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Is a new wave of AA games our only hope of recapturing the magic of the PS2 era?

PS2 Games Montage
(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

The innocent days when I would get all my hot music tips from GTA’s radio station are over, and I miss them. The peak of the PS2 era was a weird time when Rockstar was breaking the rules, not repackaging them, Ico was proving videogames can be art, and – now defunct – publisher Midway, with the nascent Mortal Kombat, was demonstrating art can be a decapitation and aggressively stylised marketing. Now, faced with an avalanche of remasters, remakes, PS5 upgrades, and a race to the bottom to be the next Fortnite, videogames are in danger of being flattened.

Though the indie scene is bubbling under, even here we’re seeing ideas being rehashed and a narrowing focus on the same ideas or systems. If you’re into quirky narrative-driven adventures or roguelite insta-death RPGs, you’re fine. For those seeking fresh experiences with a different level of production values… I'd like to suggest another solution: the flawed but memorable AA game. That's right: the 7/10 quasi-classics that are verging on an endangered species.

Big money sequels are crowding out risk takers

A Plague Tale: Innocence

While there are a 'mere' 15 core Final Fantasy games, the series has spawned over 95 games in total. (Image credit: Asobo Studio)

Now I’m not against repetition. Indeed, video-games are the one medium where every subsequent game is generally better than the last. While the film industry can count on one hand the occasions when a sequel is better than the original – The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight, The Next Karate Kid – video-games are awash with improved followups. But in recent times, as annual or semi-annual releases of Call Of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Battlefield have become as regular as digestive movements on a high-fibre diet, I’ve found myself yearning for the weirder release lists of the PS2 days, when even the biggest publishers took risks.

While EA was pushing out Medal Of Honor sequels, FIFA, and NBA updates, it also found room for the innovative SSX and the Big label that gave us arcade racers Shox and Sled Storm. It was the time when gamers took risks and forced developers and publishers to keep up. The import scene added pressure, proving there was a desire to play games like Ico, Katamari Damacy, and Guitar Freaks. Ironically, as PS4 and PS5 are region-free it’s easier than ever before to import and even download games from Japan.

Control

(Image credit: Remedy Entertainment)

"I've found myself yearning for the weirder release lists of the PS2 days, when even the biggest publishers took risks"

Has innovation become hamstrung by success? Big blockbuster releases have teams of over 500, cost millions to make, and five-plus years to finish... so something in the creative process has to give. I love Naughty Dog, but its focus on film-like narrative ensured The Last Of Us 2's big gameplay idea was enabling Ellie to go prone. Solid Snake managed this feat in the first five minutes of Metal Gear Solid back in 1998.

It’s left me gravitating towards games that score 7/10. Games that deliver a solid but flawed experience with one inventive idea well executed. It’s why A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of my favourite games in recent times – the rat mob is a puzzle joy. We need to celebrate publishers such as Nacon, Team17, and Focus Home that allow smaller teams to innovate. We need to encourage the likes of 505 Games to keep enabling developers to experiment – it’s why we have inventive games like Control and why the announced sequel to Ghostrunner is already on my radar.

While we can’t turn back the clock, we can encourage developers to take risks and accept there is fun in failure.


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