South Park has never shied away from controversy. This is a show renowned for repeatedly killing off a nine-year-old and building a spin-off film around Saddam Hussein’s homosexual relationship with Satan, after all.
Think writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone would dumb down the obscenities for their second video game? Not a chance. Within the first hour of starting The Fractured But Whole I was already fighting off paedophile priests, beating up Hooters-esque waitresses and completing a mini game in order to squeeze out a turd.
In many ways then, it’s picking up right where the first South Park game The Stick of Truth left off. But that doesn’t mean it’s merely a rehash, because Ubisoft has also introduced some major gameplay changes here, most noticeably overhauling the previous game’s turn-based combat.
That’s something of a surprise given how successful the previous system was, and a potentially risky move if it doesn’t work. I spent a few hours with the sequel to find out how it plays.
The story: Avengers Ass-emble
Taking a cue from the Coon and Friends storyline of the TV series, The Fractured But Whole replaces the previous game’s crappy castle forts with crudely caped crusaders. So, where the first game laid into the tropes of Game of Thrones and a billion fantasy RPGs, this time round it’s riffing on the absurdly successful and seemingly endless wave of generic superhero movies.
The story here is that Cartman, inspired by the millions made by Marvel and DC movies, decides to create his very own league of totally awesome superheroes (played by his motley crew of pals) as a surefire route to untold riches. But the kids soon fall out, sparking their very own civil war.
This allows Parker and Stone to have all manner of fun with their vibrant cast, giving each of them superhero aliases – with predictable results. So the wheelchair-bound Timmy now has telepathic powers like X-Men‘s Charles Xavier for instance, while the crippled Jimmy can now run as quick as the Flash.
The game’s also chocka-block with references to the TV show, although be warned that from what I’ve seen of it so far, most of its influences come from recent seasons – a slight cause for concern since the series arguably peaked a good decade ago. Still, if you’re eager to see Memberberries and PC Principal in video game form, then you’re in luck.
The setup: Class of heroes
With swords and bows swapped for superpowers here, the emphasis is no longer on your weaponry, but rather the abilities and powers you unlock. This means that the class you pick is much more important than in the previous game.
Initially there are three classes to choose from: Brutalist, Blaster and Speedster. Each one comes with different attacks and abilities, for example the Brutalist has powerful close-combat moves, while the Blaster can deal damage from a safe distance.
Don’t worry if you’re a commitment phobe, though, as you can change your class at any point in the game, which means you can always tinker with the balance for your team. You can also unlock more classes – including Elementalist, Cyborg and Psychic – at a later stage and adopt two classes simultaneously to give you more flexibility.
The wide array of choices has clearly been designed to make up for the removal of weapons, but it’s not an entirely successful swap. I loved finding hidden treasures such as a ninja star or, um, a dildo that I could thwack my enemies with, so it’s somewhat disappointing that I won’t get the same sense of discovery here.
Still, watching the boys shoot lasers from their eyes is a decent substitute.
The combat: Oh my grid, they killed Kenny!
As I said earlier, the main changes here are to the setting and the combat mechanic. And obviously those two factors are related: after all, Ned Stark has a completely different fighting approach to Tony Stark, and keeping the previous game’s approach in this new superhero setting might well not have worked.
Unfortunately, I’m not yet convinced that this new approach works either. The major difference is that you can now move your characters around the grid-based battlefield during your turn. This opens up endless tactical possibilities, such as surrounding your enemies or retreating away from the battlefield to heal your wounds with a taco.
Did I just say tacos? Oh yes, these can be crafted along with other items to give you various effects, and you’ll get help from Mr Morgan Freeman as you do it. Of course.
But back to the fighting. Some attacks will also knock your enemy back a space, which you can use to slam them into objects or other characters to deal additional damage, and the damage radius of each attack also varies, which gives characters with ranged moves an advantage.
It’s all smartly done and surprisingly layered, then, but the new tweaks also slow down the pace of combat. Fights seem much more of a slog than then they did previously.
All that said, I don’t want to be too critical, because I only had a couple of hours to adjust to the new system and didn’t get past the lengthy tutorial levels. I’m hopeful that combat will become more engaging and tactically demanding given time.
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South Park: The Fractured But Whole – the early verdict
Stick of Truth moments such as fighting ManBearPig, taking a trip to Canada and getting probed by aliens were so much fun that it was always going to be tough for a sequel to reach the same heights. This is especially true since the initial wonder and novelty of playing a game that looks and feels like South Park has worn off.
To Ubisoft’s credit, though, it hasn’t simply repackaged the same game with a new story.
Yes, it has done that – and believe me, that superhero wrapping alone has crazy potential – but you’re also getting a new combat system, a range of enticing classes and a crafting system that’s taught to you by Morgan Freeman.
Having only played a few hours of the game, I don’t yet feel ready to judge whether these overhauls are actually improvements, but even if they’re not, the South Park humour is still bang on the money here. All of which means that if you’re a big fan of the cartoon you’ll likely find lots to enjoy here come 17 October.
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