Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour are both out, and while I've been playing the hell out of the new Rock Band there's not a whole lot to say that I didn't say last time. It's awesome, they fixed a lot of the flaws from the first game and have been ratcheting up the new song releases (AC/DC trackpack came out last Sunday, so the game's name is no longer undeserved).
However, in order to do a proper comparison and really tear Guitar Hero another new sally port I would have to actually buy the game. That's more commitment to ranting than I can muster, what with the looming Depression and all.
I did pick up the cereal box edition of Guitar Hero, and while it's more fun than Guitar Hero: Aerosmith it just didn't seem fair to compare a three-button toy to my totally fucking awesome Ion Drum Rocker. Although it does give a good illustration of the differing directions of the franchises.
So instead I will take this time to talk about Saints Row 2, which will also give me a chance to talk about how much I hate Grand Theft Auto 4 and jews.
Sorry, I meant to say how I hate racial stereotypes.
The first thing you notice playing Saints Row 2 is that it's fun. Generally, this is a given with videogames as the entire purpose of the industry is to entertain us by letting us do virtually the sorts of things we can't in real life. Like win.
Saints Row is a shameless rip-off of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and as such, one can't help but compare it to its plagiaree. Which is why it's noteworthy that Saints Row 2 is fun. Grand Theft Auto 4 was not fun. It was many things throughout its faux-epic story, interminable cutscenes and enormous city, but fun was not one of them.
The sad thing is that while there was uproar about GTA4's release and even people trying to get it banned, it had nothing to do with the mediocrity of the game itself. Nobody ever tries to get a game banned for sucking.
They do, however, try to get games banned for sex and violence. Actually, they just pay lip service to the violence; they slap on the "mature" rating for sex. Which is ironic, since GTA's "sex" is limited to strip shows without nudity and exterior shots of buildings with audio from bad 80's porn.
And then you have MADD, who wanted the game rated "adults only" because it contains drunk driving. Presumably in the mad prohibitionist fantasies of the Mothers it's actually worse to crash cars and run over pedestrians drunk than sober.
MADD, you may recall, think it's a good idea to lie to highschool students and tell them their friends are dead, as a teaching tool. But god forbid a game about a killer for hire allow drinking. Those impressionable kids (18 and older) will be influenced into thinking drunk driving is as fun as shooting motorcyclists off their bikes as they ride by!
As far as I know, nobody tried to get Saints Row 2 banned. Which is kind of funny, because anything you can do in GTA4 you can do in SR2, and then some. It even has the clothed "strippers" and the audio-only sex.
The main difference is that Saints Row doesn't take itself seriously. When you're driving hookers around to perform their community servicing, they say things like "Please don't be a fucking furry," and "I can't believe that fit." There is an endearing honesty to making a game about uncontrolled mayhem that actually focuses on the mayhem.
Grand Theft Auto 4 on the other hand does take itself seriously. Very seriously. They have a story to tell that they think is so amazing that they took everything else out of the game, including the player's free will. In Saints Row and previous GTA games there was a sense that the game gave you, the player, the option to be a sociopathic thug, but it was your choice. You could run down pedestrians in a stolen Hummer or beat a hooker to death with a bat, but if you wanted to you could abide by traffic lights and pay the nice lady for her time. It just wasn't any fun.
Sure, the story missions generally encouraged you to take the path of least remorse, but if you got tired of the missions you could go deliver pizzas or even steal an ambulance and do a little good for your community.
But in GTA 4 more than any previous version, there's not much to do besides missions. You can't deliver pizzas, you can't put out fires, you can't play paramedic. The few side missions you can do have to be unlocked by completing missions. And in the missions you have no choice except to kill people. A tremendous number of people.
If you figure an average of five people per mission (which is probably conservative) over 90 missions, you have to kill 450 people during the game. And those are just the ones you have to kill in order to finish the game. Offsetting those 450 corpses, there are precisely three people in the game who you can choose not to kill, and an additional three times where you get to choose to kill one person over another.
And while choice is usually a good thing, these six choices really only serve to emphasize how little choice you have the rest of the time. For example, there's a guy who you have to execute in a public restroom in order to complete the mission. Supposedly you're just trying to get some stolen diamonds back, but that's just window-dressing. In reality the mission will not end until you splatter his brains all over the toilet seat. And then in the post-mission cutscene you get bitched out for killing him. I'm more than willing to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions, but I'm entirely unenamoured with taking responsibility for some Rockstar retard's idea of high drama.
There are random encounters where just by walking up to the person you get started down a road that has you dumping bodies for complete strangers, killing loan sharks or buying drugs for teenagers. In all cases, you have no choice at all. In the most egregious case, just by answering your cellphone you are dumped into a mission without even the option to save or tell him to fuck off.
The thing that would've completely explained Niko's motivation was if he'd had a drug habit. No wonder he always needs more money, cultivates relationships with the criminal underworld and flips out and kills everyone in the room on a regular basis. That's just the Bolivian marching powder.
But no, they made Niko damn near straight-edge. Apparently his only vice is killing hundreds and hundreds of people, and he surely does it for pleasure because there is nothing in the game to spend money on. I guess you could blow $100,000 on a really nice car one time rather than stealing it, but even if you managed not to wreck it there's a good chance it would eventually get stolen out of your parking spot.
But enough hatorade, now I'd like to try some positivity. By which I mean talk about Saints Row for a while.
All the things GTA4 did poorly, SR2 does well. Instead of a two-car parking spot that may or may not actually keep your car for later use, there are "garages" for cars, boats, helicopters and planes. Once you check a vehicle into your garage you have an endless supply of that vehicle available at all your hideouts. In addition to appealing to the Pokemon compulsion, this also makes vehicle modification worthwhile. Tricking out a car with spinners and a chrome grill for the two-minutes it will survive your affection is not worth your time or pretend money. But when you can save that customized vehicle and destroy it over and over again in new and amusing ways, it very much is.
Instead of removing side activities and making taxi missions retarded (sorry, staying positive is hard), they added tons more like Heli Assault (think Airwolf except on the side of the drug dealers), Crowd Control (protecting celebrities from their machete-wielding fans) and Fight Club (just like it sounds). Some are more fun than others, but the key is the variety. In Saints Row you are never at a loss for something to do. Even just driving across town can be perked up if the car you hijack has a passenger to take hostage.
A lot of games these days have helpers, but Saints Row 2 has the best I've ever seen. Unlike games where your helpers are either dead weight or worse than useless and need to be actively protected, the homies in Saints Row really do help you. They will not only follow you around, pick up better weapons when they find them and attack enemies on their own, they actually appear smart. If you get into a car with no back seat or ride a motorcycle, your homies will steal other cars and follow you. This is a huge step up from the guys you could call in GTA4 who would quite often get stuck on the wrong side of a fence or wall before they even arrived, and you had to go find and fetch them just so they would absorb some of the bullets in the ensuing firefight.
But there are two things that really set Saints Row head and shoulders above Grand Theft Auto. First, interactivity. There is very little scripting in the game and the cutscenes serve to gloss over what would've been boring gameplay, like driving across the city to get where you need to be. In GTA4 it's the reverse: the cutscenes are the focus of the game and it's your job to do the boring driving around so the next cutscene can play.
Everything in GTA4 is scripted, right down to the seemingly random scene of a fat cop chasing a fugitive, which is kind of cool the first time you see it and progressively less cool when you're watching it a fifth time and realize it's one of the only such scenes in the game, and furthermore if you try to get involved and help the cop subdue the suspect it merely breaks the sequence and sets the cop on you. Because god forbid such a scene in a single player game should take into account interactions with the player.
Even though GTA's Liberty City is initially more impressive, SR's Stillwater feels more alive. Instead of a few scripted sequences, Stillwater is filled with independent characters interacting with each other and the player. There are car accidents and gang shootouts and police chases and fires and drunk drivers, all completely random. Liberty City is like a diorama, a beautifully realized model of a city filled with people who don't do anything.
Second and perhaps most important is consistency. Saints Row is a game which abides by its own rules and rewards you for exploiting them. When one of your gang's territories is under attack, you receive no benefits from that territory until you take it back but otherwise you can keep doing whatever you want. This is a refreshing change from the afore-mentioned phone calls in GTA which can force you into a mission with no opportunity to save or refuse.
In order to take your territory back, all of the enemy gang's lieutenants must die. Note that I did not say that you have to kill them. This is a very important distinction, because it really highlights the feeling that you are just one character in the game, even if you are the main character. So while your gang may not be able to win the battle without you, you do not have to do everything yourself. All of the computer-controlled characters behave in a relatively logical fashion--your buddies try to kill the enemy, the enemy tries to kill you and your buddies, the cops attack anyone who is fighting, and everyone else runs away screaming.
This gives you myriad ways to win such battles, and keeps what could be a very frustrating and repetitive procedure from becoming tiresome. You can be goal oriented and focus on killing the lieutenants yourself with a sniper rifle or SMG. But alternatively, you can focus on killing the large numbers of non-lieutenants, perhaps with explosives or by running them down with your car. This will swing the battle in favour of your gang and possibly the cops, who will kill the lieutenants for you. And occasionally the lieutenants will just get randomly killed by civilian cars either out-of-control from fear or because the driver was killed.
In contrast, there is no logic in GTA4. Sure the game world has rules, but those rules are enforced during missions the way the Bush administration enforces environmental regulations, and as previously mentioned there isn't much to the game besides missions. If you are told to chase down a biker and kill him, that doesn't actually mean you can kill him when he's on his bike. As you will find out through trial and error, in actual fact you are supposed to follow him to his destination, whereupon he gets off his bike (during a cutscene) and then you can kill him. But until you get to that cutscene, he is invincible.
In a somewhat humourous twist, in the mission where you are told to follow someone and not kill him, that's the one time in the game where the target isn't invincible; killing him fails the mission. Granted it's only humourous in hindsight.
I'm not exactly sure what GTA4 is trying to be; perhaps something akin to Second Life. Certainly they put a lot of time into creating a realistic city and making TV and radio shows, so you can spend a lot of time in the game without really playing it. They even introduced taxis, which allow you to get across town quickly and bypass all that pesky driving. And furthermore my girlfriend mocked me for playing Second Life when I was taking some of my man-buddies out on man-dates to get them to like me enough to give up their secret prize. Some of the comedy acts were funny (since they were actual stand-up comics) but the pool, bowling and darts minigames were atrocious, worse than the Flash versions you can play on Yahoo Games.
But the real kicker is that all of it feels like stuff they put in to distract you from how shitty the game is. You shouldn't want to take a taxi rather than drive around in a GTA game. The driving should be fun. As a fan in Texas writes: "How much time did you waste developing TV shows and cabaret acts and various dances for strippers that could have been spent on putting in the goddamn tank? Fuck you and die."
GTA gets caught up in its pretension of making the most realistic crime game ever and instead makes something that feels like work rather than a game. Saints Row has no pretension at all, and while I personally didn't find the sewage-spewing minigame all that fun I have to respect their shameless dedication to shamelessness for putting it in.
What is really disappointing is that there is room for a serious take on the genre, but GTA4 isn't it. They could've made a game where you are a poor immigrant trying to make ends meet in a new country, where a life of crime is something you sink into because you can't pay your bills just driving a taxi (or because you have a coke habit).
GTA4 tries to present itself as this game, with its opening cinematic and hamhanded attempts at presenting Niko as a conflicted anti-hero. But then you get to the last third of the game where Niko has half a million dollars in the bank yet is doing $5000 whack jobs for Italian mobsters who say "bada boop bada bing" and you realize the story was just a collection of clichés and stereotypes all along.
Videogames generally do a poor job of tackling serious issues. A "mature" rating really means immature, whether it's the homoerotic pro-wrestler super soldiers in Gears of War or the enormous barely covered breasts on every woman in any game ever. Except Beyond Good & Evil.Despite the fact that an entire generation has grown up playing videogames and the average age of gamers is now over 30, the games themselves have not grown up. Most games seem to so firmly target teenaged boys that it's hard to refute the image of game developers as boys who refused to grow up. There is a complete absence of nuance which serves to reinforce stereotypes rather than dispel them, whether it's the persistent role of men as actors and women as objects, or the exclusion of gay male sex from Mass Effect.
Or the subtle racism of Bejeweled.
There is an opportunity for someone to make an open-world game which is not populated by effeminate gay men, jive-talking Jamaicans, Italians in sweatsuits and diamond-stealing Jews, where the player has the choice to be a sociopath but doing so has consequences and is not the only option. Unfortunately Rockstar is not the company to do it. And neither is Volition, but at least they know what made Saints Row fun and don't pretend otherwise.