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Wot I Think - South Park: The Stick Of Truth

Shit nugget

Almost two years late, and following a publisher change and multiple slips, Obsidian's South Park: The Stick Of Truth is finally out this week. (Today in the States, Australia tomorrow, and Europe on Friday, because, sigh.) But has it been worth the wait? As ever, it's complicated. Here's wot I think:

South Park does not make a good first impression. Discovering that the PC version carries not a single display option, won’t switch between controller and keyboard if a controller’s plugged in, and offers no way to reassign keys, you would be right to roll your eyes all the way back into your head. And this is before you discover the colossal mess that is its opening tutorials. It is in a state. However, and this is crucial, the more I played, the more I enjoyed the game, until by the end of its 25 or so hours I was having a very good time.

This is an epic South Park tale of sticks, aliens, Nazi zombies and government conspiracies, in which you play a new kid in town (“The New Kid” or “Douchebag”), embroiled in a neighbourhood-wide battle. Free-roaming side-wobbling exploration combined with Mario & Luigi-style turn-based combat. And all this combined should have led to something immediately recommendable.

There are, however, no excuses for the mess it’s in. Obsidian have their reputation for a reason, and they’ve maintained it here. And talking to others playing the console version, it looks like PC has got the best of it too – at least it runs without staggering here. (And of course also hasn't been censored in the UK.) But running without a single graphic option, let alone the ability to reassign its mess of keyboard keys, and as I'll explain being extremely poorly balanced, there’s no question that this feel unfinished.

You begin by creating your South Park boy (only boys are available, which makes sense within South Park lore), which is a lot of fun. Instantly the game looks just like the TV show, and that’s the case throughout. Every animation, detail, voice and sound effect is perfect, and it always looks like you’re in control of an episode of the programme. On this level, they’ve nailed it. And then you’re quickly plunged into a neighbourhood game of dungeons and dragons, in which the Cartman-led Humans are waging war with the Kyle-led Elves, in a battle to control possession of The Stick Of Truth. A stick.

This opens with a flurry of instructional sequences from Cartman, in which you’re taught the basics of combat. For another game. Quite what the hell happened here is a mystery only the years will solve, but these sequences are gibberish. Instructions fly at you and disappear without your clicking, and then don’t match what you’re actually supposed to be doing. Cartman screams at you for making mistakes the game is making, and at this point it’s only blind determination that sees you past a grimly weak opening.

And then it stays weak for too long. The Stick Of Truth is really rather hoping that you have a lot of nostalgia for South Park. Because rather than crafting a fresh, original tale that pricks at the zeitgeist, angrily satirising a topic from an angle that surprises or horrifies, it can end up feeling like a clip show. Remember Al Gore and the ManBearPig?! Remember Mr Hanky?! Remember the Underpants Gnomes?! Gosh, it desperately hopes you do.

The thing is, none of this is done badly at all. Al Gore is still very funny, the Underpants Gnomes are still extremely creepy and frighteningly angry, and Mr Hanky is still trapped in a loveless marriage with an abusive, drug-addled wife. When Jesus shows up, it’s great that it’s Jesus! Stan’s dad Randy is, as ever, a desperately pathetic and boundaryless sap. Cartman’s mom is still disturbingly disturbed, her bedroom a collection of pictures of Cartman and an array of dildos. Everyone swears copiously without bleeps, grotesque statements are made, Jews are berated, girls are hated, and you have a fight scene shrunk down under the naked fucking bodies of your parents. It’s South Park.

Except, not quite. Because South Park, while gleefully immature for the sake of it, is always saying something. It’s angry, or bemused, or intrigued with something topical, and it satirises it with its outlandish ways. Its targets may appear arbitrary, and its statements often extremely conservative, but it’s saying something. The Stick Of Truth is just rambling. It’s not until that rambling coalesces into something more interesting than “LOOK THIS IS SOUTH PARK!” – about midway through – that it becomes more the game it should always have been. Although it never finds a point.

The combat is, in theory, fantastic. Taking the style of RPG fighting I’m familiar with from the Mario & Luigi games, of turn-based reaction-led attacks and defence, it creates something easily accessible and quickly scalable. Basic attacks require that you hit the left or right mouse button as closely to a prompt as possible, while more elaborate offensive strikes require trickier button clicking/tapping. In most battles you’re accompanied by your currently chosen buddy, who can be switched out for another. They all have specialisms, like Cartman’s fire-lit fart spray attack (mashing W) or Butters’ Professor Chaos transformation that has you stop a spinning wheel to select which uber-powerful strike will occur.

It then adds to this with “magic”, which is naturally fart-based. (And also the game's screwed up tutorials at their worst, as each new spell comes with a QTE-based learning sequence, that you then don't have to do to cast the spell in battle.) Here tapping F instead of left or right clicking lets you transform an attack with additional gas, so long as you have enough “mana” stored up. Once it’s all in your arse-nal (geddit?), the array of combat options become enormous, and the different enemy types’ weaknesses can be exploited by judicious deployment. It is, undoubtedly, a great combat system. It just needed some semblance of balancing.

The fighting is sadly ludicrously easy. Even on highest difficulty (although I’m not convinced the difficulty slider was doing anything), by the second half of the game I was finishing most fights in one turn. The enemies were dropping before they could finish their own first attacks. As the complexity rose to more interesting levels, the difficulty plunged, rendering what should have been rather thrilling really very moot. Then of course it throws in a couple of absolutely ludicrous difficulty spikes near the end, making for fights that require sheer luck to get past, before things then return to numb simplicity. All this leads to the most peculiar situation where the best combat in the game are the boss fights. Wuh? Up is down. Because these at least offer some challenge, and a need to worry about the various bonuses and potions that are there to soup up the action.

Although these potions are in such mad abundance that you'll inevitably just get told your inventory is full of each type as you loot, rather than ever have to consider rationing use. And even if they weren't, the massive wealth you unavoidable accrue means you could pick anything up from any shopkeeper without pause. The balancing - it is a mess. And that's a massive shame, because this really is a great combat system, and could have made the game.

This has been mostly negative, and that's reflective of my mood for the first five or six hours with the game. And that's far too long a time to just brush over, to dismiss and say, "Hey, slog through that and then it gets much better!" It does, but it's not okay.

So why does it get better? Mostly because it moves on from its low-key nothing story about the South Park kids having divided into Humans and Elves, and fighting about it, and introduces its full array of ludicrous madness. Aliens, Nazi zombies, and more, all combined into one story starts to make it feel far more alive, far more interesting to be a part of. The jokes start coming thick and fast, and surprises appear that will either offend you past the point of involvement, or have you plough further to see just how much more grotesque it might get. While the combat is perfunctory, by the time you have a full set of skills, it's actually rather fun to deploy them all, even if the opponents don't put up a proper fight.

The town is also packed with collectables to discover, reasons to explore thoroughly, letting you use an increasing pool of special skills to reach previously inaccessible areas and pick up whatever nonsense can now be reached. And I loved all this - I collected every damned thing I could find, maxing out on the Pokemon-things, gathering a ridiculous number of friends in the game's faux-Facebook (actually referred to as "Facebook"), and pursued all the treasure marked on the map. Doing this, in between the twenty or so side quests, and the twenty or so main quests, allowed the game to feel large, embellished, as you'd hope for an RPG. And of course by this time I'd grown used to the daft keyboard layout, and long since unplugged my 360 pad so I'd be able to use them at all.

All this, and of course every moment, every word, every cry or insult, has come directly from the minds behind the show. Matt and Trey provide 90% of the voices, and deliver it with every bit as much aplomb as they would for an episode. While there's the extremely strong impression that they didn't want to waste a proper story idea on the game (there's nothing in here to compare with Bigger, Longer, Uncut, for instance), the minutiae of it is a massive treat. There's a ton of great dialogue, astonishing insults, and outbursts from the likes of Cartman I'd never dare type here for the sorts of Google hits it might bring us. It not only looks like you're playing an episode of South Park, but sounds like one too. And that's important. It's also potentially a bit of a problem.

There's a thing about watching an episode of South Park. Its a passive experience. When they have a storyline that is as outrageously offensive as you could imagine, you sit back and stare in astonishment, wondering at how Comedy Central and their evil overseers Viacom could ever have allowed it on air. When you're playing, this starts to feel rather different. I started to feel complicit.

There's one particular moment in the game, about three-quarters in, that I'd love to state - it so perfectly sums up the depth of inappropriate grossness this reaches, and the really bemusing references to real life people who will surely, surely want to try to sue. I'm not going to, because it's far too big of a reveal. Let's just say "abortion clinic" and let your imagination roll on from there. It's gobsmacking - and it's so beyond offensive that it's hard to be offended. Those extremes are perhaps extreme enough to self-destruct your reaction. However, where I found problems were with the ideas that occur before this degree of shock. Where it's just saying "rape" because "rape" is a shocking thing, eh?

Anal rape, as it happens. And this is where that complicity really stands out. At one point, your actions cause someone else to be anally raped. And yes, in its context, and with the reactions to it, it was funny. But not that funny. Not funny enough for it to have felt worth it. And especially since, unlike most episodes of the show, it wasn't there for any purpose. There's no point being made. It's just that they once had that anal probing episode, so there's anal probing in the game. This wanton use of offensive ideas (and they are numerous) without there being a reason beyond their being offensive, is something that I found occasionally too icky. Your own personal levels of ickiness will vary. If you are at all sensitive to matters of sexual assault, racism, disablism, and so on, then yes, be advised.

My personal position is that I have the right to be offended, and will fight for that right. How much I want to choose to take part in the creation of that offence is something I've yet to work out. The Stick Of Truth crossed the line for me a couple of times. Hell, just the use of worn swastikas and recorded Nazi audio being shouted by zombie attackers feels a bit shit, before that goes far, far further. (However, when it's cows doing it, I find it purely hilarious. I am a hypocrite, if nothing else.)

There are some oddly lacking areas. Despite the volumes and volumes of recorded dialogue, barks are few and far between, meaning you'll hear your accompanying characters say the same few things an interminable number of times. How they could have failed to record more than one line for Butters' Professor Chaos attack is beyond belief, and it reached the point where I'd avoid using it so I didn't have to listen to it again. It's such a dumb oversight, bearing in mind just how little effort would have been needed to add ten or so more barks for each character.

So, there are some very serious issues with the game, with gibberish tutorials, incorrect on-screen instructions, no PC options at all, and the complete lack of basics like reassigning keys or switching between mouse/keyboard and joypad. None of that is acceptable. There are also some very significant balancing issues, with combat far too simple, and a ridiculous ubiquity of power ups, potions and cash. There are stupid oversights, such as there being no "sell all" button for the literally thousands of pieces of junk that fill your inventory. Also, there's a very annoying bug that causes many lines of dialogue to cut off midway through the final word of the sentence - nothing kills a punchline like lacking the last word. I even had a South Park-appropriate bug that saw Cartman get stuck in a fart animation until I killed the game. Regarding content - that's going to be a personal matter for you. It's safe to say, as much as the overly-simplistic opening hours might suggest it, this is in no way a game for kids.

However, the reality is I played every inch of it, collected almost every hidden item, completed every single side quest, and maxed out the level cap long before it ended. That's partly out of the duty of reviewing a game with enough time to do so, certainly, but I can't deny that I was dragged deep.

It is at once the South Park game we've been waiting for since the series started 17 years ago, and a cluster of stupid mistakes and bad balancing that we'd hoped Obsidian had put behind them. If you're willing to plough through its dull opening hours (or perhaps mainline the main story until you reach the Taco Bell content to speed that process up), and put up with the technical issues, then there's a lot on offer here. But that's a big "if", and not one someone paying for the game should have to ponder.

But most of all, don't ever fart on a man's balls.

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