The People vs. Saints Row: The Third

The Schlock and Awe of Saints Row: The Third

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Saints Row: The Third is a chaotic mess.

Fuelled by bad jokes, misogyny, clichés,  and puerile humour. The game is fugly, with character models that look like a 360 launch title, pop-up at every stage, clipping, characters getting stuck in walls, frequent game-breaking crashes. It’s almost as if the game never made it through THQ quality assurance. It’s hard to gauge what the dev team were thinking …

Who is the target audience? We can only presume its adolescent Middle American kids amped up on Mountain Dew.

Its schlock and horror all the way. Surely the Dev Team (all of whom are grown men) are ashamed of themselves? Saints Row: The Third is a symptom of a global entertainment industry that has spent three decades emptying the pockets of men aged 18-35. Never before has an industry pursued a section of the core demographic with such vampiric zeal. Its proven very lucrative, resulting in a multi billion dollar honey pot.

Saints Row: The Third is the epitome of Give The People What They Want™.  Henry Louis Mencken called it in the line “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” (The Chicago Tribune , September 19, 1926)  Switch American for Western, and its equally valid.

As an Intelligent Gamer™ its hard to reconcile finding pleasure in a cookie cutter open world, that steals from GTA and Crackdown so shamelessly. The GTA comparison is lazy and hackneyed, Saints Row: The Third is a bombastic theft of Crackdown’s pace and core mechanics augmented with gaudy outfits and dildos.

This is the game that asks you to attack an Airliner, fall out the back in a tank, engage in a mid-air tank battle, crash land in a chemical plant thereby releasing toxic fumes which results in the inevitable Zombie infestation. A call to Mayors office results in being asked to wipe out the infected by Burt Reynolds, Burt-fucking-Reynolds. Wait a minute. Did this game just become genius?

Burt-fucking-Reynolds

This is the game, that in the mission ‘http://deckers.die’ pitches the protagonist as a hopping toilet in a game world ripped from Tron, flipping to text adventure, a pastiche of the tank battle from the Atari 2600 game ‘Combat’, punctuated by a fake error screen and a final battle that evokes Japanese mecha titles. In a single mission Volition has created a knowing intelligent polished collage of video game culture, supremely playable and exceptionally clever. It’s at this point if you wonder if there were two competing Dev. teams. Are they really the same team who created the Gimp Pony race segment?

Saints Row: The Third is a video game made for the Daily Mail, to demonize, deride and promote. It’s a game aimed at the increasingly entrenched core gamer (most likely in his room at his moms house), it’s the reaction to the earnest nature of Rockstar’s output, an attempt to recreate WarioWare for the post pubescent. It’s a game made by a schizophrenic dev team who were so keen to shock that they diluted the core pillars of the game to a frameless shopping list in a hollow game world without life or verve. Saints Row: The Third is also a highly accomplished third person shooter, with robust key mechanics, responsive vehicle controls and some astonishing set pieces, sadly populated by characters who are loveless and unsympathetic. Its morality is highly questionable, and in places unnecessary.

Volition cast their net of references so wide, with  a hope of hitting the buttons of the target, they frequently miss the mark. On rare occasions they nail it. They would do well to focus on these moments. Alcoholics call them ‘moments of clarity’. Volition have the potential to make an exceptional Saints Row, underpinned by intelligence and surreal humour, the puerile media baiting tactics are holding them back. Only then can the franchise step out of the shadows of its peers.

If Volition follow the current path, it’s simply a race to the bottom

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Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.

Quote: Shigeru Miyamoto on the Internet

We don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the Internet until people have played the game – then we pay a lot of attention to whether people liked it. We read through it and see it, but we don’t take it into consideration. … [The Internet] is not going to dictate the direction of where the game goes

Is Crysis 2 Pretty Vacant?

Crysis 2 has attracted attention for two primary reasons. It looks amazing but has badly implemented A.I.

What Crysis 2 looks like is largely irrelevant. I’ve heard it dismissed as a tech demo and I’ve been told it’s the best looking game on console. It doesn’t make my jaw drop. Maybe playing on 360 doesn’t mean I get the benefit of the extreme PC specs. Crysis 2 envelopes you in 5.1 with an immersive bubble that wraps around you and subliminally pushes you eyes front and centre. The gun sounds are sublime. Its orchestrated chaos. Does it look better than other games? At this point who cares … We are so far into the console cycle that HD gaming has become a homogenous mass with jaded players difficult to astonish.

Only one game I own does that. Uncharted 2 and I haven’t even finished it. I was a graphics whore (as we all are) but the jump to HD satiated my desires. What I want now is photo realism.

Forget the looks. How does it feel?. Playing Crysis 2 makes me feel like a predator, empowered by tech and a gruff voiced nanosuit that has pimped my DNA just enough to push me into the category of Official Badass™. Crysis 2 gives you a couple of options. Disappear or stand and fight. It’s best when it encourages a chaotic mix of the two. But how does it empower? Primarily by making your abilities overwhelm your enemies. This is where the A.I. argument kicks in.

Nobody wants A.I. that is actually more intelligent than they are. That would be a game that kicks your ass, learns how you think, outwits you and then kicks your ass ad infinitum. Playing a game like that is like Nigel Short playing Garry Kasparov.

Multiplayer (MP) works for the super users as their rote learnt knowledge of maps and the failings and innate errors of humans make them easy prey. The ones who don’t enjoy MP are the ones who haven’t invested enough time to learn how to execute the stupid. To that end the skilled MP player is playing against stupid irrational A.I. that is human-powered. That’s the kicker for the trash talking mainstream fuelled by braggadocio, Mountain Dew and Cheetos dust. They scream ‘pwned’ into headsets with no hint of irony, crying out for ‘noob juice’ like fevered hyenas feasting on the weak.

The A.I. gamers claim they want is a lie. A.I. lies to you, fooling you into thinking you have outwitted the machine. Machines are cleverer than we are, with the ability to preempt and predict a multitude of variations.  That’s why we use excel to do our sums. Gamers complain when they don’t understand the dimensions of the experience they actually enjoy, everybody wants to feel empowered,  Officially Badass™.

Why does A.I. fail? Because it’s created by humans, game A.I. fails as it’s an entertainment experience not a simulation where life and death are absolute.

Concept: Why the Video Games Industry needs Ubiquity

In the 25 years between 1983 and 2008 the CD player became ubiquitous.

In 1985 the CD player was  “ … transforming the way people listen to music. With their sweet sound, easy operation and virtually indestructible disks, they represent a technological leap beyond records and tapes.” Time magazine described it as the “ … fastest selling machine in home-electronics history”.The reason for the CDs success was simple, the sound quality was an improvement on both vinyl and tape and they were robust. CD players were the must have item of the 1980’s. CD sales increased in the mid to late 80s and sold well in the early 90’s. The first portable CD player, the Discman, appeared in 1983. The first CD player, manufactured by Pioneer, for the use in the car appeared in 1984. The CD was first used as a CD-Rom in 1985.

Whilst the CD had a great strength in its ubiquity, it also caused problems. CDs were not region specific, even with copy protection encryption they were able to be copied, and the commonness of the product meant they started to be perceived as a commodity instead of a vessel for art.

Every CD player in the world could play a properly authored CD (whilst burnt CDs can cause problems), and this meant that not only was the price of the format forced down, but the cost of the technology continued to fall. In 2011, an entry level CD player is £20 or less. This meant that the format was completely interchangeable between multiple devices and there were no problems playing a CD on players from different manufacturers.

In the video games industry the situation is quite different. There have always been competing manufacturers; in 2011 there are 3 main manufacturers of Home Consoles: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but there have never been an opportunity to play Nintendo games on a Sony or Microsoft device and vice versa. Whilst games may appear on different systems, they are not portable across manufacturers, these releases are multi-platform.

The platform with the most commonly shared architecture is the Personal Computer (PC). Most PCs share the same operating system (most commonly Windows), and the main differences come from the internal components. In most cases a game is limited in its reach by the system requirements, namely a new game may require elements that older PCS do not have to run. PC development has been incremental, but rapid, since their introduction in 1981 by IBM and less specifically bound by the Generations cycle that exists in console gaming.

But what if ubiquity was the goal? As Chaplin and Ruby (2005) comment:

“Ubiquity is what the [games] industry has been after for years, and ubiquity seems to be what it is finally getting. One study, from investment analysts at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, has just concluded that the potential market for video games had grown from 20 million people in 1980 to 96 million in 2001 and is now growing exponentially—106 million people in 2005 and onward, as every baby born takes to the videogame habit.”

This was suggested by J Allard in 2003:

What I’d like to see us do as an industry is create more standardisation… Before television was standardised, there was no television. Before video was standardised, there was only Beta. Beta only had limited success, but it was technically superior and was a profitable business – but it didn’t have ubiquitous content, and you didn’t have it in every consumer’s hands, and it was price prohibitive. Today gaming has a lot in common with what BETA had yesterday. DVD, CD, television and radio are all ubiquitous – how do we make gaming ubiquitous too? I think it’s through standardisation

Around the wretched rock the ragged Raskull ran

From the outside looking in you could be mistaken for thinking Raskulls is fun. The cutesy characters and vibrant art style infer a boisterous world of frivolous joy destined to put a smile on your face. Not so. It’s a miserly and punitive experience that seems at odds with itself. As a collection of mini-games it lacks depth, primarily built around speed runs and collection challenges, that more often than not end in defeat.

Am I the only person who thought this was a platform game? It’s a racing game not a million miles away from The Club, that’s been bolted to a version of Tetris with vertical swimming sections. It delivers a joyless experience.

I want to like it but I can’t. It doesn’t give me anything, completing a challenge delivers no reward and the banal jokes aren’t funny. Halfbrick created Raskulls with XBLA in mind, for an audience that isn’t there and doesn’t get the joke. Halfbrick also delivered Fruit Ninja to the iOS platforms which also had an odd dure tone. Reasonless chopping fruit interspersed with random exploding bombs. Fun for about 20 seconds but stunning popular on the App Store. Does that define the iOS platform game experience? … ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short’ or a truncated psychadelic Cooking Mama for the MTV generation with the attention span of a gnat.

Halfbrick exhibit talent and imagination I only wish their games weren’t like the unwrapped candy at Halloween that your parents told you never to eat.

Raskulls is available on XBLA now.