Crime exists in most open-world games. Whether it’s a futuristic dystopian megacity or a more contemporary setting, people are always trying to make a quick buck in a legally questionable way. I have an obsession with the history of criminal organisations – how they form and make their dirty money. This obsession transfers to gaming also, and with a plentiful list of memorable shifty organisations to choose from, here are the top five video game gangs we’ll never forget.
5. The Bethnal Green Mob – The Getaway
The Getaway is a marmite of a game – you either loved or hated it. Far from a perfect gameplay experience, it did deliver a surprisingly mature story of a man hunting down his former compatriots, after they kidnap his son and murder his wife. The compatriots in question are the Bethnal Green Mob; a gang ran by vicious mobster Charlie Jolson. Protagonist Mark Hammond had turned his back on a life of crime but must delve back into London’s dark underbelly to save the only thing he cares about – his son.
Mark encounters all manner of internationally recognised gangs, but what makes The Getaway unique is its focus on London’s particular spin on crime. The violence is raw and vicious, with one specific scene remaining one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen in a video game. Inspired by the gritty London-based movies of the time, like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, it’s very much a game of its time. A sequel followed a few years later but failed to garner the attention of the original. A remake was rumoured to be in the works for the 7th generation consoles but came to nothing.
4. Grove Street Families – GTA: San Andreas
The Grand Theft Auto franchise built its reputation off the back of gangster tales. However, ask any fan of the franchise what gang they most vividly remember? They’ll likely say Grove Street Families. Located in the South East of Los Santos, the Grove Street families is a loose group of street gangs that share familial and geographical ties. Their rivals are the purple-clad Ballers, who’ve made inroads into the Grove’s turf, thanks to the drug epidemic of the early 90s. The two gangs resemble the real-life Bloods and Crips street gangs that began in Los Angeles in the early 70s.
When Carl Johnson returns home after five years, he finds his family in free fall. His mother is dead, along with several of his former homies. Carl’s brother is trying to hold off the Ballers from invading their territory, but it’s a Sisyphean task. If things weren’t bad enough, corrupt cops and Russian gangsters are using the Ballers to sell weapons and drugs across the state of San Andreas. Grove Street loyalties are founded upon family ties and the street you grew up on. These Naive beliefs in street loyalty are eventually thrown aside for money and power, the fate of all gangs who formed with more noble intentions. After seventeen years, GTA: San Andreas is beloved by nearly everyone who played it and remains one of the greatest games ever made.
3. Sun On Yee – Sleeping Dogs
The Triad are often bit-players in video games, relegated in favour of more commercial organisations like the Mafia. Things changed in 2012 with the release of Sleeping Dogs. Starting life as part of the True Crime franchise, the developer chose to cut ties and start afresh with a new IP. Sleeping Dogs transports the action from more recognisable locations like New York and Los Angeles to Hong Kong. The Triad can be traced back to the late 18th century in the shape of a fraternal group called “The Heaven and Earth Society”. The British intolerance for secret societies led to an enlarged criminal element emerging to replace former financing methods. After the Second World War, new Triad gangs divided the city into territories that still exist today. Triads like the 14K and Wo Hop To remain some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organisations.
Sleeping Dogs embraces this violent world through its protagonist, Wei Shen, a San Francisco police officer who’s agreed to go undercover to take down the Sun On Yee. Helped by his childhood friend Jackie, Wei gets his introduction to Hong Kong’s brutal underbelly. Living two lives isn’t easy, and it doesn’t take long for Wei’s dedication to justice to be tested. As friendships are forged through violence, the lines between what is legal and just begin to blur. The campaign is among the best of the past decade, plus neon-drenched Hong Kong is a sight to behold, despite improvements in graphical power over the years. If you haven’t played it, I recommend you do.
2. The Yakuza – Yakuza
The Yakuza franchise remains one of the most criminally underrated franchises in gaming history. But, before we venture into the bizarre world of Kazuma Kiryu, here’s a bit of background on Japan’s elite gangster organisation. The etymology of the word Yakuza derives from an old Japanese card game called Oicho-Kabu. Winning the game involves your cards adding up to a score of 9. If you get over 10, the zero gets added to your score. The worst possible score you can draw is 8-9-3 (Ya-Ku-Sa). Illicit gambling groups during the Edo-period likely fixed these card games and became known by the losing hand. Considered the lowest life on the social scale, the Yakuza attracted misfits, petty criminals and poor people looking to make some money.
Each Yakuza game feels like an epic Japanese opera, filled with strong personalities and over-the-top voice acting. The main narrative is overly dramatic, but it’s the world that forms around Kazuma’s story that gives Yakuza its unique charm. Kamurochu is a district where Anyone can find every kind of weirdness. From helping a pervert gather women’s panties to fighting burly men in diapers, you’re never sure who or what you’ll come across in the back allies and lavish clubs of Tokyo. It’s the people of Kamurochu that take Kazuma from a stone-faced gangster to a soft-hearted anti-hero with a screwed sense of justice. It can be difficult to warm to the game initially but give it time, and you’ll find a genuinely unforgettable franchise. The latest entry in the franchise changes up the gameplay, while keeping the heart of its predecessors.
1. The Salieri Family – Mafia: Definitive Edition
We’ve all seen it in movies and TV shows. A dapper man is ushered into a darkened room filled with equally well-dressed men. A picture of a burning saint in hand, the man recites his vow of Omertà and is reborn as a made member in the Mafia. Interestingly, this ritual only applies to Mob families of Sicilian heritage and not for other mainland Italian gangs like the N’drangada. Like almost every entry on this list, the Mafia created their own origin story, but the reality is far less regal. Sicily was the object of conquering empires for thousands of years. This constant barrage of new rulers left the native people wary of outsiders and dependant on their communities for support. It’s in these secretive communities that the Mafia was born.
Italy’s unification and the eventual rise of fascism led millions of Italians to immigrate to the United States, specifically New York, New Orleans and Chicago. Mafia: Definitive Edition takes place early in the American Mafia’s history and focuses on Tommy Angelo’s story. A taxi driver during the Great Depression, Tommy falls into a life of crime thanks to happenstance and his superior driving skills. He learns the ropes with Sam and Paulie’s help, made men in Don Salieri’s employ, a fatherly boss who expects unwavering loyalty from his men. I enjoyed this remake. Not only is it beautiful to explore, but its narrative tells a realistic story of how a previously law-abiding citizen could embrace a life of crime, under challenging circumstances. For these reasons, Mafia: Definitive Edition earns the top spot on our list of most memorable gangs in video games. Haven’t played it yet? Check out our review.
These five gangs represent the Creme De La Creme of video game gangsterdom. Which criminal organisations do you find most memorable? Let us know down in the comments.