Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sandboxes, Crime Simulators, And Supervillains: Godfather 2 and Saints Row 2

So, a friend of mine recently started getting back into console games, and one of the first things that we did was play some Saints Row 2 in coop. I had already beat the game in solo play, and I got pretty far through with another friend playing coop, before a DLC incompatibility stopped that dead. Firing it up again reminded me of just how much I loved it.

Rockstar pretty much created this genre when it released GTAIII on the playstation 2. Sure, there were two GTA's before that, and there were probably other games that could be said to be sandbox action games like it, but GTAIII was the first one that really brought an entire city to life, at least for me. Not only was it a living, breathing city, but there were lots of things for you to do in it. There are typically two different ways of approaching the game that people seem to go for. One is to do all of the story missions and "beat" the game. The other is to just leap into the world and see how much chaos you can cause before the cops kill or arrest you. But there were tons of random side things that you could do for all kinds of benefits. Hopping into a taxi cab and pressing a button would have you driving fares around the city, complete enough of them, and you'd get a fancy taxi cab parked outside of the depot that you could steal whenever you liked. Do the same with an ambulance, and you unlocked infinite run. Collect all of the 100 packages around the islands, and enjoy an arsenal at all of your hideouts.

That thread matured through out the ps2 "trilogy" of GTA titles (3, Vice City, San Andreas) until in the end you had access to a harrier jet, jetpack pilfered from Area 51, owned a casino, a record label, could fall an infinite distance without taking damage, hold your breath for an infinite amount of time, etc.

The escalation of ridiculous toys and powers was cut in the GTA games when they released GTAIV, a much more serious, and realistic game, it eschewed almost all of the ridiculous sidejobs in favor of story missions and building relationships with your contacts and love interests. For a lot of people, that really worked, but the more I played it, the more I realized that what I really loved about the previous games was that absurdity.

Thankfully, 2 years prior to GTAIV's release, THQ put out Saints Row, which went in the completely opposite direction. You take on the role of what at first seems to be a simple gang member of the Third Street Saints gang. As you progress through the game though, you start to collect powers and upgrades that go far beyond anything found in the GTA games. Does it make any sense that you're fireproof? Or that you garage can seemingly hold an infinite number of cars that are available from any garage you own? Nope, and it doesn't even bother trying to explain it. The first Saints Row was still kind of rough around the edges, but two months before the release of GTAIV, Saints Row 2 came out.

Saints Row 2 really embraced it's absurdity. Now you have sidejobs where you drive a septic truck around and hose people down with sewage, work as a body guard for celebrities, where you get bonuses for throwing stalkers into jet engines. As my friend and I were protecting a fellow gangmember on his drug rounds, from within our helicopter gunship, raining down bullets and missiles upon anyone that tried to mess with him, my friend had the brilliant insight: "we're like supervillains!" and it's true! After we finished that job we ran around for a bit, and I realized that I could walk up and rip a fire hydrant out of the ground and throw it at someone. So, super strength then, you've also got access to all kinds of weapons and resources, resistance to gunfire, invulnerability to certain types of damage. This isn't a crime simulator at all, not anymore, it's like a game where you get to play as a supervillain from a Daredevil or Spiderman comic!

In other words, if you haven't played any Saints Row game yet, you should, and there's a third one coming out in just a couple months.

Now, as I said, I've already played the crap out of Saints Row 2, but I'm on a break between quarters right now, and the little I can play with my friend after he gets off work every night is only wetting my appetite. I could just play it solo while he's at work, but I've got a pile of a dozen games that I've barely played, that are all also good. So I sat down and a made a big pile of all the games that I've not given a fair play to. I played a bit more of Vanquish, but I just wasn't in the mood for anything quite that action heavy, I wanted something with a little more progression. Then I saw my copy of Godfather 2, that a friend had picked up for me at Walmart on Black Friday for $10. It had been sitting in the shrink wrap for almost two years, if not more. I'd gotten it from Gamefly and played it a bit before, but ever since I actually got it, it just hadn't really seemed like something I wanted to play terribly.

At first glance you might describe it as being similar to Saints Row. You've got a big open world, you're in charge of a crime organization, you can kill anyone you see, steal any car that moves, and piss off the police. The thing is that the driving is terrible, and the shooting is pretty bad, when compared to Saints Row 2, which is already not the greatest in those areas. Where things get really interesting is all of the family mechanics. One of the first things you do in the game is recruit a soldier, over the course of the game you unlock more and more positions in your family, which you then fill with any hopefuls that you find about. Each family member has at least some specialty, some come with more, such as safecracking, medic, demolitions, etc. You recruit everyone as a soldier, you can promote two soldiers up to the Capo level, which increases all of their stats, and lets you choose another specialty for them. and then one of your Capos can be promoted to Underboss which comes with another stat bonus and another extra specialty.

You can have up to three family members follow you around, a medic's a good choice, because if you die, he can run up and heal you, demolitionists can plant bombs, engineers can cut through fences or disable the power to buildings, bruisers can kick down doors. There's a lot of different specialties, and they each have their use. On top of just promoting your made men, you can also pay to upgrade them, giving them better guns (provided they can handle them), giving them more health, higher weapons accuracy, fasting specialty use, etcetera.

Most of the game is played by trying to takeover and retain control of rackets, like money launderers, brothels, chop shops, drug manufacturing labs, etc. You take over a racket by kicking in the front door and killing your way to the manager, and then intimidating him into working for you. Depending on the facility, you can use your demolitionist to blow a new door in a wall, your bruiser to kick down a reinforced door, your arsonist to start a fire and force everyone to run out in a panic, or more. Once you get to the manager, you have a similar number of options, you can just stick a gun in his face, shoot him in the leg, beat on him, grab him, choke him, slam him against a wall, or hold him over a railing. The goal is to scare him into working for you, without pushing him so far that he just doesn't care anymore. Everyone's got a weakness, and if you discover it, you can scare him faster, while doing less damage, because if you kill him, you have to wait until there's a new manager and do it all over again. Sometimes you don't even have to touch them, you can just cause some property damage, or rough up the customers, and that'll be enough.

Once you control a racket, it will generate a certain amount of income for you every day. Other families will try and steal your rackets, just you like you stole it to begin with, so you have to hire guards, which have a daily salary, when your racket comes under attack, you can either drive over there with your crew and put a stop to it yourself, which gets tedious, just hope your guards last out, which doesn't typically work too well, or you can dispatch any number of your family members that aren't in your active crew, which bolsters the defense of your racket, it seems that a made man is worth two or three guards.

In addition to giving you money every day, if you own all of the rackets in a crime ring i.e. all of the brothels, you'll get a perk. The perk from the brothels is brass knuckles for all of your family and guards, increasing their melee damage. Control all of the gun runners, and you get ammo belts, which doubles the amount of ammo you can carry, diamond smugglers, bullet proof vests which halves your damage from firearms. If a rival family controls an entire ring, they'll receive the bonus as well, so it behooves you just as much to complete your own rings, as it does to break their rings. If you just want to disable someone's ring perk without having to fight their armored guards to takeout a facility, you can always bomb a racket. You just need a demolitionist, and then you can go over with your crew, or just dispatch a family member as you would to defend a racket, then boom, the rackets out of business until they can rebuild, breaking the perk.

Godfather 2 is a really bizarre game, it's much more of a crime simulator than any other sandbox title I've ever played, and it just strikes me as funny how these two games, which are basically the same type of game, can play so drastically different from each other, and still be fun games.

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