Spike’s Underrated Games of the Xbox 360: Part 1

There are few phrases as loaded as ‘underrated’. Primarily it is dangerous because of how you justify the phrase. What criteria do you set yourself? Do you measure success in financial or critical terms? Do you look at cultural impact in the mainstream or how affects the hardcore fans? In gaming terms the lines are even more fraught, the division between the financial mainstream and the mainstream epitomised by specialised publications wider than anywhere else. Take for example the Need for Speed franchise.

In the United Kingdom the Need for Speed series is financially dominant topping the Christmas charts each year with its annual updates. Despite this success the gaming media tend to avoid the games, devoting single page reviews to the series and generally approaching the series with a palpable sense of nonchalance. By the same token The Orange Box adorned various magazine covers and received numerous lengthy articles and reviews. In the gaming media world it was a sensation, one aspect of the game creating a dozen memes, but it was a flop in terms of sales. Even its multiplayer element dropped off the map, its community dwindling to less than ten thousand (in comparison to the half million of its competitor). Yet the idea of calling The Orange Box underrated would be ridiculous, the media focus and flurry of positivity about the game dampening any nagging concerns about its lack of a userbase. As such I’m going to approach each game on this list with its own unique criteria.

So why am I even attempting to write about games that are underrated? Well for one it is a great writing device, which essentially allows me to ruminate on six games without the need to devote page after page to my thoughts. As such it is a way of allowing me to write about games that I really, really, like but couldn’t justify a full one and a half thousand word post to. Essentially it is a mix of desire to talk about games and my own innate laziness.

The list of course is made up of games I’ve played and they are all here for wildly different reasons. There are a few exceptions, these are the games which I assume to be underrated but haven’t had the chance to get around to yet. Games like Eternal Sonata and Earth Defence Force will not be appearing on this list purely because I haven’t had them sent out to me yet. So without further ado lets get started, I will also reiterate that this is a personal opinion and as such is not a statement of fact. I fully expect people to disagree with what I write. This of course is only the first part, the other four choices will be revealed over April.

Saints Row

Saints Row CoverThe Criteria: Saints Row was doomed from the start really. An upcoming challenger to the monolithic Grand Theft Auto series its aesthetic similarities were enough to have it labelled as a rip off as soon as it was released. Most reviewers weren’t particularly kind, taking exception to the elements cherry picked from the GTA series and as such it gained a reputation as a pale imitation.

The Game: In a lot of ways Saints Row is a pale imitation of Grand Theft Auto. Certainly from its mission structure, to its sense of humour, and even its aesthetic it was a game that looked remarkably like Rockstar’s immensely popular series. It wasn’t the first time a game had taken a shot at copying the GTA formula, but it was probably the most overtly similar to the series. Previous attempts at replicating GTA had changed certain details to maintain at least a hint of individuality. But where many viewed the games similarities to GTA as a sign of plagiarism I viewed it as a mission statement as such.

Conceptually Saints Row is Grand Theft Auto brought to the next generation. All of the elements that made the GTA series popular are in the game from the diverse radio selection when you enter cars to the general misanthropy of the main hero. Saints Row emulates GTA in every way possible and then refines these elements to perfection. What Saints Row represents is an evolution of the concept more than anything else.

What this means is that Saints Row took the elements of the GTA series that worked (the sprawling open world, the ability to perform petty crime, side missions, a progressing storyline, the sense of humour) and then adds elements to replace the things which were innately broken about the series. The key triumph of Saints Row is its combat engine which when combined with a newly implemented Havok physics engine made the games action scenes have far more punch. Combat in GTA was always ropey, forcing players to use a lock on mechanism which was usually far more intent on shooting some civilian in the back of the head a few blocks down the street rather than the miscreant attempting to extinguish your life with an AK-47. Saints Row gives a lot more control to the player in gunfights and as such it becomes far more of an action game than Grand Theft Auto ever was.

Things go boom down the row

The main thrust of the game is its central story missions which concern your character’s induction into a dwindling gang and his subsequent war against the three dominant gangs in Stillwater City. These story missions once again highlight the action adventure nature of the game with a reliance on firefights and stunt heavy driving sections. A lot of your time is spent taking over enemy compounds and wrestling control of turf away from your rivals. What makes this interesting is the respect factor, respect is a currency of sorts in Saint Row and it is earned by dressing right and completing side missions. Without respect you can’t unlock missions and as such you find yourself forced into completing some of the side missions available to you.

These side missions take many forms (each with varying levels of difficulty) and are generally all great to play. Some require you to chauffeur around VIPs, some require you to be a wheelman in drug runs, some require you to destroy as much property in a set time limited as you can and others require you to fake brutal accidents to claim large amounts of insurance money. Once again they are all designed to work around the improved play mechanics of the game, the insurance fraud mode in particular taking advantage of the Havoc engine to allow your character to be realistically affected by gravity. It is hilarious to jump in front of a police car and make your character limp, watching as the impact propels his prone body 20 foot through the air and into the windscreen of another car.

That is probably the defining aspect of Saints Row; it is a game that is fun to play. It actually fails in trying to emulate the more ethereal qualities of GTA, the series much vaunted wry humour lost on Saints Row. The game is never particularly funny, well not in the way that GTA is, and its more outlandish attempts at ironic humour are so forced as to become a potential threat to the game. Conceptually the idea of getting involved in street wars to capture prostitutes is hilarious, but the game overplays its hand and as such the side mission involving this activity come across as disturbingly misogynistic rather than tongue in cheek.

Earning your colours in the Row

Also despite implementations of physics and a next-gen coat of sheen, the single city of Saints Row seems retroactive and claustrophobic after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sweeping country roads, tiny towns and big cities. No matter how pretty the game looks it just can’t compete with the fact that San Andreas replicated an entire state and the result is that the game often feels pokey and encroaching. The games music also suffers when compared to GTA. Vice City redefined the way licensed music could be used in videogames and provided a perfect 80s pop background for the action on screen. San Andreas would expand the concept, mixing legitimate classics with more obscure stuff to create a perfect mix for a game that was expansive both spatialially and tonally. Saints Row attempts to emulate this with its own licensed music but the songs chosen neither have the iconic appeal of the Vice City or perfectly synch with the world like San Andreas. Whilst it is nice to have nearly a hundred songs on the soundtrack it would be even better to have at least one song worth listening to.

Despite some ridiculous difficulty spikes (something else borrowed from Grand Theft Auto ) the game maintains a giddy sense of fun and grandeur. It is a game not meant to be taken seriously and as such the missions tend to focus more on wanton destruction than anything else. Gunplay is fast and frenetic, enemies are everywhere and explosions are numerous. At its heart Saints Row is a deeply silly game, it’s a game where you can unlock gold plated pistols and shotguns concealed inside walking sticks. It’s a game that has missions involving chasing an armoured lorry down a highway, or mounting an assault on a jet as it taxis through an airport. It is a game meant to be bold and brash and bright wearing the clothes of a game made famous for its cool, detached and ironic stylisation.

Viva Pinata

Criteria: Despite the pedigree of Rare, its very own TV show and the fact it was one of the few games on the 360 which didn’t involve shooting people in the face Viva Pinata just didn’t sell well at all and was never really adopted by the gaming community despite overwhelmingly positive reviews.

The Game: Rare are probably best known for their endeavours as a second party developer for Nintendo. Certainly the games spawned whilst they were bound to the N64 were all fantastic pieces of design, a lot of which followed a specific template. Banjo Kazooie, Diddy Kong Racing and Starfox Adventures all followed a similar design ethos in that they retooled one of Nintendo’s own games with their own characters and level design. Banjo was an approximation of Mario 64, Diddy Kong Racing was Mario Kart with monkeys and Starfox was an infuriatingly uneven homage to the Zelda series.

When they were bought up by Microsoft this process had to come to an end. Rare would drag their feet whilst working on games for the Xbox, eventually creating the short and uninspiring Grabbed by the Ghoulies and porting over N64 game Conkers Bad Fur Day. Of course by this point the original developing staff at Rare had haemorrhaged, David Doak setting up his own production company Free Radical with existing Rare staff had drained the company of a lot of its talent base.

Cute but deadly

Surprisingly Rare were first out of the gate with the launch of the Xbox 360. Renowned for dragging their feet the developer was able to get two games out of the gate for the console’s launch. Unfortunately one of the games was pretty banal and the other was a sequel to a popular game that  succeeded in excising everything people had liked about the original game. Rare would only really find their feet a year after the console launch, the release of Viva Piñata marking the first bonafide great game they’d made since the N64.

Viva Piñata was a colourful and bright children’s game, a nurturing simulator not unlike the absurdly popular Harvest Moon series. Launched in tandem with its own cartoon series the game should have been massive, but never really took off the way it should have done. I found my copy of Viva Piñata about four months after it had been released; it was in the Pre-Owned section of my local Gamestation and was being sold for about half the price of everything else there. My copy was not the only one there; an entire shelf was devoted to copies of the game that had been traded in over the first few months.

I was going to speculate that the game failed to catch on because the Xbox 360’s userbase just wasn’t compatible with a bright and colourful game where you raised Piñatas for no discernable reason. Whilst there probably is some truth to this I think the underlying problem for the game was quite simple, it was bastard hard.

Before I continue I’m going to qualify some stuff so you can better understand my position. I’ve been playing games for nearly a decade; I’ve completed countless games through sheer determination and patience. In particular I’ve devoted far too much time to various shades of RTS and Resource Management games. Settlers have been settled, Commanders have been conquered, Civilization has been civilised and giant stompy robots have been Totally Annihilated. But apparently all of this time orchestrating ever growing war machines and constantly diversifying civilizations was for naught, my attempts at leadership thwarted time and again by a game which had its own tie in cartoon on Saturday morning TV.

Viva Piñata is essentially a community simulator, mixing elements of garden design with a social simulator. I would draw comparisons to Animal Crossing but only if in Animal Crossing Tom Nook had a bit too much to drink and burned all of his neighbours houses down every once in a while. The challenge from the game comes from luring in and looking after the Piñatas that roam around the outskirts of the garden. At first this is easy with critters being attracted to the garden for seemingly innocuous reasons. Soon you’ll be setting up homes and vegetable patches and watching as your community swells. What makes Viva Piñata so uncompromisingly evil is that the game gives you the rope to string yourself up with.

A commonly observed mating ritual in the world of Viva Pinata

Certain Piñata types are mortal enemies and will start fighting as soon as they lay eyes on each other, other Piñata are naturally predatory and will take any opportunity to eat your prized creatures when your back is turned. What this leads to is a constant stream of messages explaining how two piñatas are fighting, one piñata is sick, and your precious bunny rabbit piñata has just been eaten by a snake. There is a sort of lull and chaos dichotomy to the game, moments of calm punctuated by frantic attempts to call in doctors and break up fights before the damage done to both creatures is too extreme.

What this leads to is a need to micromanage every aspect of your gardens and be able to keep track of the situation across several different habitats. Essentially Viva Piñata is a business management simulator dolled up to appeal to children. The demands of the game, its methodology are all strokes of brilliance and defining aspects of a game which is aesthetically for kids.


One Response to “Spike’s Underrated Games of the Xbox 360: Part 1”

  1. ZombieFever Says:

    Yes! More love for Viva Pinata! I bought this for my girlfriend trying to introduce her to the 360 and i ended up playing more than her. I got addicted to attracting all the species and then ended up creating a utopia for my few favorite. I still own it and under no circumstance will i trade it in.

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