What are we willing to accept?

Grand Theft Auto V was released on the 17th, easily the biggest game left in this generation before the new consoles are finally out.  As is usual for a new Rockstar release, everyone is talking about it.  The general opinion seems to be that Grand Theft Auto V is another well-crafted game in the series, with the expected array of improvements ranging from minor tweaks to smart new mechanics and systems.  Reviews have been, for the most part, unsurprisingly positive.

However, there has been one common complaint that I’ve seen brought up several times, from game sites like Kotaku and Gamespot: an issue with Rockstar’s continuing focus on misogynistic or racist themes in the Grand Theft Auto series.  These games writers are uncomfortable with the severity of the themes in Grand Theft Auto V (ironically, they aren’t as concerned with the ever-present gratuitous violence, but that’s a topic for another day).  Having not played the game myself, I can’t speak directly to how bad it is.  The few moments I have heard about are hard to relate to without direct context, but they do sound potentially troublesome.

While I do have issues with the sexist/racist caricatures that often plague this series, that’s not what worries me the most.  My main concern lies with the fact that we are so quick to dismiss the offensive nature of these themes just because they have always been a part of Grand Theft Auto in the past.  It’s shocking to see the number of commenters on both Kotaku and Gamespot’s reviews who don’t think there’s a problem, who believe that this tone is part of what makes the Grand Theft Auto series compelling.  While it may only speak to the current distaste of sexism discussion in gaming culture, I feel like there is a bigger problem here: how unwilling we are to talk about these issues.

Maybe the cultural backlash is partly to blame.  Those of us that have been with the series since Grand Theft Auto III are no strangers to the various controversies that have arisen over the games’ content: Jack Thompson vendetta against Rockstar, the whole Hot Coffee fiasco, and a dozen other things that we roll our eyes at and wave off when they pop up on Fox News.  It’s possible that we’ve gotten complacent in our criticism of these games due to our desire to placate those uninformed masses that think gaming creates serial killers by the minute.  Any mention of offensive material is quickly silenced to avoid enticing the general media into yet another anti-game frenzy.

It’s also a little disconcerting how Rockstar keeps focusing on these worlds that are often sexist, racist, and offensive in a multitude of other ways.  Sure, these themes are always portrayed in a playful, nudging way.  But satire only goes so far; at a point, offensive material, no matter if it was meant for humor, is just offensive.  I’m not saying Rockstar shouldn’t make Grand Theft Auto games the way they want to.  Rockstar, like any other game developer, is free to create the stories and worlds they wish to. Few other developers are so willing to do things the way they want without any concerns for how the rest of the world sees them.  Rockstar presents their ideas and crafts their worlds with such unflinching determination and impeccable detail that we have to experience them; it’s just disappointing that we have to deal with such off-putting characters and events to do so.

Of course, the gaming masses have spoken with their wallets in such an overwhelming manner that Rockstar knows it doesn’t have to change a thing.  We’ve come to know Grand Theft Auto games as abrasive and satirical, something that Rockstar pushes even farther with each new release.  There may be an expectation now where we can’t imagine one of these games being any other way, even though we tend to be repulsed and taken aback at times.  Rockstar, a developer that does what it wants with very little regard towards others’ opinions, will continue to do what it wants, and the Grand Theft Auto games will continue to sell very well.

Gaming culture expects everything to be more when it comes to game sequels: more levels, more modes, more everything.  This is also the case with the Grand Theft Auto series.  We’ve fallen into this horrific cycle where we expect each new Grand Theft Auto to surpass the last in offensiveness without thinking about what exactly it is we’re asking for.  As the level of repugnance increases, so does our tolerance and delight for this distasteful style of storytelling.  Is there an eventual inflection point, where the cycle breaks and we’re all just offended?  Or are we too willing to accept whatever is necessary for the next great game from Rockstar?

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Saints Row IV review (PC)

Saints Row IV hyped me in a way that few games do.  About two weeks before the game came out, I started going nuts waiting to play it.  The next several days featured several failed game sessions as I couldn’t sate my desire for the game I most wanted to play.  I didn’t end up getting much done in those two weeks for this reason.  On the night of its release, I eagerly sat up until it unlocked on Steam and played for several hours before collapsing in bed.  The next two days were packed with nothing but Saints Row IV, as I couldn’t bring myself to play or do anything else until I had absorbed everything.  It’s safe to say that Saints Row IV is a true successor to the strengths, and occasionally weaknesses, of Saints Row the Third.

The story of Saints Row IV builds on the events of Saints Row the Third, featuring many of the same characters and the same city, albeit in a different manner.  After a bit of a head-scratching opening, the Boss of the Saints becomes the next President of the United States.  Keeping with the absurd tone of the previous game, this new position of power leads to radical changes in the White House and to governmental procedures to better suit the style of the Saints.  Everything goes well until aliens begin taking over, kidnap the various members of your cabinet, and lock you away in a digital version of the previous game’s city.  This gives Volition the chance to make non-stop Matrix references mixed in with the brand of humor that everyone loved in Saints Row the Third.  Saints Row IV is just as crazy and hilarious as the previous game–maybe even more so at times.  Keith David is in the game, not as a character but as himself.  The jokes hit a few of the same notes, but they always hit harder and funnier.  A few segments in particular are just as must-see as those infamous sections from the Third like the Deckers Must Die mission.  You should really play Saints Row IV if you’re at all interested in these moments, because they have more punch when you experience them completely out of the blue.

It may be surprising for both new players and fans of the Saints Row franchise just how many small references are made to previous games in the series.  While the story most directly builds off Saints Row the Third–enough so that it is recommended to play that before this–there are a surprising number of references to both Saints Row and Saints Row 2, especially when you consider that the previous game featured absolutely none of these.  For those who haven’t played those early games, going back to get a better handle on the references made here isn’t necessary but can be interesting to see if you have the patience to deal with the rougher design found in those older games.  Still, these constant reminders of where the series originated are an intriguing touch for those fans of the series who have been there from the beginning, and they provide some thought-provoking insights into how the series has changed over the years.

Unlike Saints Row the Third, which seemed to focus its story mainly on the absurd plot itself, Saints Row IV is concerned with better getting to know the characters that make up your gang.  Through the mission where you rescue the individual character and his or her loyalty mission which opens up later on, you get a deeper sense of that character’s history and struggles.  As an example, Shaundi is a character who is always angry and frustrated with everyone since Johnny Gat’s death in the Third.  Through her missions, you are able to learn why she has those issues and help her get over them.  There are also audio logs for all the characters as well, giving personal insights into the individual through his or her own voice.  These are particularly well-done and quite telling at times.  While the character building may be a bit thin when compared to a game like Mass Effect, these moments still packed a surprising amount of emotion and meaning into characters that were always likeable but never really that deep.  The effectiveness of this character exploration varies from character to character, with a few duds, but the new focus makes for a stronger story overall, one that isn’t yet another “fight three gangs” story like all the other Saints games.

To succinctly sum up Saints Row IV’s gameplay, one can say Saints Row the Third with superpowers.  Many of the systems from the previous game–such as unlocking upgrades through respect levels, taking over parts of the city for constant money supply, and even several of the side mission types–are identical.  The feel of the shooting and the driving (although you won’t be driving anymore) are just as they were in the Third.  The superpowers may seem like a minor change overall, but they really enhanced my enjoyment of the gameplay.  In particular, the traversal powers are so easy to use and so unbelievably fast that I just enjoyed running around the city for no reason.  Well, there actually is a good reason to do so; clusters, orbs of data (not unlike orbs from Crackdown), are scattered EVERYWHERE around the city and are the currency to upgrade your powers.  Upgrading the traversal powers so you can glide, eliminate stamina cost for anything, and run faster than cars makes for an immensely entertaining experience, better than Crackdown or any other open world game of its type ever felt (with the possible exception of Infamous).  After experiencing the freedom that the movement powers bring, I don’t know if I could ever go back to previous Saints Row games–or any other open-world game, for that matter.

Of course, there are powers suited for combat as well.  These powers replace the grenades from previous games, but the first power, Blast, is essentially a direct substitute for them.  Each combat power can be slotted with various elements, such as fire and ice for Blast, that are unlocked over the course of the game.  I don’t think these powers are as funl as the traversal powers overall; in fact, I opted to ignore them and instead blast most enemies in the head with my upgraded pistols instead.  Most of the weapons from previous entries in the Saints Row series return, with a few additions.  The new guns seem to be mostly focused on jokes, like the Dubstep Gun or the Abduction Gun, and are quite powerful but not at all necessary.  I went through the game mostly using the dual .45 pistols, my gun of choice, and never had any trouble mowing down every enemy I encountered.  The more powerful enemies, however, require use of a combat power to down their shields and open them up for damage.  These powers can also be quite useful for groups of enemies, but steady aim and a quick trigger finger with about any gun can get you out of these situations just as smoothly.  Overall, I would say that the combat feels about on-par with Saints Row the Third: perfectly enjoyable but not really the main appeal.

I feel like I can’t write a review for Saints Row IV without talking about the music.  The couple of scripted licensed-music moments from Saints Row the Third were fantastic, and they make their glorious return in Saints Row IV.  Whoever at Volition is picking the tracks for these moments absolutely nails the mix of absurdity and perfection in pairing the song to the scene in question for maximum hilarity.  Spoiling these moments here would be criminal, but I can say they are some of the funniest parts of the game.  It’s also worth mentioning that you now have access to the radio whenever you want, even outside of a car.  You can have pumping techno beats or classical music playing over your firefights or when flying around the city, adding another layer of ridiculousness to the whole experience.  The tracklist may be a bit sparser this time around, but the songs choices are smart and cater well to their individual stations.

The Saints Row the Third engine is quite old at this point, and it seems to show its age in Saints Row IV.  Easily the biggest problem I had on my playthrough was the scripting errors.  On several occasions, and even multiple times on one particular mission, I had the game refuse to move forward with an event, due to an AI ally not performing their actions or an enemy I needed to kill to progress refusing to spawn.  This meant I was forced to restart the mission from the nearest checkpoint, an inconvenience which also revealed how poorly some of the checkpoint placing was.  The reusing of Steelport as the city is also a bit of a disappointment.  Having the new traversal powers does at least mean you get to see the city from a new angle, which I think helps to ease the repetition a bit.  Also, several of the story missions take place in uniquely crafted areas to mix things up and keep things interesting.  Another small bummer is that there are far less in-engine cutscenes with your character.  One of my favorite things to do in Saints Row the Third, particularly on subsequent playthroughs, was to dress my character up in ridiculous outfits and laugh my way through the cutscenes.  Saints Row IV does a lot of its storytelling in-game, meaning you don’t get those funny cutscene moments.  It’s a small, nitpicky thing to mention, but it did bother me a little.  All of these problems add up to an overall minor level of annoyance that hampered my enjoyment occasionally but was never enough to ruin the blast I was having the rest of the time.

Saints Row IV may feel a bit dated in areas, due to its rather old engine, but I had a blast playing through it.  In fact, I would say it’s the most fun I’ve had with a game this year.  Although the traversal powers may seem like a minor change, they eliminate the tedium of most open-world games by making travel from point A to point B fast and fun.  No other game of this type had me still wanting to run around the world after I’d cleared everything out, including the side-missions.  Story-wise, Saints Row IV is a memorable mix of ludicrous humor and shockingly deep character development that resonated with me in a way I wasn’t expecting.  This game made me realize just how much I like the characters and the world of the Saints universe and makes me sad to think the next game is going to be a reboot instead.  It may not be the most technically competent game, and some of the directions Volition took are a bit strange, but it doesn’t really matter.  Saints Row IV is a still a remarkably captivating and utterly enjoyable game that you may have trouble putting down.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (X360) review

Summer of Arcade has brought the gaming populace many great downloadable games over the last few years.  It stands to reason that these games would still have existed in some form or another without the promotion, but Microsoft’s focus on getting the best of the best in its summer lineup of Arcade games has landed them some truly fantastic products and highlighted many superb games that absolutely deserved.  Being the last year of Summer of Arcade before the new Xbox console, Microsoft really needed to go out on a strong note.  Thanks to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a beautiful and poignant platformer with an interesting control idea, they get to do just that.

The story of Brothers is quite simple.  You play as two brothers with a recently deceased mother and a sickly father.  The brothers decide to go out and find a cure for their father using a map, given to them by the doctor/priest, that will lead them to a sacred tree with healing water.  This simplicity in storytelling is also reflected in the cutscenes themselves: they feature Simlish-esque dialogue and characters that over-emphasize their gestures to get their points across instead of relying on voice-acting.  It’s a very charming storytelling technique, one that manages to pack a lot of feeling into each scene even without any dialogue.

I really enjoyed the slow way that the world was introduced in Brothers.  At first, it just seems like your traditional olden times village and countryside without any hints of fantasy.  Soon, you start to encounter trolls, ogres, and a variety of other fantasy creatures and settings, used in ways that aren’t always as you might expect.  As the game goes on, the tone also gets much darker.  The theme of the game is very much about the death of loved ones and the loneliness that follows, and this manifests itself in some very shockingly potent ways over the course of the game’s three or four hours.  The nature of the story makes it very easy to predict, even very early on, but it’s the way that the story is told that makes it still have plenty of impact even when you can see every “twist” coming.

The two-sticks gameplay of Brothers, with each stick controlling an individual brother (and each trigger for their actions), may seem a bit gimmicky at first, but it is used to amazing effect several times by the end of the game.  The game often forces you to maneuver both brothers at once in different ways, a task that can be confusing due to usage of the right stick as a movement stick; this keeps the game challenging in a way that isn’t like the norm.  My personal favorite example was a section where the two brothers tied a rope between them in order to climb to a tower.  This section has you dropping one brother from a ledge, using momentum to swing him over to another handhold with the rope, grabbing on, and doing it for the other brother.  It’s quite creative and fun to both watch and pull off and is probably the game’s best use case for the control scheme.  The end sequence is also worth mentioning–it manages to turn the whole thing on its head in a very clever and meaningful way that needs to be seen and experienced firsthand.

While the two-sticks gameplay allows for some memorable moments, Brothers occasionally falters when a puzzle is introduced.  A few of the puzzles didn’t really make much sense or weren’t explained particularly well when I first saw them, which forced me to poke around and get slightly frustrated before finally getting it.  Also important to note is that the world can often feel like it was designed for the game taking place in it.  The way forward is entirely, painstakingly linear and feels very constrained.  Paths often seem much too convenient and trying to think about the logistics of a few particular segments may leave you scratching your head, simply due to their design.  It’s something that most games suffer from, but it stuck out to me in Brothers more than most games, most likely due to the fact that it otherwise feels like such a real place.

I was quite surprised by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  It was one of those games that I knew existed before its release but didn’t actually know much about what it was  Once I started to hear everyone talking about it, I knew I had to give it a shot.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Everything from the clever creativity of the control scheme to the intricately detailed design of the world (with only a knock on its linearity) is top-class and the story, particularly the way it is delivered, is something that will stick with me for a long time to come.  It may have a few rough spots here and there, but the overall experience is one that I think everyone should see at least once.  Few games manage to handle such a simple, yet powerful story with such a subtle touch.