GTA V continued: now it gets interesting

[Previous spoiler warnings still apply; I try not to get into story spoilers, but talk about missions and characters are unavoidable.  Do not read if you’ve not yet played.]

[Also: I’d been working on this post all morning but then I got sidetracked with the SteamOS announcement, and so I have no idea what the hell this post is about any more.]

So, where was I….

Ah, yes.  In my last post, I was treading water, somewhat; I had not yet performed the first in-game heist, and I was kinda just messing around in the world, killing time until the last piece of the pre-heist puzzle was solved.  I was feeling a little bit lost, a little less enthused about the game than I’d hoped.

I am many more hours into GTA V now.  Its hooks are now firmly planted in my brain.  I am still a little put off by the relentless profanity for profanity’s sake, but I admit that could just be me and my changing attitudes towards that kind of thing.  The game itself now has a forward momentum that the early hours just didn’t have.

That forward momentum is, of course, personified by the game’s introduction of Trevor, the final member of the player’s trio.  He may yet be the least sympathetic character in the entire franchise; he is also the most appropriate.  He embodies the sociopathic nature of the franchise; he murders and destroys because it’s fun, and because he’s good at it.

But first, before I talk about Trevor, I need to get caught up.  I did finally finish that first heist.  All things considered, it was pretty satisfying to pull off – and the take was nice, too – though the post-heist escape was lifted straight out of Italian Job.  I haven’t seen the original film, so I’m not sure what’s referencing what, but the only real significant difference between the Mark Wahlberg remake and GTA V was the absence of Mini Coopers.  There are times when I wish GTA wasn’t so reliant on pop culture references; things feel familiar when they shouldn’t, which ends up spoiling the surprise.  It’s one thing for film references to help put you in the right frame of mind (i.e., Scarface/Vice City), but sometimes it feels as if the mission designers would rather ape something tried-and-true than come up with something original.  This is something the entire GTA franchise has been guilty of since at least III; I’m just noting it here because it seemed particularly egregious.

(I’m not totally against references, mind you; I just get ornery when it feels like a missed opportunity to do something unique.  That said, there is a post-heist Franklin mission that takes place in what might as well have been CJ’s house and cul-de-sac in San Andreas, and that one gave me goose bumps.  That reference works, though, because it’s (a) subtle, and (b) earned.)

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Quick tangent: having never been to Los Angeles – or California, or the West Coast – the verisimilitude of Los Santos is something I can’t necessarily appreciate in the way that I, as a native New Yorker, could with Liberty City.  But I did play L.A. Noire, and San Andreas, and I’ve certainly seen lots of movies that are set out there, and so there’s quite a lot of stuff that I recognize, and everything certainly feels true, which is pretty amazing.  And yet: it’s the stuff north of the city that really knocks my socks off…

*     *     *

But yeah, once the game shifts gears and introduces Trevor… wow.  He’s a really tough character to watch.  People complain that GTA IV was too dark and gritty for its own good, but Trevor is even darker, more menacing, and completely insane – and also maybe a little bit silly, which is off-putting, to say the least.  Are we supposed to laugh at him?  with him?  Is he meant to be entertaining?

We are introduced to him mid-coitus, as he discovers that Michael (his old thieving partner) is not actually dead.  5 minutes later, he’s more or less killed a biker with his bare hands.  It’s hard to know whether what happens over his first set of missions is a continuation of earlier events or simply Trevor’s id exploding with rage, but it almost doesn’t matter; everything goes batshit insane immediately, and without warning, and so the narrative context is made irrelevant.  (This may or may not be a good thing; it’s hard to tell.)  Trevor’s personality is so dynamic and dominant and spontaneous that it’s entirely possible that he just decides to take over all meth operations in that part of town, blowing the hell out of everything in his way in the process – it’s not a culmination of months-long planning, it’s just a thing that he chooses to do, right then and there.

And so suddenly the game is no longer about social issues or class warfare or the financial crisis; it’s about blowing shit up and causing maximum amounts of chaos… which is kinda what the game has always been about.  The franchise just never had a protagonist who enjoys this sort of work with the glee and gusto of a true psychotic sociopath.  Trevor wouldn’t be out of place in Saints Row, frankly, except that the cast of Saints Row aren’t this dangerous; they’re wacky-ha-ha, not wacky-holy-shit-look-out.

On the flip side of the coin, being introduced to Trevor also introduces us to the northern half of the map, which I can’t even describe without completely losing my train of thought. I knew the game would eventually take me up there, but I was too wrapped up in the early missions to really go exploring.  Once I was up there, though… it’s truly breathtaking, what Rockstar’s managed to create.  For all the vulgarity and the racism and sexism and ugliness of the narrative, the world itself is mindblowing.  I mean, the city of Los Santos is as incredibly detailed as anything I’ve ever seen in a game, but once you get out of the city it somehow gets taken to a whole new level.  Honestly?  There’s a part of me that kinda wants to finish the story as quickly as possible just so I can get it out of the way and have the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of that map.

*      *      *

Tangent, part 2:  If I were to interview Rockstar – and specifically the guys in charge of the gameplay experience, however that’s delegated – I think the main question I’d want to ask is how they balance the need for narrative urgency to complete the next story mission against allowing total freedom to do whatever the player wants, or if that’s even something they worry about anymore.  GTA3 took the idea of non-linear, emergent gameplay and made it the centerpiece of the game experience; with each subsequent game they expanded the number of toys you could play with, while also making their narratives larger and more ambitious.  Here in GTA V, they’ve gone and given you THREE different main characters to play as, and yet they’ve also given you the largest and most pliable sandbox ever created.  (This is to say nothing of the online component.)  So, then:  is the story even necessary?  

*       *       *

This post is now running very long and is probably long past being coherent, so let me try to run down some things that are working for me, as well as some things that are not.

Things that work:  The stock market.  I’m really impressed with how this system works, and it’s only because I’m an idiot that I didn’t truly make the most of the first two assassination missions that could’ve given me millions.  Even in spite of my stupidity (wherein, as Franklin, I immediately spent most of my post-heist take on buying a taxi dispatcher business, which meant I had less than $50,000 to play with), I made over $160,000 by buying up the cheap stock that was set to explode because of each mission.  And it’s only now occurring to me that I’ve done two of these missions now and never bothered to switch over to Michael or Trevor so that they could take part in the action as well.  *sigh*

Things that don’t work:  Franklin’s dog.  And not just because the iFruit app is completely useless right now.  Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be that big a deal so far, and so I’ve been content to ignore it, but it’s a needless distraction in a game already full of distractions.

And speaking of Franklin, I’ve been spending most of my time playing as Franklin at this stage in the game; he’s certainly the most sympathetic character of the three, and his special driving ability is a lot of fun to play with, and his new house in the hills is sweet… but it also needs to be said that his character is not written all that well.   I don’t really understand why he was willing to follow Michael so blindly at the beginning; similarly, nearly all of his side missions are taken with great reluctance  (i.e., the paparazzi dude, the legalize-weed dude).   He gets pushed around and agrees to do things for no good reason other than the game makes him, which is kind of dumb.  It makes him look weak, and I’m not sure the game intends for him to look weak.

The First Few Hours: GTA V

[Editor’s note: I am very much wanting to write about my first few hours with GTA V right now, but I’m also in the middle of a work-related anxiety attack.  I apologize in advance if whatever follows is gibberish.]

My weirdness about GTA V continues.  This weekend I was having GTA dreams; then, on Sunday night – the night before the game got reviewed – I got no sleep, and instead was having some sort of weird anxiety attack, part of which might very well have been triggered by review anticipation.   A wide assortment of badness happened on Monday morning and so I ended up staying home from work, and so I juggled taking care of the baby while also power-reading through the reviews from all the major sites (while being very careful to avoid the comment sections).

The reviews were more or less what I expected them to be – perfect or near-perfect scores, though not without some caveats, cautions and concerns.  And while I did manage to avoid the comment sections, it was the gaming press themselves on Twitter who reposted the commentariat’s vitriolic, frothing rage over point deductions.  Only on the internet does a 9/10 score get almost 20,000 comments simply because the reviewer dared to point out that the game engages in some misogynistic and racist behavior – behavior which is not unusual for the series but which, in this case, is especially troubling because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be as satirically designed as the rest of the game’s social commentaries.

Anyway, my copy of the game arrived on Tuesday, and I played it for 3-4 hours or so.  And now I’m all sorts of fucked up about it.

On the plus side: it’s technologically impressive as all hell, and by far the best looking game Rockstar’s ever made.   This is the first disc-based AAA game I’ve played on my 360 in months, I think, and I’m kinda blown away as to how good it looks.  I played Red Dead over the weekend and that game still looks terrific, but GTA V really takes it to the next level.   The city is colorful and crisp, the art direction is impeccable, and the animation is among the most convincing I’ve ever seen – especially the ragdoll physics, which are borderline creepy.

And as for the stuff on my wishlist, they pretty much nailed everything I wanted:

  • Failing a mission is much less punishing, and merely results in a mid-mission checkpoint restart.  YES.
  • Ambient events – I haven’t seen these for myself yet, but I watched some gameplay video yesterday and so I know they’re in there.  YES.
  • Miscellaneous challenges – GTA is a different sort of beast than RDR; I don’t know if there’s a treasure hunt yet.  Surely there are hidden collectibles, as there are in all GTA games, but I’ve never been good at finding them.  That said, the tennis mini-game isn’t terrible (though the camera is a bit low), and the golf isn’t terrible (though it’s not great, either) – I’m not sure I’ll play them again, but it was nice to see that there was at least some effort into putting those things together.  Still, I’ve only played for a few hours; there’s a million things I haven’t done or seen yet, and so the  JURY IS STILL OUT.
  • The combat system is very much improved.  Takes everything that worked from RDR and MP3 and further refines it.  Cover system works the way it’s supposed to; targeting works the way it’s supposed to; the radial menu works just fine. YES.
  • I threw in that bit about navigation almost as an afterthought, and yet that was addressed as well.  The new GPS system has a subtle 3D tilt to it, which makes navigation a lot easier (even if I find myself looking in the lower corner more than I’d like).  Still, I wasn’t expecting that, and they addressed it anyway.  YES.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is now a much-needed quick-save option.  This was the very first thing I tried once I had the opportunity.  YES YES YES.

On the negative side:  the short version is that I’m very, very glad that I was wearing headphones.  In the first few hours alone, the script uses more “n-words” than Quentin Tarantino writing a Sam Jackson monologue on 6 cups of coffee.  And I’m using Tarantino as an example because the Houser brothers, as far as I know, are just as white as Quentin is, and so it’s a little weird.  All the dialogue in the game has a stilted quality to it – I suppose it’s meant to sound very naturalistic, but it’s also a little over-eloquent and in love with itself.

And the characters themselves are not what you’d call “nice guys”.  It would be hard to expect them to be, and I’m not necessarily sure I’d want them to be – it’s weird enough playing Uncharted and pretending I’m the charming rogue Nathan Drake while killing 700+ people.  But these characters are ugly, and from what I hear they don’t necessarily get any more endearing, and if this game is as large as it appears to be, well, that’s a lot of hours I’m going to be spending while feeling rather uncomfortable.

I think my larger issue is that the GTA franchise – arguably the most important and influential gaming franchise around, and certainly my personal favorite – has the unique opportunity to do bold and interesting things.  (In fact, Rockstar does do bold and interesting things – in their non-GTA games, like Red Dead and Bully and even The Warriors (and, lest we forget, Table Tennis)).  The rest of the gaming world gets the hell out of the way whenever a GTA game comes out – it’s a special event, it’s something that everyone pays attention to.  These are important games.   And so I guess what I’m saying is that it would be nice if the narrative could rise to the occasion, and not just the technology.

GTA V wishlist

I’ve been getting a little weird about GTA V over the last few days; I’m in that super-hyped-up pre-release phase where it’s pretty much all I can think about.  Hell, I played an hour of Red Dead last night and ended up having non-stop dreams about GTA.

I say this all the time, that comparing new work to previous work can be awfully reductive in terms of analysis, but here’s the thing – most Rockstar games end up sharing a lot of DNA, and pretty much every game that they’ve put out since GTA IV has made remarkable strides in terms of the overall gameplay experience, and so there’s things in those games that I would like to see integrated into GTA V.  As I said above, I’ve spent a few hours this weekend playing Red Dead Redemption specifically so as to get re-acclimated to that game engine and the marvelous little touches that are sprinkled throughout, as well as a tiny little bit of Max Payne 3, which really refined the combat systems perfectly.

Anyway, since the reviews are coming tomorrow morning, I’m feeling compelled to get out in front of them and speak my mind as to what I hope to see.  I know nobody will read this between now and then, but for whatever reason I feel like I need to be on record about the stuff I want.

  • The penalties for failing a mission in previous GTAs were unbelievably harsh; if something went wrong, you were kicked out and had to manually trigger the mission again, minus whatever ammo you lost; if you died, you woke up at a hospital without a car and out a not-insubstantial percentage of cash.  Whereas in RDR, you just restarted at a mid-mission checkpoint.  Saints Row has been doing this for the last few iterations, too; it just makes sense.
  • RDR’s ambient events did so much to make that world feel alive; I know that an urban environment makes that a bit tougher to pull off, especially when the 3 characters are not exactly the sorts of good samaritans that would be inclined to help out strangers, but it’d be nice to see something along those lines.
  • Similarly, not that GTA games have ever needed help getting the player off the linear path, but the challenges in RDR opened up the world and the gameplay and encouraged exploration; for me, the treasure hunting and survivalist challenges are still absorbing and compelling, even all these years later.  If GTA V has something along those lines, I’ll be very, very happy.
  •   Max Payne 3’s combat took the cover system and controls of RDR and made it super-tight and focused; I always felt in total control over every bullet I fired.  Now, granted, MP3 is specifically focused on combat, and the bullet-time tactic is an integral part of the experience; I don’t expect GTA V to have that kind of thing.  But the tightness of MP3’s controls are tough to beat, and it would be really nice to see a GTA game with decent combat for once.
  • An improved navigation system; while RDR’s corner map with highlighted route worked just fine, I’ve grown very accustomed to Saints Row’s on-road arrow system.  I would never expect GTA to go that far in terms of change; they’d never alter the physical environment just to make it easier for you to see where you were going.  Still, though, I’d like to see something to make it a little easier to find my way around.
  • Would LOVE to be able to save anywhere I wanted.  I grew very tired of having to find a safehouse every time I need to save.  Now, I seem to recall there being sort of automatic save system after every completed mission in The Ballad of Gay Tony – but I’d still prefer the option to make a hard save whenever the urge strikes me.  (As a parent of a 5-month old baby, needing to save at a moment’s notice is very, very important.)

I think that should cover everything.  I’ll be posting impressions at every possible opportunity this week, though I fully expect nobody to be reading.  See you guys online in a few weeks!

on nostalgia, prog rock, and games

Nostalgia is the enemy of all great art, rock and roll most of all, since at its best it is a celebration of the now.
– Jim DeRogatis, “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why today is a tough day to write about games, even if today is a day where I’d prefer to be distracted by writing about things that keep me distracted.

But it’s also tough to write about games because, well, this is the week before GTAV, the game I’ve probably been looking forward to more than any other game of this generation.*  And as such, I’m having trouble staying focused on the games that are already in front of me.  I played around 30 minutes of Rayman Legends on Monday, and around 20 minutes of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs last night, and while they’re both really impressive (even if for wildly different reasons), I found my mind wandering.  (And yet I continue to play the shit out of Giant Boulder of Death on my iPhone, even as it eats up my battery like crazy.)

Anyway, I feel like I need to write something, so indulge me as I ramble for a bit.  (It will turn back around to games, I promise.)

*      *      *

Yesterday I started reading “Yes Is The Answer: (And Other Prog-Rock Tales)“,** a collection of essays about the big prog bands of the 70s.  It actually ends up reading mostly like long sort-of-but-not-really-apologies about liking the big prog bands of the 70s, because admitting that you like prog rock is, I guess, a mark of shame.  I had the good fortune of discovering prog rock during the late 80s/early 90s at summer camp, long after punk had kicked prog to the curb (but just before grunge came back to finish the job), and so I don’t necessarily feel guilty about my unabashed love for Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.

Anyway, I was reading this book and I happened to have Spotify open on my computer while I was reading – this way, I could listen to the bands that were being talked about that I didn’t know all that well.  (i.e., Caravan, the Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Nice, Incredible String Band, etc.)  It was an illuminating afternoon, even if, as it turns out, there are certain bands that I will never, ever, ever be able to get into.

For example, Emerson Lake & Palmer – I just can’t do it.  And I should be able to appreciate them, as I’ve been a keyboard player since I was 3 years old and Keith Emerson ought to have been my keyboard hero, because my keyboard heroes when I was younger were Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel – but I’m 37 now, and I like what I like, and when I go back and listen to that stuff it’s impenetrable.  It’s the same thing with King Crimson (even though I adore Red).  And while I do love Yes, it’s really only certain albums that I can still enjoy listening to – the ones I know the best.  Of all those prog bands, Genesis was the only one where I forced myself in recent years to become familiar with the albums that I hadn’t been familiar with when I was younger – and I suppose that’s only because they were my favorite prog band and I was predisposed to get past the stuff that turned off other people.  (And also because the remastered box sets from a few years ago sound fucking incredible.)

Likewise, not prog, but still:  David Bowie – can’t do it.  And I respect the shit out of him, and I appreciate that he’s well-loved by pretty much everyone.  I forced myself to get into Ziggy Stardust, and by and large I do like that album a great deal, but I just can’t get into anything else.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get into The Berlin Trilogy, but there’s something about the production aesthetic that bugs the hell out of me – it totally obscures the songwriting and the vocals, and I’ve never been able to get past it.

Anyway, I thought about this a lot yesterday, and I started to wonder if this knee-jerk reaction to certain genres of music applies to other media.   It’s hard to say, I suppose, because rock music – much more so than film or books – is very much defined by its era and its immediate context, and so an older band can be a bit more difficult to get into if you already don’t have an innate sense of where it was coming from.***

For example, I don’t find capital-F Film to be that difficult to get into, of any era; maybe there are certain filmmakers that i can’t see eye-to-eye with, but by and large I’m willing to give most any film a chance (even if I don’t often find myself longing for old-timey, black-and-white films).  TV is a bit trickier, as old shows can feel incredibly dated now,**** but to be fair I’ve never been a big TV guy to begin with.

Games are a different story altogether.  (See?  I told you it would come back around to games!)  Because it’s more than just cultural context at play – it’s just straight-up technology that gets in the way.  Even games that are only 5 years old can be technically horrific to look at, compared to what we’re used to today.  Gameplay systems and conventions have evolved radically, exponentially; GTA3 is damn-near impossible for me to enjoy these days, especially now that Rockstar Games has so clearly reinvented the combat wheel with Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption – indeed, even GTA4 feels downright archaic.  How can I go back to Oblivion (where I’ve spent over 100 hours) now that I’ve clomped around Skyrim? Could I even enjoy KOTOR now?  I think I have it on my iPad and I kinda don’t care, and we’re talking about one of my favorite games of all time.  I tried playing System Shock 2 when it came out on Steam a few months ago – one of the “greatest games of all time” – and couldn’t get much farther than the tutorial; it felt alien and strange and unintuitive and not fun.  If I’d played it when it originally came out, I suppose I might have been more forgiving towards it – but as a new player, it was impossible to get into.

And, of course, there are plenty of older games that are literally impossible to play now, because there are no logistical ways to play them.  Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite JRPGs*****, but unless they make an HD remake I’ll never play it again – I’m not even sure my Dreamcast can hook up to my HDTV without needing some arcane adapters.  And my love for all things Tim Schafer can only begin with Grim Fandango, as I never played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle and I don’t have the technological savvy to make that happen without accidentally setting my PC on fire.

*      *      *

If you made it this far, thank you.  I’m sorry I don’t have a central point to all this rambling; ultimately this was about me trying not to have panic attacks about what happened 12 years ago.  It feels like a lifetime ago, even if a lot of it is still simmering in my brain and my blood, as fresh as if it happened this morning.  It changed me; it scarred me.  It bothers me a little when people say “Never Forget”, because if you were there, you can’t forget it.  I was only a few months removed from temping down there, actually; indeed, if I hadn’t had the world’s worst boss at the time, I might’ve still been there.

Hug your loved ones; keep them close.

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* I wrote this without really thinking about it; but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it’s true.  The only other game that might come close in terms of me going bananas with anticipation is Portal 2.  (What’s notable about Portal 2, though, is that it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, which is something that almost never happens.)  I’m trying to think of other games that I was absurdly excited about; I know I waited in a midnight line at Gamestop for GTA4, and I might’ve waited on a midnight line for Skyrim, but those were unique situations in that I knew I wouldn’t have to be at work the following day and that there was a Gamestop within walking distance from my apartment.  I did get pretty nerded-out for Beatles: Rock Band, of all things.

** The book is good though uneven – and of course you will only bother to pick it up if you’re already a fan of the music – but the absolute knockout of the bunch is Tom Junod’s piece about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, which can and should be read by anyone.  I’m cutting and pasting from the L.A. Times’ review, since it says all that needs to be said:

“The indisputable star in this band of essayists is Tom Junod, whose “Out, Angels Out” might be worth the book’s $24 price by itself. Junod revisits a perilous passage in his late teens when he was falling into alienation and despondency. Genesis singer Peter Gabriel became the lifeline that pulled him through — although Junod’s closest sidekick in prog didn’t make it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about rock music or, for that matter, about how adolescence can suddenly turn into a rope bridge over a chasm in a howling wind.”

*** My parents were both classical musicians and didn’t listen to rock music in the house at all, and even listening to the Top 40 countdown on the weekends was a minor act of rebellion on my part (even if I did it on my tiny boom box at very low volumes).   So it makes sense to me why certain, classically-influenced prog music would resonate so deeply with me as a teenager away at summer camp, surrounded by all the older brothers I never actually had.  (It was a performing arts camp, too, so my fellow campers were already predisposed to liking geeky things; it was a save haven for all of us to rejoice in our nerdiness without getting punched by jocks.)

**** Case in point – the wife and I ended up watching a lot of TJ Hooker during Labor Day weekend, and it’s just ridiculous that anyone could’ve been a genuine fan of such unintentional silliness.

***** Skies of Arcadia is also the first JRPG I ever played, so that might have something to do with it.  I have absolutely no idea if it holds up today; I’m not even sure I want an HD remake, because I don’t want my memories to be squashed.  (If someone out there who is in charge of such things is reading this, I want you to know I’d still buy it – just turn down the number of random encounters a smidge and we’d be all set.)

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.

belt tightening

Last night, the wife and I had a tough conversation about money.

Our 3-month old son (that’s him in the site’s header image, by the way) had his first “transition” daycare visit this morning, and he starts going in earnest in 2 weeks.  And for us to be able to afford daycare – and keep ourselves in baby supplies, and pay the rent and the rest of our bills, and also eat – well, we’re already cutting it pretty close, and there’s not a hell of a lot of wiggle room.  I’ve also got some rather sizable debt to pay off, too, and while I’ve made considerable progress on that front I’ve still got a ways to go, which makes this all the more anxiety-inducing.

Something’s got to give, basically.

And after some online banking and some soul-searching (and a little bit of drinking), I came to the realization that the only thing I really spend any extra money on these days is games.

This kinda sucks, as you might imagine – I am a self-professed consumer whore – but the more I think about it, this is not the worst time to be a broke gamer.   If I’m truly honest with myself, there’s really only one game coming out this year that I need in any sort of non-negotiable way.  Steam will have having its Summer Sale any minute now, too, and I could probably see myself picking up one or two things on my wishlist if they’re discounted enough – but let’s be honest here, after all the previous Steam Sales, there’s really not all that much that’s left for me to buy.  And I can certainly pare down my Gamefly account to one game at a time, as opposed to three, to be able to handle the rest of the to-do list.

Hell, let’s look at that to-do list (aka my GameQ) while we’re here, and I’ll take this opportunity to debut a new feature I’m calling Keep or Cut:

  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – I don’t even know what this is, to be honest – I’d just heard some positive word of mouth, and I wanted any excuse to keep my 3DS busy.  Will most likely CUT.
  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team (3DS) – if I can finish The Last of Us quickly enough, I should be able to rent this close to its release date.  Since Mario Golf: World Tour got pushed to 2014, this is the only must-have 3DS game I can see for the rest of 2013.  KEEP.
  • Saints Row 4 – I’m a big Saints Row fan, but I’ve had my doubts about this ever since they first announced it.  I do not expect high review scores, though I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.  KEEP, but with reservations.
  • Splinter Cell: Blacklist – this was always only going to be a rental.  Chaos Theory was the high watermark for the series, and everything since then has been pretty disappointing.  Haven’t seen any indication that I should revise my expectations.  CUT.
  • Rayman Legends – Assuming this is as delightful as Origins was, this is an automatic KEEP.  Though I really ought to go back and finish Origins first.
  • GTA V – I’m not sure why this is still on my rental queue, as I’m probably going to pre-order it as soon as I finish this post.  (Still hoping for a PC release, though.)  KEEP.
  • Beyond: Two SoulsIs this the PS3’s final swan song?  More to the point – do I care?  While I remain in awe of David Cage’s wild ambition, I never finished Heavy Rain and didn’t really enjoy what I’d played, either.  Still, I’m cautiously optimistic, so this gets a KEEP.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins – as far as I can tell, this is the last “big” release of 2013 for current-gen consoles that I have any real interest in, since I don’t care about Call of Duty and I’ve lost all my faith in Assassin’s Creed.   But we all know this isn’t a Rocksteady joint, and this game is starting to smell like a cash-in.  CUT.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s no next-gen titles on this list.  That’s because I probably can’t afford a next-gen console this year; but even if I could, I still haven’t yet decided between the PS4 and the Xbox One.  I’m obviously leaning towards the PS4, but if Microsoft continues its backtracking ways and decides to play ball with indie developers by putting a less-restrictive self-publishing policy in place, well, that might keep the pendulum swinging the other way.  In any event, the only real “next-gen” game that speaks to me in any meaningful way is Watch Dogs, and that’s also coming to PC – which is a platform that already speaks to my current gaming habits anyway.

And speaking of the PC, the other clear upside to being on an austerity budget for the foreseeable future is that there’s really no excuse anymore for me to not finally tackle the GIGANTIC backlog of unfinished games I have in my Steam library.  Hell, even if I only stuck to seeing all the stuff in Skyrim that I never saw on the 360, that would be plenty.  (Now I just need to get over my seething Skyrim rage, which I’ve never quite managed to quell.)

I kinda don’t feel so terrible about this anymore.  I’ll call that a win.

3 amazing things

I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I find that I’m generally much happier when the books I’m reading and the music I’m listening to and the games I’m playing are really good.  As it happens, I’m reading a great book,* and I’ve been getting back into some old music I’d forgotten about,** and after the crushing disappointments of both Need For Speed Most Wanted and Assassin’s Creed 3, I’m fully invested in at least 3 great games.

 

1.  Let me continue to sing the praises of Far Cry 3, for starters.  I hereby fully apologize for any disparaging comments/thoughts/opinions I might have had pre-release.  I never really cared about the earlier games, and the E3 presentation didn’t do all that much to impress me, but MAN.  Now that I have it in my hands?  It’s giving Borderlands 2 a serious run for its money for Game of the Year.

I spent 2 hours last night in the game, not even doing any story missions – just hunting and crafting, liberating outposts and climbing radio towers.  It’s quite shocking to see how pretty much everything AC3 got wrong, FC3 is getting right – starting with those radio towers.  In AC3, you basically climbed the same 2 or 3 buildings, or the same 1 (one) tree.  In FC3, though, each radio tower is its own mini-platforming puzzle.  It’s nothing terribly difficult to figure out (at least, not yet – I’ve only unlocked 4 or 5), but it keeps the experience fresh each time – not to mention, of course, that some radio towers are also festooned with assorted wildlife.  I managed to climb one tower last night before almost getting eaten by a fucking leopard, who jumped out of nowhere – and by the time I got up to the second floor, the leopard was being stalked by 3 fucking gila monsters.

There are real, tangible incentives for doing at least some of this side stuff – the hunting in particular is actually pretty necessary as the amount of stuff you can carry at the beginning of the game is barely enough to keep you alive.  I haven’t done any of the assassination missions, and I’ve only done one of the Great Hunt missions, but I’ve also been plenty busy as it is just exploring and opening up the map.  I’m almost a little reluctant to truly dive into the story until I’ve crafted enough stuff, actually – and it’s just as well, since I’m still having a blast.

2.  I’ve mostly found the Lego games to be quite charming and fun and playfully respectful of their respective franchises, if also occasionally stuffed with maddeningly frustrating platforming elements.  But I’ve gotta hand it to Traveler’s Tales – Lego LOTR is one hell of a package.  The Lego formula works to absolute perfection with this IP, and the improvements they’ve made – to the camera, to the hubworld, to pretty much everything – are quite staggering.  The trademark Legoese has been replaced with actual dialogue from the movies, which is a little odd at first, but it generally works quite well.  Precision jumping is still shitty, but thankfully there’s not a tremendous amount of it.  If you’re a fan of either Lego or the LOTR movies, there is absolutely no excuse not to play this game – this is a guilty pleasure that’s 100% guilt-free.

3.  I’ve made no secret of my fanboy status with respect to the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and so I gobbled up yesterday’s iPad release of GTA Vice City before I got out of bed.  Ironically – and I know this is a somewhat controversial thing to admit, given that I’m most certainly in the minority – Vice City is probably my least favorite entry of the post-III-era console games. ***   Still, that said, it’s obvious that there’s still a tremendous amount to love, and the fact that I can play it on my iPad – and the fact that it looks and sounds as good as it does – is nothing short of amazing.  The iPad controls are about as good as they can be, given the nature of the touchscreen – they make sense, and it’s pretty easy to get up and running in a short amount of time.  I don’t know how much time I’m going to spend actually playing it – I didn’t really play all that much of the iOS version of GTA3, either – but I love knowing that I have it on my iPad.  (It stands to reason that San Andreas is in the works, right?  I would definitely play the hell out of that one.)

______________________________

* Justin Cronin’s “The Twelve“, which is perhaps not quite as good as “The Passage” but it’s still pretty great.  Also, I can’t say enough good things about the new Kindle Paperwhite – it’s totally worth the upgrade.  And the X-Ray feature is indispensable.

** including stuff like Cornelius, Tony Allen, and especially Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate’s “In The Heart of the Moon”

*** This is something I’ll most likely have to address when I get around to the inevitable GTA5 wishlist post, which is most assuredly in the works.

weekend ramblin’

Ever since I finished Mass Effect 3 last week, I’ve been in somewhat of a holding pattern as far as writing goes. Hell, I guess that extends to playing, too – I honestly haven’t been playing very much, aside from half a dozen apps on my “the new” iPad.

I suppose I should talk about the iPad, right? It’s my first venture into the iPad universe – when they announced the first one, I didn’t understand why it needed to exist, and when they announced the second one, I found it a bit more intriguing but felt I could wait until they hooked it up with a retina display. Which is what I’ve got, now. There’s no question that it’s a stunning bit of tech – say what you will about the sexiness of the Vita’s display, but when I first laid eyes on the iPad screen I was like Alex in “Clockwork Orange”:

Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now.

Frankly, the display is so amazing that it kinda renders my iPhone obsolete, as far as game-playing is concerned. It’s so goddamned tiny in comparison!

The problem with the iPad, then, isn’t the device itself – it’s that there aren’t a hell of a lot of apps that really push the hardware. Sure, stuff like Infinity Blade 2 and Angry Birds Space HD look amazing, but Infinity Blade 2 looked great on my iPhone 4, too, 6 months ago (or whenever it came out). Honestly, the iPad game that’s taken up most of my time since I bought it is Draw Something, which – while fun and entertaining and frequently hilarious, especially given that each person’s drawings appear in real time, so you (the guesser) can watch the artist try to figure out how to draw their subject – is not exactly taxing the hardware. I think it’ll be at least 6 months before we start getting some serious business on the new iPad, and I’d imagine that a lot of iOS developers would be concerned about pushing the hardware too much and therefore alienating the owners of older hardware.

I don’t regret the purchase, though, by any means. There’s plenty to do on it as it is – my compulsive/impulsive nature means that I already had, like 100 apps for it when I first plugged it in – and there’s lots of cool music-making apps on it, too, which is partly why I was able to justify the purchase in the first place. It’s a gorgeous device and it’s everything I’d hoped it would be. If I’m disappointed, it’s that I was hoping it would somehow exceed my expectations and do some truly next-level shit right out of the gate – and I’m fully prepare to concede that I’m being a little bit unfair in that regard.

———–

What else, what else… I had a weird dream the other day where I was either playing or actually in the motorcycle gang in GTA4’s “The Lost and the Damned,” which was strange, since I never got particularly far in that particular bit of DLC. In any event, it caused me to pull GTA4 out yesterday afternoon and I jumped back into what appears to be the last few missions of “The Ballad of Gay Tony”. Time has not been kind to GTA4, which is a painful thing to admit. It’s just that, for me, Red Dead Redemption is a superior game in pretty much every way that matters – combat is far more approachable in RDR, for one thing, and the penalty for mission failure is a lot less devastating, which makes the overall experience a lot less frustrating. There’s no doubt that Liberty City is an absolute marvel of game design – I still love driving around and seeing what there is to see, and I especially love that the developers really understood New York City and its feel. Even if GTA4’s gameplay is antiquated at this point, it’s still got the finest open-world city ever designed. The city makes sense. It has personality. Every block is different – there aren’t any cookie-cutter building designs. You might get lost at first, but it wouldn’t be because everything looks the same. I fully concede that my status as a life-long New Yorker might bias me in this regard, but I must also acknowledge that it’s the only videogame that ever got New York City right.

———-

According to my to-do list, the next must-play GOTY contender is Max Payne 3, which doesn’t come out until mid-May. Yikes. Tiger Woods 13 comes out this coming Tuesday, and I will play it because that’s what I do, but I’m no longer as enamored of that franchise as I used to be. Ever since the current generation of consoles came along, that series has lost its way – the games on the original Xbox were insanely addictive and goofy and fun as hell, even if they weren’t truly groundbreaking on the graphics side. As the series has embraced realism, though, it’s lost a lot of what made it truly engaging on a primal level. So let’s just say I’m keeping my expectations suitably lowered for this year’s edition.

———

I went back to KoA:Reckoning yesterday, just to see if some time apart from it would make a difference. (I hadn’t played it since before Mass Effect 3 came out.) It’s still pretty mindless; I don’t know that I’m ever going to finish it, beyond just pecking away at it during slow periods in the release calendar.

———-

Hopefully there’ll be a new Couchcast this week, schedules permitting.