Discussing the quality of Saints Row 4 seems a bit of a moot point by now. It's got a Metacritic rating between 77 and 86, depending on your console. It's a fan service heavy love letter to the fans who helped a Grand Theft Auto also ran evolve into a satirical, over-the-top orgy of comedy and violence. As Volition's fourth entry in the series, they've streamlined the experience in such a way that it makes the pace of other recent open world games like Sleeping Dogs and even GTA IV look plodding and slow by comparison.
What really makes Saints Row stand out is it's populist streak and it's inclusiveness. It's more than just the character creation or the fact that the game never penalizes you for how you choose to present yourself, male, female or otherwise. (If I want to cruise around virtual Steelport naked wearing only a horse head mask, and believe me I do, so be it.) They also aren't afraid to offend the homophobes by tying achievements into doing everything you can with a character. Including having The Butt Sex off-screen. With Dudes!
Given that the plot of the game involves the Saints being imprisoned on an alien spacecraft, there are numerous sci-fi references, including several to the still controversial Mass Effect 3. At one point, still early in the game, you are given a choice between going through one of two doors (red and blue, 'natch) each with their own arbitrary and ridiculous list of consequences that have no bearing on anything we've experienced up until that point. Faced with this choice, all your character can do is just sigh dejectedly and choose. It doesn't come off as mean spirited but as a bit of pointed satire... however, if you're like me and you spent months waiting for game journalists to talk about narrative logic, story mechanics and subtext only to hear them drone on about more meta concerns like "artistic integrity" and "fan entitlement" in-between wildly condescending to, or even outright insulting, their audience then hot damn does this feel like a bit of validation.
(And, seriously, the next schmuck who whinges about "it's the journey, not the destination" is getting a Ralph Waldo Emerson book thrown at their head so they can read that quote in context and finally realize why it does not apply to art.)
Even the romances, if you can call them that, are used for parody. There's no conversational courtship, gift giving or friend/rival bars to manage, it's just a button press. And you can press that button as many times as you like. So if you're one of the many dudes on my Twitter timeline who are madly in lust with Kinzie, you are, at any point, a button press away from a punch in the face and some wild (off-screen) sex. It doesn't effect your game in any other way and, if you listen to the audio logs, you'll notice that all of the characters other than The Boss have unofficially paired off with each other. Yet somehow, even as parody, there's something satisfying about the instant gratification.
Ultimately, the romances in BioWare games are pretty tame affairs that result in an equally tame sex scene. Once you succeed, you may get some additional in game dialogue and a mention in the epilogue but otherwise that's it. You don't have to manage it and you never have to worry about breaking up unless you initiate it yourself. (Just like real life!) As much as BioWare fans invest in these romances, they're actually very, very surface level. So having Volition point out the very real silliness of them works as another little love tap to the series and their fans.
I do have my quibbles with the game but none of them are too serious. I experienced some (unintentional) glitches and several system lockup's when transitioning from the spaceship that serves as your hub to the simulation where you spend most of your time. (Which might be the game or a sign my 360 is about to poop in it's hard plastic casing.) Once you unlock superpowers, driving becomes not only pointless, but an annoyance when the game forces you back into a vehicle for story or loyalty missions. The addition of superpowered running and gliding also cuts the overall game length by probably 2/3rds since you can cross the city in a handful of leaps and bounds. The side missions, while fun, still feel like busy work yet upgrading your superpowers are tied to it. Also, while the definitely slapped a coat of paint on Steelport there's literally no variation between The Third and Saints Row 4. It's entirely cosmetic.
What interests me more are the storytelling improvements and how Volition treats the formula of open world gaming and storytelling, in good ways and bad, and how developers can improve the formula going forward. Especially with a new Grand Theft Auto dropping in only a few days for everyone to chew on.
Saints Row was a pretty standard crime story. Not necessarily poorly told but not memorable either. Saints Row 2 wisely doubled down on the comedy yet still had some effective dramatic moments as well. Saints Row: The Third, despite all the pointless excess typified by the in-game porn stars (apparently at then publisher THQ's behest), still told an effective, if silly, story. The big drawback has always been that the other Saints were always plot devices or caricatures as opposed to actual characters. Nowhere was this more clear than the case of Shaundi.
In Saints Row 2 she was a lovable, easy going stoner chick who mostly just got damselled. In Saints Row: The Third, she underwent a complete 180 into a hyper capable, well-dressed, no-nonsense businesswoman. Who, again, mostly just got damselled. Saints Row 4 attempted to reconcile her odd personality transplant by splitting her into two different people. Because Saints Row ain't exactly subtle.
The push and pull between O.G. Shaundi and the real thing was the best written and best handled subquest line in the game. Shaundi's shame at her past indiscretions and lifestyle and how it lead her to overcompensate into what O.G. Shaundi, acting as the de facto voice of a lot of Saints Row fans, considered a humorless stuffed shirt was great fun to watch. It's also important that they didn't choose favorites. O.G. Shaundi, while unorthodox, was still effective while Shaundi was to-the-point but equally so. And the whole thing culminated in what initially seems like another damsel moment where you have to choose between them before they take control and save themselves. It not only works to reconcile the both sides of her but as a clear statement that the writers are thinking a bit differently about how they approach their characters. (And a special shout out should go to her voice actress who nailed present day Shaundi as well as O.G. Shaundi's hoarser, smoked out tones.)
Unfortunately, this doesn't extend as much to the other Saints, but they present different problems. Pierce, as comic relief, doesn't particularly need a more clearly drawn character. More pathos would just make him harder to laugh at. You can't do much with Johnny Gat either without running into the Wolverine Conundrum: how do you explain how a badass character becomes a badass without making them less of a badass? Cleverly, his mission involves being dropped into a Streets Of Rage style brawler from back when no one gave a damn about believable characters or motivations. Bottom line: Johnny Gat was always a badass. The End. You could have argued that his "death" in The Third was due to a death wish brought on after Aisha's death but since they've retconned that... nevermind, I guess.
While people who played the first two games are well acquainted with Gat, some more examples of Gat actually being badass would have been nice. There's a lot of deference shown to the guy without a whole lot good reasons for it. Especially since the mission I had to replay the most was one where Gat was in a chopper and kept getting shot down. Which isn't very badass.
Not being very emotionally connected to the other Saints meant their missions were a little more by the numbers. The only real oversight was the one character who, after Shaundi, could have benefited the most from some actual characterization: Kinzie. We know that Kinzie is a riff off of Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo novels (in personality, at least) and that she's ex-FBI... aaand that's about it.
The extent of what I got from Kinzie's missions are: she's doesn't want to be "normal." Well, okay. Putting aside that it reused the 50's setting from the beginning of the game and a character from The Third with no direct connection to Kinzie and who they had to really stretch to make fit, it didn't really tell us anything new or interesting. Since she's the character you interact with the most over the course of the game, it felt like a lost opportunity.
This leads to something that's less a criticism of Saints Row 4 than open world gaming as a whole. We're rapidly reaching the point where the typical cycle of "go here, talk to this person and get a mission" is becoming stale. Many of the missions in Saints Row 4, for example, are gained by choosing them from a text menu. And that's fine. It's tried, true and easy to program. Nonetheless, with the number of games offering open world experiences increasing, the way developers approach interacting with the world is still largely the same.
We're given these huge worlds to travel through however we like, but the minute we undertake a quest it becomes an entirely on rails experience. Obtaining quests is also completely simplistic. Good writing can cushion the blow a bit but we're still able to see the strings being pulled. So what you end up with are games that constantly remind you that, when it comes to advancing the story, your freedom is a sham. And if you want to make it a question of immersion in the game: am I The Boss of the Saints because I'm the best? Or am I just the best at being told what to do?
Obviously most development teams don't have the time to implement a more progressive approach to quest gathering in open world games. Even Skyrim, which is arguably the best example of presenting a non-linear open world with dynamic subquests, is hamstrung by the fact that Bethesda has a reputation for games that are nearly broken on release which have to be patched over the course of months to be playable.
Part of the problem can be solved through things as simple as dialogue or misdirection. Having the character only grudgingly following orders or just changing mission objectives on the fly because your character decides he has a better course of action, just off the top of my head, would lead to a sense that you are still in control. Much moreso than just blindly following whoever is chatting at you in your ear. However much of a pain it would be to script entirely optional semi-hidden subquests or encounters that aren't listed on your mini-map with big gold stars, it would pay dividends in creating a world you actually feel a part of. In certain ways, I almost prefer the L.A. Noire style of open world where there are no distractions from the main plot. It had a story to tell and it told it.
Going into the next generation of gaming and seeing big publishers rely as heavily as they do on "open world experiences" some actual thought is going to have to go into how they present them. Assassin's Creed is going to eventually run out of notable time periods and locations to plunder for their yearly installments and even GTA is essentially presenting the same basic urban framework only bigger and more complex. Fatigue is going to set in, if it hasn't already. With the additional horsepower of the PS4 and Xbox One, hopefully we will some additional innovation to go along with it.
In the meantime, we still have games like Saints Row 4 which mine from a rich vein of potential parody in an industry that often, with the hundreds of people involved and potentially millions of dollars at stake, takes itself far too seriously. The series seems primed for a next gen reboot, unless they find some way to top taking over an interstellar alien race. (Time travel for an AssCreed riff?)
Parody and satire are a reaction to something rather than a facilitator, so while I don't expect the gang at Volition to redefine the genre, they've certainly proven themselves capable of evolving. We, as gamers, just need to keep the pressure on developers to keep evolving along with us rather than rehashing the same tired gaming mechanics.
Competitive multiplayer has never really interested me. It just hasn't. I have too many obsessions already without taking the time necessary to really excel at stuff like Call Of Duty or Halo. Deathmatches feel like a hamster wheel and the luck aspect doesn't exactly appeal to me either. You can memorize all the maps, prestige class five times over, tweak your loadout to the nth degree and still... all you need to do is turn the wrong corner at the wrong moment and you'll get laid out. I'm a very competitive player, I just don't get a feeling of actual success from the multiplayer games that are popular right now.
I know that most people like to use these gaming sessions as an excuse to bullshit with their friends but here's the thing: I'm 75% deaf. Shooting the breeze with me means listening to a lot of me going "Huh? Wha? What was that, man?" as I try to separate my friend's lame jokes from the explosions and gunfire happening around me. Which is no fun for anyone. So, yeah, I have a tendency to want to get to the point very quickly. I may like you and I may enjoy gaming with you but there's not going to be a whole lot of bro'ing out, in the traditional sense. What gets my blood up is the knowledge of a job well done.
I've being playing co-operative games for as long as I've known they'd existed. Going back as far as playing Contra with my big brother in the arcades to side-scrolling space shooters on the NES. They weren't games that were optimized for co-op but they were at least options. Even later games on PS2/Xbox like those cheesy Hunter: The Reckoning games got a lot of play amongst my friends. My first real taste of a true co-op experience was the least likely: System Shock 2.
It's only relatively recently that I've started following gaming sites closely so the initial release of System Shock 2 came and went without crossing my radar at all. It was about a year after it's release that I lucked into a used copy and it immediately became one of my favorite games of all time. I never beat it, though, because I didn't want it to end. (I had the same problem with Silent Hill.) So it sat on my hard drive for a couple more years until I found myself temporarily living with a very close friend of mine. I'm pretty sure he hadn't played it before and wanted to give it a try when one of us got the bright idea to burn an extra copy and try out the co-op. And it was glorious.
(As a side note: we are kind of the exceptions that prove the rule, as far as co-op survival horror. System Shock 2 was designed to be a survival horror experience right down to my friend, Lorin, and I sharing already limited resources. This is vastly different than something like Dead Space 3 which was built to be a action/horror game. It also helped that Lorin and I both went out of our way to keep the atmosphere of the game going: we only played at night with the lights out. Neither of us cracked jokes. We really gave ourselves over to the tension. Once we beat it, we tried playing with a third friend who just cowboy'd through the first couple of levels and we both lost interest. Even if you do build a co-op survival horror experience, it only works if both people want it to.)
The two of us picked complimentary classes, we used different kinds of weapons so as to not drain the other person's ammo, and communicated some basic tactics. If one of us was wounded, the other would take point. I'd do the hacking, he'd cover me with psionics. We took our time, savored everything we could and beat the game. Because Lorin was using a cracked copy, once we beat the final boss the screen just immediately went to black and booted us to the main menu but we didn't care. To this day, I have not had a better co-operative experience playing a game.
This is the sort of attitude I've taken into other co-op games, with varying degrees of success. You can't predict how other people will try to play so I generally find myself falling into a support role just because no one else will. Healer, mechanic, sniper, you name it. You get your macho dudes who want to hog all the glory for themselves, the schemers who think they can run a game like a military platoon (forgetting that military wisdom usually states that plans only work until the first time you meet the enemy), the inept, the lazy, the uninterested. You take your chances.
Outside of the two Left 4 Dead titles, the games I've played the most co-op this generation have been fairly unlikely obsessions: Lost Planet 2, Syndicate and Resident Evil: Revelations. In each case, your survival is dependent on the skill of your team/partner. If you go cowboy, you screw it up for everyone. Things like enemy placement, power ups and objectives are generally pretty static. It becomes a matter of how perfectly you and your team can execute your mission. That, to me, takes more skill than just spinning a roulette wheel in a Call Of Duty Team Deathmatch.
Lost Planet 2 took a page from the Monster Hunter handbook with giant monsters who could be taken down a number of different ways. Syndicate, while not the Syndicate people remembered (and brought low by a really mediocre campaign), nonetheless had an excellent co-op campaign that no one played. Both games were, to me, really undeserving of the dismissal they received. (Incidentally, I really wish Fuse were a better game because that could have totally been something I loved.)
Resident Evil: Revelations, while not exactly a return to form from a campaign perspective, has the excellent two-player Raid Mode. I've never played a game before where I had to trust my partner so much, especially if you're hunting for S Ranks or Trinity Bonuses. In the beginning, I was helped along by higher level players who shepherded me along, taught me the ropes, and really turned the game into a weird kohai/senpai relationship. Using the in-game chat system, they would tell me when to hang back or follow. Granted there were just as many people who played for 300 hours and still didn't know what the hell they were doing, but finding those guys who knew their way around was a godsend. And when I leveled up myself, I would go back and play the earlier levels, doing the same thing for the n00bs that others did for me. It turned out to be a really unique experience where the co-operation wasn't solely in combat but in the entire approach to the game. I've gotten more friend requests from randos playing Raid Mode than any other game... and most of them don't even speak my language.
In short, gaming with me means trying to find camaraderie in successfully completing a mutual goal, as opposed to a mutual BS session. It may not be as immediately rewarding as a simple hang with your friends, but when the pieces are all in place it can be truly memorable.
As usual, my reviews are pretty spoiler-heavy, but I've cordoned them off after the end of the review for people who don't want to be... y'know, spoiled.
It's very heartening to me that the three video games that have provoked the most discussion in the last year are story-heavy games that center around a relationship between two people. This generation of gaming is rapidly coming to a close and we've gone from a situation where having a good story is a pleasant surprise or a bonus to an actual selling point. Telltale's The Walking Dead went for huge dramatic crescendos, Bioshock: Infinite went for more of a headfuck, and now we have Naughty Dog, already proven in cinematic game experiences, trying their hand at the post-apocalyptic action/stealth/survival horror genres.
The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead do share a lot of the same DNA, to the point that I was worried that Naughty Dog's offering would suffer from over-familiarity. "Older man with a violent past tries to escort an innocent young girl to safety during a pandemic/zombie apocalypse" is a pretty well-worn genre at this point. We know how it ends: "I can teach you no more, son." "Nooooo! You're like the Dad I lost/never had or whatever!" "You'll be okay, kiddo. I'm gonna die now." "Nooooo!" *fade out*
The Walking Dead played these genre conventions to the hilt but was saved by giving us a sense of choice in how we survived the world and a young charge we actually felt invested in saving. The Last Of Us, it turns out, follows the same basic story beats but ends up in a different place by the end. Telltale's episodic series is, by comparison, a celebration of the human spirit in comparison to Naughty Dog's bleak, hopeless, uncompromising world.
It's a world that is being slowly reclaimed by nature. Buildings, unused and unmaintained for two decades, have decayed, fallen apart, sprouted grass, and attracted wildlife. It's a kind of sad, frightening beauty that even extends to the areas taken over by the plants that spawn the cordyceps spores, which look almost like human beings turned inside out: petals that resemble skin and stigma, anthers, and filament that almost resemble human organs. It's a world that's devolved, slowly erasing or reclaiming every inch of human advancement. Whatever the world is now, it's not ours. Human beings have, naturally, devolved right along with it.
What were originally conceived as quarantine zones have becoming permanent city-states ruled over by fascist thugs. We see their handiwork right away, murdering anyone for any infraction they feel warrants it. It's a brutal utilitarianism that has no time for due process or empathy. In the wilds, you're constantly on the run from nearly feral hunters who have zero qualms about killing and possibly eating any unlucky travelers who wind up in their crosshairs. We occasionally hear bits of conversation that hints that these people are just trying to survive in a world that's actively trying to kill them, but the fact that they immediately default to remorseless killers whenever you're spotted makes them ideal cannon fodder as we shoot, stab and strangle our way through waves of them later on. There's a bit of every reviewers favorite new vocabulary term "ludonarrative dissonance" in that they never try to negotiate or surrender but that's still, to me, within acceptable levels.
Our protagonist, Joel, has no moral high ground to stand on himself. After the events of the heartbreaking intro sequence, he's been whatever he needed to be to survive: a murderer, thief and smuggler. He's a survivor but his loss and his subsequent experiences have turned him into a cold, selfish, stubborn, and largely unlikable man. He's very much the "grizzled hero" archetype but without anything resembling a heart of gold underneath it. I got the impression that if it weren't for his partner (and presumably his lover) Tess, he wouldn't be doing much of anything at all. She's the driving force of their smuggling operation while Joel seems to mostly just go through whatever motions are called for. Though the motions usually seem to involve killing someone.
The game proper kicks off when, after confronting a double crossing colleague, they get roped into escorting a young girl, Ellie, to the militant freedom fighter faction, The Fireflies, where they hope to use Ellie's seeming immunity to the cordyceps to come up with a vaccine. Joel, unwilling to invest in a quixotic cross country trip for some pipe dream, is ultimately forced into it. The notion of hope has apparently become so alien to the man that even the risk of believing in something is enough scare him off. Throughout the game, I never so much liked Joel as understood him.
Ellie, on the other hand, is immediately likeable. The "perky teenager" thing could have easily rubbed me the wrong way but as the only real bright spot in a cruel and fucked up world, she became a pressure valve. The foul mouth, bad jokes and general know-it-all teenager-ness of the character is usually the only thing to look forward to. You're playing as Joel but Ellie is clearly our point of view character. The first time she tried to help me take down an infected runner, I cheered. I had been busy trying to find cover to desperately flip through my weapons to find one that had more than a bullet or two and out of the corner of my eye I see her leap on the thing's back and start stabbing it with her pen knife. The little brat just saved my life and I loved her for it.
While the game is thankfully designed to not be an escort mission where you need to hold Ellie's hand the entire time, it was the thing that kept continuously breaking my immersion. Ellie is effectively invincible and invisible so there were many, many occasions where I'd be creeping around and trying to find an angle on an enemy and Ellie (or another partner) would literally walk right in front on them to huddle next to me. In a world designed to be so engrossing and intense, something like that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Frankly, I would have preferred if Joel just kept continually insisting that Ellie hang back in combat situations and she rejoins you when you've cleared the area out. Neither is a perfect option but to have my immersion interrupted repeatedly like that was the biggest obstacle in maintaining the experience Naughty Dog tried so hard to create.
Other reviews and comments I've read have complained here and there about the scavenging you have to do, but I loved it. Not only did it give me a chance to explore and admire the amazing art design of the game, it provided an opportunity to interact with it as well. What you see usually isn't just some background on your way to another combat scenario. Houses aren't just empty, they're abandoned. You can still see family photos on dressers and toys littering the floor in some child's room. They're interrupted lives rather than just some empty space that exists in the game. Finding some scissors or bandages or bullets was just a bonus for me.
The violence in the game is particularly noteworthy in that it fits the world perfectly. When Joel strangles someone, he actually strangles them. No Schwarzenegger-esque instant neck snaps. If you linger at enemies you've head shot, sometimes it looks like you can see the entrance and exit wounds. Other enemies, depending on the gun you use, will have their heads explode when you hit them. As in little tiny chunks of skull debris around their body. This game is definitely not pulling any punches. Occasionally Ellie will make a surprised exclamation when you brutally murder someone and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I didn't occasionally share the sentiment.
My only other major criticism of the game stems from the combat. Frankly, I was fine with the infected taking multiple headshots to kill, but when it came to the human enemies, things got very frustrating very fast. There are a couple of weapons that offer armor piercing upgrades but ammo is so scarce that you can't be guaranteed to have any when you need it. While I like the scarcity of the ammo as far as giving things a survival horror feel, the way that the ammo is parceled out made sure that there were long sequences where we are never given any hunting rifle or shotgun ammo, etc... so if you didn't save any from the section where it was more plentiful, you're just out of luck.
This lead to multiple situations like this: I'm in a firefight. I'm behind cover. I poke my head up and headshot a guy wearing a helmet. The guy falls down and pops back up again sans helmet. I pop up again and headshot him again. He falls down again. Assuming he's dead, I try to move to the next bit of cover only to get knocked on my ass by the same guy who is still shooting at me. I understand that this is a game where you're not supposed to feel like a superhero and many gamers would likely breeze through the combat if a headshot meant an instant kill but nothing breaks the spell of the game faster than an enemy surviving multiple headshots. It's one of two imperfect options but, like with Ellie's invisibility, I would have preferred the option that didn't take me out of the game.
That said, the scarcity of ammo and the strength of the enemies, especially the infected Clickers, make for some wild sequences. Shivs become mandatory in not only stealth killing them but saving you from their insta-kill attacks. Runners are easier to deal with but are big trouble in packs and Bloaters need to be shot in specific areas to be killed efficiently. On Hard difficulty, I rarely had more than ten bullets for any gun at any given time and every missed shot was enough to make me wince. Even scavenging as much as I could there would be lengthy sequences in which I was missing a specific ingredient for a much needed shiv or med kit. Every combat situation seemed to dissolve into panic by the end of it. Only a couple of times was I able to successfully navigate a sequence without being spotted and it felt goddamn triumphant when it happened.
The game is broken up into seasons which take place during specific locations including my hometown of Pittsburgh (it looks pretty much like I left it, to be honest). Each section has it's own unique vibe to it, which keeps things from getting stale, and the games take care to break up the style of play, so you may find yourself on horseback or hunting deer to change things up. Much like the Uncharted games, though, when you see oddly placed cover, prepare to start shooting.
After a blockbuster sequence during winter, we move onto the real finale which feels oddly like anti-climax. And I'm fine with that. Actually, I was oddly tense and keyed up for the final section the game because I kept expecting the writers to go for the obvious and easy ending but they never did. After an occasionally frustrating fight against some armored enemies, everything gets wrapped up in an intriguing ambiguity. You don't have to worry about the game leaving an important questions unanswered but it does leave you with a final scene that allows you to draw your own conclusions.
As a game, Naughty Dog is still perfecting it's cinematic experience. They're still not quite there in terms of making everything perfectly seamless from a gameplay perspective but it is a very well told story, even if it hews very close to what we'd expect up until the end. It's certainly a step up from Uncharted 3, which fell a little bit too in love with it's own characters. As a capper for this generation of gaming, it's a fantastic send-off. It's uncompromisingly bleak and gorgeous to look at. If you're open to the experience, it will take an emotional toll on you. Here's to a new generation of games that hopefully follow suit.
SPOILER WARNING! Here's where I start talking specifics about what I thought of the story, so back out now if you haven't played yet!
Joel is a dick. He's the character you control through most of the game but, as I mentioned in the review, I never liked him. Understood him, but never liked him. The loss of his daughter, calcified by twenty years of murder and robbery, had made him into a hollow shell. It isn't until Utah that he feels comfortable enough with Ellie to joke with her (having the shared experience of killing people who want to eat them is a pretty good bonding experience, it turns out) but by then she's lost in a melancholy of her own.
What makes Joel's decision at the end, and our complicity in it, work is that we know that Ellie is more mature than just about every character in the game, so when the Fireflies decide to operate on her without her consent, they've essentially compromised themselves into being the villains. As much as Joel's decision is driven by selfishness, he's not wrong to do it.
The irony is that if Marlene had taken the time to talk to Ellie instead of treating her like a non-human, something she felt she likely had to do in order to make what she felt was the "right" decision, there's a good chance Ellie would have agreed to the surgery anyway.
Ellie's melancholy at the beginning of the Utah sequence, I thought, was originally just her coming to grips with the events in David's camp. Until she has that conversation with Joel about what he thinks the Fireflies need to do in order to get vaccine. Joel, re-energized and hopeful, dismisses it as just doing some tests and taking blood samples... but Ellie isn't convinced. I think she was preparing for the fact that she was going to have to sacrifice herself to save the world. And was trying to be okay with it.
Marlene isn't evil, she's just lost herself. She got the means and the ends all mixed up. She knew that there was no guarantee the surgery would provide a vaccine. She was willing to kill a child she was tasked to care for on the off chance it provided something useful. Ultimately, she was just using Ellie to her own ends. Joel is precisely the opposite. As much as he wants to save this child the way he couldn't save his own, he's also doing it for her benefit. That's what makes Joel's actions ultimately heroic to me.
I get the argument that he is essentially damning the world but I don't agree with that either. There's no supporting evidence for this, but I think Ellie isn't just a genetic aberration, she's the next stage in human evolution. There's no way of knowing how many kids born post-cordyceps have developed an immunity until they get bit. But the chances of surviving an attack with just a bite are slim let alone other people letting you stay alive long enough to prove you won't turn. And considering you have as much chance being killed by hunters or dying from starvation or disease, there's no telling how many kids being born are just like her. But that's all supposition.
Ellie is "The Last Of Us" because she represents everything that's still good about humanity. She's the only character who doesn't act from a place of selfishness. Joel is Joel. Tess is out for herself and only sees the light when it's too late. Marlene cares only for her mission. Bill is a solipsist. Sam puts everyone at risk by not telling anyone of his infection. Henry blames Joel and then kills himself because he can't take responsibility for himself. Ellie is the only character who remains true, even after her run in with David who is arguably the worst humanity has to offer.
Joel represents all the bad decisions, selfishness and shitty, violent impulses that were ingrained in Humanity Mark 1. Protecting Ellie from those who wanted to harm her, even if she was prepared to sacrifice herself had anyone bothered to ask, and then lying to her afterwards are proof of it. Joel is not a redeemable character but neither is he truly villainous, just sadly human.
The question at the last scene is, to me, can Ellie believe the lie? She says "okay" but there's nothing in her face that particularly sells it one way or the other. And if she can, what does that say about her? Has she had enough of being the Golden Child and wants to get on with what passes as a normal life? If so, is that okay given what she's capable of? (Personally, I don't think the lie is sustainable.) The fact that they switch Ellie to your control in the lead up is a nice touch too, making it more like Joel is lying directly to you. Not only do I like that they left it pretty ambiguous, I like that they had the balls to not go with the dramatic-strings-and-weepy-send-off ending. It's ultimately a very personal story.
Like I said in the review proper, I really liked the game despite some flaws. I just hope more people follow Naughty Dog's lead and make more story-driven games that don't revolve around easy, smug horseshit like Far Cry 3's whole "you're a terrible person for enjoying all this carnage we lovingly provided for you." This game is a great example of meaningful violence. I'm definitely interested in whatever Naughty Dog does next.
This afternoon, Microsoft essentially threw a Molotov on a grease fire when they announced that they were backing away from the DRM, used games and online check-in features for the Xbox One that have caused so much consternation amongst gamers. After being flanked and decimated by Sony during their E3 press conference, and after a near terminal case of Foot In Mouth Syndrome in the wake of it, we knew Microsoft was on the defensive. However, adhering to the well-worn rule that corporations on the level of Microsoft never admit that they're wrong, many people just expected them to slide quietly into a second place showing in this generation's already carnage-fueled Console War.
However, in comes today's announcement which amounts to a full strategic retreat. It's not worded as such, naturally, (it's been pleasantly PR'd into almost sounding like it was their own idea) but just about all of the issues that stuck in people's craw were addressed: No daily online checks which will brick your system if you don't have a stable connection. You can resell or trade your games to whomever you like at the cost of announced features like family sharing and disc-free gaming. DRM will be up to the publishers and, after seeing the fit people have thrown in the last few months, there's a good chance they'll only institute it slowly and quietly. Also, to match Sony, the system will not be region locked. Unless you're like me and you mistrust the notion of cloud computing and/or hate the notion of an always on Kinect watching you like the quietly judge-y eye of Sauron, there's no reason the Xbox One shouldn't regain a place at the top of your Christmas list.
This has naturally provoked the usual responses: gamers cheering victory at having won a rare battle for game ownership and at the same time decried as a loss to publishers and developers by guys like Cliff Bleszinski. It's also been the subject of a lot of empty cynicism, typified by this tweet from John "TotalBiscuit" Bain (proof that not all bowler hat wearing British video game personalities are created equal) in which he turns his nose up at the idea that the hashtag culture and Facebook posts had any bearing on changing Microsoft's position because... dead revolutionaries in Turkey?
First of all, that is some wild, wild false equivalency there. To somehow equate actual dead human beings with a consumer rights issue in regards to a video game console reeks of an almost Autistic disconnection to reality. Mothers are mourning their dead children right now. You're arguing about video games. These two things don't belong anywhere near each other. For any reason.
To be fair, Bain clarified his position in subsequent tweets, almost to the point of completely neutering his original statement (unless you happen to be one of the ten people in the world who truly believes that their tweets were solely responsible for Microsoft's change of heart) but I bring it up more as an example of a particular worldview. Bain is far from alone in his assessment. There's a lot of people supping on sour grapes tonight.
To listen to the few developers and publishers willing to speak on the subject publicly, you get the impression that they aren't so much angry as exasperated. Like kindergarten teachers wrestling with a particularly unruly child. To hear them tell it, we just don't understand what they're trying to do with the Xbox One. We don't understand how badly developers are being hurt by used game sales. And if we did, we'd be completely on board with Microsoft's new all-in-one entertainment box of pure joy.
This speaks, in bold and italics, how little they think of their audience. And yet I still can't see them as mustache-twirling villains. I believe that they believe what's coming out of their mouths. Having worked for a Giant Unnamed Corporation for six years now, I see how these decisions happen. The people in charge are so removed from the way normal people operate that they're completely unable to relate. They think they're being magnanimous but they don't actually know anyone who is being directly affected by their policies. It's not evil (not normally), it's just out and out ignorance. So, yes, people like Cliff Bleszinski have yet to find a burden they aren't willing to unload on gamers to line their pockets, but they've convinced themselves, though ego and love of money, that we don't really understand what we want.
The Xbox One is not a carefully crafted compromise between what gamers want and what publishers and developers need. It shifts the playing field so far away from the rank and file user that a backlash had to happen. Microsoft would have us believe that they're essentially giving us Steam in a box with some bonus accoutremounts like "cloud computing," an always-on Kinect and TV integration. They also continue to completely miss what makes Steam appealing.
"Me no trust that white face man, like Geronimo..."
Valve's genius lies in the fact that they aren't a publicly traded company at the constant mercy of perpetually paranoid and frightened millionaire investors. They also have an unconventional management structure that companies like Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision, et al, would never have the bravery to implement. They want the money Valve makes and the goodwill it's gotten them without the sacrifices and risks they've taken to get there.
Microsoft wants the cheap and dirty answer to Steam. (Sometimes called "EA Origin.") Some game journalists, most of whom should know better, have talked pie in the sky fantasies about the Microsoft equivalent of Steam Sales and whatnot, also completely ignoring exactly how unique Valve's position is. Want proof? Look at Microsoft's attempt to steal Sony's shine with the Playstation Plus and their virtual library. Microsoft's offer? Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed 2. Games you've already played and sold years ago. Games that are multiple iterations removed from that by now. Games you can pick up for the low, low price of $3 or $6 used on Amazon, respectively. Games that have been cross referenced and double checked on spreadsheets for their minimum effect on the bottom line. Meanwhile, Sony is offering interesting indie titles like The Cave and Thomas Was Alone as well as smaller games like Sleeping Dogs and Spec Ops: The Line.
So, yes, Microsoft is clueless. They're looking at numbers and missing the big picture. Sony is only marginally better, having had their own descent into hubris with the PS3 announcement. Even now, their position is to just maintain the status quo, allowing them to pull ahead by virtue of doing absolutely nothing. Certainly GameStop is no hero, having sketchy policies that undercut their consumers as well. (Personally, I go to Mom and Pop used record stores for my game trading.) And while Microsoft soils their chinos? Valve is already floating the possibility of digital used game trading which will put them another generation ahead of their console brethren and win them a whole new round of plaudits.
These corporations exist to make money and will only give back as little as they can to maximize profits. That's business. Not good, not evil, just business. Yet corporate types and their apologists are only part of the problem. Some people are evidently immediately suspicious of what they see as an angry mob which steamrolls over any nuanced position.
While there's certainly no shortage of pointless, free floating anger on the Internet, it's often given far too much weight by virtue of the fact that people are drawn to negativity. A lot of these angry social media commenters are professionally angry. Acknowledging them validates them. Most people have a hard time keeping in mind that when it comes to dealing with trolls, you are actually the least important part of the equation. Their anger and whatever wires got crossed in their heads are the real issue. You're just a convenient target. There's a certain amount of ego you have to let go of if you're ever going to survive the Internet.
Which brings us to the courageous souls rolling their eyes at the idea that this angry mob of people who don't want to give up their consumer rights have somehow deluded themselves into thinking their voices matter, even if all they could do is change a Facebook photo and tweet at some monolithic corporation. Because, y'know, people are dying fighting for freedom in Muslim countries and that.
Firstly, if you're doing something, you're not doing nothing. That just seems like common sense. I'm a hack blogger no one cares about, I like talking to people about subjects likes this, but most people have lives and jobs and kids. This is of interest to people insomuch as they like games, but they're limited in the amount of time they can spend. There are no trenches here. There are no battles to be fought. You commiserate amongst friends, you refuse to pre-order, you tweet your displeasure at Microsoft. That's more or less the extent of what you can do. Because, at the end of the day, you're arguing about a luxury item.
If you really hold people gathering together around a common cause to be such a useless endeavor, what were you expecting to happen? An actual movement? Occupy Microsoft Headquarters? You'd just mock them for that too, for taking things too seriously. The reality is that every little bit helps. It fosters an atmosphere for discussion and gets the information out. Just because they don't wear the slogan on a t-shirt or tattoo it on their skin doesn't mean they aren't helping.
I consider my cynicism towards giant, multinational corporations to be an informed cynicism based on experience. In a sense, I admire Microsoft for being so ballsy with their wanton greed. Usually there are systems in place to hinder creativity, foster a sense of homogeneity, and avoid risk. People, on the other hand, are endlessly surprising. This isn't some kind of soppy, wet Liberal hugfest either. Microsoft's decision, I'm sure you'll find, was motivated by not wanting to lose money. They're worried about losing money because people were taking to social media and talking about how much they don't want what Microsoft is selling. Which translated into slower pre-order numbers. Which, compounded with the messaging problems they've been having, translated into A Problem. Twitter wasn't the only factor, but it was a factor.
One of my biggest problems with this industry is about how the gaming press, developers and publishers treat the people who make their livelihood possible. There's a disdain in a lot of people I find very disturbing. As if somehow we random dudes wield a power equal to the multi-million dollar corporations who provide us with our entertainment. Where all people remember is the troll who told them to "fuck off and die" and not the ten people who praised them. As if that's everyone else's fault and not the fault of the troll and the failing of the person's own ego.
We don't have any real power. That's what makes Microsoft's reversal all the more delicious. No one with any sense is claiming full credit for it, but nor are we just buzzing flies, fit only to be swatted away by those with a bigger soapbox to stand on. We won a very minor victory in a not-particularly-important fight. If someone wants to make a comprehensive chart about how much money the industry is losing to used games sales vs. how much they're losing to bloated budgets for bland sequels with diminishing returns, I'm down... but, if you don't mind, I think I'll take my victories where I can find them.
WARNING: Contains light spoilers for Silent Hill 2 and heavy spoilers for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour!
Last year, I was lucky enough to attend the anime convention Saboten Con after hearing at the very last second that video game composer and producer Akira Yamaoka would be performing songs from his legendary Silent Hill soundtracks along with collaborators Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Joe Romersa, and Troy Baker as well as doing a Q&A. Not only is this an extremely rare occurrence in the States, it's extra rare for a burg like Glendale, Arizona. Having followed the series since it's initial release, I showed up without hesitation.
The Q&A ended up being mostly about sound design but Yamaoka-san did answer one question in a way that I found fascinating: when asked about technical limitations that may have hampered previous games and what he'd do now, he responded instead that the lack of limitations were the problem. Given my hearing problems and the J-Rock show going on the next room, I'm pretty sure that he was trying to make a point about horror games that many have made about horror movies as well: with an unlimited budget and the ability to create anything, how do you find the scares? Horror is about being in some sense confined, inside the game and out. Without deliberate limitations, there's no fear. For a psychological horror series like Silent Hill, one that's been looking down the barrel of declining sales and quality for at least the last decade, I'm wondering if the series isn't in the best possible place for a resurgence.
Survival horror games filled a hole in my life I didn't know was empty. Back when my brother and I were renting Playstations from the grocery store for the weekend, Resident Evil was a constant. The atmosphere, the helplessness, the long odds of survival, it hit home for me in a primal way. I never did beat the game. I never felt like I had to. Silent Hill was the same for me, but moreso. With all the goodwill in the world, Resident Evil did had a level of cheesiness to it that was hard to dismiss. Silent Hill felt more grounded... just a normal guy looking for his daughter and dealing with all of this insanity that's just thrust upon him. I never beat that game either.
Goddammit, steer INTO the skid, Harry!
I did beat Silent Hill 2, though. Played it right through to completion without a second thought. Not only was I in a dark place in my life personally, it also tapped into that post-9/11 sense of doom that seemed to pervade everything. The story, a man returns to a haunted town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, worked in a way that very few games had at the time. While it did have problems (the original voice acting was pretty flat) it represented everything that video game storytelling could be in a world that was, and still is, dominated by cookie cutter shooters. It was a psychological horror game in the truest sense of the word: the enemies were drawn straight from the lead character's subconscious fears and desires. Akira Yamaoka also turned in his best soundtrack of the series, with his usual range going from grinding industrial to sad and gorgeous guitar solos.
Silent Hill 3 was a return to the original game's rather convoluted mythology, which was fine, but it didn't resonate with me the way that the second game did. It was more notable to me for introducing Yamaoka to his musical muse, voice actress Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Her voice, alternately smoky or strident depending on the mood, matched perfectly with what Yamaoka had been trying to accomplish in his instrumentals.
A more experimental approach went into Silent Hill 4: The Room but not necessarily to it's benefit. I have a bit more fondness for it then other people I know. The first person sequences caused a bit of head-scratching but I liked it's return to telling a story independent from the earlier mythology. Yamaoka also turned in another brilliant soundtrack including a dark, seven minute hymn about hating your mother, "Room Of Angel," that ranks up there with the best in the series. Sadly, this was Team Silent's last game in the series as they dissolved after the tepid response to the game.
I never played Silent Hill: Origins, largely because it was initially a PSP exclusive that was ported to PS2 after my system had gone kaput. I've tracked a copy of the PS2 version down but until I buy a replacement PS2 system, I'll hold off on talking about it.
Wait, how old is Heather again...?
Silent Hill: Homecoming represents one of the lowest points of the series, only eclipsed by the most recent iteration, Downpour. While Double Helix had a good grasp of atmosphere and phantasmagoria, spurred on by Yamaoka's (arguably weakest) soundtrack, the story was very, very flimsy. The Silent Hill series has used the "children in danger" trope quite a bit but Homecoming and Downpour hammer it right into the ground. There was a time you could use it for an easy bit of sympathy but it's since been overused to the point of being meaningless. It only works if we're given a reason to care about the child, something that Homecoming and Downpour forgot. Instead, we spend the game chasing the idea of a child, which just doesn't work. Unless you're going to take Telltale Games' approach to The Walking Dead games and actually let us spend time with and bond with the child that's in danger, I don't think you can get away with it anymore. Not easily, anyway.
But Homecoming has much bigger problems then just that. The lead character, Alex, is initially presented as a soldier returning from war looking for his missing little brother which leads him to a bigger mystery involving the children of all of the town's founding families. Alex is presented as a sure-footed fighter, both in melee and firearms, due to his "combat experience" but, in the game's bid for a twist, it's ultimately revealed that he's an escaped mental patient, not a soldier. So why was he so good at combat if he's spent his adult life doped up in a mental institution? Moreover, the game introduces actual human enemies for the first time, which Alex dispatches as easily as the monsters. These human enemies are representatives of The Order, a shady group of people who... y'know what? It doesn't matter. It boils down to Double Helix trying to explain something that no one wanted explained in the first place. If you know the basic rules of how the town of Silent Hill operates, that's all you need. Conspiracies and cover up's and convoluted explanations just complicate things and ultimately lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. (Ahem, "midichlorians.") It slipped, a couple years later, that Double Helix wanted to position Homecoming as the first in a trilogy of games and I think that Silent Hill fans really dodged a bullet there.
This is why I found Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to be such a breath of fresh air. A Wii exclusive, Shattered Memories, is the strongest entry into the series since the third game. The biggest hit the game took from critics was completely removing combat in favor of occasionally annoying chase sequences and, while I see their point, it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the game at all. Shattered Memories turned out to be Akira Yamaoka's final soundtrack in the series and he went out on top. Despite how little blood there was in the game (to the point where actually seeing it became a little startling) the developer's use of snow and ice and Yamaoka's oppressive soundtrack lent it a lot of atmosphere.
The game reuses the premise of the original (Harry Mason searching an abandoned town for his missing daughter) and instead focuses on puzzles and exploration. It was the first time since the second game where I found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to open the next door. They present "psychological horror" as a literal thing, using a framing sequence of a visit to a psychiatrist, to bookend the chapters. Even more than that, the game is recording and cataloging how you play the game and offers you an ending (and occasionally costume changes) based on numerous, completely invisible, factors. Much like the second game did, just to a much smaller degree. Because you don't have the option of a binary choice, your ending feels more authentically yours, instead of just reloading a save to see what was behind door number two. And it works. Spend too much time in the brothel staring at pictures of scantly clad women? Spend too much time staring at the asses of the couple of women you meet in town? You'll get an ending that represents that. And so on. I got what I assume is the "good" ending and it actually made me misty-eyed, a new experience for me. That is a helluva success. During the credits, the game actually lists off an actual psychological profile based on your choices, which, while not entirely accurate, is a cool addition. (You could write a dissertation about Silent Hill and it's attitude towards mental health. Shattered Memories is the only example in the series of psychiatry not being presented as evil.)
One of the boldest sequences, which I won't spoil, follows the idea of making a player helpless to it's logical conclusion. An event happens and you are literally trapped. There is a longer-than-you-might-think period of time where you can't do anything. That initial panic of "what am I supposed to do!?" slowly gives into "shit, I'm fucked." Which is as close to an honest representation of what you'd actually feel in that situation as a video game could give you before the answer presents itself. (If you don't find the item you need to escape, the game doesn't penalize you, either. A nice touch.) The only downside is that, in an world of online walkthroughs, most people would probably see this as a puzzle and that they're just missing the right piece. Still, it takes balls to force a player to stop playing the game and my hats are off Climax Studios for it. While it wasn't a hit, hopefully it will reach the cult status it deserves.
Which brings us to Silent Hill: Downpour and... it's pretty bad. Not broken, just bad. Much like Homecoming, the game has a strictly straight-to-video level plot, paper thin characters, and a serious deficit of tension or scares. However, it's by no means a total loss... there were some aspects of the game that actually worked: there's the addition of a UV light to help with certain puzzles. The graphics look great. As your progress through the game, the loading screen starts adding phrases like "She's lying to you" or "They know what you did" in-between the tips and tricks. And there are a couple of good sequences here and there. Unfortunately, the game can't seem to capitalize on even the things they got right. The UV light is never used beyond a bit of puzzle solving. The graphics don't matter if they have the most sterile representation of the Otherworld yet. And the best sequences in the game are optional side quests and easily missed. Not to mention "a couple good sequences" being not nearly enough for a 10 to 12 hour game. Much like the creepy loading screen phrases never build to anything, neither does the entire game. It's perpetually halfway there.
As the first game without Akira Yamaoka's score, Dexter composer Daniel Licht had really big shoes to fill and, in the end, was not equal to the task. He's fine for atmospherics but whenever the game needs your heart rate above normal, particularly in the Otherworld sequences, he's nowhere to be found. Part of the joy of Yamaoka's soundtracks were the effort that went into playing with sounds designed to make you uncomfortable. There's no sense of that in Licht's work. It's standard horror score paint-by-numbers. This pervades the entire game, including the endings which (in addition to the story problems already there) are almost silent. Worse, someone had the bright idea to waste good money hiring KoRn to do a song for the soundtrack. Putting aside that the song they turn in is really cringe-inducingly bad, if the idea was to attach a Recognizable Band to the game to get some attention, why on Earth would they use a band that hasn't been relevant for at least a decade? If they wanted an inappropriately emo band for the soundtrack, My Chemical Romance would have been a more timely choice and even their popularity was fading fast. Poor Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is reduced to a couple of tracks of humming.
The problems with Downpour are systemic. Nothing in the game is better than mediocre. The melee combat is perfunctory: block, wait for an opening, hit, repeat. All melee weapons are breakable and, apparently, breakable at exactly the same rate. Wooden sticks break exactly as often as lead pipes and metal axes. Gun combat is occasionally broken. I've missed enemies with a shotgun blast at ultra close range because my reticule wasn't just so.
The story is a mess. Everything about it is surface level. I was one step ahead of the story at every turn. Much like Homecoming, the protagonist is a sort of masculine ideal: a "soldier" or a prison inmate. Manly men. Not easily relatable and not as prone to being scared as you should be in a survival horror game. Nobody's reactions make logical sense. Murphy's first reaction to the Otherworld is practically non-plussed. The only time he shows any emotion is when he's being hurt during an Otherworld chase sequence (and his screams sound a lot like Homer Simpson) or when he does the groan-worthy "fall to his knees and scream at the sky" bit. The other characters fare even worse. The only female character in the game never gets to do anything other than screaming, threatening to kill you, or crying. The radio DJ is introduced and forgotten, never to be seen again. They even have a Magical Negro character. It's like reading a laundry list of every horror/suspense trope you can think of. They aren't even rearranged in some kind of interesting manner
The game introduces side quests, all of which are easily missed but provide some of the game's best moments. There's a sequence where you play a gramophone backwards to see a murder scene in reverse that might be the best scene in the game. But unless you have a particular item and notice a second floor light on, you'd never see it. There's another cool sequence in a cinema that ends with you going into the screen to look for an item, complete with an old school survival horror control scheme. Other side quests are utterly pointless. They're provided with no context and no payoff. Maybe you get an item or two but for a game that should be trading in scares, what does an extra Medkit matter?
The Otherworld looks dull and the your time there is usually just puzzles or chase sequences. You're not even being chased by a creature but a translucent red ball... which is hardly the most threatening visual in the world. Other than a couple homages to that old silent movie Safety Last! there's nothing of any real interest there. The "normal" world is appropriately dessicated but lacks the nuance to drum up anything other than the odd tense moment. The game allows you to peek into a room before opening it but then does nothing with the idea. Gone is the handheld radio that spits static whenever monsters approach despite really needing the extra level of tension not present in Licht's score.
Creature design? Again, completely surface level. Silent Hill 2 had all manner of weird monsters representing parts of James' subconscious, from the enormously phallic Pyramid Head to two pairs of women's legs connected at the hip. The man clearly had issues with women right down to the Mary/Maria thing. What does Murphy Pendleton have? Uh... prisoners? Which represent... umm... his time in prison? (Seriously, when the big prisoner guys put their arms out and do the "Come at me, bro!" move, you will laugh out loud.) The Screamers and the Weeping Bats are just generic designs. They have nothing to do with his dead son or the child molester or the prison guard he may/may not have killed. They're just sort of there.
Everything caps off with seriously lunkheaded endings that actively work to undo the character's journey. Both "good" endings shake out with the truth that Murphy wasn't responsible for killing the child molester that murdered his son OR the prison guard who tried to help him. In which case, what was the fucking point? Silent Hill exists to force you to come to terms with the things you try to hide from yourself and the people around you. Or else. It's about forcing you to take responsibility for yourself, in the most traumatic way possible. If you eliminate that, you've killed the character's entire arc and his reason for being there. You're then turned loose by the female character to... what? Spend your life on the run for a crime you didn't commit? Thematically, it doesn't fit. It would have made much more sense for Murphy to own up, go back to prison until he's cleared of assaulting the guard, and once he's out of prison, he can be truly free.
The "bad" ending has Murphy being put to death for the murder of the guard AND his son, even though the guy who raped and murdered his son had already been caught, charged, and imprisoned. He's injected, his eyes close... that's it. Cue credits. There's nothing to suggest that it's the town's influence at work. No hints of Otherworld influence. No stinger scene. Not even any music. It just sort of farts out there and that's that. Yet another wasted opportunity. I'm not even going to get into the special "surprise" ending which is neither as amusing or non-sensical at the previous ones. The only ending that works is the "Full Circle" ending where Murphy is caught in a loop and has to do the whole thing all over again or the ending you get if you fail the final scene where the female guard is forced to take your place. Those, at least, made sense.
The worst part is that all of these endings change through strictly binary choices. At a couple of points, the game stops and presents you with the option of trying to save someone or killing them/letting them die. Ultimately, your choice doesn't matter, (that would open a can of worms I don't think Vatra could handle) it just boils down to whether or not you're willing to try. The only other factor is whether or not you choose to kill the enemies you fight or simply leave them twitching and unconscious. This doesn't work for a couple of reasons. One, it flies in the face of ingrained gaming logic that says that enemies need to be killed or else they'll just get back up and keep attacking you. If it felt like the devs were trying to make a larger point about violence in gaming, that would be one thing but instead it just seems like an arbitrary choice. For another, not killing the creatures doesn't matter. They're not humans. They're not even alive. They're constructs that are (supposed to be) created from Murphy's subconscious. That means that there's no moral quandary about killing them which invalidates the idea that finishing them off is somehow "bad." Like everything else, it doesn't seem like a thought out decision but an easy way to tabulate what ending you get. Compare this to games like Silent Hill 2 or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where your ending would change based on things as esoteric as not slowing down so a character could keep pace with you or letting your gaze linger too long on pictures of some scantily clad women. It's hard not to see it as step back or a lazy design decision.
Am I being hard the game? Yes. Does it deserve it? Also, yes. It's a game full of missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and half-assed design. If you want an idea of exactly how luckless the Silent Hill franchise has gotten, note that Downpour was meant to be one part of an entire Silent Hill themed month last March along with a Silent Hill HD Collection and a PS Vita game called Book Of Memories. Well, as it turns out, Downpour was extremely mediocre and undersold. The XBox 360 version of the HD Collection was a buggy mess that Konami REFUSES to fix and Book Of Memories was delayed until fall, presumably to be in sync with the execrable Silent Hill: Revelation which is Resident Evil movie level bad. (Not even cheesy-but-fun like the first movie. We're talking Extinction or Afterlife level.)
So, yeah, things are about as bad as they can be.
But they can get better.
Next level scary, bro. You don't even understand.
Survival horror, as a genre, has faded into the background. The best work is being done by smaller indie developers, which I think validated Yamaoka's feelings that limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, are where the scares lay. Look at Slender, for instance. Dead Space, the last man standing for big budget console survival horror, has given up and gone action. Outside of indies like Frictional Games, the field is nearly empty. It's all about mainstream multiplayer games now. Silent Hill will, in all likelihood, never reach the heights it once had.
So stop trying.
You can do what the Silent Hill movies seem to want to do and throw a bunch of potentially scary images at you with no logic or context, hope people don't notice and just milk those diminishing returns as long as you can. Or you can lower the budgets, hire on passionate, talented fans looking to tell stories in that universe and let them loose to make the scariest, darkest things they can think of. Lower your expectations and focus on quality storytelling. Build up a reputation for pants-wetting scariness and make your money from your cultish audience willing to follow you anywhere and buy anything with the Silent Hill name on it. Even if it isn't the biggest selling series in the world, make it mean something. And, for Christ's sake, get Akira Yamaoka back.
That would be the smart play. Now for the realistic one:
Developers and publishers need money... and since there's nothing about the Silent Hill premise that lends itself to space marines, giant explosions, and cover-based gunplay, they're limited on how to exploit the franchise to their best ability. Multiplayer is, according to EA anyway, a mandatory component of gaming now. Find some kind of creative way to integrate it into the franchise. They seem to have attempted that with Silent Hill: Book Of Memories but, not being a Vita owner, I'm not so much against the idea of a handheld, non-canonical four player action co-op multiplayer Silent Hill game as I am suspicious of their ability to pull it off. Vita's don't exactly have the largest install base right now so even if it does well, it's only doing well for a Vita game.
Don't make the mistake of going co-op. It's easy and fans see right through it. Look to how Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma used multiplayer and work from there. Allow other players to invade a person's world and cause havoc or act as some kind of invisible director, setting traps and enemy spawns. Think outside the box. The name Silent Hill still means something, even if it doesn't have the same meaning to kids as it does to 30-somethings like me. That should be enough to at least get you the benefit of a doubt.
It's crunch time for the franchise. Downpour was disappointing enough that there's only enough room for maybe one more game before people like me, people who have been there since day one, give the franchise up for dead. Bad movies aren't helping. Handheld co-op games aren't helping. At this point, only a "reinvention" could get enough people talking for it to matter... but for that you'll need more creative people on board then you already have. Go big or get small, just don't settle for mediocre.
Having spent well over twenty hours (and counting) traversing Raid Mode, I wanted to take a quick couple of minutes to pass on some tips to newcomers who might just now be trying it out in it's console/PC iteration.
What is it? Raid Mode is a single player or two player co-op mode that pits you against the monsters of RE:R in a (usually) linear map where the goal is to make it to the end quickly. Completion time, enemies defeated, accuracy, and damage taken are the main factors in getting an S rank but there are also badges for defeating all of the enemies, taking zero damage, and attacking a level at an equal or lesser level than suggested. Getting all three badges at the same time gives you an additional badge, Trinity Bonus. Badges and higher ranks give more points which can be spent in the Store upgrading your weapons. (Your first Trinity Bonus also unlocks a new character.)
Tips for low level players: If you don't want to take advantage of the two cheap DLC packs Capcom has released with a number of low level weapons and parts, my suggestion would be to log in and synchronize your account at ResidentEvil.Net. The site will provide you with RE Points which you can use to send items and weapons from the website to your game. The more you play, the more points you get. The first several levels can be a bit of a slog, so being able to send yourself a few more powerful weapons will make you more efficient in the early goings. Additionally, the @RE_games Twitter feed will occasionally offer Present Codes you can enter into the site for additional weapons.
Unless you've fully beaten the campaign mode on every difficulty level and gotten every SP achievement possible, you likely won't have many characters to choose from at the outset. As such, you should focus on using Jill and Parker to their best advantage.
Jill is a handgun/machine gun specialist, so finding high crit parts for the pistol and longer magazines for the machine gun should be a priority.
Parker is a shotgun specialist, so fire rate, reload rate and, most importantly, stopping power should be where you spend your money. Crowd control becomes a priority very early on. Having a nice shotty with a lot of stopping power means enemies will spend most of their time on their ass where you can easily melee them to death.
Speaking of crowd control, pulse grenades will be your best friend. Upgrade the amount you can carry first, as soon as the game allows. Grenades are a useful tool on Chasm difficulty but they do not level up as you do and, most of the way through Trench difficulty, I've yet to get an option to buy more powerful iterations. Even enemies with a weakness towards certain grenades will take dramatically less damage on Trench and Abyss difficulties. However, pulse grenades will always be able to daze foes. This is the ultimate crowd control device. It'll get you out of trouble when you're surrounded and/or open up the oozes so ridiculous damage from a fully charged melee attack.
I decided to tough it out and play Raid Mode solo for the first half of Chasm and, in retrospect, I really wish I hadn't. Solo is good for hunting badges but co-op is really where it's at if you want to S rank a stage. The game doesn't seem to scale in difficulty to having a partner so an extra body means more damage dealing and quicker completion.
My experiences playing with strangers has been almost entirely positive. The only downside is that no one appears to use voice chat, which leads to frustrating tactical situations where you'll be plugging bullets into an ooze that has crept up behind your partner and it wallops them for huge damage because you couldn't warn them. Co-op play is great but co-op play with a friend over a headset is ideal. Also, I have a feeling that participation will drop off pretty dramatically for this game in the next few months since Capcom haven't announced more stages via DLC, just extra characters.
I've played over 23 hours of Raid Mode so far and I'm only at level 25 and most of the way through the second of three difficulty levels. If you want to max out your characters for achievement hunting purposes, you're looking at probably around a fifty hour investment. The console versions of the game even have an extra long bonus map, The Ghost Ship, which has a recommended level of 50, so there's plenty of gameplay to be found in Raid Mode if you're looking to extend your RE:R experience beyond the admittedly goofy campaign. Going in, I didn't think it'd be worth my time but it's quickly become the highlight of the game. If you plan on renting it or picking it up cheap when the price drops, don't ignore it, it's actually well worth your time.