I wanted to do a late December Round Table post, but my thoughts never really gelled into anything that I thought would be interesting to read. In graduating this month even the immediate future seems fairly hazy. I could have written something generally about the importance of meta-gaming networks like Xbox/Games for Windows Live and Steam (and considered writing a rant on why I'd like to see Valve become a larger player in Games for Windows Live without necessarily compromising Steam; Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 need/deserve cross-platform play), but I didn't think I had much more to offer than what just about anyone could have written.

I'm going to be following up with just about every company I applied to this week and I'm going to be sending my resume out to a few more companies. I'm also going to dive back into my projects that I'm trying to finish. Maybe they'll start to produce some income soon-ish, which would be great seeing as the current economy doesn't appear to be the best to be job hunting. It would be nice to have a bigger to team to work with me on them, but that might come with time, particularly if they start to generate income and I can afford to pay salaries.

The time I meant to spend on the December Round Table post I instead invested into a few more choice hours of vacation mode. As with several of my other vacations, this one was a virtual vacation. I spent a good part of the last week revisiting the wonderfully violent and entirely fictitious east coast city of Stilwater.

We've had amazing beer on tap at home since the graduation party that my parents had for me, and I received a very precious amount of money from friends and relatives. Most of it will go to shoring up my sad little checking account, but I did put some it toward a ticket to Synecdoche, NY (awesome) and a copy of Saints Row 2.

I've had discussions about this before, but Stilwater generally seems to have better geography than the GTA games and as much as I want to love the GTA series, Saints Row and Crackdown have captured more of my time and presented much more fun than the GTA series for me. But I'll save comparisons to GTA some other time, perhaps after I've actually completed more of the GTA story lines.

Mostly I'll just compare SR2 to SR1 and on that front SR2 is a three steps forward, one step back game with respect to SR1. Most of the things that I love from SR1 are back, with a few notable exceptions. The biggest omission from SR1 is the "MP3 Player", which I used extensively in SR1. It's omission makes the in-game music stores just about useless. The custom playlist remains as a fake radio station, but the prime advantage in SR1 was the fact that music could flow outside of the vehicles (and yet kindly paused for cutscenes and important dialog). There were some pretty awesome missions in SR1 that were the better for storming in with a wild custom playlist and I missed that in SR2.

I think the lack of the MP3 Player feature adds to my disappointment with SR2's soundtrack. To me there were several very iconic tracks in SR1 and an overall style across all the tracks that left a fairly big impression that I can't quite put my finger upon and may not actually exist outside my own head. SR2 has bigger name licenses in the music and ultimately seems less cohesive and definitely less iconic. Too much of the music sounds just like if I tuned to a real radio station and less like what I want from a virtual world, but that's just me. Using top tracks and major licensing deals seems to be working for GTA, but in comparison to SR1's oddball collection of strong "B" licenses from lesser known or more independent bands SR2's soundtrack just seems to lack something intrinsically "Saints Row" that I thought I was looking for.

Perhaps the other big thing that I want from SR2 that it doesn't deliver is that I wanted it to more powerfully voltron together with SR1. SR2, unlike most of the GTA series, is a direct sequel within the exact same city and there seems plenty of wonderful opportunities to utilize save data from SR1 to create a richer play experience. It might have been nice to use a few of the unlocked things from SR1 within SR2, or vice versa. Perhaps more usefully, I'd love to be able to search for the remaining CDs and Tags (SR's semi-hidden collectibles) from SR1 in my exploits during SR2. But that is perhaps less a fault of Volition and more a product of my own desire for stronger semi-persistent worlds in games of this sort.

There are a lot of things that SR2 gets right, however. GTA4 began with a few taxi service missions and SR2 begins with a prison break and then a high speed boat chase with water flying everywhere and the chance to blow up tons of police choppers and boats; all the while watching the game's frame rate tank in the wonderful "holy shit look at all the water and fire effects on screen at once" way. I'm not a frame rate nazi like some gamers are, and I think frame rate chugging due to all sorts of awesomeness on screen is almost more honest and cute than the now over-utilized bullet time to fake awesomeness on the screen. Frame rate drops were the original bullet time, and are obviously due to actual complexity issues, rather than any aesthetic issues.

Anyway, SR2 continues SR1's tradition of knowingly being a larger than life cartoon gang violence sandbox and letting you cut to the chase (literally) as soon as you have your bearings on the control scheme. I liked the addition of a new difficulty level on the near side of easy ("casual") and appreciated the opportunity to more quickly blow things up towards the completion of the game's campaign (I've defeated all three gangs and am halfway through the epilogue; albeit there is a lot of side stuff that I've skipped or completed partially).

The geography of Stilwater is one of my favorite parts of the game, and I'm a bit of a virtual geography nut so there are a lot of buttons to push within that respect. SR2' Stilwater shares the same overall layout as SR1's Stilwater and for the most part the game conveys a good sense that it is in fact one city affected by the passage of time (barring some disbelief that the titular Saints Row might be hugely made over in a seemingly very short (in urban geography) span of a few years). The street layout and bridges are almost entirely unchanged, with the changes generally making sense (streets closed for repair, which become useful shortcuts). Most of the stores that I remember from SR1 are in basically the same place and particularly the sometimes extremely handy "Forgive 'n Forgets" are generally in the places that I expect them to be. Even if I can't directly reference my save data from SR1, the reuse of indirect knowledge such as neighborhood and street navigation knowledge that I gained in my hours of SR1 play is still appreciated. While some of SR1's interesting fake brands have followed by the wayside (I liked the fake clothing labels), a few new stores have been added to the mix albeit mostly as variations on the stores from SR1 (most memorable being Asian takeout chain "Phuc Yu Phuc Mi" with the obvious deals on "Sum Yung Guy").

Expansions from SR1 are to a few new special territories (the prison and power plant islands) a few obvious expansions (to the suburbs and the airport), and a bunch of new interiors (including an underground cavern, dilapidated buried "Old Stilwater", and a large mall). I like the filling in the gaps and polishing/updating approach and I've long wanted to see a good episodic game take advantage of such a thing. I'm curious about GTA4: Lost and Damned to see if it yields an interesting experience; it just seems to make so much sense that these huge sandboxes should be very reusable to expanded stories and episodic content. Other people beyond myself have mentioned the idea that perhaps large reusable (and reconfigurable) virtual cities are the next great middleware: they will make great stages for a great many different styles of gameplay and explorations of story above and beyond being built specifically for sandbox games. Given the opportunity I would be happy to explore building a story or two for Liberty City or Stilwater or Pacific City.

SR2 also has an enhanced version of SR1's character creator. I won't even go into the wide and weird variety of character designs that I've toyed with...

Hopefully they will be done soon with the floor work in my parents basement so that I can get my desktop environment back into a decent work environment and get some good project work done. I figure that happening will be the eventual official end of my holiday "vacation mode", and until then I have a few more things I can do in Stilwater and maybe I'll feel up to buying one or two more of the holiday's deluge of games.

This post was written mostly on coffee from the Java Brewing Company (on Frankfurt near Clifton). I'm not being paid to append that, I'm just thankful for local coffee shops and free wireless.