Probably one of the most successful developers working in the industry at this moment in time, Rockstar North continue to excel from pre-existing boundaries in quality with some of the most highly acclaimed titles available on modern consoles, pushing what was deemed possible with some truly epic examples of modern game design. Grand Theft Auto is their holy grail, destined to be remembered as one of the pioneering breaks for video games into the mainstream consciousness, for more reasons than one…
Originally formed in 1988 by Dave Jones, Russell Kay, Steve Hammond and Mike Dailly as ‘DMA Design’, the studio’s most popular early work came from the fantastic puzzler Lemmings. Originally developed for the Amiga and released in 1990, the game was one of the most popular titles at the time, known for its unique charm and simple yet effective puzzle mechanics. With much of the opening years dedicated to establishing the Lemmings brand with a number of ports for many of the systems of the time, DMA’s work skipped from side-scrolling shooters (Blood Money) to RPG’s (Hired Guns), whilst the metaphorical striking of the gold occurred in 1997 with top-down 2D action-adventure Grand Theft Auto, unsurpassed at the time for its progressive design in allowing the player unprecedented freedom, something not yet truly seen from games at the time. This forward-thinking approach to design continued with games such as Body Harvest on the N64, further propelling non linear game play into the mainstream. Perhaps the studio’s most significant of steps though came with 2001′s Grand Theft Auto III which was hailed as “revolutionary” by critics for its exceptional, non-linear storyline and 3D game design which went into giving the fictional Liberty City a sense of a true living and breathing environment. It was also one of the first games to embellish two genres within the same game, with its car hijackings seamlessly blending the action adventure genre with driving simulation. Also widely known for its sexualised and violent content, GTA III was met by huge controversy at initial release, in a similar probing to the “video nasties” of the 80s. It was one of the first times in which a video game was put under the microscope by the still misunderstanding mainstream, although it certainly was not the last foray into negative press the team would face (2003′s Manhunt and its sequel is testament to that).
Acquired by Rockstar in 2001 and re-named ‘Rockstar North‘ (with its headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland), to date, North’s output has been almost entirely focused on the GTA series with Vice City, San Andreas and GTA IV, even providing support on franchise extensions, such as the PSP (Liberty City and Vice City Stories) and DS (Chinatown Wars) GTA titles. One of, if not my favourite game of all time – GTA IV – will be remembered for years to come for its unrivalled quality, from the expertly realised Liberty City (inspired by NYC), to its more gritty storyline with immigrant Niko Bellic and wealth of other truly memorable characters, all brought to vivid life through North’s brilliant character animation and ability to direct voice acting with real emotional impact. Court to universal acclaim (receiving no less than 40 “Game of the Year” awards), GTA IV went on to be the highest grossing video game in 24 hours, selling a remarkable 3.6 million copies on its opening day.
It’s testament to the studio that they can continue to output critically acclaimed title after title, as the recent work with Rockstar San Diego on the sprawling western Red Dead Redemption can very much attest to. And although still much shaded in secrecy, Rockstar North‘s latest game – referred to as Agent (and developed exclusively for Sony’s PS3) – will see players “[enter] the world of counter-intelligence, espionage and political assassinations” in 1970s Cold War era. Announced way back in 2007, Agent marks a vitally important stepping stone for North in seeing if the company are still capable of stepping outside of the now well established and hugely successful GTA franchise, and still deliver the kind of incredible experiences they have in the last couple of years.