So I used to have a feature called "Ten Year Retrospective", where I talked about a company's output since their early PS2 debuts and how they've evolved to the modern day household names we all know and love. The period of time wasn't meant to be deliberate; it was just a happy coincidence that both From Software and Level-5 began their respective empires of cruelty and whimsy around a decade ago. Volition's been around a little longer than ten years though, so I've renamed the feature "Teddy Graham Memories", because I've decided my naming convention for blogs will move from horrible puns to Homestar Runner non-sequiturs. Or I'm suffering some sort of neurological disorder. Draw your own conclusions.
Talking of Volition, something I'll probably be doing for the rest of this blog also, they're the scrappy development studio most famous for the Red Faction and Saints Row franchises. As the developer of Giant Bomb's almost-GOTY last year, I figure they've earned themselves some retrospection. Like always, these features are less an in-depth historical analysis than me simply recalling my own memories and experiences with games from this developer. For the most part I'd say they were positive. But I've got way more words following this paragraph which say pretty much the same thing, if you're interested in reading them. If not, my critically-derided stickpeople comics await you at the end. With their cold dead eyes and pitiless hearts. I bet JC's up to mischief again!
Summoner isn't the first game Volition worked on. That would be the two FreeSpace games, which I'm sure more than a few Giant Bomb peeps remember fondly as one of the last great Space Sim franchises on the PC. I don't know the current state of Space Sims at the moment, but people seem to really like the scope and depth of that S.P.A.Z. game, despite having a title that both namedrops pirates and zombies and has an acronym that belittles the mentally deficient. No wonder it took a while to build up steam.
But we're here to talk about Summoner. In the halcyon days of the PS2, there was a distinct dearth of good RPGs. This was a major issue considering the PS1's success was largely in part to its huge audience of JRPG fans, with games like FF7-9, Grandia, the Suikodens, two Breath of Fires, Xenogears and countless others building a significant fanbase of gamers who like effete duders who wear too many belts for Sony's freshman console.
Inversely, early PS2 adopters got EverGrace, "Orphen: The Scion of Sorcery" (a game I'm somehow physically unable to not put in ironic quotes) and this thing with all the summoning. To be fair, Summoner was probably the highlight of those depressing, barren times. Damning it with faint praise, perhaps, but it was an engrossing if somewhat flawed open-world-ish RPG where you ran around randomly-generated battlefields of monsters, summoning your own while supporting your human companions. Importantly, after the ending credits, you see Volition's earliest example of a burgeoning sense of a humor in a medium that isn't always best known for its comedic chops: Various cutscenes of the game are replicated with hilarious "bloopers". Or "hilarious" bloopers, I forget. These are followed with a bizarrely faithful rendition of the early internet meme skit from the Dead Ale Wives, talking some D&D. At the time I thought it was kind of weird. After twelve years and three Saints Row games, though, it makes perfect sense.
2001: Red Faction
So on closer inspection, it turns out I own and greatly enjoyed the first Red Faction game and rented the sequel for a brief spell and hardly recall a thing about it. Red Faction hit all the consoles of the day, but was more or less ignored on every console except the PS2. Xbox owners already had a space FPS they liked better and no-one paid attention to the GameCube. To their ultimate detriment, I feel, since Pikmin and Chibi Robo might well be the greatest games of that generation. But I digress! So often!
Red Faction details the adventures of a rebellious cadre of Martian miners fighting the oppressive forces of the Earthlings. They think they're so hot because their planet naturally produces air and water and life. The blowhards. This is where we see the other big Volition push: Truly destructible landscapes and all manner of interesting space weapons. As opposed to the usual shotguns and pistols that shoot regenerating blue shit instead of bullets. Not that I'm making any direct comparisons to anything. Importantly, it finally gave PS2 owners a damn
fine okay competitive FPS that didn't involve monkey robots. I actually really enjoyed Red Faction, as I'd already crossed to the "FPS games can be played on consoles too, you guys" camp from many hours of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. Main story was okay too. It was promising, is what it was.
2008: Saints Row 2
Skipping over the first one of these too (generally speaking, Volition rarely gets it right out of the gate), Saints Row 2 remains my favorite Volition game of all time. After following what was a milquetoast and somewhat flagrant attempt to cash in on San Andreas' massive popularity, Saints Row 2 saw what Rockstar did by following up their seminal GTA classic with a slightly more dour tale of morality and filial loyalty and decided they were done imitating. Instead, they went the opposite direction and decided to fully embrace the nutso open-world gangsta turf paradigm of GTA:SA in a game absolutely filled with content. Despite a few missteps, such as making the once entirely optional Activities compulsory to a degree before players could continue with the story, the game has everything you could want in a sandbox. Or toybox. Like that definition is ever going to take off, no matter how hard I push it.
My favorite moments from a game with many of them were the FUZZ activities, where you'd be given vague directions from a TV producer to cause as much horrific and controversial violence as possible to targets as diverse as civil unrest groups, prostitutes and politicians while wearing a police uniform. You certainly don't forget chainsawing your first PETA protest group. Forget fur, now THAT'S murder. Of course, FUZZ's only involvement in SR3 is to provide the description for the challenge where you have to drive in the opposite lane for 200 miles. But I'll discuss that later.
2009: Red Faction: Guerilla
Red Faction: Guerilla was such a departure from Red Faction I & II, but perfectly logical given Volition's new predilection for the open world system. Once again, you're a peeved Martian labourer bringing down the corrupt and listless Earth military-industrial complex. It also has more hammers than Donkey Kong and Wrecking Crew combined (Mario's like the Gabe Newell of hammers), with much of the game's enjoyment derived from smashing through buildings and watching them collapse in on themselves as the physics take over.
I must've spent such a ridiculous amount of time in that game driving along some barren Martian road, spotting some ore crystals in the distance and high-tailing it over for a smashing. In fact, pretty much any non-smashed object on the horizon was a distraction. I had become a force of destructive nature, the antithesis to man's hubristic notion that it could conquer the final frontier. If it bleeds, I could kill it; if by "kill" I mean "smash" and by "bleeds" I mean "was beholden to the game's physics engine".
Guerilla was perhaps the peak on the sad bell curve the Red Faction franchise currently evolved into. But that's something else I'll discuss later. Or now, even.
2011: Red Faction: Armageddon & Saints Row: The Third
So 2011 was an interesting year for Volition. Despite having two major titles from established franchises that would presumably sell like hotcakes, its parent company THQ is looking at some dire sale numbers. While Volition could be blamed for Red Faction: Armageddon not selling too well (the reason being because it sucked), Saints Row: The Third is a little less explicable. While I didn't particularly appreciate the changes made, specifically what was taken out rather than the fine content added in, it was a game I could still happily recommend to anyone. As did Giant Bomb, in fact, and no doubt many other institutions with far more sway over consumers than little old me. So what gives?
It'll be interesting to see how future Red Faction and Saints Row games turn out. Will they still have the same staff, given current events? Will they build on the most recent iterations of those franchises, or revert to their (subjectively) superior forebears? Regardless, I'll be playing their Guillermo del Toro collaboration inSANE and anything else that comes from their vaunted halls of madness, violence and frivolity in the years to come. They've earned that much from me, at least.
SPECIAL BONUS COMIC!
As some of you well know, I'm still indentured to cherished Yearly Membership sponsor omghisam. This month, he's tasked me with delivering my New Year's Resolutions in comic form. Hopefully these meet with his approval, even if I intend to break all of them by December 2012.