Saturday, May 2, 2009

Leaving the sandbox - but for what?

At some point, Grand Theft Auto stopped being about having fun. It didn’t stop being fun, mind you, but in GTAIV, the franchise morphed from mayhem and entertainment into something more serious, more literary. The tempo slowed dramatically. As Nico Bellic, an off-the-boat Russian with a sneer and a vendetta, you must do things like shoot darts with your fat cousin, play cabbie for chump change, and pay bridge tolls like a good citizen. For a videogame, GTAIV had a surprising amount of anti-fun. Rockstar put on their big-boy frowns and said: No, seriously, guys.

Into the void of mindless sandbox fun steps Saint’s Row 2, a sequel that no one expected (or, frankly, asked for). Its predecessor was an unabashed GTA ripoff, but had character in spades: one set of missions requires you commit insurance fraud by flinging yourself in front of cars. Saint’s Row 2 takes that attitude, soaks it in battery acid, sets it on fire and throws it in your face. If you want to get a good feel for the game’s soul, check out the unsettling series of promo spots hosted by Gary Busey, who will apparently do anything for a hot meal.

Both GTAIV and SR2 are Sandbox games. Both send you zipping about virtual metropolises, stealing cars and murdering bad guys and civilians alike. I stopped playing one after two days; I play the other whenever I can get my mitts on it. Hit the jump to find out why.

GTA and I go way back. Before No. 3, the series was a top-down shooter. Though homely and confusing, it was remarkable for its sense of anarchy and indiscriminate violence. With a ticking score-counter and killing frenzy bonuses, the game demanded blood like an ancient god. I played the demo for GTA2 until the disc wore down.

GTAIII gave us the third-person shooter we know and love today. Despite a discernible narrative, the game still had chaos in its heart. We weren’t used to the kind of freedom it gave us. For gamers such as myself, driven almost entirely by id, it was a dream come true. We would cozy up with a sniper rifles and turn intersections into shooting galleries until the helicopters came for us.

Two more games were released under the GTAIII umbrella, each out-gunning and out-bigging the last. Vice City damned the player to Miami, circa 1985; San Andreas banished you to Las Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, circa Tupac Shakur. San Andreas is a sprawling game, geographically vast and unlimited in its appetite for destruction. I logged countless hours burning a swath across California without completing so much as a mission. This may be symptomatic of a deeper, clinical illness, but I had a hell of a good time.

IV is different. Instead of going bigger, it went smaller, revisiting Liberty (New York) City of GTAIII and giving it the next-gen treatment. Instead of playing like a Michael Bay film, IV played like Michael Mann, all mood and ambient light and postured gravitas. In terms of quality, pound-for-pound, it’s the best in the series. The writing is top-shelf – I mean, come on, what other game tackles the disappointment and hardship of immigrant life?

You know what wasn’t top-shelf? The driving. For a game that has “car” in the fucking title, you think a little more thought would be put into the game behind-the-wheel. Every car except the super-awesome-luxury-sports coupe handles like a goddamned boat, taking turns like the Bismark and fishtailing at the slightest suggestion of a handbrake. And while you’re taking these turns, don’t count on the camera to come with you – it’ll stay riveted in the direction you were going before leisurely coming around, at which point you’ll likely be smashed into the hood of a cop car. Hope you weren’t trying to do anything important, because now you must run from the cops. So long.

The broken driving mechanics are symptomatic of the game’s overextended lunge for realism. As I mentioned, Nico must take a girl out on dates, shoot the shit with his cousin, and run cabbie routes for chump change. And unless he wants to attract cop attention, he needs to pay his fucking tolls. At one point, I actually stopped at a traffic light – not because I had to, but because I felt compelled. Because I felt, in a game world so stuffy with reality, I might as well stop at a red light, because I’ll be filing my fucking taxes next.

It dawned on me that Rockstar wanted to deliver a novel. Kudos to them, but I had a novel – Alan Furst, The Foreign Correspondent, sitting right there beside the controller. I thumbed the green button and plopped into the easy chair with Mr. Fust’s novel, where I was gratified and entertained for hours. After two days, I was finished with Rockstar’s high-minded opus. Sorry, folks. If I want a novel, I’ll read a novel.

For disenfranchised sociopaths, I recommend Saint’s Row 2, developed by Volition. The mechanics are flawless. The game is uncomplicated. It knows exactly what it is, and delivers on all counts. Don’t look for a soul-moving experience, here, but if you want to toss a grenade out the window of a car going ninety on an overpass, this is your ticket. I was recently surprised by the Red Faction: Guerrilla demo, and in an earlier post I praised its ability to do a simple thing well. Unsurprisingly, it too is developed by Volition.

Wherever GTA is going, it left behind the still-fertile ground of arcadey, guilt-free mayhem. Godspeed, Rockstar, but I’ll stay here in the sandbox with my shovel, bucket and rocket launcher.