The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saints Row 4 Review

Open world games need to deliver two things: Power and Freedom. Saints Row 4 delivers both, along with generous helpings of style and humor.

Top of the World

As the opening remind us the Third Street Saints have gone from thuggish street gang to something more akin to an international multimedia empire. The series has followed a similar trajectory, starting as an off-brand Grand Theft Auto and evolving to embrace an ever escalating level of absurdity. Anyone who played the third game might ask, not unreasonably, where the series can possibly go next.

The answer is straight to the top and over. The opening mission concludes with the Boss (the player character) disarming a nuclear missile in mid-air to the tune of Aerosmith’s "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing". Events then jump five years into the future where the Boss has (improbably) parlayed their heroism into a successful run for the office of US president.

Choices, choices.
There’s a brief pause here to allow for SR4’s ridiculously detailed character customization. If you enjoyed spending hours tweaking brow and chin sliders in Mass Effect you’ll find plenty to keep you busy here. Appearance and even voice and gender can be changed later for a token fee so don’t spend too long sweating over it. Scores of unlockable clothing items also allow you to dress your custom Boss in whatever fashion you see fit, from business casual to biker gimp and beyond. 

Commander in Chief

We rejoin the story in the middle of an average presidential day of signing bills to cure cancer, discussing policy with Vice President and talented actor Keith David, and punching obnoxious senators in the groin. Sadly before we can finish out the term in the shoes of the POTUS an alien invasion arrives. Despite a brief, valiant battle through the White House the Boss and the rest of the Saints find themselves captured and imprisoned in a series of virtual reality simulations. 

The Zin empire bought their vehicles straight from the TRON surplus sale.

You see where this is going? Every time it appears events have hit the level of maximum absurdity the game boldly states: “That’s nothing. Watch this!” Even if whatever is going on doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense the energy is infectious. Like a hyperactive friend rattling off directly from their stream of consciousness SR4 is clearly having so much fun it’s hard not to get carried along by the enthusiasm. 

All this setup is an elaborate excuse to turn you lose in a virtual version of Steelport, now featuring hostile red Tron lines and an alien mothership hovering ominously overhead. Of course any computer program can be hacked and manipulated. After a mission or two of getting your bearings the Boss finds themself armed with what amount to superpowers.

Man of Steel

Once you obtain your first set of powers the Boss can sprint up the side of buildings, glide from rooftop to rooftop, and hurtle vast distances in a single bound. Cars and even helicopters quickly become obsolete. These powers put SR4 more in common with the Prototype and Crackdown series than its crime-themed themed roots.

Melee enemies at super speed to trigger a brutal takedown.
Moving around the city is a kinetic joy. At full speed the Boss can effortlessly plough through fences, pedestrians, and even oncoming cars, giving you a perpetual and destructive right of way. Few enemies approach your level of raw mobility and disengaging from a losing fight is just a charged leap away. Literally hundreds of collectables scattered over the city rooftops encourage exploration and using your powers to the fullest.

SR4 hurls concepts like balance boldly out the window in the name of joyfully broken, chaotic fun. The power to materialize a tank at will (available quite early) is but one of the least of your abilities. Basic enemies serve more as physics props than a combat challenge. Once you’ve secured a few upgrades the difference between a squad of alien warriors and a squad of alien warriors that are exploding, on fire, and hurling through the air all at the same time is less than two seconds.

Why drive when you can glide?
Guns remain useful but superpowers are unquestionably the stars of the show in combat. All are fun and tremendously satisfying to unleash on hapless Zin troopers or random pedestrians. Icy blasts turn foes into frozen statues, shattering at the slightest touch. Telekinesis (one of the better implementations of this kind of ability I’ve seen) turns enemies and vehicles into improvised projectiles or simply lets you send them soaring over the horizon. Even simply ploughing through a pack of infantry with super speed engaged knocks them over like bowling pins.

Dangerous Toys

Outside of the more linear and scripted missions you generally have the freedom to tackle enemies in whatever way you see fit. If you want to faff around on rooftops and pick at guys with the sniper rifle that’s certainly an option. You’ll probably have more fun calling in a squad of backup Saints and wading in with powers and guns blazing. As mentioned powerful vehicles are available quite early on, so summoning the appropriate ride and obliterating the opposition with hovercraft missiles or tank cannon fire does the job nicely.

Cultured but ruthless alien emperor Zinyak fills out the antagonist role with style.
Completing SR4’s missions and activities supplies a constant stream of rewards beyond just XP and cash. Weapons, powers, vehicles, and allies are all doled out at a steady clip, ensuring you’ve always got something new to try. Their actual effectiveness can range from purely cosmetic to ridiculously overpowered, but as is appropriate for an open world game there is no shortage of toys to play with.

City control returns, bringing with it a host of optional activates that let you wrest control of the simulation away from the Zin piece by piece. There are an embarrassment of things to do, though the super-speed racing and telekinetic object hurtling stand out. Success rewards you with an ever increasing regular income, generic Saints backup in areas you control, and the satisfaction of slowly turning the city from hostile red to soothing blue. 

Wardens take a combination of superpowers, concentrated fire, and a QTE to finally take down.
Since much of the game, even within its own context, takes place within a VR simulation there’s little reason not to run amuck whenever the mood takes you. While you can’t demolish buildings the various cars, pedestrians, and smaller environmental props can all be hurtled, ignited, and exploded at whim. Causing enough chaos eventually causes a hulking “Warden” mini-boss to be dispatched to the scene. These creatures provide a much needed combat challenge at first, though the quick-time event required to finish them off eventually becomes a bit monotonous. 


SR4 is unafraid to wear its geek cred on its sleeves. The game is unashamedly crammed with references from stock material like the Matrix and Mass Effect to more eclectic cult favorites like They Live. Fans of the series will enjoy a host of returning characters and nods to previous games. Even amid all the superpowers and general lunacy the game takes a few moments to make peace with its gangland origins and tie off dangling plot and character threads in satisfying fashion. 

A great many characters, gangs, and locations from previous games show up at one point or another.
The often playful back and forth between the Boss and the rest of the Saints is the core of the game’s humor. An open-world game can conceivably get away with minimal cast and characterization but SR4 delivers consistently strong character work and dialog. There is a level of fourth wall breaking meta awareness that may annoy some tastes, but it’s generally used with an appropriate level of restraint. 

Even with a cast of strong characters (including some returning fan favorites) alien emperor Zinyak earns his place as a memorable and worthwhile antagonist. His introduction establishes him as a more than credible threat: intellectually, physically, and technologically superior to the Boss. Excellent voice acting presents him a man who maintains a thin veneer of culture and playful civility over a core of utter ruthlessness. Every time Zinyak and the Boss square off it’s a treat, and he stands bulbous head and spiky shoulders above your average video game villain.

SR4 never misses a chance to lampoon another game.
Past the introductory set of missions the core structure becomes an oddly effective Mass Effect Two parody/homage. Each member of the Saint’s crew needs to be rescued from the simulation and, once secured, bolstered with a loyalty mission. These missions allow some one on one time and character development with each member of the gang, but also let the designers and writers to cut loose and fit in as many loving parodies of other games as possible.  Keep an eye out for the excellent side-scrolling beat-em-up. 

Riding Dirty

While a beautiful example of the open world genre there are a few issues with SR4. The super speed and jump, while ridiculously fun, are frustratingly imprecise at times. They’re fine for traveling vast distances but can be infuriating when trying to pluck a collectable off a narrow surface or perform any sort of other precision maneuver. Some sort of setting between the sluggish normal movement and blisteringly fast and powerful super-movement might have helped.  

All clothing is purely cosmetic, so free and breezy (with built in censoring) is a legitimate way to play.
Late game rampages also become awkwardly paced. As you processed through missions the game shifts from throwing large numbers of basic troops at you in response to open world chaos to deploying smaller numbers of tougher and more specialized enemies. Alert levels also seem to ramp up much more quickly. It starts to feel like you can barely get a good rampage started before you find yourself facing a Warden. All this can make grinding for the many kill related challenges and achievements a pain, if you care about that sort of thing. 

Finally a few of mini-games (particularly the bomb tossing one) are more annoying than fun. None of these things should dissuade you from trying the game if you enjoy open-word style gameplay at all. Saint’s Row 4 consistently delivers over the top fun with a healthy dose of genuine humor and serves as a worthy capstone to the long running series.

Reasons to play: Excellent navigation and combat superpowers. Huge toybox of weapons, powers and vehicles to play with. Hilarious characters and dialog. Infinite cosmetic character customization. 

Reasons to pass: Movement superpowers can be frustratingly imprecise. Grindy challenges and achievements, especially in the late game.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Unreal Retro Review

For this retro review we’re going back to the long-lost days of the late 90’s and the dawn of the true 3D shooter. Id Software’s now venerable Quake, released in 1996, broke the first ground. Quake was a huge technological leap forward, replacing the sprite sheet monsters and 2.5D geometry of the Doom and Build engines with a bestiary and world cut from tactile polygons. 

Level design this open and non-linear is tragically rare today.

The Quake engine didn’t need to trick the eye and mind into believing it was 3D because it was true 3D. For a few years Quake, along with its various sequels and expansions, quite rightfully dominated the field it had founded. Then 1998 rolled around and publisher Epic MegaGames released their own contender: Unreal.

Technological Superiority

For the time Unreal was a graphical and technical tour-de force. The engine boasted some of the best colored lighting seen to date, animated textures, reflective surfaces, and more. It created colorful, lively environments that contrasted sharply with Quake’s muddy, grittier pallet. Though most of the models are laughably low poly by modern standards Unreal’s creatures still move, strike, and gesture with surprising grace even today.

Flags that flap in the breeze? Inconceivable!

Epic set out to produce far more than just an engine demo.  The story (and there was a story to be found) kicks off when a prison transport ship crash lands on the mysterious alien planet of Na-Pali. As the sole surviving prisoner you find yourself stranded on a vivid world of mystic natives, dangerous wildlife, rapacious reptilian invaders, and more.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Unreal builds a cohesive, continuous world. Levels connect to one another in more or less logical fashion, giving the sense of an epic journey across the planet. While there are plenty of switches to hit, enemies to shoot, and pickups to grab the game goes out of its way to make levels feel like living environments. Na-Pali has that most rare and delicate of features, a genuine sense of place.

After escaping the prison ship the next level allows you to explore the exterior.

These are not the abstract spaces of Doom and Quake. Outdoors scavenger birds circle high overhead while harmless rabbit creatures hop about. The indigenous four-armed Nali cower from gunfire and lead you to valuable secrets if kept alive. It’s possible to surprise enemies sleeping, gambling, and working at consoles.

The peaceful Nali are harmless and like to lead you to secrets and powerups.
Try not to shoot them.

The translator, acquired in the opening moments of the game, allows you to decipher human and alien text. As you never encounter living humans and the Nali don’t speak English the translator quickly becomes a valuable tool for learning more about this world and its inhabitants. Careful reading can give hints as to the way forward, how to find hidden items, or just the grisly fate of whatever poor soul you just stumbled across the remains of. The device does a good job of dropping little bits of narrative and world building into a genre that hadn’t had much of those things beforehand.

The long way home

The single player campaign is of formidable length by today’s shooter standards, easily breaking a dozen hours. This isn’t a game you polish off in a short afternoon. The campaign has time to breath and indeed, starts quite slow. The difficulty curve is gentle at first but not shallow. Unreal takes its time building up the world of Na-Pali and the creatures that live there. If anything a few of the locations start to overstay their welcome but there’s always something new on the horizon.

A good skybox is a work of art.

Over the course of the game you explore Nali temples and villages, grounded spaceships both human and alien, and a host of expansive outdoor areas. While modern games often feature far more complex environments it is rare that they approach the sheer scope and scale of the alien vistas of Na-Pali. A sky full of stars and planets hanging overhead and an evocative, top notch soundtrack give Unreal an exotic ambiance all its own.

Deadliest of the Species

Unreal rarely throws more than a handful of foes at you at once.  Most battles are really duels, fought against one or two opponents. Individual enemies are significant threats, especially while you still have low level weaponry, and take time and attention to dispatch.  

You're unlikely to forget the first pitch black Skaarj ambush.

This design philosophy is epitomized by the Skaarj. These alien warriors are gracefully, convincingly mobile in a way I’ve rarely seen matched in a shooter, leaping about the environment to attack while smoothly rolling out of the way of your rockets. While clearly Predator inspired they manage to be a distinctive and iconic foe, tormenting the Nali, plundering the planet, and opposing you at every turn. In battle they’re are fast, tough, and murderously aggressive. Duels with Skaarj warriors are easily the highlight of Unreal’s combat, excellent training for death-matching.

Skaarj AI holds up well even today.

Weaponry is an eclectic mix of cruel Skaarj implements of war, clearly improvised self-defense tools, and a few more conventional human firearms. While the odd secret might grant you a weapon a level or two early your arsenal is doled out at a deliberate pace across the campaign. There’s plenty of time to become comfortable with the strengths, role, and limitations of each.

Massive Titans serve as boss encounters, hurling boulders that gib the player on contact.

Many of your weapons are a touch more exotic than the already established shotgun/machine-gun/rocket-launcher lineup. The vicious Skaarj Razorjack fires rotating shiruken than decapitate foes and ricochet around corners. The unashamedly brutal Flack Cannon reduces creatures to crimson gibs at close range via a mass of jagged, hypervelocity metal that puts standard shotguns to shame. Unreal’s signature weapon, the formidable “Eightball” launcher, offers nothing less than a multi-shot, homing mode, bouncing grenade launcher, and nearly every conceivable combination thereof. These guns have character.

Future Kill

Unreal also delivered an outstanding death-matching experience, easily on par with the Quake series. The multiplayer focused Unreal Tournament, released a few years later, remains a LAN-party favorite to this day. Multiplayer gameplay and the art of the death-match quickly came to dominate the future of the series. 

Most interiors are spartan, but in a few places the designers really got to show off.

Aside from one short expansion pack, Return to Na Pali, and a forgettable sequel the Unreal franchise has gone on to largely ignore the single player experience. This is a shame, but the original game remains well worth playing for any shooter fan. It’s a beautiful example of how to build an absorbing alien world with the most modest of polygon budgets.  

Epic recently revealed that the 2014 incarnation of Unreal Tournament will be both free and largely crowd-sourced. Anyone will be able to download and play the game but those with a subscription to the engine will be able to use it as a development tool, selling their work through Epic’s upcoming marketplace. Embracing the power of the fan community is a sharp decision and should help the franchise thrive long into the twenty-first century. Perhaps someone will even take us back to Na-Pali for another jaunt across that vivid, alien landscape.
Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.