Saints Row IV – the verdict

I was in daddy-day-care mode earlier this week, and so I ended up finishing Saints Row 4 on Tuesday afternoon, during the kid’s nap.  It took me a little over 20 hours to get to the end; after the credits rolled I jumped back in so as to finish finding all the collectibles which ended up only taking around 5 minutes, give or take; one of the perks you can unlock is that all the collectibles show up on your map, so it’s just a question of finding what you’re looking for, setting a waypoint, and then blasting over there.  I’ve also found probably 80% of the orbs – er, Data Clusters – around Steelport, and if I go back at all that’s probably what I’ll focus on doing, if for no other reason than because they’re there.  As for the activities – well, I’d done all the side missions during the playthrough, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to get gold medals in everything.

The point that I’m late in arriving to is that I wanted to write about the game right after I’d finished it, but life (as it does) got in the way, and so here we are on Friday morning – just 3 days later – and I find that I have no idea what to talk about.  I have not thought about the game at all since the last time I played it.  While I still have the residue of Gone Home and Brother lingering in my brain – games that are much shorter and that I’d finished long before I’d started SR4, I’m having trouble remembering anything that’s worth talking about.

This is probably important; this is probably a bad thing.  

Here are some comments I’d made last weekend, when I’d originally intended writing an impressions post:

  • 10 hours in (as of 8/24, 11:00 am).  feels like i’ve eaten 20 pounds of candy, and i still have 80 more pounds to go
  • i appreciate how completely committed to being batshit insane the game is; but on the other hand, being insane the entire time becomes exhausting.  each mission you do is really just a series of activities that can get very repetitive; the game is aware of this and even comments on it; but just because it’s self-aware doesn’t make it any less repetitive.
  • the city of steelport is just as faceless and devoid of personality as it was in the last game, except you’re zooming by at ridiculous speeds, so it actually feels a lot smaller.

This month’s question for Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” is about story in games.  Do games need stories?  Do games have the capacity to tell stories more effectively than other media?  Is ludonarrative dissonance a real problem, or is it just pretentious navel-gazing?*

* I’m kind of kidding with that last bit, though it certainly plays a role in all this.

This post doesn’t necessarily aim to answer that question, but it’s certainly a lens with which to view SR4.  The game more or less makes that leap for you, in fact, doing everything it can to remind you that all these activities you’re doing are pointless and repetitive and without any sort of narrative purpose.  Case in point:  there’s one mission late in the game called “Talkie Talkie” where you have to talk to a character on the ship.  The mission description on the pause screen literally says:  “We’re stretching out gameplay.  Come see me!”

sr4-talkieDoes self-awareness of a flaw excuse that flaw?  Because the game does this all the fucking time.  Every loyalty mission you do is the same general idea of 5 actions you need to perform; clear out an area of bad guys; do an activity; hack a store; steal a car and drive it to some random location; clear out another area of bad guys.  If you’ve already done one of those activities in the simple course of screwing around, then those actions are greyed out and struck through.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Over and over and over again.

The actual story missions do change things up a bit, and by that I mean that they will, on occasion, arbitrarily strip you of the superpowers you’ve laboriously worked to build up.  The justification for doing so is, to put it kindly, weak; and the game admits as much.  These missions are also, on occasion, straight-up parody of other games; there’s a stealth mission that’s straight out of Metal Gear Solid (with a great line asking “why should I use two bullets to shoot out two lights when I can just use one bullet to kill that guy?”); there’s a text adventure; my favorite of all is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up.

sr4-sor

The game is fun; there’s no denying that.  The game only wants to entertain; there’s nothing wrong with that.  But the game also feels empty and hollow, and the characters are mere caricatures, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about the experience as a whole.  I saved the planet and had a few laughs and killed thousands of monsters; I’ve done this before, though, and the only thing different in this game was that there’s a lot of casual profanity and nudity and occasionally the game turns itself inside out and goes even more fucking insane.

The difference between satire and parody is quite large, actually, at least in terms of videogames.  In my last post, I talked about how it’s sort of impossible to talk about Saints Row without talking about Grand Theft Auto, and how SR4 literally makes this comparison for you in the second line of dialogue in the game’s opening cutscene.   The two franchises have clearly moved in wildly different directions, and I sincerely applaud Saints Row for emerging under GTA’s shadow and becoming its own thing.   It has become a franchise worth looking forward to; not only has it made significant innovations to the open-world genre, but it’s done it in style.

But it’s also now a victim of its own success, I think.  SR3 really upped the ante and surprised everyone by being a genuinely great game that gleefully went off the rails; SR4 somehow managed to outdo SR3, which seems impossible.  But now this franchise seems to be purely about outdoing itself, and I fear that eventually – quite soon, actually – they’ll hit a wall, and have nowhere to go.

And if they decide to simply go down the path where the next game is pure parody, filled only with ironic self-awareness about, say, stupid mission design while doing nothing to change the stupid mission design, then I’m not really sure that’s something to look forward to.

the first two hours: Saints Row IV

Before I get into Saints Row IV, I should explain why I’ve been quiet here this week.  It’s certainly not for lack of things to talk about.

I finished Gone Home last Thursday.  And I’ve been wanting to talk about it, all the time, here; but instead I ended up writing a 1000-word review of it for the NY Videogames Critics Circle, which will hopefully be going up Thursday or Friday.  (If for some reason it doesn’t run there, it will most assuredly run here.)  The short version is that it is a wonderful, heartbreaking, astonishing experience, and anyone who’s reading this who somehow hasn’t played it yet should get on that shit immediately.  And then, after you’ve finished it, you should dive in to the many wonderful pieces that have been written about it.

And along those lines, fuck it:  this is the postscript to my review, which may or may not end up staying in, being that it’s just links to those wonderful pieces referenced above:

I’ve been playing games since 1982, and I’ve been writing about games since 2008 or so; in all that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many heartfelt responses to a game before.  These are very spoiler-heavy, but well worth your time if you’ve finished the game and want to keep falling down the rabbit hole:

*     *     *

It is profoundly strange to be writing about Saints Row IV after the week or two I’ve spent ruminating intensely on the profound, emotional experiences I’ve had playing both Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and then Gone Home, games which feel like they’re using a completely different vocabulary from everything else.   Because after playing those soft, quiet masterpieces, Saints Row IV is a bit like having a pie filled with fireworks thrown into your face at a thousand miles per hour.

I know I’ve complained about how lazy it is for critics to compare one thing to another.  But it’s nearly impossible (for me) to talk about Saints Row without comparing it to GTA.  In my defense, though, Saints Row more or less explicitly demands this comparison.  Here are the very first lines of dialogue in SR4‘s opening cutscene:

“…When the Saints made their presence known to the world in 2006, they were decried for being pretenders to the throne.  The people were confused: were the Saints sociopathic killing machines hellbent on destruction, or puckish rogues living a life of mirth and whimsy?  The Saints needed clarity of purpose, and so the course was set:  More fun, less mercy killing.  This simple  choice revitalized the Saints; transforming them from a degenerate street gang into beloved pop culture icons…”

This paragraph more or less details the design history and development process of the Saints Row franchise, from the first game through the present.  While the first game was a competent but uninspired GTA clone that simply beat GTA4 to the punch to be the first big open-world action game on the current generation of consoles, the second game was where the developers started to work on achieving that “clarity of purpose” – to be over-the-top ridiculous, in stark contrast to GTA4‘s gritty, nihilistic realism.  And the third game was, to put it bluntly, fucking insane.  Ironically, this fully-committed, all-in approach to full-bore insanity is what made the third game such a resounding success; it had finally come into its own, allowed to run free as full, pure id.

To be honest, I had low expectations for SR4.  My understanding is that this game was originally intended to be an expansion pack for SR3, which didn’t necessarily bode all that well since the original expansions for SR3 were a bit lacking.  And then, of course, THQ (the publisher) famously collapsed and died, and so Volition (the developer) was in a bit of limbo for a while.

That SR4 somehow manages to out-do SR3 at every conceivable turn is nothing short of remarkable.

I’m only 2 hours in.  (I stopped playing last night shortly after the narrator told me that I’d finished Act 1.)  And yet I’m already leaping tall buildings in a single bound, zooming and jumping and soaring through the city, destroying cars just by bumping into them.  There is no reason to jack cars anymore; when my stamina is out and I’m forced to walk, like a normal person, I feel like a goddamned snail.

SR4 is no longer a gang-land simulator; it is a superhero simulator.  And where GTA remains firmly on the side of satire, Saints Row has now become a grand parody of this generation’s biggest AAA titles – the videogame equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic on a 48-hour bender of Mountain Dew and LSD.  The opening sequences felt like they were ripped straight out of a warped vision of Call of Duty;  30 minutes later it’s become, among other things, a grand homage to Crackdown‘s orb hunting (which still remains one of my favorite gameplay activities of the last 10 years).  If you needed any further hints as to how self-aware SR4 is, well, not only is there a “Nolan North” option in the voice customization menu, but Keith David plays himself.  As the Vice President of the United States.

The game is utterly ridiculous and incredibly fun.  Not to diminish the amazing achievements of Brothers and Gone Home, of course; those games are fun, too, albeit in a very different way.  SR4, though, is not about subtlety, or emotion, or self-discovery; it is about cramming as much fun per second as humanly possible.  It does not want to enlighten; it wants to entertain.  This, too, is noble.

a light glimmers in the dark

Not to be too melodramatic here, but I’ve been feeling bummed out about games lately, and I came pretty close to shutting this blog down.

To be more specific:  I felt disconnected from a hobby that I’ve been passionate about for almost 30 years.  I felt like I wasn’t able to connect with games anymore, and I wasn’t sure if it was because I’d gotten older and harder to reach, or that the games themselves simply didn’t care about trying to reach me.  I felt increasingly at odds with the community at large, what with hostile comment threads and Twitter bullying, horrendous attitudes on sexism, sexuality, race and equality.   I’d begun to feel alienated from one of the only things that really made me feel like I belonged anywhere.

And then, all of a sudden:  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes out and hits me square in the solar plexus.

And now, earlier this week: sterling reviews for the latest DLC for Dishonored (which prompted me to go finish The Knife of Dunwall), Saints Row IV, and possibly one of the most anticipated indie games of the year:  Gone Home, which I’m in the process of purchasing right this very minute.  Not to mention Plants v Zombies 2, which I’ve been doodling around with on my iPhone.  And also Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, which I’ve played about an hour or so and which so far is a very good-looking Mario & Luigi RPG, which suits me just fine.

Oh, and then this GTAV trailer, which is fucking insane:

Maybe it was just the summer doldrums bringing me down.  But I’m back, baby!

EDIT:  I can’t believe I forgot to mention Papers, Please and the inexplicably well-reviewed new Splinter Cell.  Sweet mercy, it’s been a pretty amazing month.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I said last week that it’s been at least 2 months since I turned on my 360.  As it happens, I had a brief window this past Sunday afternoon, and so I decided to download and try the demo for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which had been getting some amazing reviews and overwhelmingly positive Twitter activity.  I figured I’d give it a quick shot, see if it was worth my time, then wait for the Steam release in a few weeks.

Instead, I finished the demo and then immediately purchased the game, and then spent the next 3 hours finishing it.   And it’s all I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I’ve been going through a weird quasi-depressive phase over the last few weeks – there’ll be a longer blog post about that later this week, hopefully – and part of the effect of this depression is that I’ve been unable to enjoy anything.   I’ll spend hours in front of my computer, looking at the 60+ games in my “Installed” library on Steam, and end up going back to Farm Heroes Saga (which is related to Candy Crush Saga and which is also getting a longer blog post in and of itself later this week) because I can’t seem to allow myself sink in to anything.

This is partly why Brothers feels like a godsend.  Because I was hooked immediately.   There was nothing to think about, nothing to get in my brain’s way; I found myself under the game’s spell as soon as the title screen blended into the game’s first moments.

The game is short – only 3-4 hours at most – but nearly every second of that time (and every inch of the game’s world) is beautiful and meaningful and emotionally resonant.  The game’s story is simple – two brothers must go on a quest to find a cure for their ailing father.  Of course, there’s a bit more to the story, but to say anything further would lessen the game’s impact.

The game’s mechanics are also elegantly simple – each brother gets its own thumbstick, and if a brother needs to interact with something, you pull their corresponding trigger.  That’s it.  Of course, this does take a bit of getting used to – even by the end of the game, I would occasionally get confused as to who was moving where – but that’s also partly the idea, and it’s a conceptually brilliant design when you think about it.  The two brothers must work together to accomplish their goal, and in order to do so you must get your left and right thumbs to work properly, in tandem and harmony with each other.

There are many things to love about this game, but the thing that rang the truest for me is how the game feels so refreshingly free of meta-ironic bullshit and hipster posturing.  The game is utterly sincere and genuine in its execution; every frame of animation is carefully crafted to feel right.  Indeed, I urge you to have the brothers interact with anything you come across – each brother will act differently, for one thing, and nearly every interaction is unique.

When I’d spoken late last year of my desire to have games move beyond the act of shooting guns and killing things, this is the sort of game I’d hoped would take its place.  It’s an incredible experience – indeed, a truly moving experience, too – and it’s one of the finest games I’ve played in a long time.

scatterbrained

I might’ve mentioned this already, but I suppose I might as well bring it up again; having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits. Granted, it’s also completely changed nearly every other aspect of my life, too, so the gaming slice of my life pie* was bound to get caught up in the sweeping change that having a kid inevitably brings.

Still, it’s something that I haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I’m finding it harder to get into new games, for one thing; I’m also finding it harder to stay engaged in the games I’m already playing.  And in any event, long gone are the days when I could just plug in to a game and stay there for 8 hours; now I’m lucky if I can stay focused for more than 30 minutes.

I think it’s been at least 2 months since I turned on my 360.  Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true – my kid was a bit restless a few weeks ago so I put in Rayman Origins because I figured it was colorful and musical and would maybe focus his attention for a little bit.  Alas – no such luck; he stuck with it for about 5 minutes before deciding he’d had enough.

This is all to say that I’m not necessarily doing a whole lot of gaming these days, and when I do, it’s very much in short bursts; I’ll get up to a checkpoint, save, quit, try something else; get to a checkpoint, save, quit, try something else.

Case in point: Shadowrun Returns.  I never played the original, and don’t know anything about its history.  Didn’t even follow its Kickstarter, beyond knowing that it had one.  I bought it because it seemed like something right up my alley – a cyberpunk/fantasy/sci-fi setting, a turn-based RPG with a battle system straight out of XCOM, lots of well-written text.  And for the most part, I’m really enjoying it – except for the lack of a quick-save, which means I can’t experiment, and if I die, I have to replay the previous 20 minutes all over again.  And while the text is fun, and the dialogue is sharp and witty, there’s also quite a lot of it, and I find myself scanning it quickly as opposed to taking it in.  And the game doesn’t necessarily explain its mechanics all that well – took me 3-4 battles before figuring out how to throw a grenade.  So, basically, I’m playing it one room at a time; once I finish an area, the game quicksaves, and then I log out.

I’ve been also sorta dabbling in the PC port of Fez, in a sort-of meaningless loyalty gesture to Phil Fish.  When I first played it on the 360, I got very, very deep into the hidden language and went out of my way to scour newsgroup discussions about some of the more obscure puzzles; this time, though, I’m really just out to enjoy the scenery and find some cubes if I see anyway.  It’s a very peaceful world to be in, which is a feeling I don’t often experience in games.

What else, what else… oh, I accidentally-on-purpose picked up XCOM on the iPad last week, when it was on “sale”.  And you know what?  It is perfect on the iPad.  Not that it wasn’t highly enjoyable (if a bit stressful) on the PC/console, but having it on the iPad makes idle moments on the go a lot more interesting.  The touch controls make perfect sense, and the in-between-mission ant-farm view was basically built to be used on an iPad.

Beyond that, I’m kinda just twiddling my thumbs, waiting for GTAV and trying to figure out how to play it without alienating my wife and child.  The next Mario & Luigi RPG comes out on the 3DS next week, which should be fun… Gone Home should be out on Steam next week, too, which I’m very much looking forward to… I’m still skeptical about Saints Row 4, the new Splinter Cell, and that other XCOMThe Bureau thing… and in the meantime, I still have my Steam Summer Sale to go through.

It’s going to be a weird next few weeks, is all I’ll say.  Not at all sure how updated this blog is going to be, though it won’t be for lack of trying.

 

 

* I was going to cut this out, but you know what? It’s not often you come across the worst metaphor in the entire history of written communication. So, really, you ought to be thanking me for leaving it in.  I very nearly changed the name of this site to better serve its honor.