Titles that fall under the "action" category usually involve violent gameplay of some sort, but many developers try to outdo one another when depicting bloodshed and gore.
For the most violent titles, Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) warning labels, such as "intense violence" or "blood and gore," can only euphemistically describe the sheer sadistic and overtly gross carnage of the worst of the worst — or, for some gamers, the most fun to play.
These games bring you as close as you can get to the real deal, short of watching a snuff film, as you aggressively maim, kill and slaughter virtual versions of your fellow human beings.
Manhunt 2 (Rockstar North; 2007; PS2, Wii, Windows, PSP)
Upon its release in 2003, the first Manhunt became a poster child for video game excess for its overtly grotesque story line and its depiction of some of the worst imaginable ways to stealthily slay human characters. But Manhunt 2 — which was banned in Germany, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — succeeded in one-upping the original's shock and gore with even more gruesome gameplay.
In one of the missions, the player enters an S&M club that serves as a cover for a human-torture and murder dungeon. To get through the door, you must behead your victim in a way that, to put it mildly, spares no blood or gore. The rest of the storyline involves stealthy assassinations, replete with snuff-film-like realism as you draw and quarter, behead and bludgeon your enemies to death.
Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games; 2012; PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Windows, Mac, Linux)
In Hotline Miami, you learn how to bash in a man's skull with a baseball bat, disembowel someone with a sword, scald your opponent to death with boiling water and snap a neck with your bare hands. If you lack imagination and want to attract your enemies, shoot someone point-blank in the face.
After hundreds of kills, you become quite the accomplished killer. This all takes place in the surreal setting of neon-lit and art-deco Miami in the 1980s, when cocaine trafficking and gangsterism ran rampant. Along the way, game characters offer hints about the murderous sociopath you are becoming. The effect can be unsettling, and lends psychological depth to make Hotline Miami more than just a shoot-em-up, arcade-style title.
Postal 2 (Running With Scissors; 2003; Windows, Mac, Linux)
Postal 2 combines ultragrotesque gameplay and the ultimate in tastelessness. In this game, your character can behead, urinate on or set fire to his victims. While getting milk, going to the bank or getting tested for gonorrhea, you confront a host of miscreants, including al-Qaida terrorists, cannibals, rogue cops and the late former child star Gary Coleman (played by himself). You can cut off Gary's head with a shovel and then set it on fire before a dog runs off with it.
It's possible to complete all of the missions without any acts of virtual violence, but many people failed to see the irony when Postal 2 was cited during a 2006 U.S. Senate hearing about video game violence. The game was banned for sale in Australia, France, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand and Sweden.
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North; 2013; Xbox 360, PS3)
Rockstar Games once again uses a major U.S. metropolis — this time, Los Angeles, or "Los Santos," as the game calls it — as the backdrop for intensely graphic and often misogynistic violence. As with the other titles in the GTA franchise, you advance by savagely killing anyone who comes between you and the drugs, money or other items you need to collect.
GTA V ups the ante by letting you kill many people at once through acts of terrorism, such as by bombing a bank or hijacking a plane. You can also stray from the missions and set cars (and people) on fire to watch them burn, kill cops or carjack a hot car your inner thug desires.
Scotland-based Rockstar North continues to vent its over-the-top satire in a way that is supposed to be funny, but isn't very funny for many. Its hypersexualized violence also seems like gruesome carnage for its own sake rather than an intelligent critique of American culture.
MadWorld (Platinum Games; 2009; Wii)
The Wii is associated with Nintendo's best-selling Mario games and other sports and fitness titles. MadWorld is not only a very bloody exception to the Wii's family-friendly titles, but also stands out for the gruesome ways the protagonist kills his victims.
As you play your part in a sick game show called "DeathWatch," set in the fictitious Varrigan City, your character racks up points by not only murdering his foes, but ending their lives in creative ways. You score extra points, for example, by bludgeoning your enemy with a signpost, chain sawing through him or impaling him on a wall of spikes. The profusely flowing pools of red blood are a stark contrast to the otherwise black-and-white comic-book graphics.
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Gears of War 2 (Epic Games; 2008; Xbox 360)
The original Gears of War's gore level was one of the third-person shooter's main selling points, but the sequel's developers found new ways to maim, torture and kill.
In Gears of War 2, if your adversary is mortally wounded but not yet dead, you can use him as a shield before snapping his neck. You can chain saw your enemy in half from the crotch upward, or bludgeon him with blood-spattering blows to the head.
It's only partial consolation that the enemies aren't human. If you need to justify your murderous tendencies, the storyline gives you a moral out by portraying themes of survival, honor and family.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch; 2012; Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, Windows)
The most recent title in the Call of Duty: Black Ops sub-franchise continues the formula of hunting and killing evil terrorists and enemies of the U.S., but it deviates from this norm in a disturbing way by involving violence against children. In one cutscene, a boy is burned alive. Samantha, the daughter of the main protagonist, Maxis, is subjected to depraved cruelty and violence.
At one point, Maxis lets Samantha keep a pregnant dog in an ill-fated attempt to stay close to his daughter after her mother's death. But Samantha's one thread of happiness turns into a bloodthirsty hellhound, and she and her father narrowly escape being eaten alive.
Psychological violence can be much more harmful than physical brutality. For this reason, the Mature ERSB rating should deter children from playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Adults may find it disturbing as well.
Night Trap (Digital Pictures; 1992; Sega Genesis, 3DO, PC, Mac)
Back in the '90s, Night Trap was so violent that then-Sen. Joe Lieberman's, D-Conn., sought to keep it out of the hands of minors. At a 1993 congressional hearing, Lieberman used Night Trap as an example of how violent games posed a threat to society. At the time, there wasn't a rating system in place to protect minors from seeing what Lieberman said were unacceptable levels of violence.
Night Trap did, indeed, offer its share of gratuitous violence, especially against women. In one of the more infamous cutscenes, a scantily clad young woman was assaulted by a group of men who made off with her by clamping a metal harness around her neck. The rest of the content about teenagers warding off murderous sociopaths would not have attracted as much attention today.
Mortal Kombat (NetherRealm Studios; 2011; Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, Windows)
The original Mortal Kombat also stoked Lieberman's ire following its release for arcades and the (up until then) kid-friendly Super Nintendo in 1992. While the original title's portrayal of violence and gore was shocking at the time, the console reboot that came nearly 20 years later can be outright gross, and even appalling, by comparison.
You can still rip your victim's head off as you could when playing the original Mortal Kombat, but the reboot lets you kill and torture your victims in new ways. You can skin, mutilate, quarter and, of course, behead your adversaries, but you can also rack up kills by dumping them in pools of acid or impaling them on spikes. If you feel the need, you can watch intestines and other gooey innards ooze from mutilated bodies.
God of War II (Sony Santa Monica; 2007; PS2)
Not only had Kratos, a former Spartan warrior, become an unmerciful Greek god at the end of the first God of War, but he was a very angry one as he went back in time in the sequel to change his hideously violent past.
Kratos' journey involved slashing, burning and impaling his foes — violence that more than did justice to his blinding anger and thirst for revenge. He made mortals out of gods in particularly gruesome ways, such as when he slammed one's head into a door. The cutscenes were particularly gruesome, such as when blood gushed after Kratos bashed in a man's head on an altar as a sacrifice to the Sisters of Fate.
Soldier of Fortune (Raven Software; 2000; Sega Dreamcast, PS2, Windows, Linux)
There's a fine line between ultraviolent and outright gross. Soldier of Fortune often crossed that line by letting you carve up opponents' bodies in ways that made many diehard gamers squeamish.
Powered by what its developers touted as a "Ghoul Engine," the game let you watch brains ooze from a dead man's skull, blood spurt from dismembered bodies, or bodies transform into bloody masses of unrecognizable pulp after being shot again and again.
The pretext for such rampages was to accomplish paramilitary missions, including assassinating then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but the sadistic appeal of the game for many was its very graphic bloodletting.