Snow is blanketing Britain at the moment, at least 20cm here, bringing everything to a grinding halt. The perfect time to be wrapped up cosy inside and gaming away like a mad thing, except the snow’s taken out the phone line, and thus broadband connection, and the engineer can’t get his van up the road to sort it out. Still, having a 3G connection on the T-Mobile Pulse at least provides a tenuous connection to sanity (or Twitter and Google Reader, as the case may be), and at least Steam works in offline mode.
With a shiny new PC capable of moving the Grand Theft Auto IV graphics sliders off the bare minimum settings I’ve picked that back up (now slightly over a year since first installing it), and the complete THQ pack I bought in a Steam sale at the end of November includes Red Faction: Guerilla and Saints Row 2. All three are very similar games; GTAIV and Saints Row obviously so, RF:G taking that template to Mars. You run around, grab vehicles to drive, shoot stuff and perform various missions/tasks/activities. Each has an over-arching story, but lets you freestyle around between chapters.
The strengths of Grand Theft Auto IV are the characters, atmosphere and setting. It looks absolutely fantastic, even on the lowest detail settings, there’s the usual Rockstar attention to detail like the adverts, trailers and news on radio stations, and though I wasn’t really sure when I first heard about the protagonist, Niko Bellic is a sympathetic character and I really empathised with his struggles.
What really stands out when firing up Saints Row 2 is the character creation, especially coming from the fixed character in GTA. More akin to City of Heroes or Champions, you get sliders aplenty to control just about every aspect of the character’s appearance, a selection of voices, even different walking styles. The results are great, apart from facial expressions where anything apart from the default makes you look like you’ve escaped from some sort of institution. That diversity continues in the variety of activities available to you in game, from fairly conventional racing, stealing certain cars or acting as a hitman to more unusual offerings like deliberately getting hit by traffic, and spraying slurry over everything.
Red Faction: Guerilla excels in destructableness, which definitely is a word no matter how much the computer underlines it in red. Though the other two games let you smash a few windows, knock over a couple of lampposts and blow up any number of cars, buildings prove more resistant even to rocket propelled grenades. In RF:G, as a demolition engineer and with “salvage” as a form of currency, demolishing buildings is not just allowed but encouraged, and setting about structures with a hammer, demolition charges, rockets or convenient vehicle is immensely satisfying.
I was looking forward to completing Grand Theft Auto; it turned out I was only a couple of missions away from the end, but unfortunately it concentrates many of its worst aspects in the final mission. Firstly the story that was such a strong feature to begin with really tails off, especially once the mafia get involved. “Eh, it’s a turf war, badda bing, they don’t show us no respect”; the game really crowbars a relationship to try and give you a big motive for the last mission, not particularly successfully from my point of view, it all feels a bit well-trodden. Then there’s the traditional problem of the general GTA structure: drive to mission; start mission; drive somewhere; do some shooting; do some more driving; die at any point, back to the start. For the most part I don’t mind it too much, if you’re able to quicksave every couple of seconds it can render challenges far less meaningful, and in the mid-part of the game you’ve usually got plenty of options, if a mission is particularly frustrating you can wander off and try something else for a while and come back to it. The last mission, though, you’re automatically kicked on to, so there’s nothing else to do; the first part is a particularly dull car chase where you’re not even tearing around in sports cars, you’re in some wallowing luxury car following a Range Rover. GTAIV has more realistic car behaviour than Saints Row 2, in which you can spin around tight corners with ease; I didn’t mind for much of the game, as most of the time you can nick something with decent handling (usually one of the cars based on a European or Japanese make where the concept of “turning” isn’t utterly alien), but you’re forced to use this terrible car for the last mission, and haul yourself off to some warehouse. Fine.
Once at the warehouse, it’s a big old shootout. Not a problem, apart from the first time when I didn’t realise the game had left the character crouched behind a car rather than “in cover”, the difference being when you fire a rocket propelled grenade from the latter you automatically pop out for a clear shot, but in the former with pinpoint precision you hit the bonnet of the car you’re crouched behind, and destroy both it and yourself in a huge fireball. GTAIV does shooting really well with mouse and keyboard control, the horde of mooks with assault rifles you face are a decent challenge but not too tricky, but it takes a while to work through them all without exposing yourself to undue risk, so eventually you confront the bloke you came to kill and… he naffs off in a speedboat. You hop onto a bike to follow him, and after a while have to hit a certain jump with enough speed to throw yourself into a helicopter (as you do). Not expecting it at all the first time I gently toppled off the side of the ramp, so… back to the start. A couple more attempts and I got the ramp right, threw myself off the motorbike onto the skids of the helicopter, and was told to tap the space bar to pull myself up. Not the toughest challenge on the face of it, but somehow I didn’t manage it. Mission failed, back to the start, shoot, shoot, ride, jump, tap space… This time I was ready for it and tapped space like the very fury, giving a space-tapping performance such as has never been seen before. Nothing. A quick Google revealed a few others had had the same issue, and one of them had fired up Fraps to record proof, only when recording he’d climbed in successfully. I tried it, and sure enough that did the trick, possibly something to do with the way the framerate dropped from 60 to 30 when recording started. So there I was, flying the helicopter, except I couldn’t remember the flying controls and plummeted into the river, and the prospect of repeating all the earlier sections, again, doesn’t really appeal, so I haven’t been back to it since.
Over in Saints Row 2, things are slightly more comic book, both in appearance (though not to an extreme extent, it still looks good) and plot, when you start off by breaking out of a prison by stabbing someone and climbing around a bit. Getting hold of a pistol didn’t really make a great impression, the weapon sounds are distinctly underwhelming and I hardly realised I was firing (or being fired at) half the time. Having made it out of jail, though, and not being overly impressed, one of the first things the game does is pack you off to a clothes shop. GTAIV had a disappointing lack of clothing options, a step back even from GTA3: San Andreas; there are a few coats and trousers and two different hats at the first Russian shop, then a bunch of suits, jackets and slacks at the “smart-casual” and “smart” shops, and that’s it. It also had a horribly clunky wardrobe interface when changing clothes that took a couple of seconds to load each item up so it’s a faff just to browse through the options. GTAIV tends to go for a minimalist interface, which does help with immersion in the world; to save a car you park it in a particular space, when shopping you walk up to the item you want on display, a nice pair or shoes or an assault rifle, and it handles a lot of in-game options as menu choices on a mobile phone. Saints Row 2 doesn’t really care so much for realism and uses conventional text menus, which work far better for the array of choices. Where GTAIV had a few sets of clothes, Saints Row 2 has undershirts, overshirts, wombling free shirts, coats, underwear, jewellery, tattoos, shoes, socks… Things really picked up fast after the not-so-impressive start as you’ve just got so much to do. Cars can also be heavily customised and stored in a garage that actually remembers what’s in there, to the point that if you take one out and leave it somewhere in the city, it’s available back at the garage when you return. It does lose out slightly in the immersive world stakes, and suffers from an issue the GTA3 series had whereby things don’t exist unless you observe them; look down the road and see a car coming up, turn and look the other way, when you turn back there’s nothing there. It might be a commentary on solipsism, or perhaps the measurement problem of quantum physics; it’s a bit annoying on an insurance fraud activity where you’re trying to get hit by traffic and the damn stuff keeps vanishing, but it’s not generally too much of an issue. The overarching story is also fairly lightweight, pretty typical gang feuding, but it keeps things moving. Despite the massive (slightly cartoony) violence, it’s a hugely fun, light, frothy sort of game, not something to really sink your teeth into, but where GTAIV got progressively more stodgy towards the end Saints Row 2 never let up.
Red Faction: Guerilla is a funny sort of beast that falls between the two; set on Mars, obviously “realism” isn’t an issue, but it tries to give a bit of weight to things. The story is more or less Total Recall without the interesting ponderings on identity, Mars is controlled by Horrible Big Corporation/Nasty Imperialist Earth Types (EDF), you’re recruited into the Good Guy Resistance Freedom Fighters (the titular Red Faction) opposing them when your Heroic Noble Brother is killed by the EDF about two minutes into the tutorial and there’s a deep, involving storyline about a nano-something or other. Oh, wait, no, it’s even less convincing that Saints Row 2 in story stakes, but that doesn’t matter ‘cos you can knock down buildings. You progressively liberate sectors of the planet by reducing EDF control in a zone through your choice of various activities (destroying key installations, defending Red Faction areas, even “racing” when you pick up certain vehicles that have to be returned to a rebel safehouse in a certain, very tight, time limit), then play a couple of story missions to finally drive the EDF out. A lot of the gameplay is functionally equivalent to GTA or Saints Row, but with a twist to emphasise you’re a Good Guy Resistance Freedom Fighter and not just blowing a load of stuff up for giggles; you can “carjack” civilian vehicles as per the other games, only instead of throwing the driver out and nicking his car you wave at them, they carefully park up and hop out of the car shouting “yes, take my vehicle to help liberate our planet!” There are “mayhem”-type missions where you’re given a tank or (if really lucky) an exoseleton-type walker thing which is *brilliant* and told to destroy a certain number of EDF vehicles or troops, but you’re not doing it for a laugh, oh no, you’re causing a diversion so other Red Faction forces nearby can ferry orphan kittens to safety. Course none of that really matters at all, the main thing is: you get to blow stuff up. The first thing I’d look at in a new zone would be the key EDF structures, headquarters, garages, guard posts etc., and set about demolishing them with anything to hand. Pitched battles on foot are quite tricky, the EDF respond to threats mob-handed, and you’re fairly limited in the number of weapons you can carry and the ammo that each has, but vehicular destruction is rather splendid, either with liberated military armoured personnel carriers, or when you can get hold of them the exoskeleton-type walkers. The military variant with rocket launchers is the more powerful but the “civilian” version is most fun, you can flail away independently with the two arms, or smash both of them down, or use a sort of flinging motion to launch vehicles into the air. Red Faction feels a bit smaller than the other games; though you can choose different objectives it doesn’t have the sheer range of Saints Row or the depth of world of GTA, but it’s still fun.
So, three splendid games, though the end of GTAIV is a bit of a let-down, RF:G and Saints Row were great value in the complete THQ pack (from which I think Dawn of War II is going to be my next game). If forced to just choose one, I think it’d have to be Saints Row 2, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for Saints Row 3 news from E3.