You could find South Park: The Stick of Truth in the back corner of Microsoft's Xbox 360 Showcase event, with project director at Obsidian Entertainment Zane Lyon speaking into a microphone at three rows of seated viewers watching the demo with headphones on.
Elsewhere in the showcase, demos happened without the necessity of headsets. The Gears of War: Judgement multiplayer area had no such formality, nor did the Fable: The Journey setup. But for South Park: The Stick of Truth, it's all about presentation.
"This is the most authentic South Park game ever produced," Lyon told us, adding with not a little amount of pride, "This is all in-engine [graphics], no video."
"This is the first big console South Park game in over a decade," Lyon said, referring to 2000's South Park Rally or perhaps, the year before that, South Park: Chef's Luv Shack. Curiously, he didn't consider Xbox Live Arcade releases South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play! or the exceptionally poor South Park: Tenorman's Revenge to be "big console" releases.
The game takes place, unsurprisingly, in the small mountain town of South Park, Colorado. You play the role of The New Kid, a nameless cipher whose first quest, assigned by his father, is simple: "Go make some friends." While that sounds traditional enough, what's immediately unique about The Stick of Truth is simply how much it looks like the South Park cartoon. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I'm going to just say it: It looks exactly like the cartoon. Obsidian isn't known for making "good looking" games and, while certainly heavily stylized, presentation is one area where South Park: The Stick of Truth immediately excels.
But South Park has never been about the humble animation; instead, the show has enjoyed an almost 15-year run thanks to its consistently clever (and consistently puerile!) writing and The Stick of Truth is no different there. South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker both conceived of and wrote the story for the game, Lyon told us, the biggest project they've worked on since the movie in 1999.
For example, having just moved into their new home, "SOLD" sign on the lawn and all, the New Kid's parents decide to uh ... break in the new bedroom, thereby launching the first quest. After accepting it, if you try to enter the house instead of making friends, a now-naked father yells out the window, "Go make some friends!"
And making friends is what The Stick of Truth is all about – your rank is classified by how cool you are. It's fitting then that the first character who befriends you is the universally awkward Butters, "the only kid who is a bigger loser than you," Lyon said. Butters takes you to meet the Wizard King, a be-robed Eric Cartman, whose backyard is now the "Kingdom."
"Your coming was foretold by Coldwell Banker!"
After being brought in and presented to Cartman, you're asked to enter your name. Regardless of what you enter — in our demo, the player entered "Ace" — Cartman refers to you as "douchebag." This is your first rank. But after being given a sword and tasked with defending the Kingdom from the "asshole elves," you're given a chance to prove yourself in battle and help Cartman defend the titular stick. After defeating a vampire miniboss later in the demo, the New Kid levels up and is rewarded with a new title by Cartman: "You are a butthole."
"Combat in South Park borrows from classic turn-based RPGs," Lyon explained. But there is a twist: the game uses time-based events to add some immediacy to the proceedings. For example, your attacks can be enhanced with the right button press, and enemy attacks can be blocked with the right timing. Some attacks even include an "active reload"-style timing minigame to maximize damage.
Like most RPGs — and especially RPGs with nameless ciphers — The Stick of Truth offers character customization. In addition to the unique, albeit ignored, name you can give your character, you'll also be able to control head and body clothing, ranged and melee weapons (we saw Cartman's mom's "Vibroblade") and even more granular characteristics like makeup, hairstyles, and facial hair.
It's worth noting that as promising as The Stick of Truth appears to be, especially for South Park fans, it won't have a large presence at the THQ booth this year because ... well, the beleaguered publisher doesn't have a booth this year. As a result, we probably won't get to see how the game's just-announced Kinect support will work or get our hands on the game, but there's plenty of time between now and its March 5th, 2013 release date.