South Park: The Fractured But Whole preview

The upcoming South Park game is getting some big improvements to battle gameplay.

Come December, it's time for some butts to be fractured.

At Ubisoft's Pre-Gamescom Event in San Francisco last week, I got a chance to go hands-on with a pre-alpha build of South Park The Fractured But Whole -- the sequel to 2014's South Park The Stick of Truth -- which is set for a release on December 6. Being developed by Ubisoft San Francisco -- not Obsidian, like the last title -- TFBH again sends players to the infamous little mountain town in Colorado.

Sadly, the playable demo was the same short section of the game that I got to see at E3 (meaning there wasn't anything particularly new), but the good news is that the jokes were still landing a second (and even a third, I went through the demo twice) time. In fact, one joke that I shrugged off at E3 while watching worked better when I was actually playing through it.

The demo starts off with you again taking the role of King Douchebag -- the playable avatar from The Stick of Truth -- in Cartman's house. Instead of The Lord of the Rings and fantasy themed adventure from the last game, however, TFBH is taking aim at another genre: the world of superheroes.

"It is much closer, I think, to the normal Matt and Trey operation of like, see what the world is in this exact moment and comment on it brutally," Ken Strickland, lead designer, said. "So you know, superheroes are very much in vogue now, and kind of self-satisfied superhero franchise storylines are very much in vogue now, right?...there's a lot of big targets to kind of poke at there."

The kids of South Park have now split into two warring factions -- a la Marvel's Civil War -- disagreeing over the order and direction that their little band of superheroes should take in regards to movies and Netflix deals. It feels refreshingly current -- South Park as a show is able to comment on current events due to its short turnaround time -- something longer projects like video games don't have the luxury of.

"I can't tell you how happy I am that, you know, 'Ok, superheroes aren't done yet? OK, great' ... I'm like waiting for the first major flop," Strickland said.

The battle system has also been revamped: While TFBH is still a turn-based RPG, like its predecessor, it's adding in new elements that, hopefully, will make the gameplay as strong as its writing and humor. TSOT, while funny, didn't quite have gameplay that lived up to the rest of the experience.     

"Obviously, combat is a huge priority for us," Strickland said. "But, again, this is a franchise that lives and dies on humor, right? So it wasn't just iterating the combat for the sake of, you know, oh good, we'll try out some new ideas. It was more that like we wanted to get out of a pattern where the jokes are told here, and then the game play happens here, and they're just kind of...paginating between the two of them."

For TFBH, one of the team's goals was to try to infuse battles with jokes -- and "a huge amount of effort" went into how different characters acknowledge what it taking place at any given moment.

"So, it actually means that you have to treat it like a feature," Strickland said. "Right, like a feature that stands right at the same level as like combat and everything else."

This includes working with nuanced in-game data, such as which characters as fighting each other and when the fight is taking place, as well as figuring out the timing and spacing of the jokes.

"And being able to like hand these systems a huge amount of ultra-specific information, so we have a way to kind of like deliver certain lines and not have them get super tired," Strickland said.

Aside from the humor, TFBH is also seeing new combat changes as well. Battles now take place on a tactical grid -- think Fire Emblem or Advance Wars -- and the player must now take distance and spacing into account. Timing is also now a factor and the game -- cleverly -- allows players to change the turn order, as well, though in a typical South Park-ian fashion: With time bending farts.

"...the enemy of anything funny is repetition, right?" Strickland said. "So, what we were really trying to do by adding this kind of space and tactical elements into the combat was to make it so that you weren't really replaying the same scenario twice."

Strickland added how in The Stick of Truth, the overall experience-- whether it was at the start of the game or 10 hours in -- was quite similar, and that was something that he wanted to revisit.

TFBH will also have a scaling difficulty: Strickland couldn't say too much, but it will feature something more than just picking between easy, medium, or hard difficulty levels.

"If somebody really just wants to, in playing combat, see the jokes of that combat and see the experience of it without essentially getting murdered half a dozen times, I want to make that possible," Strickland said.

He added, though, that if players want to head in the opposite direction and "turn it all the way up," TFBH will be appealing to both sides of the difficulty coin.

Story was another area that the team wanted to focus on. Thinking about it like a season of South Park, they want to make sure that players are able to keep track of where they are within the overarching story.

"Again, like everything in Stick of Truth was individually, brilliantly funny, but sometimes, you know, I know I would come back from a play session...[being like] 'Wait, what's happening here, what's the through line, what is that arc?'"

The team is also working to make sure that there's a reason to explore the town and houses, as well as having players actually see consequences from the decisions that they make.

And fans of the items in TSOT, but who were disappointed when there wasn't much to do with them, have reason to be excited: Strickland is right there with you. TFBH will have a crafting system, putting all those South Park references that you collect throughout the game to good use.

"The whole point of putting crafting in wasn't just to create an invisible layer of crap, right?" Strickland said.

Strickland wants items to be a little deeper than just call-backs to the show, and also thinks that giving items a use will help players explore more, and give them a richer reward than just in-game money.

In the demo, after having to snoop around Cartman's room to find the pass code to the basement lair, you find Cartman and his band of super heroes -- Coon & Friends -- trying to figure out who in town might know someone who works at Netflix, so they can get the jump on Freedom Pals, the other groups of kids that has split off from Cartman's group.

Cartman -- reluctant to let you play -- eventually helps you figure out your super hero back story, which serves as a introduction to battles, and also sets up the "tragedy" of the one night you were unable to stop your dad from...fucking your mom.

There's now 12 classes that you can pick from: Brutalist (a brawler class), Blaster (with attacks like Brown Dwarf, where the blaster's fingers goes "to the heart of an enemy's brown star," and Ionic Ass Cannon), Speedster (the class the demo rep had me pick), and additional classes including Elementalist, Gadgeteer, Mystic, Cyborg, Psychic, Assassin, Commander, Netherborn, and Karate Kid.

Unlike TSOT, players will also be able to switch classes, and later on in the game also will unlock the ability to dual class.

After picking your class, the demo cut to later in the day, where you find Tweek and Craig, now on opposing sides, fighting over which characters movie should have come out first, leading to a battle, and a great bit with Timmy.

The battle showed off the game's new features, like how the grid and placement actually matter for attacks, with attacks now having varying ranges at which they can hit enemies at.

There are a few things I'm a bit concerned about: The special attacks in the demo -- which essentially wiped out the entire opposing team -- seem a bit overpowered, though demos rarely have the same balance as the final product.

In addition, given that December isn't that far away, I'm a little concerned we were only able to see a little snippet of the game (and one press has seen before), especially after the last game notoriously faced delays, so it wouldn't surprise me if TFBH ends up missing that original launch dat -- through, of course, just because they are only showing a short demo doesn't directly correlate with how much it actually finished. But it does look like the team is taking steps to fix some of my concerns with TSOT, it's just hard to say froma little sample of the overall whole.

The new superhero classes also seem to break one of the things that was fun about TSOT, and South Park as a whole: it was just kids playing with toys, not using time-bending or magical super powers. TFBH seems to losing all pretenses of the grounding of the first game, with actual super powers being at your disposal (Though Strickland did tell me that later powers were more in the original's vein -- "It still fits into that template, because at the end of the day, it's still kids horsing around," he said).

But, for the most part, the team seems to have a good grasp on what worked in TSOT -- and what needed improving -- and I'm hopeful that the changes to combat will make TFBH a game that is as much fun to play as it is to laugh along with. The demo was a small, but quite hilarious (again, even going through it several times) slice of the game, and while there's still a lot we don't know about TFBH, I'm cautiously optimistic. And hopefully it won't be long before we see more of the game leading up to its December (if it hits December, that is) release.