Video game reboots – natural evolution or shallow cash grabs?

This Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week we’re talking about reboots – the good ones, the bad ones, and why they’re almost always necessary.

despite what the user reviews may tell you – the “woke” developer had the gall to let you create transgender characters, which has naturally incensed the usual grubby corners of the internet – the Saints Row reboot is okay. Yes, it’s buggy, no, it’s not a particularly cerebral experience, and no, I suspect its tiresome story won’t be in line for a BAFTA this year, but if you like shooting stuff (check), blowing shit up (check) and generally rocketing through a city causing as much mayhem and destruction as possible (double check), then it does the job… particularly as there’s nowt much else out at the moment.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed my time as The Boss in Saints Row‘s Santo Illeso, even though I would never have picked this up if I hadn’t been forced to do so for work. Everything about the “old” Saints Row turned me off, including the 1990s Nuts mag-esque “lol sex toys are funny innit” marketing. By the time the giant purple dildos came along, I’d firmly checked out of the franchise. And given the series’ disappointing sales, it appears I wasn’t the only one.

By the time a new Saints Row was announced last year, though, it seems the team had quite a radical rethink. Rebooting it with “a brand new setting, brand new characters and a brand new tone, all refreshed for today’s gamer” was an inspired move. A brave one, too. Whilst it’s not quite up there with firefighters or being a high school substitute teacher – the hardest job on the planet, I reckon – it’s not easy to look at something you need to pay the bills and decide it needs a major overhaul, maybe even at the cost of alienating the scant folks who liked your something in the first place.

Saints Row. Credit: Deep Silver Volition.
Saints Row. Credit: Deep Silver Volition.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met thousands of developers in my 15 years of writing about games, and I’ve not met a single one who legitimately didn’t give a shit. I’m sure they exist – hell, maybe the ones I’ve interviewed are just great actors – but I’ve never met one and yes, that includes the fine developers I’ve met from  the “evil” corporate studios you simply love to hate. Many, many terrible games are made, but few, if any, dev sets out to make them terrible. This is why studios like Volition need to be supported, not scorned, when they try to course-correct several years down the line.

I mean, take a look at Tomb Raider. Although long lauded because of its leading lady – something that’s still astonishingly unusual, even in 2022 – I always got the impression that Lara Croft existed because boys wanted to see a pair of big tits on their screen rather than because girls wanted to roleplay a super-cool heroine. After releasing games pretty much annually for a decade, the series took a break in 2010 and came back with the brilliant Tomb Raider reboot in 2013, breathing new life into a dry franchise and fusing engrossing mechanics with bombastic adventuring.

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider. Credit: Crystal Dynamics.

Assassin’s Creed hasn’t been immune to a rethink, either. Despite churning out assassin-flavoured games on the regular for the last fifteen years, Ubisoft paused its development machinery in 2016 with a view to reinventing its tried, and stale, formula. 2017 gave us Assassin’s Creed Origins – my all-time favourite instalment (closely followed by badass Cassandra’s romp in Odyssey a year later) – which revised the blueprint of what an Assassin’s game could be, pulling in more role-playing elements and making the world around you every bit as important as the action sequences.

Arguably an even bigger success was 2018’s rebooted God Of War. Though always incredibly well-received – just look at the series’ Metacritic rating – the 2018 reboot sits in the annals of history as one of the greatest games of all time, elevating developer Sony Santa Monica to the kind of lofty pedestal Naughty Dog perches upon. The upcoming sequel is one of the most-anticipated games I’ve ever known.

God of War
God of War. Credit: Santa Monica Studio

All of these franchises sit amongst some of the biggest and best-received games ever made, and I’m of the firm belief that this isn’t accidental. All took the terrifying decision to take an existing product – some of which were highly cherished by ardent fanbases – and reinvent it, modernising control schemes, mechanics, and style and tone to better reflect the world we live in.

You may call it a cash grab. I call it innovation. And Christ only knows there are enough other games out there that also could do with a (re)boot up the arse…

What else?

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