Gangsters and mobsters are pop culture's perfect bad guys. We just can't get enough. Every few years, Hollywood releases another epic crime tale set against the backdrop of a twisted American dream with murders set to Frank Sinatra. But video games? They're still catching up to mobster madness.
That's not to say there haven't been great crime games throughout gaming history. There have been, and they all have one thing in common: a memorable, brutal gangster at the center.
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The Grand Theft Auto series has its fair share of notable gangsters, but Carl "CJ" Johnson remains one of the most memorable. CJ's quest to rebuild his old gang and avenge his mother's death brings him into contact with multiple rival gangs, corrupt cops, and government agents, yet he remains a formidable force in Los Santos's criminal underground.
Of course, Grand Theft Auto games are about setting players loose in a playground of destruction. That might conflict with the game's more thoughtful or emotional beats, but based on how you play, it does help to build up CJ's reputation as a reckless, ruthless, or semi-benevolent gangster legend.
Al Pacino might not have voiced this version of Scarface's Tony Montana, but the character made the transition into video games with the same swagger and penchant for violence that cemented him as one of cinema's most ruthless gangsters. The World Is Yours alters Montana's fate from the film, letting him survive the fatal shooting and setting him on the warpath to reclaim his criminal empire from the men who took it from him.
Developer Vivendi Games plays into the original film's coked-up, hypermasculine, violent fantasy. By nailing manually aimed shots instead of relying on the lock-on system, players can build up the "balls meter" (yes, this is an actual thing) and eventually unleash Montana's rage in a flurry of slo-mo gunshots. Even more so than in the original movie, Montana is a one-man army, and by the end of the game, he finally takes what he never could in the original film: the world.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a game about how rotten the American dream is, and Niko Bellic is the beleaguered dreamer at its core. An Eastern European immigrant and soldier from some unnamed war, Bellic comes to America to live with his cousin Roman, but he quickly finds himself caught up in a twisting network of criminal and government organizations.
Bellic might be trying to make his way in America, but at the end of the day, violence is what he knows best. He uses his particular set of skills to kill countless people during Grand Theft Auto IV. Some of them deserve their fate, and others don't, but it's Bellic's ruthless, calculated violence that makes him so successful in a country that rewards those who are willing to step on - or cut off - a few toes to get what they want.
Mafia III opens with a cinematic tour through the city of New Bordeaux, a stylized version of New Orleans. The video is intercut with images of burning houses and bodies lying in the street. It's the work of Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam veteran who, as one government agent claims, "inflicted more damage than all the wars and all the hurricanes combined."
But there's more to Clay than the mayhem. Sure, he'll kill someone in the blink of an eye if they cross him, but he's an honorable man on a mission to get revenge against Sal Marcano, the leader of the Italian mob who betrayed and killed Clay's surrogate father and left Clay for dead. All the violence and destruction that follows is on Marcano's shoulders. Marcano, like most of the white people in this '60s Southern crime yarn, thought Clay was another Black man he could manipulate and trample. He couldn't have been more wrong.