GTA V creator: “It’s not just about shooting anymore”

Rockstar’s Dan Houser talks about the blockbuster GTA series and how his studio has catered to a wider audience

GTA V is now on store shelves, no doubt lighting up the cash registers across the world. Grand Theft Auto as a franchise has evolved quite a bit over the years, but the most important thing to Rockstar Games’ VP of creative Dan Houser is that his team has stayed true to itself the whole time. In a new interview with the [a]list daily, Houser discussed the impact of the Grand Theft Auto series on games and culture in general.

Houser stressed that Rockstar was operating on instinct rather than careful market testing when it brought out GTA 3. “Focus testing in 1999/2000 would never have predicted that a 3D gangster game was going to blow up,” he noted. “Then having done that, no amount of focus testing would say do it in the ’80s. So doing stuff that is true to yourself, as opposed to what the market thinks it wants, that’s definitely something that we’ve always done and hopefully other people have followed suit.”

One of the key elements of the GTA series for Houser has always been the music. “We always thought music should be more than just badly written theme music,” he said. “You began to see that with the birth of Playstation 1 with Wipeout, which was the first game that really pushed top quality pop music in the UK. That was huge. We wanted music that was to our own tastes and to our own style.”

“The games are hopefully getting good enough as pure adventures, and they’re interesting enough to play, that it’s not just about shooting anymore”

Dan Houser

The obsession with music can be traced to Sam Houser and Craig Conner, according to Houser. “Sam [is] obsessed with music and lovingly works on every single track that goes in there,” Houser said. “He and Craig Conner, who’s been the GTA music guy since ’97, will bicker about individual tracks on radio stations constantly. They’re both obsessed with it. It’s an enormous labor of love for us to do it. Music helps create this world that people are immersed in.”

While the game industry is continually changing, Houser feels Rockstar is growing with the audience as well. “The audience has been gradually expanding,” Houser commented. “One of the things we wanted to try and do — and we did to some extent – is reach out to some older audience with LA Noire and go, ‘Hey, this game is a little bit slower. It’s definitely historically interesting. It’s more like interactive TV shows. It’s not twitch-based like some of those games. You might have a go with it and see what you think.’ With content like that, you’re always trying to find a way of reaching different audiences.”

He continued, “Even with the action games, we’re trying to constantly make them easier to play, and put different difficulty levels in them so the barely-skilled 18-year-old with very short nerve endings can play at the hardest level possible. And those of us who are more afraid or whatever to begin with can play on the easiest level. The games are hopefully getting good enough as pure adventures, and they’re interesting enough to play, that it’s not just about shooting anymore.”



PS Vita REVIEW: Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Worthy for play on the go.

I’ve always appreciated what the Atelier roleplaying series strives to do, even if I haven’t always been thrilled with the ways in which it’s done it. Though the dialogue and voice work have never been terribly effective, many of these games’ characters still beg to be remembered, and few more than one Totooria Helmold, the star of Atelier Totori Plus. Earnest and open-hearted to a fault, her deeply personal motivation is the glue that, along with an intensive crafting element, holds this laid-back RPG together. And thanks to the Vita’s beautiful screen, the world around her looks better here than ever before.

Atelier Totori Plus is a Vita port of Atelier Totori that doesn’t disappoint in the least. It brings all the content of the original to gamers on the go, along with a few bonuses to sweeten the pot. Among other things: all the DLC characters from the PS3 incarnation, and more excitingly, a new post-game dungeon that Atelier Rorona fans will no doubt recognize. None of theses extras are game-changers mind you, but they do add an appreciated splash of extra variety whether you’re a new or returning player.

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland


Totori’s technically simple, artistically intricate graphics really come to life on the Vita, as its sharp display brings out all the loving details in the characters’ designs. If you somehow failed to recognize how well-conceived Totori’s artwork is on the PS3, it’ll certainly come out and smack you in the eyeballs this time around. If you’re looking for it, you might spot an extra second of loading here, or a drop in framerate there, but none of it impacts gameplay. In fact, it inexplicably runs better than the PS3 version of Totori’s sequel, Atelier Meruru.

Still, this is a port, which naturally means it’s inherited the faults of its original. Totori’s flaws are few in number, but deep in severity, with the voice acting on the male side of the cast being the worst offense. Gino’s nasally delivery constantly grates, and the ever-whiny Peter proves to be just as rage-inducing on a small Vita screen as he is on a big one. The voice actor playing Totori’s widower father acquits himself reasonably well, but only to the extent that the clumsily wrought script allows him to. While the female performances are stronger on the whole, they aren’t enough to save the day. Given that Totori relies even more heavily upon dialogue than your average RPG, this sub-standard level of craft will be a sizable problem for many.

Of course, just as a port brings its big brother’s baggage along with it, so too does it bring the good stuff. Despite the writing and acting issues, I still find Totori and her quest to discover the true fate of her missing mother to be a suitable, if unlikely motivation to push through. Unlike Meruru and Ayesha after her, Totori has genuine bonds, either by blood or by history, with the people around her. This lends her interactions with them significance, especially where her family and her presumably deceased mother are concerned. Even amidst the airy, care-free atmosphere, there’s a heartfelt tale here about a young girl who refuses to accept the loss of her parent, and challenges herself to discover the truth. As someone who’s been slaying dragons and confronting world-ending evils since Dragon Warrior, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Fishcraft? I don’t know what that is.

Having reviewed the PS3 version of Totori last year, coming back to it after moving on to Meruru and Ayesha really drove home why it’s my favorite of the PS3 Atelier games. Of all the main characters, Totori’s tale mattered most to me, and the cast surrounding her finds a comfortable sweet spot between light-hearted fun and believability. In terms of gameplay, Totori packs all of the franchise-signature crafting depth, and marries it to a well-tuned, free-form quest structure that’s rife with resource management. You can check my original review for all the sordid details, but in short, it’s less restrictive than Meruru’s system, but more open and challenging than the spoon-fed quest track that Ayesha runs you through. Striking such a balance in a system with so many moving parts is really quite commendable, especially given that neither of its successors could truly manage it.

The Verdict

Atelier Totori was a very good RPG to begin with, but its stylish, technically modest graphics, and focus on bite-sized quests make it an ideal candidate for handheld gaming. Everything that made the original what it is, for better or worse, is here on the Vita – including the near-constant interruptions by poorly executed dialogue which still bar it from greatness. But its additional content and small-screen visual presence make Atelier Totori Plus the definitive version, and an easy recommendation for franchise fans and RPG buffs in general.




The Last of Us review: A bright moment in gaming, shining through a dark world

The last Of Us

It is obvious right from the start that The Last of Us is not your typical game. Naughty Dog has earned a reputation for creating transcendent experiences that are simply presented as games. With the Uncharted series, the developer created an interactive adventure, designed to keep your heart pumping. Those games are high octane, playable versions of Indiana Jones, with all the tropes that come with that style, including the death-defying escapes and the underlying romance. The Last of Us shares some of the same storytelling mechanics, but offers a very different experience.

Where Uncharted wanted you to believe in the adventure, The Last of Us wants you to believe in the relationship between the gruff and weathered Joel, and the young and still relatively innocent Ellie. That might seem like a predictable formula for storytelling, and in some ways it is, but adding the playable component elevates it to a level that has rarely been seen before in gaming, and makes for one of the most emotionally charged stories ever seen in video games.

Don’t Call Them Zombies

It all stars with a fungus known as ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus from the Cordyceps family. The fungus is parasitic, and can take control of the host’s nervous system in order to move it in a direction that will ensure further dissemination of more spores. Basically it can take over a host and force it to attack others. And the pant-soiling truth is that it is real thing, found in insects, generally in South and Central America.

The last Of Us

The game takes that concept just a single, terrifyingly believable step further. In the game, the fungus evolves to the point that in can infect human hosts. Those hosts then become mindless carriers, hell-bent on passing the infection on through any means possible, most commonly through a bite. This may sound like a zombie outbreak, but there is one key difference between the enemies in the game and zombies: the game’s enemies are called “Infected.” Beyond that, they are pretty much zombies.

The story begins 20 years after humanity has been forced into small quarantine zones, and scattered communities fighting to survive. Civilization is a memory, and survival is almost all there is. There is a war brewing as well, although to call it a war with scant few survivors left to fight it may be giving it too much weight. On one side are the forces controlling the quarantine zones, a militaristic faction that believes in order at all costs. On the other hand are the Fireflies, a militant group dedicated to bringing back an elected government. Stated ideals aside, there are no good or bad guys in the new world, just shades of despair.

The last Of Us

It is in this gray world we meet Joel, a smuggler and a survivor. After a botched weapons shipment, Joel takes a job to smuggle a 14-year old girl named Ellie out of the Boston quarantine zone to the Firefly camp outside the city. That plan falls apart quickly, and the pair are forced into a cross country journey across the ruins of an America quickly being swallowed back by nature.

Trust No One

What sets The Last of Us apart from other post-apocalyptic games is the emphasis on the high quality of the writing. It is not just the driving force of the game, it is very, very well done.

Joel is not a good man. Thanks to some cleaver writing and the unavoidable connection you typically form between yourself and any playable avatar, you find yourself rooting for him. But he can be unlikable, and every time you think he will redeem himself, Joel will surprise you. Ellie, on the other hand, is just innocent enough that you can’t help but feel protective of her. From her inability to whistle to her fiery nature to her optimism, the writing for Ellie is so deep and layered that you will forget that she is basically just an occasionally helpful AI NPC. Thankfully, as an AI she never becomes a hindrance.

The last Of Us

Ellie’s story arc in particular is endearing and even moving. She is a child of the new world, and the simple pleasures of the old, things like watching movies and sleeping a night in perfect safety are so foreign to her that can be heartbreaking.

There are deep themes at work here, and dark story threads that really cast a pessimistic, but not unrealistic picture of humanity as a whole, many of which center around Ellie. You will want to see her safe, although Joel’s intentions are often more complicated.

Even when you think you’ve seen the story laid bare, it can surprise you and drag out a surprising emotional response. From humor to shock to an incredible conclusion that you probably won’t see coming, the story is not just good for a video game, it is good for any medium.

A Minor, but Familiar Complaint

The story is so strong and powerful that it is easy to overlook some of the more flawed pieces. The Last of Us is a fantastic game, with moments that border on brilliant. The combat, however, is not one of them.

This is a complaint Naughty Dog has heard before, and it is apt here as well. The combat isn’t bad by any means, it is just wholly unremarkable.

The last Of Us

You face two enemy types throughout the game: humans and infected. Both have their own AI systems that are typically very good and can even react on the fly to you. This helps to alleviate the sense of repetition that would otherwise certainly set in. The game introduces a stealth element that helps with this, but unless you plan to restart repeatedly until you memorize locations and patterns, opening fire is generally easier, and is almost always a faster solution.

The gameplay also lacks some of the moments that made the Uncharted series so memorable – those “big” moments, like when a ship would suddenly begin to sink, a train derails, or an attack helicopter chases you across rooftops. The gameplay just becomes a funciton of the story, and one you’ll typically race through to discover the next plot point.

That Old, Familiar Feeling

The multiplayer component offers an interesting twist, but it is very much a secondary feature to the campaign – and a limited one at that.

The last Of Us

After choosing one of two nearly identical factions, Hunter or Firefly, you begin a 12 week mini-game. While playing in one of the two 4v4 modes offered -Supply Raid which has limited respawns, or Survivors, with no respawn – you attract survivors to your personal clan (who are represented as numbers only). The bigger your clan, the more supply parts you will need to find lying around in the game, or by looting enemy bodies. Do well and everyone is happy; fail to find the parts and people become sick and infected. After a 12 week cycle (12 weeks in the game, not real time), the more clan members you have, the better your reward. You then “prestige” and start over.

As for the gameplay, you are limited in resources, from your bullets, to the pieces you collect to craft items like medicine or Molotov Cocktails – a mechanic the campaign shares. Because of the limits, a run-and-gun approach is impractical, leading to a more tension filled hunt.

The last Of Us

It is a fun addition, but an ancillary one. And with just two modes, it isn’t likely to carry a crowd for too long.


Minor quibbles with the combat aside, Naughty Dog proves once again that it is among the best in the business. It also once again pushes the envelope of what a video game can be. The writing and the story of The Last of Us are not just good by gaming standards, but good by the standards of any medium. It is a dark and mature tale, and while the obvious comparison is to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, the better comparison might be The Walking Dead. It is a brutal story that will continue to push your conception of what a video game story can be, and it is easily among the year’s best releases thus far.




Family Guy: Back To The Multiverse Launch Trailer

I Love Family Guy, so I’m excited to see that Family Guy: Back To The Multiverse is now available on Xbox 360 and PS3. The game introduces an all-new original story written and voiced by all the top  “Family Guy” talent. Check out the launch trailer below for Family Guy: Back To The Multiverse and save the world.