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Summary Judgment: Jazzpunk

Comedy is a difficult beast to wrangle. Done too lightly and it misses the mark. Done too heavily, and it oversaturates itself and alienates the audience. In games especially comedy is rarely executed on a consistent level in a way that is unique and works.

So when something like Jazzpunk comes around, I pay attention.

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UNABASHEDLY BIZARRE

            Jazzpunk is sort of like being clubbed over the head with amusement. The density of it all, the sheer jokes per second value of the entire game is almost overwhelming at times, and it’s all wrapped up in the most unbelievably, shamelessly strange things in a game this side of Earthbound.

It’s a disorienting level of amusement at times. Each of Jazzpunk’s levels is packed with so many little jokes and so many more things that are just plain odd that it can feel overwhelming despite the game’s relatively short length. Like The Stanley Parable before it, Jazzpunk is a game that begs to be poked, prodded, and turned upside down at every turn.

In Jazzpunk, you’re set in the role of a questionably robotic spy named Polyblank, who is sent around the world to accomplish a series of increasingly absurd tasks of espionage. It’s a fairly simple first person adventure game at heart, and most of the action takes place in terms of the player walking around from point to point interacting with objects.

What makes it stand out, though is that all of this is wrapped up in a larger overarching sendup of noir and spy fiction that works fantastically well despite being mixed in with so much complete insanity.  I do sort of wish that the game got a little more into its own main story; the characters and events of the levels where the story gets center focus are well executed and hilarious, and I’d have liked for there to be more time for the main cast to breathe and grow a little.

In many ways, though, it’s a miracle Jazzpunk works so well. Comedy of this nature is so easy to screw up colossally. Wacky, zany, over the top randomness is so often ruined and run into the ground that it’s nothing short of incredible that Jazzpunk manages not to overstay its welcome. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that almost all of the jokes stick their landing, and there are only very few instances of jokes seeming too off the wall or falling flat.  Everything is tied together just enough for things to feel slightly cohesive, and it helps the game feel like a unified creation instead of a simple stream of random non sequiturs.

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That’s not to say that the game doesn’t go all over the place for a laugh when it needs to.  The reward for doing the side quests is almost always just a laugh, but in my experience, that was all the reward I needed. From attacking pizza zombies with a pizza cutter to playing a first person wedding shooter named “Wedding Qake,” Jazzpunk never let me get too comfortable with a situation or a gameplay type.

Everything in the world has the very intentional feeling of being just barely held together, and things have a habit of simply breaking when touched, just as people tend to just fall over when attacked in any way rather than having any kind of death animation.  Jazzpunk feels hyper-aware of what it is and what you’re doing in it without ever really directly confronting you about it in the manner of The Stanley Parable.  It knows what it is, it knows you know what it is, and it just dispenses with all of the pleasantries to get right down to the weirdness and hilarity.

Jazzpunk doesn’t have any grand statements to make or points to emphasize.  It doesn’t try to shake up the medium or ask any important questions about what it’s trying to accomplish.  Jazzpunk is a game that knows exactly what it’s doing: making you laugh, making you amused, and bewildering the hell out of you. And on that note, it succeeds spectacularly.

Summary Judgment: The Stanley Parable

            Once upon a time, I thought I had a pretty good idea what video games were.  You’d get a guy on screen, you’d get some bad guys and an end goal, and you’d move a guy to the end goal and try not to make a horrible mess of it along the way.  Simple.  Easy.  Nice.

Boring.

Fortunately in times since then I’ve been proven wrong more times than I’m capable of admitting.  Through entirely story-oriented games like Dear Esther, heavily choice influenced character games like Planescape: Torment or The Witcher, and games like Papers, Please that blew away the boundary between story and gameplay, I’ve started to learn that the secret to understanding the medium is to stop wasting so much time trying to understand the medium. With Galactic Café’s The Stanley Parable, trying to understand the medium is like trying to yank your fingers out of a Chinese finger-trap: self defeating and potentially embarrassing.

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Sorry.

When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he…

            The Stanley Parable is nothing if not a mirror.  This became extremely evident to me upon playing the demo, which serves as more an introduction to the tone and style of the game than as an actual preview of direct elements from the game itself.  The entire game was set in front of me, with a cheeky narrator sitting up in the heavens with a “Well, go on” expression, gently nudging me to do something, anything, and just see what happens.

The mechanics of the game are extremely simple.  You are Stanley, or at any rate, a player who is playing Stanley.  You move around an office in first person, interacting with objects and selecting pathways.  As you interact with the world, an intelligent sounding British narrator describes your actions and speaks to you about them.  All of them.

I felt like a cat who looked pointedly at his owner while he knocked something off a shelf, curious only about the reaction and the attention, not the action.  The narrator and I, we had a thing going.  He’d tell me to do something, I’d do the opposite, and then he’d get exasperated and I’d laugh.  Eventually I started to get into self-sabotaging layers of this, seeing how long I could follow his narrative before screwing something up on purpose. The game felt like a trolling simulator; how could I ruin this poor guy’s story this time?

But really, the narrator and the player are in this together the entire time.  The game knows you want to hear all of the things the narrator has to say, because he’s delightful and no one knows that better than the developer.  And along the way, both of you get wound up in some of the most mindbending insanity to grace a game, taking things beyond your simple trolling and into a world where you start to wonder just what the developers haven’t thought of.

The End Is Never The End Is Never The End Is….

            All of this spins out into a seemingly endless sea of endings, each one more ludicrous and hysterical than the last.  The game always restarts after you complete an ending (and sometimes before that), so the sense of progress or forward movement towards a goal is rather lost; you never know when The Stanley Parable is done with you.  I still don’t. Sometimes things change in the level, inexplicable small things, and you’re not sure if it changed for the sake of changing or if it’s a new string to pull to unravel yet another of the narrator’s precious tapestries.

The Stanley Parable is a triumphant achievement in developing a rapport between player and game.  There may not be tangible goals or a huge amount of gameplay variance, but the experience is so unique and compelling that it’s hard to fault the game for its choices.  The Stanley Parable is a masterpiece of thought and writing, and a testament to the idea that gameplay can be mental as much as physical.

            The Stanley Parable is available on Steam for $14.99.  There is a free, self contained demo as well, which is recommended before playing the game regardless of whether you intend to purchase the full version or not.

Summary Judgment: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

            I’m not typically a person who is a huge junkie for extreme difficulty in video games.  I like your Super Meat Boys and Hotline Miamis as much as the next guy, but I’m not self flagellating and I rarely tick the difficulty slider up past normal in any scenario.  Suffice to say, I don’t hugely enjoy losing or dying, and I try to avoid doing that whenever I can.

So when I came across Dark Souls my expectations for enjoyment were not exactly stellar.  I’d heard of the game’s reputation for extreme punishment and demanding difficulty and expected to get frustrated with it after a while and stop.

But Dark Souls has a way with the resistances of weaker men.  I found myself totally enraptured in the game for a vast number of reasons, and with each new death I found myself more compelled to keep going, keep seeing what the game had to offer and how I would confront it when I got there.

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He looks pretty friendly.

Dark Souls is, fundamentally, an action-adventure based RPG in which the player explores an extremely deadly world with the objective of acquiring certain objects to move the plot forward.  At face value, the game is very straightforward with its mechanics and it’s easy to get a handle on your basic actions.  Different weapons tend to differ more in terms of movesets than pure stats, and so the way you equip yourself tends to end up a function of your preferences of playstyle more than a simple statistical analysis of what’s best.  The bottom line, though, is simple.  Get equipped, get oriented, get going.

Some multiplayer elements peek through as well.  Players will often see ghosts or phantoms of other players as they move through the world, bloodstains on the ground will perform a replay of another player’s last moments, and players can leave helpful (or misleading) notes on the ground for other players to read.  When certain conditions are met, players can cross over into other players’ worlds directly to engage in PVP, or even to team up with the player to defeat the area boss and take other benefits back into their home world.

WORLD BUILDING MASTER CLASS

            The thing about Dark Souls that really grabbed me and refused to let go, though, was the frankly genius way in which the world is assembled.  There are virtually no load screens in the game, and areas move into each other seamlessly, but what really struck me is how perfectly they conveyed how connected everything is.  There are elevators that act as shortcuts between areas, and the blinding obviousness of how neatly the world fit together slammed me every time a shortcut opened up that effortlessly connected a new area right to a previously gated part of an old one.

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I look like a good guy, right? RIGHT?

            The world of Dark Souls is just in no way beholden to the player.  It exists in such a pervasive and consistent way that it permeates everything, and you really feel like this was a place that was around before you got here and will be around long after you’ve left.  Much of this is due to the way that the game handles its general plot and lore exposition, which is to say that the game generally does not engage in plot or lore exposition.  Aside from a cutscene at the start of the game and some occasional cutscenes later on, the game largely places the burden of figuring out the history and plot on you, either by inferring things from item descriptions and visual cues, or by talking to NPC’s enough to get them to spill some of the secrets of the game’s history.

And what a history it is.  Once you start to piece together the bits of lore and story the game puts out for you, the world gains a huge amount of weight and reality to it that makes some of the areas to which you’re able to travel blindside you with significance.  The game goes to great lengths to utilize this feeling, adding in whole areas that are largely pointless to the overall progression of the game, but nonetheless scream with lore significance and history.

MY BEST FRIEND DEATH

            That lore is what drives home the difficulty of the game as a useful storytelling device.  The task that has been placed before you is undeniably herculean, and the game all but directly refers to the players who’ve failed as being the ones who came before you.  Death is your teacher, your master, and your constant companion.  But it’s rare that death is unfair.  Dying in Dark Souls is almost always a learning experience (even if the teachable moment is “don’t roll off of cliffs”).  Once you know what you need to do, death is largely your own fault; the game has high expectations of you, and death is your reward for failing to live up to those expectations.  After the mistake is made, death is a reset back to the checkpoint to start over, this time (hopefully) armed with the knowledge of how to defeat whatever it was that stopped you.

The things that are put there to stop you are the real trick, however.  The enemy design in Dark Souls is phenomenally diverse and skillful, right from the start of the game.  Even the basic Hollow zombies have variability to their attack patterns; that zombie might hold his sword up for slightly longer before swinging it, requiring you to always be paying attention if you want to dodge or parry it, never allowing you to get into a routine of defeating them.

Boss fights are, by and large, similarly clever.  Bosses have very thematically unified move sets, and for the most part they become a straightforward affair of searching for a winning tactic amidst the hailstorm of blows.  They’re all visually and historically compelling, and almost nothing about the way the boss encounters are constructed is an accident; many of them have cleverly hidden aspects that enable the fight to become very different or easier, and all of the boss entities are very carefully justified by the world’s history.

Granted, Dark Souls is not without problems.  There are some flawed aspects of the core design; I’m not a fan of some of the longer corpse runs to rechallenge bosses, which are compounded by the respawning enemies.  Some bosses also repeat too often, causing me to roll my eyes when I was forced to with the third slight permutation of an old boss enemy. There are also some areas that are obviously unfinished (looking at you, Lost Izalith) and the gameplay in those areas is a starkly noticeable drop in quality from what you’ve come to expect.  It’s partially because of the incredible quality of the rest of the game that this area sticks out so badly, but it’s not particularly long and can be circumvented entirely with some sidequest machinations.

Dark Souls is beautiful agony, a defiant and impressive challenge clothed in staggeringly gorgeous visuals, a haunting soundtrack, and an almost unrivalled example of the power of showing, not telling.  If you can get around the fact that you’re going to die, and die a LOT, it’s easily one of the most unique, challenging, and rewarding experiences that exists in gaming today.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition can be bought on Steam, PS3, or Xbox 360.  It’s best (read: necessary) to have a controller if you plan on playing it on the PC.

Summary Judgment: Analogue: A Hate Story

            The idea of what constitutes a “game” has become a very fluid one in recent years.  A lot of proverbial ink has been spilled debating what the criteria for “game”hood is, and whether certain games qualify or fail to qualify as true gaming experiences.  Ultimately, these are empty definitions and somewhat useless attempts to quantify the unquantifiable, but it bears some level of consideration: What is it that the consumer of a product on Steam is looking for?

Analogue: A Hate Story by Christine Love is an answer to that question that I didn’t know I wanted, but now that I’ve experienced it, it stands out to me as a brilliant example of interactive storytelling that blends the trappings of the traditional with modern machinery in more ways than one.

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I wish my computer was this simple.

Analogue’s basic premise is a simple one.  You play as an undepicted archivist whose task is to decrypt and download the archives of a lost derelict in space, attempting to find out what happened to the ship to cause its downfall.  This is accomplished largely through sifting through the ship’s logs and various personal diaries of its inhabitants, guided all the way by a pair of AI sidekicks to whom pieces of writing can be shown for analysis and to unlock further records.  The more logs you go through, the more you unlock, and by developing a rapport with the AIs in the way of your choosing, the game’s story evolves to suit your personality.

You might be thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of reading for a video game, and you’d be right.  The game is certainly heavily in the visual novel camp, and aside from some situations requiring craft text input into the ship’s computer console, the gameplay is almost entirely within the reading and talking.

But something I want to highlight is the key similarity that books and video games share, one that often gets overlooked in favor of comparing games to movies or television: both games and books are driven forward by the reader.  When I put on a movie, it is blasted at me, but it will progress regardless of my action.  A book, however, requires that I engage with it, and a video game is no different.  Analogue, then, is as much a “game” as any; I have to perform actions and piece together information in order to progress.

MEN ARE HONORED, WOMEN ARE ABASED

            But progression isn’t as victorious as you’d expect.  The true hero of Analogue is , of course, its story, and the change of perspective that the player acquires by swapping AI’s brings a huge amount of dimension to the heartbreaking story of the way society on the ship degraded.  I won’t go into the details of the plot here, but it rings with resounding feminist tones that understand the true value of their message: men are not inherently evil any more than women are inherently good, but toxic traditions can poison both.

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I wish I did.

Love does a phenomenal job of humanizing her characters, though, and it goes a long way toward making the abhorrent actions that take place occur in a much more rounded and believable space.  Because of the two AI, you’re able to get two perspectives on the situation, and it’s rare that both AI feel the same way about a particular place or event.  Going through these events in hindsight, then, really gives you a complete perspective of the ship’s inhabitants in all their ugly human glory, and drives home the climactic experiences of the plot in ways that are possible only through the enhanced retrospective.

Analogue is a masterfully executed merger of the old ways and the new ones.  Love could have written a novel instead, but she chose a game, and the story gains a level of personal investment that wouldn’t have been as easy to achieve in a straightforward book.  The ship in the story is a merger of futuretech with ancient tradition, and in a way, so is the game.  Analogue: A Hate Story is a compelling experience for anyone who questions how much “game” a game has to contain, and what the limits of interactive storytelling can be.

Analogue: A Hate Story is available on Steam for 9.99.

Summary Judgment: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

        I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago in the Theme Party about games that execute perfect mergers of story and gameplay in such a way as to create a stronger emotional resonance in the player than a purely visual medium would be able to achieve on its own.  Having played Starbreeze Studio’s  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I now have the most perfect example imaginable to point to when people ask me for one game that most effectively embodies this concept.  Brothers is the fulfillment of the promise that was made by the creation of the medium, and is a game that anyone who wants to understand the power of the interactive experience needs to play.

SIMPLE BEGINNINGS

            It’s interesting, then, that Brothers has such a simple underpinning when it comes to the core functioning elements of the experience.  At its heart, Brothers is a puzzle/adventure game in which the player utilizes one half of the controller to embody each of the two titular brothers.  The left stick and left trigger embody the big brother, and the right stick and right trigger embody the little brother.  Using this scheme, the game creates a sort of singleplayer co-op environment in which the two characters work together to coordinate and solve puzzles to advance.  Simple enough.

But there’s a reason I was careful to use the word “embody” and not “control” up above.  In a normal game, a controller is an apparatus used to manipulate physical objects; it moves legs, arms, cursors, swords, triggers.  The controller manipulates tangible things towards specific goals.

In Brothers I can think of no better way to describe the change here other than to say that the controller’s halves do not represent objects, they represent souls.  The left stick and trigger are the essence of the big brother, and similarly for the little one.   They’re boiled down so much, simplified and contextualized to such a degree that the player comes to attach them to the brothers as emotional and human creatures, and not simply as objects to move around on the screen.

And this shined through very clearly as I progressed through the game.  It was a bizarrely new experience, simultaneously thinking of each brother as myself but also as the “other” brother.  The game asks you to be two people, and it’s an incredibly unique experience.  The little brother and big brother started to exhibit different personalities in the way that I played them and in the inconsequential choices I made; I often found myself having the little brother run ahead of the big brother, or climb things earlier, or be the first to rush to act with a new object.  I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sprouted out of the way each character felt.  The two brothers are just slightly different enough in the way they approach the world that you get a strong sense of personality from them despite the lack of understandable dialogue or a specifically laid out backstory.

A TRUE FAIRY TALE

The brothers themselves are not the only part of the game that oozes personality despite never directly forcing it down your throat.  The visuals and general artistic direction of the world are phenomenal and bring to mind the sort of fairy tale stories we’re told in our youth, stories of heroes and children and monsters, always fascinating and scary at the same time.  The game stunned me with how variable the environments were and how different each new place felt.

On top of that, there are so many details crammed into each scene for the attentive explorer, little visual things that lay out the dire situations some of these locations are in without directly spelling much out.  History is here, stories are here, but they’re never dropped on the player’s head and the world lets you bring it to life yourself as a result.  In addition, the game has a wonderful achievement structure that encourages the player to interact with things in a way that is more organic and not objective driven.  It brings the world to life and enables the player to spin their own legends.  By the end, I had a few pet theories rolling around about the places I’d seen and what had transpired there, and like all the best stories, it compelled me to think up stories myself after the fact.

The emotional resonance of the whole experience is an incredible sum of all of these parts, and the way that Brothers connects with the player on an emotional level is like nothing I’ve ever seen before aside from perhaps Journey.  This is the game that is proof of concept for the entirety of the medium, and it does so in such a condensed, simplified fashion that it makes me think that simplification should be our aim more than the over complication that many games tend toward today.

            Brothers is an achievement in interactive storytelling, slow building emotional connection, and artistic vision.   It is a very nearly perfect combination of interesting and unique gameplay mechanics, extremely strong artistic design, and peerless storytelling technique.  It is an artistic creation that screams to be experienced.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available on Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network for $14.99.  

Summary Judgment: Spelunky

                When thinking about the platformers of gaming’s genetic history, it’s easy to consider the genre as a series of growth tests.  Fundamentally, a platformer is largely about training oneself to surmount the challenges presented by the game in order to achieve a measure of progress through a number of levels.  Your growth, ultimately, is presented to you by a show of pure progress – you know how good you are because of how far you are in the game.

With Spelunky, that measure of progress is moved from the game to the player.  As the Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera said in his review, “Spelunky features a robust leveling and XP system, but it exists only in your heart.”  No truer words about Spelunky have ever been spoken.  It’s easy to think of progress in terms of completion or levels, but that would be a lie for Spelunky; the only levels you really complete are the ones in your mind and your skill.

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Pictured: Optimism.

BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME

Spelunky is a game of endless optimism.  A platformer in the traditional style with a peculiar twist, each life in Spelunky consists of an attempt by the player to reach the bottom of a series of levels intact, with death being permanent.  Upon dying, the player is sent back to the beginning (or to the most recently unlocked shortcut) and the dungeon’s levels reassert themselves into new configurations, creating a new challenge for the player with each new attempt.  As a backdrop to all of this and a permanent temptation, the levels are filled with various special forms of loot and money, with the money serving a dual purpose as both a score mechanic and a means of purchasing powerful items to use in the attempt to reach the bottom.

The optimism comes in with each death.  Each new attempt to tackle the caverns is accompanied by the hope that this time, it will be different.  This time, I won’t hit spikes, or blow myself  up, or be shot by an arrow.  This time, I have the knowledge and experience necessary to make it farther than I’ve ever made it before.

And the beauty of this optimism is that every time you set back off thinking it will be better, it is.  Each new death teaches you something critically important for your success in the journey downward.  Got killed by a trap?  Now you know better.  Blew yourself up?  Now you understand the bomb physics a bit more.  Pissed off a shopkeeper?  Now you’re terrified of shopkeepers.  Every new death is a new lesson and a new chance to get better at the game, and I quickly found myself adapting and breezing through the levels that had previously given me seemingly endless trouble.

But that’s not to say that things get boring as you improve.  Even the basic levels in the mines still contain treasures that carry with them a risk of spikes or arrows, and each level can be as challenging or as easy as you’re willing to let it be.  Spelunky is entirely a reflection of the player, and that’s what makes it so damn compelling.

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Okay, maybe this dog isn’t a reflection of the player.

So when I and others say that the progression of the game is internal, what we mean is that it contrasts to a normal platforming experience.  If I die on 8-1 in Super Mario Bros., I have to then approach that level again and think on ways to overcome that specific challenge.  If I die on 2-2 in Spelunky, then I need to get better at Spelunky.  As a result, even when I don’t make numerical progress through levels, it feels like I’m moving forward because I can tell that I’m improving at the game.

A COMMUNITY OF TRYING

                Where the game really comes together is in the wonderful social connection you develop with the other people you know who are playing it.  Spelunky is practical a story generator, with each new death providing you with a crazy tale to spin about the circumstances that led up to your untimely demise.  Those of us who play the game form a community solely around the insane stories of our deaths and survivals, and it makes each new crack at the caverns a new chance to gain a conversation piece, because no two adventures are ever the same.

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What could possibly go wrong?

On top of this, the Steam version of the game contains a staggeringly brilliant facet known as the “Daily Challenge”, a predetermined set of levels that every person playing the challenge has to confront.  The catch?  You have only one shot at conquering them, one chance to make it to the bottom for cash and glory on the leaderboard.  It provides that common ground that Spelunky stories were missing at times; if myself and a friend both tackle the Daily Challenge, we each have a story of that exact set of levels and where we screwed up, died, or survived miraculously.  It’s such a compelling social experience that Gunpoint’s Tom Francis has dedicated an entire site, the Spelunky Explorer’s Club, to chronicling and showcasing people’s daily attempts at the pregenerated, fixed set of levels.

Spelunky is worth taking a look at for anyone who enjoys growing as a player rather than as a number.  It’s available on Steam, the 360, and on the PSN, each with their own advantages: Steam has the Daily Challenge, the 360 has access to all of Xbox Live’s functionality, and the PSN version contains cross-buy and cross-play support for the Vita and PS3, enabling independent split-screen multiplayer across a Vita and PS3 on this version only.   Whatever platform you’re on, Spelunky is worth taking a look at.  You just might find yourself learning a thing or two about improving as a gamer along the way.

Summary Judgment: Saints Row IV

I have a long and amicable relationship with the Saints Row series.  While I didn’t play the first one (not a bad thing, from what I hear) I’ve done multiple playthroughs of both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third.  The games taught me what it was that I’d really been getting from Grand Theft Auto all along: a free open sandbox to completely goof around in and go crazy.

There’s been an escalation in that since Saints Row 2.  With each new game, the series goes more and more off the rails, and in Saints Row IV we’ve blasted off into space, leaving the rails behind and obliterating them with an orbital death ray.  Frankly, I couldn’t be happier.  Saints Row IV is a solidification of everything I really loved about the series, with some more insanity thrown on top in superpowered fashion to make the freedom the game provides truly ascendant.  However, it isn’t without costs.

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  THE FLAWED DIAMOND

                Saints Row IV is the only destination for the journey that started in SR2.  Once we got ahold of the third game and saw the direction we were going in, there was nowhere to go but up on the crazy scale, and the fourth game in the series provides the player with virtually endless opportunities to unleash havoc, with the superpowers your character gains in the simulation granting the best urban superpowered freeroamer since Spiderman 2.   Jumping through the world, gliding around and getting clusters to increase the potency of abilities, meandering from diversion to diversion, all of it is just pure distilled fun pumped right into your eyeballs.

So what’s the problem, then?

The problem is in execution and, sadly, bugginess.  The gameplay that is there is great, but it’s been marred for me by a constant struggle with glitches; we’ve had to restart countless missions because of triggers not firing or someone crashing to desktop in the middle of the mission.  Every time I’m really, really getting into a groove and loving the game, it decides to throw something at me that’s not functioning properly or it breaks a mission and I get sour on the whole experience.  On top of that, the progression of the game’s story content falls into the same problem as Saints Row: The Third.  There’s too much emphasis in the story missions on filling up time by breadcrumbing the player around to tutorials for various diversions and activities instead of unique missions.  Much like the previous game, a large amount of story missions are devoted to simply teaching you how to play the game outside of the story.  There’s even a particular mission near the end where the game literally admits that the mission you’ve been assigned is just padding out the hour count.  It’s pretty funny, but still, it shines a spotlight on the game’s pacing issues and the stretches of sidequests you’re forced to do in between the missions that matter.

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But when those missions come, they’re brilliant.  Every one of the primary story missions revolving around rescuing a crew member or the loyalty missions afterward are hilarious, unique, and purely fun in a way that resonates with the rest of the gameplay of the series.  One of my co-op partner’s mantras in the experience was “I would play a whole game of this” when we were dropped into a special gameplay mode for a mission.  There’s a lot of really great, hilarious stuff there, and the game’s switches into mini-games or alternate gameplay modes for them are seamless and effective.  None of the extra special gameplay modes feel tacked on or clumsy, and they’re fun enough that when they show up as diversions later on, we’re glad to revisit them.

ONCE A SAINT, ALWAYS A SAINT

The game’s other shining point is its writing.  I expected there to be a lot of hilarious antics and over the top comedy action, but what I didn’t expect was so much emphasis on character development and reconciliation of inconsistencies with the previous games in the series.  There’s a huge emphasis on the individual members of your crew; between their rescues and their loyalty missions, you get a very clear picture of every character’s personality, history, and motivations, and on top of that, there are audio logs for each one spread throughout the game world that provide additional context.

Even the original Saints Row is given the full treatment, as its events are heavily referenced throughout the story and brought to reconciliation with the insanity of the later games in the series.  It really ties the games together in a way none of the previous entries managed (or even tried) to do, and it surprised the hell out of me that Volition put so much effort into the characters this time around.  Things like the sudden shift in Shaundi’s behavior between the second and third games, the absence of characters like Benjamin King after the first game, and even the player character changing from a silent to talking protagonist between Saints Row and Saints Row 2 really drive home the game as a coherent series for the first time.  As someone who didn’t play the first game, the context I was given by all of these backstory references was really helpful in tying together the story, and I can’t commend them enough for how entertaining and likeable they’ve made the cast.

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

                Beyond that, the game owes most of what makes the normal trappings of the series work to its predecessor.  There are a lot of comments on the internet referring to the game as “Saints Row 3.5” due to a heavy similarity in the engine and the re-use of the same Steelport we conquered in the third game.  I think this is an exaggeration; the powers and the incredible amount of crazy sci-fi assets and environments that were created outside the city itself give the game enough to stand on its own merits, but there’s no denying that the game is heavily dependent on Saints Row: The Third.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (reusing the same city, for instance, really puts your new powers in perspective), it creates an almost tangible feeling of disconnect or shifting when switching from say, powers to guns.

There isn’t a huge amount of smoothness when it comes to the merging of old and new gameplay concepts, and so the game can feel a bit disjointed at times when you transition, especially before you have a lot of pure combat powers and have to awkwardly switch from running around at 100mph to plinking with a pistol.  The other thing that I have to point is how terrible the gun switching interface is; it inexplicably blots out the entire screen whenever you switch weapons, leaving you extremely vulnerable and blind.  There was a very unobtrusive and clean weapon switch interface in the third game, and I have no idea why they dropped it in favor of this jarring and blinding full-screen weapon wheel.

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But in the end, Saints Row IV is the logical progression of the series’ gameplay and it retains much of what made the old games great while nonetheless making advancements in a wild new direction.  While it is marred by technical issues and some really questionable interface changes, the game’s writing, fun factor, and general ability to make literally whoever you want and not be in any way inhibited in terms of sexuality, gender, or body type.  Whoever you are, you’re the hero in Saints Row IV.  And what a, uh, special kind of hero you are.  Saints Row IV is worth the flaws.

              Saints Row IV is available on Steam, as well as the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.