>Saints Row 2: endgame

>So I’ve done just about as much as I can in Saints Row 2; I’m cashing out at around 70% completion, and while I haven’t finished all the activities (and the Achievements that accompany them), I’ve bought pretty much every store in the game so I’m never going to be short on cash.

The endgame in SR2 is basically just one big crazy fever dream; there’s definitely a lot more to do than in GTA4, but it must be said that Stillwater isn’t nearly as interesting to explore as Liberty City is. And because SR2 is so much less punishing than GTA4 in terms of death and/or failure, it eventually feels a bit too arcade-y. Which is fine, I guess; it is its own thing, now. The first Saints Row felt like a direct challenge to the craziness that was San Andreas, but GTA4’s change in focus was so unexpected that Saints Row 2 really feels truly different. GTA4’s seismic shift in tone was so radical that I’m not sure that the GTA franchise can ever go back to the over-the-top craziness of its earlier games; and as such, Saints Row now has the green light to basically go fucking crazy – which, to its credit, has always been its focus anyway.

And so I am curious as to how the franchise will evolve. SR2’s story (and city) is a direct continuation of SR1 (however improbable that may be), and your character’s journey by the end of SR2 is pretty much as far as that character can go. If we are so fortunate as to get a Saints Row 3, I really only have two requests: we need a new city to play with, and the game will need a bit more technical polish. (Also: the Achievements could maybe be a bit less grueling. I sunk 20+ hours into the game and I’ve got less than 300 points to show for it.)

>Weekend Recap: Getting Reacquainted

>The current economic downturn affects us all in different ways. As Gred wrote last week (in SFTC’s 100th post, no less), 1up got bought up by UGO and killed EGM in the process. It’s hit me as well; I’m definitely more aware than ever of what I’m spending my money on. If there’s any good to be had out of this situation, then, it’s that this is a wonderful opportunity to re-explore all the stuff I’d already bought and never finished. I bought a lot of music last year, but I still haven’t listened to all of it; similarly, I’ve got a stack of books next to my bed that I am going to force myself to finish instead of buying anything new. And, certainly, I’ve got a few games in my library that I never finished, and now is as good a time as any to get my money’s worth.

It is true that there are some big titles coming in February (Street Fighter 4, Killzone 2), but there’s also some notable DLC coming as well – Fable 2 arrives this week, GTA4 arrives soon after and the Fallout 3 stuff looks so interesting that I’m going to pause my progression until it comes out. (Not sure if the Burnout Paradise car pack qualifies as must-have DLC – the car models are cool, yes, but it’s not like it dramatically changes the experience).

Anyway, I spent some time this weekend getting reacquainted with some of these games; I found a super kick-ass sword in Fable 2 which will hopefully come in handy, I did some achievement hunting in GTA4 (finally finishing Jacob’s deliveries and the LCPD most wanted missions), and did a tiny little bit of screwing around in Fallout. But mostly, all that GTA4 action reminded me that I really ought to get back into Saints Row 2, which happened to sort-of win Zero Punctuation’s GOTY.

[Ed: I just went back through the STFC archive because I know I’ve written about SR2 before and this next paragraph was starting to sound familiar, and sure enough, I’ve already written pretty much the same stuff twice (1, 2). But I’ll say it again, because it’s still true.]

Goddamn, that game is fun. It’s also a little broken; I’m currently bogged down in a mission where the shit gets so crazy that the frame rate pretty much just gives up. But the point is: the shit really and truly gets crazy, and I salute it for being so committed and going so completely balls-out in that direction. GTA4 is the superior game, there’s no doubt about that, but what I love about SR2 is that even though it’s gleefully insane, it’s also oddly powerful.

One particular cutscene that I came across last night took me very much by surprise – and without giving away too much, it makes me wonder just how many reviewers even watched it because as far as I know, nobody talked about it at all and yet they all made a pretty huge deal out of a notable, similarly-themed cutscene in Gears of War 2 (i.e., the scene with Dom). Granted, Gears is a somewhat higher-profile title than SR2, and so it was big news that Gears even bothered to put a story in the game at all, but still – this same kind of moment is in SR2, and it works, even though (or maybe especially because) the game surrounding it is totally bananas. SR2 is in many ways the anti-GTA4 because of how purposefully ridiculous the story and the characters are, and yet it still manages to have some heavy shit tucked away where you least expect it.

I need to try some SR2 online co-op; this is definitely the sort of sandbox – even moreso than GTA4 – where you would be saying “HOLY SHIT DID YOU JUST SEE THAT” over and over again.

>Fallout 3 / Fable 2 / Saints Row 2

>I don’t know if I qualify as a full-fledged agoraphobe, or if I’m simply someone who really enjoys staying at home, but the end result is that I don’t get out very much, and I almost never go out late. Which is why I was surprised as anyone that I found myself leaving my apartment at 11:15pm on Monday to go wait in line for the midnight release of Fallout 3. As it happens, I knew I was going to be taking a mental health day yesterday, and the line (such as it was) was pretty small, and I was home by 12:30.

As for the game itself; well, that’s a tough one. I’ve played for maybe 2 hours; I got out of the Vault, made my way to Megaton, talked to some people, made some choices, ran out of obvious things to do in Megaton and decided to find my way towards another city for a sidequest I’d picked up, and got jacked by some raiders, and then my game froze up as I lay dying. And I thought about it for a minute, and decided that maybe I should just roll a new character and start from scratch, since I wasn’t terribly excited about the choices I’d made.

Normally, whenever I play any game that features a morality system, I pretty much always choose to play a good guy on my first time through, and that’s generally pretty satisfying; certainly it makes being a bad guy that much more satisfying, when you already know what you’re going to deprive other people of. But Fallout 3 is different than these other games; the game itself takes place in a pretty ugly world, and I think I’d rather try to out-ugly the ugliness, so that if I were to play it again as a good guy, I could better appreciate my efforts.

In any event, as I said before, the game froze up, and since I was staying home all day (and let me tell you, it was an absolutely perfect day to stay inside all day playing videogames), I figured that was as good a point as any to take a break and get back into Fable 2 (and then, later, Saints Row 2).

As I said the other day, and as I’ve said in emails to friends who’ve also played it, Fable 2 has some pretty glaring technical issues and shortcomings that are hard to ignore; and yet the more I play of it, the more I enjoy it. Sure, the story is pretty much boilerplate, but I’ve grown to appreciate how the world changes based on my actions; the combat is simplistic but effective and quite fun; the sidequests and jobs are kinda meh but you can never complain that there isn’t anything to do. In fact, I’ve been kinda neglecting the main quest so that I can better explore the world and see all there is to see. My biggest problem right now is that my dog is so good at finding treasure that I find myself constantly stopping and going in a different direction to dig up whatever its found.

(Re: the dog. I understand what Peter Molyneux was saying about how he wanted people to fall in love with their dog; you want to care for it, you want to keep it happy, you feel genuine pangs of concern when you finish a big fight and you see it whimpering and limping. It’s just that I actually have 2 tiny dogs, who I really do genuinely love, and who are so tiny that they can both sit on my lap and not get in the way of my controller, and my Fable dog is just never going to be able to compete with that. She is genuinely charming and fun, though, and I do like to praise her whenever I dig up something awesome.)

The other thing about Fable is that it’s actually pretty easy. I’m probably a little more than halfway through the game but my dude is pretty goddamned powerful; the first house I bought has a Health Regeneration perk which is pretty friggin’ handy, and I’ve got a very robust supply of potions and healthy foods of which to partake in. I’ve only been knocked out once, and that was during the 2nd boss battle, and the equipment I had been given during that sequence was much worse than what I’d already been working with in before that. With the right augments, I’ve been able to generate extra XP with every kill, and I’m pretty close to being fully maxed out in almost everything. I’m pretty sure I’ve already gotten the most powerful weapons in the game, too, which is maybe a little disappointing but not that much of a big deal; killing dudes is killing dudes, and I’ve got no problem killing dudes quickly. I’ve got a nice little thing going right now; I’ll launch a level 5 Shock which renders everybody totally frozen and fucked up and then I’ll quickly finish them off with my Master Cleaver. Again: simple, but effective, and scooping up XP orbs is always satisfying.

And after getting to a logical stopping point, I put in my neglected copy of Saints Row 2. (BTW – I am utterly unable to type Saints Row correctly; it always comes out as Saints Roy, which makes no sense.) Man, that game is FUN. It’s the anti-GTA4; GTA4 was serious and moody and dark and awesome, and SR2 is totally fucking insane. (It’s also VERY stingy with Achievements, but it’s a credit to how much fun that game is that I’m still playing it and not really caring that much; I’ve been playing for almost 8 hours and I’ve only got 5 points to show for it.) And I maintain that for all its faults, it still does certain things better than GTA does, the most important being not having a death penalty. If you die during a mission, you can immediately restart it – sometimes with a checkpoint – and you don’t lose any money or ammo. WHICH IS HUGE, because you’ll die a lot. I was hoping to finish up the Ronin storyline last night, and near the end of the story arc, there’s a firefight that is absolutely insane; hundreds of Ronin are flying in from all over the place, and I’m totally outgunned, and for a while I was getting killed before I even knew what was happening. But being able to immediately retry it again was 1000 times more satisfying than waking up near a hospital, losing money and guns, and having to get back to the mission starting point.

It has its problems, though, and the biggest one is that there are almost no parked cars anywhere, which SUCKS. When you finish a mission, you re-enter the game world where the mission stopped and you are almost always without a vehicle, and the game usually takes about 10-20 seconds before it starts generating jackable vehicles; moreover, your default running speed is SLOW and your turbo running speed only lasts for about 10 seconds, so getting around on foot is a PAIN in the ASS.

But if you can get past that, and the fact that it doesn’t really look that great, it’s one hell of a fun time.

>Fable 2 / Saints Row 2 / A brief meditation on Tim Schaffer

>If I were forced by some unseen, uncaring editorial hand to describe my initial impressions of Fable 2 in only one word, I think that word would be: sluggish. But I would also have to then try to say that it feels a bit unfinished, specifically in terms of the audio, which constantly feels like it’s going in and out and is either too quiet or is flailing about trying to catch up to the on-screen action. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the graphics aren’t really that impressive; the art direction is superb, as always, but it doesn’t necessarily feel all that removed from last-gen’s Fable I. And yet, here’s the thing; I ended up playing it until WAY past my bedtime last night, and I had non-stop Fable-y dreams right up until my alarm clock went off this morning.

But back to the sluggish thing. This is kind of a big deal, and it may end up being a deal-breaker if the game’s story doesn’t end up being all that interesting. Your hero character’s default walking speed is just a bit too slow, which means you have to press A to run everywhere, which feels unnecessary and cumbersome. Engaging in dialogues with NPCs is tricky, too – it takes the game a while to catch up to what’s happening on screen. The dynamic “objective trail” is especially laggy at random intervals, which means it’s distracting instead of helpful.

And yet, as I said above: I was still strangely captivated by it all, and I’m eager to get back into it. I’m playing as a good guy (as I pretty much always do during my first go-round in one of these morality-based RPGs), and I’m sure I’ll want to play it again as a bastard when I’m done.

Just the other day, I was reading this Kotaku thing where Peter Molyneux compared Fable 2 to Oblivion:

Well, Oblivion was a fantastic achievement. But for me, that was a true ‘blood and guts’ RPG. There was an initial dungeon that you went through that was fantastic — but then you came out into that open world, and I just thought: “What the hell do you do now? Where do you go? Who am I? What do I stand for? Who am I against?” And there was this huge, vast rolling story. And to finish Oblivion would take sixty or seventy hours.

…So in Fable 2, the story lasts thirteen to fourteen hours and by the end of that story what you are like, what you look like and how the world treats you is completely up to you. If you want to be evil or good or kind or cruel, then that’s totally up to you. With Oblivion it was basically all about me killing things.

…In Oblivion you were just a hero. You couldn’t do anything else, other than be a hero. In Fable 2 if you want to be a gigolo and go out and chat up everybody in the world, and have three wives (or ‘one in every port’) and have sex all over the place, then fine! Of course, you will have consequences to that. You might pick up a social disease.

Interesting points, all. But I’ll also say this: it’s certainly true that you can do all those things in Fable 2, but they’re not necessarily fun, and the truth of the matter is that Fable 2’s user interface is incredibly clunky and, as mentioned before, sluggish. The social interaction thingy takes just enough time to load when you hit RB to be somewhat annoying, so instead of farting or showing off or giving a thumbs-up, I kinda just want to go to the next objective. What I found so captivating about Oblivion is that I really could do whatever I want, and the gameworld itself was incredibly immersive. Fable 2, on the other hand, is constantly reminding you of all the things you can do in it; it’s telling you pretty much incessantly that you’re playing a game, which absolutely suspends your disbelief.

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Meanwhile, I’m also in the middle of enjoying Saints Row 2, which also suffers a bit from a lack of polish but is still fun as hell. It too reminds you that you’re playing a game, but this is actually kinda refreshing. Where GTA4 was serious as all hell, SR2 is completely insane.

Here’s the main thing about SR2 that I love. In GTA4 – as with all GTA games – I feel a sense of pressure to play the game correctly. It’s true that you can do all sorts of crazy things, but when I’m going through the single-player campaign I feel obligated to not get too ahead of myself; I stick to the story, and I don’t really do all the side missions until I’ve finished the story. In SR2, on the other hand, the penalties for dying and fucking up are much less severe, and you can save at any point, which means there’s considerably less pressure to do something wrong. I’ve hardly touched the main story in SR2; I’m instead doing lots of the side stuff and the activities. The city of Stillwater is still somewhat related to the one in the first game, geographically speaking; every once in a while I’ll turn a corner and realize that I sorta know where I am, which is actually kinda cool.

Still, though, it is a bit rough around the edges. Not nearly as bad as Mercs 2 in that regard, but it’s still noticeable. The driving model is a bit stiff; the graphics are a bit ugly; the “Insurance Fraud” minigame, which was one of my favorite bits in the first game, feels broken somehow in this one, or maybe I’m just not doing it right (which doesn’t make sense) – I seem to be only making money when I launch myself out of a car, and when I hurl myself in front of oncoming traffic, nothing happens.

I’m not sure how I’m going to playing either SR2 or Fable 2 when the juggernaut that is Fallout 3 hits next week (alongside a newly delayed Little Big Planet). And I also downloaded the Portal thing on XBLA this morning, even though I’ve already beaten it on 2 different platforms. AND I’ve got Dead Space on loan from Gamefly (quick impressions: Bioshock, but more startling and less interesting).

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My brief meditation on Tim Schaffer is not even really a meditation, but more of a comparison. I was thinking this morning about the developmental hell that Brutal Legend is apparently in, again, at least in terms of securing a publisher, and I remembered reading a quote from someone at EA about how Tim Schaffer’s games constitute “creative risk”, and while creative risk isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s still risky, and a lot of publishers are not interested in taking on risk. And it occured to me that what’s happening to Tim Schaffer is very, very, almost eerily similar to what Terry Gilliam’s career has been like. Both are incredibly talented, visionary pioneers in their field; both experienced great success early in their careers as part of a larger creative ensemble; both struck out on their own and made critically lauded works of art that failed to resonate with consumers beyond a core group of diehard fans. And, as we see today, both have a very difficult time getting their work out to the public these days – Gilliam has trouble securing funding, Schaffer has trouble securing publishing – and as a result, both of these geniuses have had a limited creative output as a result. It’s maddening and frustrating; I’m a huge fan of both of these guys, and I’m powerless to help them.