boyz director John Singleton and starring Snoop Dogg.
The hip-hop meme has become so widespread even conscious rappers are getting in the game Talib Kwelli plays the lead in Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, a graffiti-themed title from fashionista Marc Ecko. Yet this non-violent title has also been attacked a democratic NYC councilman threatened a boycott of Atari for "encouraging children to deface neighborhoods, break the law and wind up behind bars." If even non-gangsta games are ammunition in the culture wars, just wait until the GTA-emulating Saint's Row comes out for the Xbox 360.
The primary problem with their complaints is that these baby boomer critics, who grew up in a pre-arcade era, are recycling the same old anti-rap arguments by hyping the effect of fake sex'n'violence on kids while refusing to acknowledge that the average gamer is 29 years old.
In the immortal words of ex-Arsonists rapper Freestyle, when asked about GTA's critics by an interviewer, "bitch ass old folks gotta take a chill pill!"
Destroy All Humans! (Pandemic/THQ, multi-platform)
Aliens have long been determined to wipe out us puny earthlings. but with Destroy All Humans!, we finally get to play the angry alien. Armed with an anal probe, a hankering for genocide and a bad Nicholson accent, we engage in a series of third-person missions and free-roaming chaos-sowing. The creators have imbued their 1950s-era rural America with hilariously campy details, from a red-baiting mayor and radioactive exploding zombie cows to a Theremin score and a drive-in playing Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, the b-movie "classic" this game aspires to emulate.
Fantastic Four (Activision/7 Studios, multi-platform)
Rushed to meet the film's release date, Fantastic Four has serious camera issues and a confusing, overly-linear plot that bolsters the movie's origin story by throwing random villains at you. Comic fans will still enjoy getting in some clobberin' time with the Thing, Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl, all of whom boast cool moves, can be easily interchanged and played in co-op mode. But having raised the bar with this year's astonishingly assured X-Men Legends and the sandbox swinging of Spider-Man 2, Activision is now expected to at least meet it. FF is simply not quite fantastic enough.
Psychonauts (Double Fine/Budcat Creations/Majesco, PS2)
After a decade toiling for George Lucas and creating the classic PC adventure Grim Fandango Tim Schafer launched his own company Double Fine. Their first effort is Psychonauts, originally an Xbox-only title until Microsoft decided it was too "niche." Though graphically a little weaker than the other versions, it's otherwise the same game a hilariously bizarre and insanely creative twist on the platformer genre. As Rasputin, the player goes to a summer camp for Psychonauts and various levels take place inside a different person's mind where Raz must use his newly-learned psychic powers to battle inner demons and sort emotional baggage. Undoubtedly the most surreal game to ever involve merit badges.