Bjorn’s back, and he’s brought some friends. We take some time to look around EA’s Xbox One timed exclusive and contemplate the best way to utilise a gnome trapped inside a robotic dwarf’s body.
Bjorn’s back, and he’s brought some friends. We take some time to look around EA’s Xbox One timed exclusive and contemplate the best way to utilise a gnome trapped inside a robotic dwarf’s body.
Six weeks ago I was as excited as a child on Christmas Day. A planetary alignment meant that not one but two new consoles were launching in successive weeks causing me to become – as I’m assured by my wife – almost unbearable. My eagerness grew as the triumphant time approached and come the week of Friday 22 November I was barely able to do any work; I watched the clock tick sluggishly down to the time I would get my hands on the next generation. I literally skipped off having picked up my Xbox One whilst a week later was willing to drive through four counties to source a PlayStation 4.
On both occasions I found a great joy in clearing out a space in my entertainment unit to slot them in. A satisfaction in wiring them up and watching the day one update screens as though they were a New Year’s countdown. There are many jaded in my industry but I still think that the birth of a new generation is something truly special.
There’s an allure about new hardware, a buzz that I get from being part of the zeitgeist. It’s not due to them being the must-have item or because advertising agencies assure me I need it to be complete – I’d have succumbed to iOS device by now if that were the case – but because I have an urge to form my own opinion on how each system shakes down. Like Sam Beckett, I want to find out how far we’ve leapt. Though without myriad judgements from either side of the “console war” tainting what are at the end of the day both superb bits of kit.
Each has had their moment in the spotlight with me as I pored over every corner of their systems. Admittedly they are both some way short of the finished, even promised, articles, but for every non-story about Sony not supporting MP3s at launch or Microsoft’s apparent new found love for micro-transactions, I have had many hours’ worth of enjoyment from each system respectively.
On the Xbox One the wonderful use of rumble feedback through the triggers in Forza V has finally begun teaching me the proper way to approach corners; Ryse shows offs of on a range of graphical levels meaning I regularly call Ali in from the other room just to appreciate the cutscenes; and Dead Rising 3 gives me what I want from the leap in machines. For me the improvements should not just be resolutions and polygons but content and the huge number of zombies on display offers an example of how I want the new power to be used.
A week later I’m holding a DualShock controller and for the first time in 20 years I’m not feeling the urge to saw my own arms off in disgust. The DualShock 4 with its lengthened prongs and wider face is a joy to hold, and Resogun, with an evil glint in its eye, shows what happens when you take a simple arcade concept from the 70s and hurl everything you can at it. The PlayStation appears to be the early choice as our multiplayer machine too as FIFA’s online clubs have already taken off whilst in Battlefield 4 we team up and together fly helicopters straight into buildings. The former is lovely as EA have thrown numerous extra animations and subtleties into the beautiful game where as Battlefield 4 goes for pure looks. On certain levels with the wind whipping the trees and the dark clouds drawing in overhead it is a true sight to be seen.
And just like a game of Battlefield, just when you think things are ticking along nicely, all the initial momentum is lost as both machines come to a crashing halt.
Or at least that is the perceived opinion with no more major launches until March, but I do think that is a horribly negative point of view. The two machines have put out the largest number of launch titles ever assembled and whilst there may not be vast strength in depth what does exist can surely sustain. With many multiplayer titles that will no doubt last the length of the whole year and smaller releases such as Sam: Curse of the Brotherhood and Don’t Starve appearing digitally I look at it purely as a chance to catch up. After buying nearly ten games in the space of as many days over the launch window I need some space and time to get my money’s worth from them.
So, to the naysayers out there, those decrying the need for new machines and those who are criticising the lack of content I’m very content to say that for one I am pleased. It may not be perfect and there are a host of things that I can’t wait to be updated, especially regarding the online parties on both platforms, but I’m looking at this glass and I call it half full. Probably with some rather fancy lighting and reflections, too.
Through a mix of pressures from work and home I’ve taken a short sabbatical from the site but with the New Year comes renewed enthusiasm.
Part of the joy of the site for me is now that it is far more casual than it was a handful of years back. Back then there was a push to see if we could make it and crack into the industry good and proper but over time we found that that simply wasn’t going to be obtainable with the amount of time we could dedicate to producing reasonable content.
As it stands now it’s a plaything, a place where a handful of friends can talk about games they like and experiment with writing and other media. And I’m more than happy with that. The day this gets too serious is the day I’ll probably consider packing it in again as I have enough serious in my day job.
So, as we usher the New Year in, thank you to those who continue to stop by in the hope that one day we may put a new article up. Your presence is much appreciated and I can only hope we serve you better in the coming 12 months.
Our second on-the-rails-shooter of the week? Whatever next? No finger waving here, though, instead some good old fashion speed typing as we look at the cult spin-off from House of the Dead.
Warning: coarse language found within!
With some considering the enthusiasm for motion-controllers to be past its peak, it’s surprising that anyone new would enter that field. Yet the recently released Leap Motion approaches gesture-driven gameplay slightly differently. Rather than watching for sweeping hand actions or full-body motion, the tiny device sits atop your desk and seeks out only your fingers. The rest of you can be as lethargic as you like but as your digits move above the sensor’s beams they’ll be tracked to a fraction of a millimetre and with no perceivable lag.
It’s an impressive piece of technology but new devices are nothing without the games built to show off their strengths. Step forward Hesaw, a French developer based only a short walk from Notre Dame, who are looking to take Leap Motion’s finger flapping fidelity and convince us all that we need yet another input device in our lives.
Set in the world of Viktor Kalvachev’s mature graphic novels, Blue Estate attempts to capture the spirit of the series whilst blending it with an on-the-rails shooter. That spirit is very much that of pulpy crime stories that tend to involve a private eye; busty dames, a lot of violence, and very little pre-watershed language. Within the opening scene you’ll know if you’ll engage with the tone as our lead, a sleazy Mafioso named Tony Luciano, walks into a strip club owned by Korean gangsters, greets the door staff with a few choice racial slurs and is kicked in the head for his troubles. At that point he unsheathes his Desert Eagle and the body count begins to rack up.
You’re led on a merry chase around the strip club, tearing through kitchens and back offices as you hunt for Tony’s kidnapped girlfriend. All the time your hand hovers over the Leap Motion, directing the barrel of your gun with a single outstretched finger, and taking down the constant stream of armed reinforcements that pour from every door. The initial sensation of controlling the reticle as though you were miming a shootout was an odd one. I found myself waving frantically, constantly over compensating as I came to grips with the surprising level of both sensitivity and accuracy. After only a few minutes though it began to feel very intuitive and with my hand travelling just a few inches I could to target any point on screen with confidence.
And targeting is the primary skill as there is no fire gesture; hover over a target for only a fraction of a second and bullets will fly towards the poor sap. The responsive Leap Motion lets you to whip from target to target with nary a second thought and whole rooms’ worth of gangsters can be taken down in a matter of moments if you’ve a steady hand. This proves satisfying at first but after even just a moderate stretch the automation leads to a sense of detachment. As slick as the controls are I couldn’t help but feel I was merely a spotter for a sniper situated permanently behind me, my pointing indicating which fellow should die next. I never felt as though I was firing the gun.
That said, I’ve always considered the actions of aiming and firing in gesture games far more complex than they appear at face value. So often the fire mechanism, if poorly implemented, can be a misconstrued twitch or a swift movement to the other side of the screen. The two are so delicately interwoven that it’s easy to put the player in the situation where there are a large number of false positives. This is evident in the likes of Child of Eden and Gunstringer and how they choose to “paint” targets before a definite flick indicates the shot. That approach however would feel out of place in Blue Estate given the speed and tone and so whilst this auto fire may take away some of the involvement it at least prevents layering further issues on top.
Still, the game needs to be more than just a gesture and Hesaw has interspersed your impromptu tour of the strip joint with little diversions to keep your fingers busy. For one the lead’s hair seems inappropriately groomed for his line of work and on occasion needs brushing from your eyes; on-rushing foes can be punched if they stray too close; and doors can be slammed into the faces of your enemies before they open fire. They are but fleeting distractions however and add little, instead coming off in most situations as forced. The continual interruption of the hair may possibly be canonical but it only ever serves to be an irritation rather than bolstering the experience.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the action came thick and fast but the enemies fly at you in waves, their numbers always manageable and the delays between them fractionally too long to maintain any flow of excitement or a sense of pressure. This is exacerbated by large, colourful circles informing you just which of the onrushing fools will be shooting you first. Whilst this scripted behaviour may be clearly intended to promote score-driven play – enabling players to learn patterns and exploit them for points – it instead practically automates yet another aspect of the game as it’s patently obvious which order you have to paint your targets if you want to survive.
All the time Tony and the narrator crack bad jokes and witter on about how much of an embarrassment Tony is to his father. Though both are voice-acted well and the narrator’s lines are passable, Tony’s sense of humour ranges from poor to racist. This again could be how the character comes across when in the medium of pen and ink but as I had to sit through the umpteenth bad fish pun I cared little for it. The humour as a whole is one of the poorer presentation aspects, and along with the setting could easily alienate players. The pity is that elsewhere the consistently pulpy tone of the dialogue, menus and music ties the rest of Blue Estate together into an interesting package.
But interesting is not enough. Building off of seemingly great foundations with a wonderfully smooth shooting experience and compelling tonality, it stumbles. In the first instance let down by a lack of connection, excitement and flow, and in the second appearing crass without redeeming humour.
Blue Estate seems to have been put together as style over substance. Any minute-long section played in isolation would convey great excitement as you bust you way through waves of grunts, your finger aiming death as you travel, but with little worthwhile variety it’s a missed opportunity.
And I’m back. After a few weeks off in the sun drenched region of Florida I’ve plunged myself into the dark world of Blue Estate, on-the-rails shooter where the aim seems to be to kill as many Eastern gangsters as possible. Join us as we play with their new Leap Motion controller, a nifty gadget that sits on your desk and tracks your finger movements.
Though Bossa Studios may currently have its name in the spotlight with Surgeon Simulator, the London-based developer has more irons in the fire than just that single game. With over 30 staff, only four of who are dedicated to recreating medical malpractice, there is ample room for other projects to proceed in parallel.
“One of which is…” Continuing our chat in the back of an ambulance that may well have starred alongside Gene Hunt in Life On Mars, Bossa developer Luke pauses for a touch too long to be simply dramatic effect. He wrestles with the iPad, closes down the new touch version of Surgeon Simulator, and loads up a video. “As it’s multiplayer it’s hard to convey if we just gave you a build of the game.”
“This is called Time to Live. Six players, multiplayer, online, and basically everyone has been given 120 seconds, which is their time to live.” On a very clean, white background, there’s a large hex-grid with six small characters dressed as monkeys dashing between flashing tiles. In the bottom left a large timer ticks ominously down. Before I get to ask what happens when it reaches zero, one of the chimps suddenly looks pained before his head falls off and rolls across the screen.
Of course if there was nothing more to it then everyone would die at the same time, but the board changes over time. “On each of these tiles one of four things could appear: traps, money, health and snails. Play centres where things appear,” he gestures to a hex that starting to flash, indicating something’s about to spawn there, “as it could be health or cash. But snails slow you down and red tiles take more health. As you see these guys jumped on there thinking it would be a green tile.” We look again and see a group so eager to top up their diminishing time that they jumped on a tile before it had fully spawned only to see even more seconds sapped away. From the video it’s clear that it’s a frantic game, partly due to the very restricted time frame involved and partly because of the highly competitive nature as players scrap for resources.
All of sudden however the game pauses. “Every twenty-seconds it’s shop time,” explains Luke. “The twenty second shop means the game is never over. It changes in an instant as the cards change the dynamics so significantly. In each shop there’s one card for every player in the game and each do different things. They really switch the game up.” Looking at the selection on offer some are quite straight forward as they hand players extra time or cash but there are others that are a little more tricksy. Bombs, damage shields, and freezing blasts all make an appearance.
“There’s a lot of tactics in using and buying the right one. Here’s a very valuable one which is ‘even out all players time’ which gives everyone an average. That might be a good card to keep hold of because you might be doing quite well now but later on if you get on a bad streak then right before you die you can play it, drag them down, you up, and you’re great. But if you’re in the lead you might want to buy it purely so no one else can use it, securing your lead.”
So combined with frantic twenty-second bursts of action there’s a strategic auction stage. Though rather than just choosing the right cards it’s also about choosing the right time to buy. “They’ll all start at a cost equal to the stash of the richest player. So if the richest has got 767 money, the cards will all initially cost 767 and begin counting down. Obviously if you can’t afford it you have to wait until the stuff gets cheap enough, but the guy with the most money can select the cards first.” It sounds like there’s a fine balance between guaranteeing the card you want and bankrupting yourself in the process, and it’s obviously something the team have seen before.
Tom compares it to a shopping channel. “You get this weird Price Drop TV effect where all the money’s going down and everyone’s figuring out when the best time to buy is because they don’t want to cripple themselves by getting rid of all their money.”
As we watch on through multiple shopping rounds the board clearly changes. Not only it punctuated with the use of bombs, traps and a variety of other griefing but the tiles themselves alter. The longer the round goes on for the more hazards there are appearing, making it harder to grab the good tiles without doing yourself a mischief. “Generally they last 6-8 minutes but you tend to get to a point where the red tiles are appearing so readily and the passages of safety are getting smaller and smaller and smaller that you’ll all be over one side and it’ll be nothing but red. Then there’s a thing trail dotted with snails to get to the only green. The route there is such a pain in the ass that by the time you get there it’ll be worth nothing.”
So the point will come where each game stops being about what you can collect and instead switch focus on how you use the cards that you’ve amassed and the combinations seem more deadly as time goes by. Dropping a freeze blast just as players try and scatter from a freshly spawned trap or fiendishly the player with the most health wading in a dropping a bomb on a life-giving green tile. For a game that’s very plain to look at it seems deceptively deep with possibilities.
“Internally when we play with six people in the same room and it’s madness. There’s swearing as people screw each other over; there’s so much bad language,” says Tom.
Luke chuckles and suggests it’s gone beyond a simple lunchtime battle. “It’s turning psychological as we’re beginning to learn people’s favourite cards. So Tom likes his damage shield – a power that literally damages others close by – and so if we know he’s got it we back away. He hasn’t even had to use it but it’s the threat that keeps us back.”
The game is built to be easy to play but hard to master. A simple tap-to-move and tap-to-play cards interface lends itself to the cross-platform play Bossa are striving for, an aim that should see them with a potentially huge playerbase. Both tablets and PCs can play against each other and it’s all down to who can click or tap the fastest.
With the gameplay already well establish I ask Luke about the very simplistic look going forward. “We want to keep that same very clean aesthetic but the monkey stuff is changing. We want to add a lot of customisation as it’s a very gloat based game. When you win the camera zooms in on you and you get to do a little funky dance and show off you character.”
Tom chimes in, “We’ve got loads of taunt animations to and it’s about being…” He struggles for words and looks back to Luke who helps him out. “… an asshole.”
The focus is clearly on the personality of the player rather than swamping them in a more decorated world, but the minimalist background reminds me of something. The use of hexes puts me in mind of board gaming, of the likes of Settlers of Catan and a great many others, and so it’s interesting to hear that Time to Live also started out on the tabletop.
“This started life as a board game come card game. It was originally prototyped last year and before we got around to doing the digital prototype the guys who game up with the idea were just playing it real cards and tiles. Although they weren’t running around they were affecting the arena. They took it from there to a brief and we just knocked it up in a few weeks.”
Whilst not an uncommon approach for a games studio, spending time on less risky pen-and-paper prototypes before investing engineering time in a product, it’s yet another success of Bossa’s internal success. Between Time to Live and Surgeon Simulator, they seem very adept at seizing on the potential of small ideas and bringing them through. It’s also one that clearly enthuses the staff.
“Anyone in the company can pitch an idea,” Tom tells me, “and it goes through a greenlight process where some people vote on what ideas they think are the best. If it’s an idea that we want to take further and make it into a prototype then we send it to the prototype team. And that was me – I was the prototype team until Surgeon Simulator came along – and I’d make a new game every two weeks. At the end of the two weeks we’d all play it on the Friday and see how it went.”
And it seems Time to Live could have emerged sooner if they hadn’t been distracted by their current success in medicine. “It was one that really stood out, that we kept coming back to. Even after we’d finished it people wanted to come back and play it which we took as a really good sign. This got taken off track as Surgeon grew so quickly but now Surgeon’s under control and other projects have eased up we can put more of the team on Time To Live as we felt so strongly about it.”
Nothing has come out of the digital prototypes recently to match the strength of their current projects but it the management are heavily invested in their team’s creativity. “Two days a month there’s an internal game jam. Anyone can submit an idea and build up a team in the prior month and then at the game jam get together and make a game and see what happens.”
“With the success of Surgeon being based on a game jam, that’s brought Bossa to do more. I mean we did them every 3 or 4 months but now we do them once a month because they’re powerful things.” It’s not just from a product perspective either as Luke and Tom both spoke highly of just how much these little breaks from the normal run of production motivated the staff. “You give people a strict time limit and people’s creativity goes nuts which is great. You never know when something awesome is going to come out of them.”
The conversation comes back round to Time to Live. Despite not being ready before next year the pair are obviously still excited about it, no doubt fuelled by lunch time sparring. “We think it’s got a cool unique mechanic. It’s such a competitive game that it’s perfect for LAN parties; it’s got the most casual and easy to understand interface but it’s incredibly hardcore in nature. When you get down to it and start learning all the tactics and the double bluffing and it’s really brutal.”
I have to admit, character makes a venue. Air conditioning, a well-stocked fridge or a stunning view may all be ways to impress when it comes to interview appointments, but those are nothing compared to Bossa’s approach to style. Sat in the back of an aging ambulance outside of Earls Court, two gentlemen dressed as surgeons speak enthusiastically to me about their work.
In any other walk of life this would be ridiculous but the studio behind Surgeon Simulator has whole heartily embraced the quirkiness of their product. Anyone who has come near it will know that Simulator is very tongue in cheek. It is Operation for the modern era and with the whole team parading around in scrubs that sense of fun is clear.
“It was never serious. It was never more than a little stupid tool that was meant to keep us laughing,” says Luke, one of the four strong who originally created the game at a game jam earlier this year. “That was it. There was literally no intention to develop it further afterwards.”
“We just considered it an in-joke,” adds Tom, a fellow Surgeon Simulator developer. Though obviously proud and passionate about their game, there’s a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “We were in the game jam building in London and there was another team sitting behind us seeing everything we were doing and we were just laughing our socks off the entire time. They kept looking around thinking we were a bit weird,” he chuckles.
“We just thought people would look at it and go ‘what the f*** is this?’ but then when we presented it at the end everyone was just in tears laughing and shouting ‘use the hammer!’ It meant we couldn’t actually talk about the game as everyone was being so raucous.”
And come the end of the jam that could have been it for Surgeon Simulator. Despite the reaction from the rest of the teams, Luke still wasn’t convinced it was anything more than a joke shared between a group of sleep-deprived developers. “They were all in the room together; there was an infectious laughter. Still we uploaded it to our servers and that got passed around. First PC Gamer posted about it, Rock Paper Shotgun, and then the YouTubers jumped on it and by Tuesday it had millions of views. It was crazy.”
The purity of Surgeon Simulator is one of its finest qualities, born out of a group of friends coming together and thinking up something unique. If this had come from a triple-A studio then the somewhat clunky controls would no doubt have been user-tested into submission; for Tom, this is the very heart of the experience. “This is what it is. Take it and you enjoy it.” It’s a simple message and one that’s evidently heeded all over YouTube. “I remember the Rooster Teeth video where one of them’s doing the fingers on the keyboard and the other’s controlling the hand on the mouse. I had to pause it two or three times as I couldn’t get through it; I couldn’t breathe.”
With such coverage, Surgeon Simulator’s popularity has snowballed. Through word of mouth it has created a cult following and it now possesses an avid community. Despite a recent alien autopsy addition being hidden behind a series of puzzles, their fans’ ability to dig out such an Easter Egg impressed the team. “The original space surgery was a secret that you had to pop the floppy disk in to gain access to and we liked the reaction to that. Everyone was so excited that they found this hidden thing and we wanted to take that further and create a whole elaborate puzzle that the community would have to figure out together.”
In the end it took the community two days to get the answer. A lifetime by Internet standards. “The steam comment thread was 800 comments long with everyone hammering the game. We even got pictures where someone had drawn it all on a whiteboard and had all the links going between them all like some sort of conspiracy theory. It was so much fun to watch as they unraveled all the clues and got to it. The payoff was huge and seeing all the videos passed around was awesome.”
With the latest expansion released only last week, the team’s attentions have quickly turned elsewhere. Explaining very clearly that what I’m about to see is just a tech demo, Luke reaches beneath the gurney and brings out an iPad running a version of Surgeon Simulator.
“One of the things we wanted to explore was the obstacle of the hand,” he says, his fingers flicking across the tablet’s screen sending instruments flying. “There was an opportunity on tablet to really create this really nice interactive world and keep that feel to it, that faithful mayhem.”
On screen it does indeed look extremely faithful. Bob is still there about to be inflicted with the worst private healthcare than money can buy, and as Luke taps and drags surgical tools, the port to the tablet seems to have affected them little. The one thing that is missing however is your arm. “We’ve stripped the hand out because obviously your hand is the hand now. So if you want to play with Bob’s face you simply just grab it and give him a little shake.” True to form, Bob receives a playful slap across the face.
Picking up the tools is also simple; you just flick objects out of your way with a brush of your finger and then press down on the tool you want. You can then move that about freely, rotating it with a second finger so you can set your angle of attack. “You just swipe to where you want to smash.” Smash. “So if you want to hit the bottom of the rib cage you just swipe down to it and smash into it like so.” Smash. “And crack it open. It creates a nice feeling as you’re there actually doing it as you’re aiming straight at it.” Smash. “Then it’s just a case of fish out the bones.”
As we fish the bones out of the chest cavity, this new tactile aspect to the simulator is already proving a huge strength. Surprisingly, however, it’s also extremely new to Bossa.
“If you asked us even a week ago how Surgeon touch was we’d have said ‘it’s not.’” It then emerges Tom had impressively rigged these controls in less than two days into a straight port of the desktop version. “We had so many ideas of how to do the controls previously. We played with gyroscopes to move around the op room, virtual sliders to adjust the tools but it was all sorts of wrong. So often with touch devices you get people adding virtual buttons and virtual joysticks and that’s not the strength of touch.”
With touch however comes extra fidelity and I ask them whether that extra accuracy would actually harm the chaotic nature of their game. “I know what you mean,” Luke replies, “but it is still there. If you let go for a second the tools gone and it drops and collides with his head and you’re in trouble but we do think there will have to be some tweaks in the gameplay just to keep the surgeon feel. That’s the reason why the controls took so long as we wanted to still get that 3D space, that chaos of physics and you just grabbing something and slamming it into him and seeing what happens.”
“Plus you still need to angle it properly. You can still accidentally start sawing his head if you get that wrong so we still have that semi-awkward controls.” A drill meanders painfully across the chest cavity as if to demonstrate this. “There are still moments of “woah, WOAH!” and then you’ve got it stuck in him so you just toss it aside just to get rid of it.”
What’s clear is that although a straight port would be easy, the team set a high bar for themselves and won’t be doing anything if it’s not right for the game. “If we were to do the full version we would do more bespoke bits for the platform rather than just it all coming straight from the desktop. With the touch too it might lead to that we have to adapt the content slightly and maybe it’ll lend itself to more unique surgery interaction.” To indicate a small example, Tom starts opening and closing the box where the donor heart sits until the lid snaps off.
That philosophy also means the team aren’t yet committing to a release date, or even if it will be released at all according to Luke. “If it gets to a point where we think that it’s not doing it justice or spoils it in any way then we won’t do it. This is purely us just testing out controls and mechanics and seeing what works and if it works then we’ll continue.”
“Ages ago we said that if we couldn’t do the whole surgeon experience then we wouldn’t bother. We didn’t want to go down the mini-game route. People who wanted to get Surgeon for their iPads who had seen it would want a similar experience. They wouldn’t want a weird mini-game version as a cash-in. They’d want that chaotic, bloody brutal.” We laugh as Luke tries to open Bob’s ribs with the bedside radio. “And it does have its unique properties. The actual act of hammering in his rib cage is really satisfying. It’s something you don’t get on the PC either.”
The team are adamant that an iPad version would fit well with the playful mind of tablet gamers. Though it may lose features such as fancy shaders and the physics-heavy ambulance levels due the lack of grunt in the slim-line devices, they believe that what can be added far outstrips what may be lost.
What’s clear is that the controls are very suited to the touch input of a tablet. The more immediate interaction with your work bench or hammers, drills and blades may at first feel far too easy, but as you get down to the finer points of surgery, the feel of Surgeon Simulator is still there. Both perfection and being struck off are separated by the mere twitch of a finger.
“Technically it’s impressive.”
Technically. As my friend spoke of her experiences with GTA her qualifier was damning with faint praise. With my developer hat on I can definitely appreciate the technical quality found within GTA V: the world chocked full with life; Rockstar’s ability to make ailing consoles sing; and their satirical look at modern America. It’s undeniable that the world of Los Santos is truly remarkable but for all the plaudits I’m not interested in immersing myself in it. Technically it’s great but for me it lacks appealing substance.
There’s myriad reasons why I can’t jump on this band wagon, from fundamental disagreements with its core concept through to the feeling that I’ve played through its campaign many times already. That’s not to say I’m against the game, in fact I admire what it does and the aplomb with which it achieves it, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out.
Strangely, the primary reason is actually nothing to do with the gameplay itself. Some of this apathy harks back to GTA IV, which I left feeling disenfranchised. They had again woven an incredible city but I thought it was a waste as the move to a far more serious mood left me cold. It felt as though they had missed an opportunity with the playground they had created, as if more realism had meant a more sombre tone and an end to the antics of GTA III. I could have forgiven this if they had delivered on the dramatic potential but Nikko was such an unlikeable character that I never cared a jot about what unfolded. There are plenty of good anti-heroes in modern media but he missed the mark by a long way. Forever moaning about the injustices he had suffered and how he wanted away from a life of crime and yet choosing to commit countless brutal acts. He was a disjointed character that impossible to relate to.
The introduction of three leads addresses some of this, not putting undue pressure on a single character to lead a story arc that would otherwise fill two or three whole series of primetime television. In fact the interplay between the trio seems interesting to me as the unlikely gang cross paths and join together for criminal shenanigans. There is potential there as each of their disparate life styles clash and interweave, but the story issues go deeper than simple setup.
Since the beginning GTA has stuck to a formula. Every world has been painted as one where males dominate and women come out as merely secondary characters, there to nag husbands or sell themselves on street corners. I can understand the marketing importance of casting a male lead but the lack of supporting females is disappointing.
After a recent debate on Twitter with a former colleague I now refrain from labelling it misogynistic – literally the hatred of women – but there’s a level of disrespect there that I find if not distasteful then lazy. The theme of men being powerful and women there simply to be either the butt of their jokes or their trophies has featured so heavily that I struggle to remember a single interesting female. There may have been a brief dalliance with an Irish-American wife for Nikko but as she was only introduced to ultimately be killed off I hardly think that counts.
Despite not having played I have consumed a large number of reviews and gameplay videos trying to get a handle on my feelings and from all that I can discern the latest release does nothing to overturn this precedence. I understand that parody needs a stereotype to work from but this one is wearing a little thin and for the sake of variety it would have been a welcome surprise to see the alleged weaker of the sexes playing a larger role.
It’s not alone as feeling familiar. The radio station’s once grand poke at American society now sounds tired, replacing the issues of 2008 with references to fracking and the mounting national debt. I can remember spending hours driving around town or parking up by the side of the road to listen to Ladlow’s radio show, now they are like a comedian whose set desperate needs refreshing.
Admittedly there are some fantastic additions that add to the already brimming world. The heists in particular sound superb. No longer just a simple mission, the act of putting together a gang and balancing skills against cut could be a whole game in itself. It’s a shame they’re a comparatively small part of the whole which still appears to be mostly driving long distances to either drop off a package or to shoot someone (occasionally both) before driving an equally long distance back.
I miss the verve found in Vice City, where it readily paid homage to cinema set-pieces at the same time as adding its own twist of fun. Whether it was the neon colours or joyous soundtrack that makes me look on it more fondly, the more easy-going approach seemed far more enjoyable and varied. Today the additions of golf and darts are noble efforts to distract players when criminal life gets them down, but I can’t help but think that more effort should have been focused on the core missions.
Of course all this could be is because I’m growing old. Once upon a time I used to liven things up by holding down a crossroads with a boot full of guns and pockets full of ammunition, trying to get my star rating as high as possible and coaxing out the army with their tanks. When GTA III came out this was the height of emergent gameplay as the city would react and their retaliation was always a surprise. It was a challenge – it was the challenge – but I feel as I’ve grown older so have my tastes. Or maybe I’ve just seen it all before.
This familiarity is somewhat comforting; knowing that I could slip straight back into it should I so wish. But equally I’m sad that it hasn’t moved on to any great degree, especially when you consider the current set of rampage missions. If anything they show a further moral slip as where once was a silent protagonist simply causing chaos now there’s a psychopath visibly taking glee from his actions. Again this is subjective but it makes me feel deeply uneasy.
If some of this seems at odds with my positive review of Saints Row, it comes down to two things: approach and setting. Compared to the realism being pushed in Los Santos, the virtual world of The Saints verges on the absurd. With superpowers and aliens it can’t be taken seriously and as such the repercussions are different; in terms of tone GTA is Scarface to Saints Row’s Avengers, though admittedly with more cursing. Furthermore the superpowers add new dimensions to the open world. I still steered clear of rampages or mindless chaos but the ability to fly and scale skyscrapers added more value than any bank heists. They pushed in a different direction and one that I wanted to toy with for hours on end.
It’s as if GTA has settled into a safe rut. Much like Call of Duty it has grown to such a size that it has become scared of change, worried that any alteration would deter its fanbase. It may not come out annually but we’re beginning to see it falling into a similar template of design as the developers know what has made the series successful and quite sanely are reluctant to change the formula.
Unlike Call of Duty however my worry is that GTA will never receive the impetus to change. Annual releases soon show signs of fatigue but there is such a legacy around this series that it seems impervious. It creates its own hype by keeping standards high and releases infrequent – a lesson many others could heed. More so, due to the interval they brings in a whole new generation of players who have never played GTA before and are ready to lap it up.
Given the current schedule I’ll be in my mid-to-late 30s when the next Grand Theft Auto releases and whether I play it or not is very much in the mix. With so few tangible improvements I can’t see myself ever playing this current version but if they decide to refocus and wipe the slate clean in certain areas then I may just join the midnight queue for a return (hopefully) to Vice City.
Will it happen? Probably not. There is a formula that raked in a billion dollars in less than a week and no one in their right mind would alter that.
Over the previous three games Saints Row has evolved from an unashamed GTA clone into a sandbox flagship in its own right. No matter how absurd or twisted you may consider its path, it has forged its own way in the world and has swiftly distanced itself from Rockstar’s opus. It has its own identity now, decked out in purple and supremely confident in its skin.
However, if the previous two courted success with septic tank spray guns, dildo bats and petting tigers, IV takes a somewhat different approach. Though by no means subdued, it instead focuses on ruining all other open world games. Once upon a time driving through a bustling city and causing chaos was the pinnacle of gaming, but since then being stuck in a car for long distances or persevering through shootouts with limp mechanics has become very wearing. Volition hands you an alternative; they hand you superpowers.
Within an hour of stepping back into Stillwater – albeit a digital simulation of Stillwater – I was dashing through the streets at supersonic speed, outpacing any vehicle that I might have been churlish enough to jack. Covering vast distances in seconds, buildings flashed by and pedestrians barreled out the way as I streaked past, yet it wasn’t just the speed that was most welcome. Unshackling such potential from a car removes you from the whim of physics. As such, control is far more reactive, making navigation a breeze; it’s a world away from forcing a bulky van to corner at pace.
Alongside travelling at such a lick that it would make Usain Bolt weep, your reprogrammed legs are also capable of sending you soaring to the rooftops. With huge, exaggerated leaps the Saints navigate the skyline, taking them where no road could lead and causing me to grin with the freedom it offered. Brazenly, the biggest draw up there are glowing clusters – definitely not orbs – that can be collected to enhance you powers. Their glow stands out against the dusk skyline and caused me all manner of detours as I sought to hoover them up. With some avid kleptomania soon I could run up the side of buildings and glide through the city skies, making the world not only more easily navigable but turning it into a playground through which I could skip without hindrance.
Distances of a couple of kilometres aren’t uncommon between mission checkpoints, and in other games this may have caused irritation. That’s a long way to drive, and even a well decorated world will only go so far. With Saints Row it was an exercise in extreme parkour, dashing headlong down the street through heavy traffic, scattering anything I touched, before leaping majestically across the river. Hitting a skyscraper on the opposite bank causes only a momentary pause before I’d be off again, this time vertically, pelting it to the roof from where I’d hurl myself off and glide towards my target. Time and time again I’d do it, not once getting bored as not only is it fluid but each leap throw you so far that the mini-map lights up with a whole host of trinkets and side missions.
Most are staples of the series, even if under new names. There are turf wars where you have to battle the simulation’s defenders to reclaim a portion of the city, assassinations that throw a series of tough rivals against you, and, my personal favourite, insurance frauds that see you throw yourself into oncoming traffic and then bounce off as many cars as possible. They’re twisted but with so many on offer it’s easy to pick and choose which, if any, you want to partake in. Each is an interesting distraction and introduced in turn along the main story arc too, meaning you’ll get to try each one at least once. As The Saints battle to escape the simulation there are myriad tenuous reasons quite why you have to, for instance, take part in a race against the clock or hijack a car and bring it back to base, though generally it boils down to your resident hacker insisting she “wants to see how the system reacts” as you unleash havoc upon it.
The main story missions are far meatier and revolve around rescuing your crew from their own corner of this imaginary creation. They also allow the designers to stretch beyond simply plotting missions round Stillwater. The joy of setting a game inside a bizarre computer simulation is that the levels can take you anywhere, and when you combine that with Volition’s devilish sense of humour there’s a potent combination. In the opening act there’s a recreation of a 1950s Stillwater, complete with all its bygone sensibilities, whilst at the other end of the scale worlds consisting of nothing but a series of floating, metallic platforms exist solely to test your speed and platforming prowess. Along the way parodies of Call of Duty and Metal Gear appear, poking fun at them with a beautiful selection of well-constructed jibes and often inappropriate soundtracks, whilst everything from 200-foot tall soda cans to bobble-headed cats are thrown against you. You may still be wielding a gun in a robust if uninspiring third-person shooter but with a combination of a good script and a continual change of set dressing the missions don’t feel as repetitive as it might otherwise be.
More so than that, however, it was there where the real challenge was offered. Out in the open of the main simulation superpowers soon include icy blasts and fiery explosions, both of which make short work of any group out to stop The Saints. Toss in a few fire balls, hoover up the health left behind, rinse and repeat, and the only real challenge was how quickly the grunts could be mopped up. Very soon only truly massed ranks or complacency cause issues. Strangely though the powers verge so close to feeling exploitative that there’s a sly glee about using them, as if you’ve somehow found a loophole and that the devs never meant you to be so dominant. Together with the verticality made possible by your superjump and the myriad ridiculous weapons, the focus switches more to that of a toy box and exploring what it has to offer rather than any hardcore test of your combat prowess. It grants a sense of power, one that is often taken away during primary missions, forcing you to remember what it’s like to have to find and use cover or, even more shockingly, something as primitive as a gun.
The story itself peeks into each Saint’s own personal idea of hell and is strangely nostalgic. For a game well-known for featuring porn stars and Burt Reynolds it demonstrates a sentimentality about its cast that I wasn’t expecting. Much is made of the past of the characters, harking right back to the almost unrecognisable original, the journeys they’ve been on and how they found themselves running the United States of America. It never strays into schmaltz, preferring rather to pull back with a heavy dose of crudity or violence should it every edge too close.
Saints Row IV isn’t revolutionary but a continued refinement of its brand. Originally slated as an expansion pack for the previous game before THQ went bust, this strong footing has helped greatly as it has afforded it the time to be polished and honed, which is evident by how quickly you get into the meat of the game and the lack of bugs that usually plague its kind. There’s a focus on instant fun as opposed to depth, and whilst this may hamper longevity while the spark’s still there it’s a hoot.
At its core there is still a traditional sandbox adventure full of potential chaos and passable mechanics, but – more so than ever – this is greater than the sum of its parts. Continually throwing variety at you in every possible aspect and backed by a strong sense of humour, Saints Row IV provides a definite alternative to a certain rival. It might not have the level of polish or finesse of a GTA, but the Saints have upped their game in other areas. It has ruined open world gaming for me, and the prospect of just driving around town or just entering a shootout now seems horribly mundane.