We’ve been playing these two games back to back, and the results have been an interesting contrast. One game tries hard to be more mainstream and accessible, while the other sometimes comes off as deliberately obtuse and obscure. One is unapologetically what it is, while the other figures out how you play and configures itself accordingly.
And in the end, they’re both actually kind of disappointing, in different ways. Fun, but ultimately in a year packed to the gills with Game of The Year contenders, both of these fall a bit short of greatness.
Skyrim is undeniably an achievement in a few really important respects, not the least of which is how it designs itself around your play style. Want to be a slightly less subtle Garrett? The game’s quests will focus on lockpicking, archery, and persuasion. Want to just basically stab everything? Right, you’ll build the skills you need to, well, stab everything.
If only it was actually fun to play the main quest. At all.
Here’s the main problem: the worldbuilding is spectacular, with lots of texture and either well-done or amusingly terrible voice-acting (The Jarl of Whiterun really needs to get a more enthusiastic wizard). The sidequests are great and highly engaging. And playing the game itself is a lot of fun: this game rewards exploration, although sometimes that reward is a hilarious death, so save often.
But Bethesda makes two huge mistakes with the main quest: they give your character absolutely no personality whatsoever, and they mistakenly assume you’ve played all four previous games in the series and are deeply invested in the politics and culture of Tamriel.
And, yes, many have and many are, but for those of us who found the game a fairly standard D&D setting and the writing absolutely uninteresting, it makes the main quest annoying, especially since it’s so ridiculously self-serious. There’s this expectation that we care, a lot, about a country even our blank of a player character has literally just wandered into. Claims that you don’t have to play the main quest are a bit off; you’ll be hitting the dungeons anyway because you need those dragon words and that loot, so you’ll be advancing in it anyway. The characters are often flat and rarely engaging.
There’s also no feel of genuine impact to your decisions: if you decide to join a faction or a guild, it will have effects, but those effects feel like toggle switches, not changes to the fabric of the land.
At the same time, it’s hard to fault Bethesda for having genuine ambition, here. If the game fails at making the setting entirely convincing, that’s not for lack of trying and certainly not for lack of thought. This pushes the franchise further in every respect, and you can see the work the designers put into every aspect of the game.
In short, Skyrim does what it does, being a deep action RPG, really well. But the main story is so uninteresting that you’re probably going to care more about getting into bar brawls to defend a local maiden’s honor than you are about a dragon unmaking all of Nirn.
Saints Row: The Third
“Saints Row” has the opposite problem. Well, not that it thinks we care about its compelling story: the plot is little more than a vehicle to the next shootout or humiliation of Pierce. But certain mechanics have been made so generic that something about the game’s charm feels lost.
Again, though: it’s not for lack of effort. Volition listened to pretty much every complaint people had about the series and worked on it. Now, buying stores and buildings isn’t an afterthought: it’s crucial to taking over neighborhoods and increasing your cash flow. Complete an activity and instead of just cash and Respect, you get a small percentage of the neighborhood. Instead of driving to locations to unlock activities or missions, you just use your smartphone to start them. You have to hunt down and destroy gang operations. In short, actually laying claim to the city involves a lot more exploration and strategy.
The problem, though, is the change to the Respect system. Instead of Respect being essentially currency to unlock and play the main storylines, it’s now just experience points: earn levels of Respect, and you can go into your smartphone to buy, basically, superpowers. In short, it’s possible, although difficult, to completely level up your character by, essentially, holding down a small section of the neighborhood, doing stunts like driving in the wrong lane, and waiting to rack up the cash.
It’s a small change from the previous game, where you had to complete levels of Activities in order to earn bonuses like infinite ammo and quicker health regeneration. It was irritating, especially since some of these had AI that wanted to make you bleed: SR2 fans remember well trying to complete an Escort mission and discovering that news vans from the ’80s can somehow go 200 mph and find you no matter where you go. But when you got those coupons, you felt like you’d really earned them.
Here’s it just…well, goodies. It almost feels like FarmVille instead of a console game. It weighs down the experience a bit to know that you’re only speeding up the process of earning perks, not actually earning those perks.
Also, they did cheat a bit on level design: there are parts of Steelport’s basic layout that will look more than a little familiar to “Saint’s Row 2″ players.
Still, in many respects, this is a substantial step up. The graphics are vastly improved, although there’s still cars suddenly popping up on the road occasionally. The difficulty curve has been overhauled so that it’s challenging, but you won’t get swarmed by death squads once you creep past, say, two notoriety ranks. The checkpoints in missions are actually placed sanely.
And, needless to say, it’s a lot of fun. The series continues to strike a good balance between pushing you along in the story and encouraging you to be an utter sociopath for giggles. Completing story missions wins you the most Respect, so they’re necessary, but completing Activities earns you money, and also is where the game brings out its most rabid and insane aspects.
Most satisfyingly, the satire of the previous game is back and more brutal than ever. You thought the radio ads were awful in the last one? You haven’t heard anything yet.
“Saint’s Row The Third” is a lot of fun. But with some mechanics tweaks, it would have felt a bit more compelling. Ah well, there’s always number four.