On Saints Row 2

under review: Saints Row 2
developed by Volition, Inc.
published by THQ
released for the Playstation 3 (and several other platforms) in 2008

It’s tough to know exactly what to think about Saints Row 2. I know I put dozens of hours into it; it was clearly enjoyable at some level, even many levels. Mechanically, it’s a lot of fun; Tim Rogers might call it brain taffy, if he didn’t already have a less-than-charitable opinion of its predecessor. “Brain taffy” is pretty accurate, actually–it’s the sort of fun that you and your brain can happily just gnaw on; not much deeper is required.

Saints Row 2, at its heart, wants to be a less “serious” sandbox crime game–it wants to be, and is, more over-the-top and cartoony than, say, the grimy orangescape of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s got the right atmosphere for it–it’s admirably bright, crisp, and clean. So many of the things it has the player do take the form of the sort of groundedly outlandish stunts that action movies are made of–as Yahtzee describes it, in plenty of respects it’s like a game starring a Batman villain. Or, if not that, then a Videogame Protagonist with clear Batman villain tendencies. These missions are well-put-together and the game is solidly constructed, so doing the work of the game is an overall pleasant experience.

The cartoonishness extends to the game’s mechanics in a generally pleasant fashion as well. One of the biggest banes of the Grand Theft Auto experience, at least from the perspective of flow, is getting busted–being incapacitated by police, causing you to be taken to a police station, where you’d lose some of your money and, frustratingly, all of your weapons. The worst facet of the experience is that it tends to happen in stupid situations–you’re in a car, trying to pull away from a fight, when a policeman runs up, pulls your door open (which, if you’re not going fast enough already, causes your car to stop against both your will and, likely, your actions), and points his gun at you; you’re instantly done. Or, maybe, you get knocked to the ground and a policeman happens to be nearby: if he points his gun at you, there ain’t a thing you can do. This can happen regardless of whether you’re carrying a huge gun, or are driving a tank, or what. I’ve been dragged unceremoniously out of rising helicopters before.

Saints Row 2 presents a version of this mechanic more consistent with the game’s tone. If you’re unarmed, and allow yourself to be pepper-sprayed or knocked down, you might get busted; if you’re in a car with insufficient velocity, the police are far more likely to simply drag you out of the car and (essentially) challenge you to a fight. It feels better as a player, counterintuitive for your ostensible enemies though it might be, because it’s more fun. Other aspects of the game help set up this sort of atmosphere–regenerating health, for example, means that as long as you’re the least bit careful you should be able to avoid excessively repeating segments of game activity because you can’t stop dying.

There’s more, though–Saints Row 2‘s commitment to its own over-the-top nature extends past its action sequences and pervades most elements of its world. A number of the side attractions, or “diversions”, are downright fantastical: in one of them, “Insurance Fraud”, the player is tasked with jumping in front of moving cars and hitting a button to, essentially, activate “ragdoll mode”, whereupon the protagonist’s body is launched through the air. While in the air, the flying body can be steered into landing on or in front of other cars, causing it to rocket into the air again and allowing the player to build up a chain. In another activity, the player puts on a fireproof suit and rides a flaming ATV through the city, setting off explosions. This sort of ridiculousness is sometimes-surprisingly well-fleshed-out: take off the protagonist’s clothes and the player can engage in a streaking minigame. Put on an overcoat and a flashing minigame becomes available.

The flimsy justifications the game’s world provides for these activities is unimportant piffle–the things the player can do are often stupid, pointless, hard to justify as existing in any sort of real world. My point is that in so many respects, Saints Row 2 is dedicated to producing a full and enjoyable low-culture equivalent of the “sandbox crime experience”, and it does this rather well. It’s not by any means the mythical and overused trope “the Citizen Kane of videogames”, but it gets quite a long way towards being perhaps the Animal House of videogames.

The biggest, constantly-nagging problem with this approach is that in some ways, Saints Row 2 can’t quite fully detach itself from the games it’s unashamedly aping. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for example, presents a genuine story, an aspiringly-literary tale about a young man struggling to escape from the stifling reality of gang life. Its world, as a whole, feels real; its characters act like people. It, too, verges into the fantastical at times–assaulting a train carrying “green goo” while riding a jetpack is perhaps the apogee of the narrative’s orbit around reality–but it never forgets the story it’s telling, and even its excursions into silliness don’t detract from the consistency of its atmosphere. Saints Row 2 has a delicate balance to maintain, though–it’s filled with the sort of sophomoric humor and character-caricatures that make any pretense at seriousness into a farce.

Sure enough, every so often the game just can’t stop itself, and it attempts to inject a little spark of genuine storytelling, of “character development”, and that is the one thing that it absolutely should not under any circumstances attempt to do. And when it does…man, the whole thing just comes crashing down. Something will push the fragile internal consistency of the “cartoony” atmosphere too far, it’ll snap, and it’ll produce a strangely uncomfortable feeling. Case in point: there’s a couple of secret missions in the game that seek to tie up some of the loose ends from the first Saints Row game; they end, hurr spoiler warning, with a loud argument about the “true meaning of the Saints” between the protagonist and their ex-mentor, culminating with the former coldly executing the latter. It’s a really jarring scene–the characters attempt to convey a level of gravitas completely incommensurate with both the ephemeral-bullshit nature of the backstory to the philosophical debate they’re engaging in and the ridiculous, explosion-filled two-person fight against armed helicopters and SWAT teams and more armed helicopters that had directly preceded it. Saints Row 2 is trying to have it both ways, and it just can’t manage it–the facade starts cracking, the veneer starts peeling, the big mylar balloon of the game-world starts wearing thin and the hot air of its crazy-ass action starts to dissipate. The dark side of its dedication to craziness is that it never really bothered to develop, and definitely can’t hope to maintain, the internal consistency needed for anything else.

The moment that finally punched a hole straight through Saints Row 2, for me, came at the end of the game’s last story mission. After I’d defeated the Big Bad (by shooting him in the face, causing him to be ejected from a window), two of the protagonist’s lieutenants walk in, prompting the protagonist to ask where the third, a dude named Johnny Gat, is. You get the nonchalant reply “Oh, he’s fine. He’s still out there killing cops,” to which the protagonist responds “Figures.”

What the shit is that? Okay, so, sure, there exists a trope wherein more often than not, especially in the sandbox crime genre, “cops” are just the flavor of “opposition” the game throws at you when it also needs to present the flavor of “authority”. They’re cheap, omnipresent foes–but most games are designed by humans with functioning brains, and generally assign relatively harsh penalties to attacking them. The player understands that they’re still supposed to represent the real-world concept of “police”, and are able to rationalize the fact that killing a cop doesn’t result in a months-long manhunt by remembering that that would make a rather dull game. But here Saints Row 2 is, telling you that one of your friends is off mowing down wave after wave of cops (and, according to the ensuing conversation, isn’t even doing so for any particular reason; he’s just, you know, having fun out there).

A character in the game-world is, completely shamelessly and entirely independently of the player’s control, acting like he’s playing a video game. It reached through any suspension of disbelief I’d managed to build up and slapped me right in the face: Christ, this guy is a psychopath! All of the game’s previous high-property-damage no-consequences bravado is completely undermined–it only worked before because after storming onto a cargo ship or blowing up a building or whatever, the game didn’t straight-out gleefully remind you “ha-HA, you just killed a bunch of people! You’re totally a murderer!” Tim Rogers describes the feeling well, in his afore-linked review of this game’s predecessor:

Could you imagine a dramatic television show about a rugged cop, a great man at heart, maybe one whose wife had been gunned down by thugs, who lives only to drink whiskey, eat at the same sad diner every golden sunlit morning, and keep the streets clean — who, for some reason, the sixth episode in, pulls out his gun, fires it out the window of his patrol car, and kills a young boy riding a bike, only to have his partner keep rattling on about the drug dealer they’re looking for, only to have the writers seem to forget such a thing happened and let the show go on through eight more Emmy-winning seasons? Of course you can’t. It’d be fucking retarded, disgusting. It’s not even the senseless violence that gets my goat: it’s the internal inconsistency. It’s the complete and utter lack of artistic conscience.

That moment cast the rest of the game into a rather unsettling new light, for me. I felt insulted, like the cheesy revenge/rise-to-the-top plot I’d mostly been getting along with had pulled off its mask, revealed itself to be tone-deaf garbage, and started throwing its feces around the room. (That was a pretty damn clunky metaphor, there, but I think that’s apropos.)

After a couple rounds of thinking about this I started to get the idea that maybe that was the point, maybe the game had been hiding a secret backup satirical message all along about how videogame, especially sandbox crime game, protagonists toe a thin line between action hero and psychopath, how maybe, the fact that the protagonist is a sometimes-psychotic megalomaniac is actually the point, and the player is supposed to feel uncomfortable about some of the choices the character makes…but then I came to my senses. There’s no way Volition gets credit for that. It’s tempting, sure, especially if I put on my Roland Barthes hat and talk about how regardless of its creators’ intent (which is pretty clearly, on the whole, “create a goofy GTA clone, the kids love that”) it still conveys other messages, but that really feels too much like excuse-making.

My problem, I guess, is this: when Saints Row 2 wasn’t making me feel a little sick with sudden revelations of complete artistic bankruptcy, it was genuinely fun to play. The driving physics and various fighting mechanics were a marked improvement on the Grand Theft Auto series. The environments were big and bright and shiny (in a good way) and the city was designed pretty well, as a whole (lots of cool little architectural bits that look quite nice), and the action setpieces, apart from the talky bits preceding and succeeding them, were pretty damn enjoyable.

What could be improved? I don’t want it to have a deep, moving story, or even particularly well-developed characters–if you’re setting out to create schlock, be proud of it! Don’t try to muddle it up with more noble pretensions that you’re only going to screw up anyway–it eats away at the merit of an otherwise fine product. Just Cause 2 does the sort of story this game should have just right–over-the-top in a way that makes it completely forgettable. With just a little more care taken in creating a light, satirical, and funny world rather than a dopey, fake, often-insulting one, this could be a strikingly better game. I just wish its tone and its world could’ve been as consistent, and consistently fun, as its mechanics.

–Rob Carson

On Just Cause 2

under review: Just Cause 2
developed by Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive
published by Square Enix
released for the Playstation 3 (and several other platforms) in 2010

Several years ago, I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet by an acting company called Shakespeare on the Cape. While sitting around waiting for the play to start, I was looking through the program, and I noticed that the “about” section made special mention of the company’s tradition of “gender-blind casting”. As it turned out, Juliet was being played by a black man (there were some other changes–I think Mercutio was female–but this was obviously the most striking one). This alone wasn’t particularly surprising; the idea of changing major aspects of a Shakespeare play is hardly unusual. What struck me as odd was the relative innocuousness of the presentation. Other than the supposedly gender-blind casting, the play as presented was about as straightforward as could be; the staging was a bit stripped-down, as one might expect from a smaller company, and the costumes were relatively modernized, but the meat of the play itself–the plot and the actual nature of the characters being presented–was unchanged. What we saw, then, was a pretty standard presentation of the traditional version Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet simply happened to look like a skinny black guy in a tank top.

One of the company’s artistic directors said that “I find the idea of being really free with casting as both a way of getting in touch with the original way Shakespeare did the plays, with an all-male cast, and also getting in touch with […] the different views on gender and sexuality.” Honestly, though, the production did neither of these things to any noticeable degree–the first part rings rather false, as a woman was cast in the role of a character (Mercutio) who was written male, so even if that was the effect being sought it wasn’t being sought particularly well. The second part rings even falser, as other than the somewhat-spectacular decision to cast a traditionally (white) feminine role so contrastingly, the production was played relatively straight. Just to be clear on this: the fact that “Juliet” was a black man was not acknowledged in any noticeable way in the play itself. There are any number of things the company could’ve done; even having the characters simply acknowledge the fact that Juliet was now male would’ve more directly connected the production to “the different views on gender and sexuality” (albeit rather lazily). But they did nothing of the sort.

It felt like a lazy gimmick–“Hey, look at us, we cast a black guy as Juliet, aren’t we daring and/or cerebral?” Worse, it felt like a wasted gimmick, a gimmick used to gain attention but employed to no worthwhile effect. The concept at work, presenting Romeo and Juliet with a nontraditional couple at its center, is reasonably fertile (though not particularly original) ground for examining any number of social issues. But here, it was employed to no effect.

What I’m getting at here is that this production was an example of a gimmick gone disappointingly wrong. So why have I just spent THREE PARAGRAPHS talking about some play? Because Just Cause 2 is built around a gimmick gone absolutely, deliciously right.

Much of the game is built around the two rather unique tools used by its protagonist Rico Rodriguez: a grappling hook, and a parachute.

Well, actually, no, not really “a parachute”–an unlimited supply of parachutes, launchable from the same backpack, at essentially any given time. The grappling hook, too, is infinitely relaunchable.

Together, these two tools allow the player unbelievable freedom-of-movement. Tired of your car? Leap onto the roof, target another car, grapple over to it, and swing in. See a helicopter you want? Grapple up to it, pull out the pilot, and you’re on your way. Your helicopter shot out of the air? Pop a parachute, grapple to whatever shot you down, and take it. Sick of walking across a city? Fling yourself ridiculously from rooftop to rooftop, or just launch yourself into the sky and float to your destination. Want to get to the top of a building? Grapple onto the side, aim the reticle higher up, and Rico kicks off the building and shoots upward.

If you get the technique down, you can travel across the (expansive, beautiful) countryside solely by parachute, grappling ahead of yourself to generate momentum. You can launch yourself up sheer cliff faces, if you so desire–the game is, characteristically, prepared for you to do just that, and there’s even a trophy for doing it well enough.

That’s not all: the grappling hook is double-ended–you can tether pretty much anything, or anyone, to pretty much anything, or anyone, else. The possiblities are as near endless as makes no difference. The game plays fast and loose with the strictest interpretation of physics, as far as the grappling hook is concerned, but this works entirely to the player’s benefit (in perhaps the most absurd example, a freefalling player can aim the grappling hook at THE GROUND and safely reel himself in, momentum be damned).

The grapple/parachute combination is a perfectly-realized toy–and I say toy because it is a delight to simply play with. It’s the centerpiece of a design philosophy that makes Just Cause 2 what Tom Francis called “the ultimate screw-around game”. It fully satisfies Tim Rogers’s dictum, laid out in his review of Portal, that “every video game produced should […] contain at least one fantastical item that the player wishes he could have in real life”. Spend enough time building-grappling, and a noticeable Tetris effect is produced–walking around campus, I’ve found myself looking up at tall buildings like this one and mentally evaluating how I’d grapple up it. It’s really a fantastic mechanic.

Just Cause 2 has other toys, too. With a little bit of work you unlock the ability to have any of the game’s weapons and a nice selection of the game’s vehicles delivered to you on command, basically anywhere you are (this has the unfortunate side effect of forcing you to watch at least the first second of two brief cutscenes (before and after you make your selection) involving the obnoxiously-voiced character who delivers the items to you). It makes simply exploring the gameworld that much more pleasant–wrecking a car in the middle of nowhere in, say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas almost immediately becomes distressingly tiresome, as you hoof it slowly across the landscape; in Just Cause 2, however, you can simply call in a boat or a helicopter or whatever and be on your way.

That’s as good a segue as any to the subject of the nonsensically huge gameworld. The islands of Panau and their environs, in addition to being somewhat enigmatically climatically varied (it’s almost prototypically Video-Game in nature; the islands are practically divided into Mountain World, Jungle World, Desert World, Urban World, and the like, though unless you stop to think about it it’s hard to notice, since the various areas are connected logically and flow together beautifully), are very well-stocked with Things To Do. The fact that said things are rather repetitive in nature (and sometimes downright obsessive–there are literally hundreds of collectable stat-increase items and hundreds of other, unrelated, collection-quest-related items scattered across the land) is at least partly counteracted by the fact that they’re often fun.

The goals the game supplies are, by and large, in keeping with the freewheeling spirit inspired by its unorthodox mechanics. One of the faction missions sees the player assault a rocket launch site only to chase down the rocket in a stolen plane to prevent a satellite from being launched; the game’s final storyline mission ends with the player leaping back and forth between several nuclear missiles in an attempt to “disarm” them in midair. The game is often blatantly over-the-top, but the player is never given to expect “realism”, so departures therefrom don’t feel particularly awkward or forced.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the game’s narrative, or its characters. They don’t matter. No, seriously. They really don’t matter. Pay attention, if you want; skip the cutscenes and make something up, if you want. For better or for worse, Just Cause 2‘s “story” is pretty much “Action Movie: The Video Game”; the characters’ motivations are generally exactly what you’d expect them to be. Honestly, though, “Action Movie: The Video Game” is preferable to “Action Movie: The Action Movie”, and it rarely if ever sinks to the level of “Action Cutscene: So Cool You Wish You Were Playing A Video Game, And Then You Realize You Ostensibly Are, And Become Sad”. When Cool Things are happening, you’re blessedly in control.

Really, that’s Just Cause 2 in a nutshell: you are put in control of Cool Things Happening, and are given oodles of freedom to make Cool Things Happen by yourself. Its biggest weaknesses appear when it commits the minor sin of imposing structure on such a freeform playground of a world. The downside of creating such a delightful toy is, as Tom Francis says, that nothing in it feels truly important. Quoth Francis: “I’m interested in the physical result of my tinkering, but I already know the real result: nothing. Nothing can ever happen. They can’t give me anything significant, because they know I’d tie it to a ski lift until it split in two. Missions can make a helicopter the objective, but that doesn’t make it important – it just bolts on an arbitrary failure state. Missions provide a sort of ‘serving suggestion’ for the mayhem, but they don’t spice it up.” The many military installations to be assaulted at the player’s will, the dozens of missions available to take on–they’re all essentially scaffolding, jumping-off points to vary and set up the Cool Things that the player can do. The unfortunate flip-side to the design of the world is that it can’t be real enough for the player’s actions to really feel “real”. The story-related framework of the game all has what Tim Rogers might call a sort of metaphysical “swish”–all that you’re doing looks really cool, but when the only non-immediate result you actually see is a meter labeled “CHAOS” increasing, the Cool Things are robbed of meaning.

That all said, though…it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just Cause 2 may not be the 100% Perfect Game, but it is an absolute blast. The Cool Things at the heart of Just Cause 2 are totally, stunningly, cooler-than-being-cool-ice-cold, and you the player are at the heart of each one. Just Cause 2 is perhaps the apotheosis of the “sandbox game”: a big, beautiful arena in which you get to play with some really fun toys.

–Rob Carson

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one more time with feeling

Okay, maybe now this will work for real? I think I’m gonna try using this blog as an outlet sometimes to talk about whatever’s on my mind.

I’ll get around to fucking with the layout when I’ve got more free time, since I used to enjoy that sort of thing and canned themes are bo-ring.

Hello world!

We’ll see if I have the dedication, memory, or time to keep up two (2) blogs at once.