The headline says it all really, and it is quite a bold statement. Rockstar Games could be considered one of the biggest, but more importantly, best developers in the industry today, yet I'm going out on a limb to say that the studio could have very well hit their peak with the release of 2010's Game of the Year winner, Red Dead Redemption.
Rockstar's history is long and esteemed, but it wasn't until 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV that we really saw what this talented team of artists were capable of. It was the first major narrative for a Rockstar Game, and as far as compelling stories go, they don't get much better than GTA IV.
However I don't feel that GTA IV is a particularly good game per se. While Niko Bellic and co have a lot of interesting and heart wrenching moments, the game feels like a gigantic tech demo for me. It brings a living and breathing city like no other onto our screens, and they graphical prowess of the RAGE engine is certainly a marvel in its own right, but the game isn't exactly oozing with fun.
The shooting mechanics are clumsy, the relationship mechanic is infuriating, and the thrill and excitement that came with other GTA games was lost when cruising the streets of this new Liberty City. It was a brilliant piece of story writing, backed up by a fantastic city and technology, but the game itself was a little lacking in my opinion.
2010's Red Dead Redemption changed all that. The emotional tale of John Marston not only cemented the storytelling skills of the studio, but it catapulted gamers into unfamiliar territory. A combination of fantastic missions, varied side-quests, interesting environments and the intrigue of a game set in the Wild West was more then enough to make RDR one of the best games this generation. Each and every mechanic worked seamlessly, giving us a fantastic story AND more importantly, a fantastic game.
While L.A Noire may have started as a Team Bondi production, Rockstar certainly had a hand in the final product. Once again, the tale of Cole Phelps and co. was beyond memorable, and the facial animation technology was astounding. As a game however, it became so repetitive that banging your head against a brick wall seemed more interesting at times.
Now we have Max Payne 3 on our doorstep, and after playing through the entire campaign I can say that Rockstar has provided a solid experience, yet as a game it won't set the world on fire. Max's tale of revenge and desperation is compelling, more so than any other game I've played since Red Dead Redemption, but the mechanics are by and large, familiar territory.
What would it take for Rockstar to combine both stellar gameplay and this new found fascination with storytelling? I highly doubt Grand Theft Auto V will provide the answer, and even a Red Dead Redemption sequel would yield more of the same rather than something fresh.
While their games are enjoyable and memorable, I personally feel that Rockstar peaked with Red Dead Redemption. I doubt we'll ever see the studio combine gameplay, story and general feel that well ever again.
Yet they will continue to create great stories, with an unmatched cinematic feel, and that is certainly not a bad thing.
By Stephen Heller - Bio