South Park: The Stick of Truth is more than just a fart joke

"Is Douchebag your real name?"

On Wednesday 16 October 2013, South Park hit the headlines across numerous entertainment channels and hard-news outlets when the long-running TV show missed its scheduled air-date for the first time in its history. For over a decade, Messrs Parker and Stone had been turning around episodes of their Comedy Central staple in just six days, pulling off the kind of deadline-baiting that would drive mere mortal writers to mental collapse and, by doing so, ensuring that their parodic social commentary remained on the nose and in line with the week's events.

It took just one power-cut-induced missed deadline in the show's 240-episode run to become front-page news, which must make all those involved in the production of South Park: The Stick of Truth glad that they're not subject to the same scrutiny as their TV counterpart; this video game has been missing deadlines since shortly after it was announced at the end of 2011.

Of course, South Park: The Stick of Truth has had to contend with more than just a power-cut over the last few years. Seasoned RPG developer Obsidian Entertainment has faced redundancies and design delays as well as having to contend with the bumpy period during the bankruptcy of original publisher THQ and the subsequent sale of the IP to Ubisoft.

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The Stick of Truth features numerous customisation options for your avatar but no matter how garishly you dress you still fit right in amongst the town's off-beat citizens

While it has likely been a traumatic time for all concerned, it's the kind of material that one might expect to be so brilliantly lampooned by Parker and Stone elsewhere. It would be disappointing if The Stick of Truth's own production, along with THQ's demise, isn't referenced in some way in the finished game. Quite aside from South Park's sensationalist public image built on fart jokes and garish insensitivity, it's this brand of humour that we've come to expect from its writers - where nothing is taboo, and we're served-up a degree of perverse but coherent perceptiveness through the use of extreme parody.

It's this unique flavour of humour that is largely missing from the opening hour of South Park: The Stick of Truth. There's less near-the-knuckle-social-commentary than there is a safer brand of humour, as standard video game tropes receive a gentle ribbing and the likes of Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and current TV sensation Game of Thrones receive shout-outs. In fact, aside from some crass toilet humour and an eye-opening rummage through Cartman's mum's bedroom drawers, there's little that elicits that familiar combination of a simultaneous wince and guilty chuckle that South Park viewers know so well.

It's not entirely toothless, though, and the most ready example of this is tied to the quiet revelation that South Park: The Stick of Truth looks to be a fully-featured RPG, no matter how self-deprecating it may be. It starts with the choice of character class: warrior, mage ("like a wizard but not as cool"), thief and... Jew. Each of the characters benefits from a suite of unlockable abilities, varying combat styles and class-specific equipment. The thief has back-stab and mug abilities to score critical damage or stun an opponent and steal an item from their inventory, for example, while the Sling of David arms the Jew class with a rock-in-a-sock.

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You play the role of a new kid from out of town whose parents are harbouring a dark secret and who happily make fun of your hair.

Combat is straightforward but reveals longer term potential for real nuance and depth with its basic form and function serving-up rudimentary puzzles that call to mind the Mario & Luigi RPG series. You take control of both your own character and that of a buddy, who can be swapped-out during combat, and its little bag of surprises are predicated on timed button presses to initiate attacks and counters. Some weapons require a winding motion with an analogue stick before being let fly, while regular hits are initiated in either a regular or heavy variant that take in armour values and enemy position on the battlefield. Enemies can riposte and reflect attacks and you can choose either to run away from encounters or to instigate fights by hitting kids in the street with sticks. There's plenty here, then, as should be expected from a developer of Obsidian's proven RPG calibre and whose CV boasts entries in the Fallout, Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege series.

Despite depicting a group of kids playing at dress-up in a make-believe war of Humans Vs Elves, there's bloodied noses and black eyes aplenty, all rendered in South Park's trademark knowingly crappy aesthetic. It's uncanny to see familiar characters like Cartman, Kenny, Butters and Jimbo speaking to your mute and heavily customisable avatar as though he's always been part of the show, and moving around the snowy town of South Park reveals numerous nods to franchise lore that die-hard fans will get a kick out of.

While there are plenty of houses, garages and shops to visit, many of which offer quests or side-activities, exploration in the first hour is largely contained. As is to be expected from most RPGs, the game's opening focuses on teaching you the basics of combat, movement and interaction and to this end there's plenty of opportunities to stop and talk to people on South Park's streets. Doing so helps you make friends, who can offer perk points to be spent on special abilities, such as doing more damage to enemies who are pissed-off or covered in excrement (two genuine status effects) or boosting class-specific abilities.

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Quests and side-missions come thick and fast and range from hunting animals to collecting coffee beans from meth-heads.

Friends also send you text messages which are by turn vulgar and endearing, and it's not uncommon for this social network structure to give rise to that awkward moment when your buddy's mum sends you a friend request. On that note, particular mention must go to the incidental dialogue which is often funny enough to warrant dallying in one place for a few moments just to hear.

There's a danger in translating something so of the moment as an episode of South Park into something more permanent, like a video game. Many of the in-jokes and references risk being out of date as soon as it's released and so it must change its focus to include broader themes than the cutting-edge satire that its weekly episodes are so often comprised of. Fortunately, South Park features a gaggle of long-running jokes to be mined and while the opening hour of South Park: The Stick of Truth could stand to be somewhat more risqué it still manages to raise several laughs in that short space of time, which is more than some "funny" games manage throughout their entire duration.

There's more here, though, than just the novelty of genuine humour as the RPG mechanics and combat system have real potential to reveal considered and tactical play as they develop over the course of the game. With South Park's proposed launch date of early March now just a few weeks away, we'll discover just how well the spirit of Parker and Stone's landmark show translates to the extended duration of a video game. Let's just hope that there are no last minute slips, publishing disasters or ill-timed power-cuts to stop us from finally getting our hands on it.

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