Exploring Freedom In Spider-Man 2

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Today we’re taking a look at games that offer a sense of freedom. The first open-world game I played was Grand Theft Auto III. As impressed as I was by my ability to go anywhere, it had the same restrictions to exploration as a non-virtual human would have in a real city. I could go anywhere, but I was still restricted to the ground. I could move faster horizontally by getting in a car, but vertical traversal was still out of my reach. Spider-Man 2’s city may have felt less alive and had fewer avenues of entertainment than Grand Theft Auto III, but it was the first game I felt like I was playing in a true virtual playground with a whole new set of rules for traversal.

I’m not even a particularly big Spider-Man fan. I enjoyed the films, but was probably one of the few in the audience who was more interested in seeing the new movie from the director of The Evil Dead than I was about seeing a Spider-Man movie. I didn’t fall in love with the game because I finally got to be Spider-Man; I fell in love because I could climb to the top of a building, dive from the top, and fire off a web at the last second to miss the ground and fling myself off into the distance.

Exploring Freedom In Mass Effect

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly seven years since the the first Mass Effect game was released on Xbox 360 (remember it was a Microsoft-published exclusive). The multitude of choices and wide-open sense of exploration still feel fresh in my mind after all this time and make Mass Effect 1 stand out to me when considering a feeling of freedom in gaming.

Before any gameplay whatsoever, you’re immediately given choices. You can tweak your class skills, a relatively common feature in certain RPGs, but also your appearance and backstory, which wasn’t. The most impressive technical feat, however, is the ability to choose your character’s gender. BioWare’s commitment to the player fully inhabiting their version of protagonist Commander Shepard was so deep that it invested untold extra money, time, and resources into two completely separate voice tracks and all sorts of small changes with NPCs and storylines. Think about how Mass Effect would have differed if the team would have gone the easier route and only allowed a male Shepard, whether you only played only as a female or used a gender swap to freshen up a second playthrough.

Exploring Freedom In Assassin’s Creed

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In honor of the 4th of July, we’re examining another angle on the concept of freedom – the video games that gave us a sense of freedom through story, gameplay, and controls. For me, few games have offered such a revelatory experience of free movement and exploration as the first time I played Assassin’s Creed.

In 2007, the idea of an open world gaming experience wasn’t a dramatic departure from the norm. Sprawling RPGs like The Elders Scrolls IV: Oblivion and crime epics like Grand Theft Auto III were already blockbusters, proving out the potential of having a massive world through which you could freely roam. Similarly, free-running 3D traversal and platforming was already an accepted path to exciting gameplay, notably in Ubisoft’s work on the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time series. 

However, it was the melding of those two ideas in the first Assassin’s Creed that blew me away, and also set the stage for dozens of games in the coming years that would play off the concepts introduced in the series, whether that was free-running and parkour, climbing buildings, or rhythm-based combat. 

Exploring Freedom In Pilotwings

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Today, we're taking a look at games that made us feel free. For my pick, I'm going back to the Super Nintendo era. Pilotwings wasn’t the first flight simulator I’d played. It wasn’t even the first flight simulator I played on a console. The SNES launch game was, however, the first one I played that provided a real sense of freedom – even considering its many limitations.

In the months leading up to the Super Nintendo’s release, there was a significant amount of hype about the console’s hardware. One feature stuck out in particular: Mode 7. If you’re a young rascal who thinks that sounds more like a Captcha phrase than something people would rhapsodize over in magazines, well, think again. Mode 7 allowed the SNES to zoom in and rotate graphics objects, which was a pretty big deal in an era where polygonal graphics were still a bit out of the reach of console hardware. It’s what made games like Super Mario Kart, ActRaiser, and Pilotwings possible.

Exploring Freedom In Metal Gear

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Freedom is precious, and that applies to our video games as well. For our July 4th features on freedom, I chose Metal Gear on the NES, a game that took me beyond what I expected from games at the time .

I don't remember precisely what grabbed my attention about Metal Gear when it came out in 1988. If memory serves, however, it might have been something as flimsy as it being on the Konami Ultra label or that Snake on the cover looked like Aliens' Corp. Hicks (even though the game obviously had nothing to do with that property).  I also remember reading the back of the box and being intrigued.

Whatever it was, my curiosity was paid back handsomely. In my experience, before Metal Gear, action games were simply shoot 'em ups or platformers. I had fun with games like Ikari Warriors, for example, but Metal Gear was a cut above the rest. It added a true sense of adventure and storytelling; imbuing a sense of freedom to a genre otherwise filled with by-the-numbers soldier killing.

Exploring Freedom in EverQuest

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My entry to the world of MMORPGs wasn’t explicitly in EverQuest, as I’d played plenty of MUDs and other such games in the heyday of the BBS style RPG, but it was certainly the first where I felt this sense of a vast open world brimming with adventure and danger. From my early excursions outside of Halas to the first time visiting the Plane of Fear, EverQuest provided things that games around the same time couldn’t dream of. It wasn’t just a game, it was an experience, and one of the most high profile shared social experiences that set the wheels in motion to create the modern MMORPG environment we see today.

While the graphics, sound, and other systems all seem rather archaic by today’s standards, there was a magical element to wandering into new zones for the first time that I think is often lost by today’s emphasis on datamining, item-logging, and boss guides. While this sort of thing was in its infancy then with sites like Allakhazam providing drop-data for inquisitive adventures, it was a different sort of internet world at the time.

Exploring Freedom In Red Faction: Guerrilla

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Plenty of open-world games have given me the ability to run wild, from the fantasy and post-apocalyptic lands of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, to Grand Theft Auto's bustling cities. However, no action game has given me more of a sense of freedom than Volition's technical marvel, Red Faction: Guerrilla, making it an easy pick for my July 4th selection.

Blowing stuff up has always been a staple of video games. Despite the relative and completely understandable rarity of explosives in the real world, rocket launchers, C4, and an endless suite of creatively themed grenades and mines are all standard issue in action games, to the point where even random digital mopes off the street can walk into their local Ammu-Nation and arm themselves to the teeth.

Exploring Freedom In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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 Exploring Freedom In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

As we continue our journey exploring freedom in games, I want to look back at a game that had a significant impact on my free time: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The Elder Scrolls is a series that comes to a lot of gamers' minds when they think about games where they've truly felt free to explore a world. But while some gamers will extol the virtues of titles like Morrowind or Skyrim, the entry that remains the most memorable for me was Oblivion.

Playing Oblivion was like falling into another world. The game builds on you slowly, but after making it through the opening act (which has players exploring a few of the game's mechanics in an underground dungeon after a quick prison break), you emerge into a vast open world and are free to explore hundreds of side quests and engage in a seemingly endless list of activities. It was easy to look up at the clock, after playing for a period, and discover that it was several hours past your normal bed time. I once sat down to play the game and was startled to see the sun coming up many hours later.

Exploring Freedom In Red Dead Redemption

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As part of of our day-long examination of the concept of freedom in video games, I wrote this essay about Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption:

Perhaps no game is more closely tied to the mythology of American freedom than Red Dead Redemption – a game set in the “Wild West,” a short period of time from the middle to the end of the 19th century. This era of outlaws, cowboys, and quick-shooting marshalls didn’t last long – and, it’s fair to say, was always at least partly fiction – but it’s proven to be rich subject matter for literature and film over the years. From Stagecoach to Django Unchained, westerns have been a staple of Hollywood since the beginning of moving pictures, but were largely untapped in video games. I’ve never quite understood why. My two pet theories: 1) developers thought today’s “hip” teens wouldn’t embrace the western. 2) it’s really hard to perfect realistic horse-riding animation and physics.

Rockstar Games blew both these theories out of the water in 2010 with the release of Red Dead Redemption. There are many reasons for the game’s success: a novel (for video games) setting, the great writing, a memorable main character in John Marston, and Rockstar’s usual flair for creating engaging open-world gaming experiences.

Top 25 Wii Games

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Top 25 Wii Games

Nintendo has ended its seven-year relationship with the Wii, and moved on to its new life with the Wii U, and we've taken this moment to reflect on the console’s best games. With more than 100 million units sold, the Wii had a successful run. Here are the best games the Wii has to offer.

For more on the best Wii games of all time, head here for a video of us showcasing and discussing a sampling from the list.

25. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (2010)