When the original Saints Row released in 2006 it was met with plenty of praise and yet garnered a fair number of criticisms as well. Gamers instantly likened it to Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas, as both games offered an open world environment to jump in and out of and have some gangster boogie fun and games. The gangster theme didn’t necessarily appeal to everyone, and whilst both games portrayed a very tongue in cheek stereotypical approach, you couldn’t really avoid the limping walks, slang language and an abundance of street “bling”. For many, this was a gaming utopia and as Saints Row was compared to what is arguably one of the best sandbox type games ever created, perhaps the criticisms were justified. Volition, the developers had an advantage coming into the then “next generation” because there was no real competition and therefore, they were able to showcase what the Xbox 360 could offer. It’s easy to sit back now and say, well actually Saints Row offered less gameplay than GTA San Andreas with the absence of boats, proper aircraft and motorcycles but on a technical level, the game did offer an expected improvement with the game’s graphics. Things like lighting and shadows looked pretty impressive, and of course the texture details and character models were unrivalled when compared to Xbox and PS2’s worlds.
Well, that was way back when, and since then we’ve had a few games offering their own spin on the free roaming action genre, most notably Rockstar’s massive GTA IV, which like the original Saints Row, divided opinion across the board regardless of its high review scores from the gaming press. Whether you loved, liked or loathed GTA IV, it’s hard to argue against it especially on a technical level, as the game offered an unprecedented level of depth and realism unlike any other game of its type. Perhaps for some gamers it was that same realism which fuelled the souring of gaming taste buds. It’s clear from reading what gamers have said about the game, that GTA IV became rather stale once you had completed the main story, you were left in a highly detailed environment with little to do, bar the same repetitive tasks. I guess once the honey moon period wore off, Mr. Bellic and pals simply lost their appeal.
Well we’re not here to talk about GTA IV, although as a benchmark game and a series that has dominated the free- roaming genre in popularity and appeal, it has to be mentioned. So here we are in late 2008 and the team at Volition under THQ have finally released the long awaited sequel to Saints Row. The game ended on a cliff hanger and since then, fans have wanted some sort of closure to the story. Saints Row 2 naturally continues where the first game left off, and once again we’re back in the metropolis that is Stilwater. The city has had a make over as the Ultor Corporation has reclaimed the parts of the city in a crackdown on crime, grittiness and gang culture. However since the Saints gang has been leaderless, some new gangs have arisen and now control the parts of the city not under Ultor’s watchful gaze. Once again it’s time to get all “gangsta on yo asses” but this time, you’ve got plenty of ways to do it.
Let’s take a look at the basics to get a clear picture on what’s on offer here. The game begins following the story, where you’re not going to deviate until you reach a certain point (I’m not going to spoil the story here at all). What I will say is it’s an action packed start which throws you into the deep end, although this can be part of a tutorial of sorts. It’s certainly highly unoriginal, but fitting for those of you who played Saints Row. It also provides the first step of many in which you can tailor the game to your own personal taste.
What was great about Saints Row was the way you could customize your character. Well, the same tools are back, although this time there’s a lot more you can mess around with. The main differences here is the inclusion of male and female characters and the fact that you can now select their voice from three choices each and certain traits such as how they walk and what facial expression they’ll have. It doesn’t stop there either, as you’re also able to menacingly select a taunt and compliment action for those moments where you want to interact with the city folk. There’s quite a number of different actions here, all steeped in the game’s full on tongue in cheek manner. What’s good is that there’s more stuff to unlock as you progress through the game, and if you’re not entirely happy with your choice, or fancy a change then you can visit a plastic surgeon and adjust your character entirely at any time.
Saints Row 2 feels familiar, not only because you’re back again in the mean streets of Stilwater, but it’s another free-roaming game, with different clothing. So, on a basic level you’re going to see pedestrians who make comments at you, changing day/night/weather cycles, cars driving around and various events that seem to happen regardless of your input. The core element of the game is very much identical to its predecessor. There’s even familiarity with the game’s activities where you can indulge in the game’s pseudo levelling up process. Completing various activities, missions, side missions, mini games and even things like dangerous driving and hand to hand combat will earn you respect. More respect means you’ll unlock more of the story missions, which ultimately leads to the game’s conclusion (for those that are following the story aspect).
I would say that this time round the story is a lot more fleshed out, and far more engaging than merely being the simple street thug rising up the ranks. Although the basic premise of reclamation is still the same, the execution is a lot more cohesive, and sometimes chilling. The plot itself isn’t going to leave you in a pensive mood, as it meanders in and out of the typical and expected; however the presentation is of a very high standard with a number of scenes before and after missions really conveying the grittiness and determination of your character. Obviously if you’ve made a character that looks like a cross dressing freak, then this can take away the edge from some scenes, but in general there is an air of seriousness that was perhaps lacking in the first game.
The Story missions themselves are some of the most varied you’ll come across in a game of this type. It’s very easy for developers of open world games to follow the same pattern with missions; i.e. drive to A pick up item, drive to B drop off item or drive to A and chase X person across town. Saints Row 2 plays on its own humour, and it’s this aspect that propels the missions into their own realm of obscure and utterly fascinating entertainment. Although you will be doing a lot of driving, flying, shooting and running, you’re going to be grabbed by the collar, thrust in front of the TV screen and compelled to play until you realize that it’s way later than you thought and time for bed.
Stilwater is a fairly large city space, and contains every bit of the urban structure that you’d expect, from the highs of the commercial district, to the lows of a trailer park, it’s all here to be explored. The game space is some 40% bigger than before, although on the surface might not feel like it, until you start exploring a little and finding underground locations and the huge number of indoor areas. Exploration is really a big factor in the game’s strength, because by doing so, you’re always not going to be far from something to do. There really isn’t a dull moment, and at times you might be faced with the excitable dilemma of what you’d like to do next. Do I base jump off the tallest building, partake in the drive by shooting mini game, streak through the streets naked, or act like a pervy flasher or buy some properties to increase my daily income – just as a few examples out of many. Ok it’s not realistic in the sense that your character can be this wealthy property tycoon/leader that drives fancy cars, yet on the other hand enjoys the more sublime insane pleasures of the mind, body and soul. It’s very easy to be distracted in Stilwater and I think what you have to bear in mind is that none of it is forced upon you. So if you’re keen on sticking to being the tough guy, then you can largely ignore some of the more fantastical pursuits (although you would be depriving yourself of many laughs). For those of you who simply rush through the game’s story, will find that once beaten, you’ve still got hours upon hours of other stuff to mess around with.
Looking at the gameplay mechanics and you’ll find a very arcade like experience, realism left via the same door as the guys with zero sense of humour. You can tear around the city streets in your customized vehicles, gang members in tow. You can take lots of bullets and aim precisely like a seasoned pro. You can do many things beyond what is humanly possible, but in a more slapstick way. There is an element of realism in that it’s a familiar playing space of a city with people living in it; but the fun factor knob has been turned up way past the maximum ten, try fifteen to get an idea. Even when you fail a mission, the game doesn’t strip away the fun and punish you needlessly. It puts you right back where you need to be so that you never feel like you’ve just been roughed up by a team of charging football players (or rugby if you’re from the UK) and left battered, bruised, dejected and despondent – looking for the off switch.
Graphically I can’t really see much difference compared to Saints Row; and based on its own merits there’s still the neat explosions, crash physics, lighting effects, shadows and texture details that work wonders for this generation of consoles. There are some moments of screen tearing, although you can tweak the V-Sync options in the menu if this bothers you, which it shouldn’t because it’s not as prevalent like it was in the first game. The frame rate holds up pretty well for the most part, although will dip at times, but not to levels where the game begins to chug. There are some moments of pop up as well, but the overall rendering of the dark and moody to colourful and vibrant city is pretty good as it streams the data of the disc. The only real instances where you’ll notice some flaws is when entering or exiting a building, where the lighting seems to take a few seconds to adjust itself. This doesn’t really hamper the gameplay but is noticeable.
There are some cool animations on offer and what makes the game even more adaptable is the fact that a large number of inanimate objects can now be picked up and thrown or used as weapons. The physics engine allows for more variation and adds a certain level of interactivity which really helps the game tremendously. I could never tire of grabbing a hostage and then throwing them over the edges of high points or into objects. It’s great fun and feels just right for the game it is. It’s also amusing seeing the AI adopt the same tactics. Whilst we’re on the subject of the AI, I would say that the animations are pretty cool throughout, but there are some rather ugly looking characters, perhaps this was deliberate; to reflect that in reality people are as varied as they come?
The aural palette is of a high standard, with some great performances all round, and that includes the secondary characters. Whilst the dialog might be of a simplistic nature, the delivery has been crafted well. The fact that you have a lead character with personality changes things a lot; and you’ll notice moments where a little more insight into your chosen one’s character can be gained – “you can never have enough guns, that’s what my father used to say”. The AI characters will repeat stuff fairly often, but it’s a nice touch that they make comments based on what you’ve done in the story. The general ambiance of the city is as you would expect, and when you couple this with the sound of gun fire, police sirens and screaming pedestrians, the city flavour has been captured well.
The game’s music is rather subjective, and although there’s a reasonable choice of radio stations, unless you’re really a huge fan of the any of the tunes on offer, after hours and hours of play you might be inclined to use your own music or switch it off entirely – there’s perhaps only so much Tears for Fears, Aha, Nas or Fat Joe that you can take. That said, there is plenty on offer here which lends itself well to the humour of the game depending on what choices you make.
The level of customization adds a layer of longevity to an already expansive title with vehicles, clothing, gang and the actual character you play with. You’ll gain a different perspective, choosing a male or female, and even selecting different voices for the respective sexes. The game has a lot of hidden stuff to find for those looking to unlock goodies, and in abundance you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. The single player game will last a fair number of hours if you knuckle down and aim for one hundred per cent completion. However the distractions and goofing around can really add on many more hours simply because it’s very hard to not get distracted.
The entire single player game can also be played with a friend via system link or Xbox Live and this adds a new layer of longevity. The game actually adjusts its difficulty on top of the inclusion of a manual difficulty select that can be changed at any time on or offline. The co-op is a very welcome addition and means that your friends can drop in at any time and do what they like and you can do what you like, although you can’t forget the word – co-op which means story missions have to be played together.
Aside from the co-op you’ll also be able to partake in the game’s returning multiplayer which offers similar antics to the first game; although the team based Strong Arm mode seems to be the best place for variation. You’ll be able to play standard deathmatch modes team or solo on a number of maps from based on locations from the single player; and you’ll also be able to try out some of the other activities in the Strong Arm mode. This mode pits two teams against each other as you try various activities to gain cash. The more cash your team has for each round the closer you are to winning. The games are fast paced, easy to understand and contain the same fun factor that made the original a blast to play. Sadly some favourites from the original are absent, but if you want to relive those moments, then you could always pop in the original disc to play those.
I really like the multiplayer as it’s not too complex to put you off, and offers just the right amount of variation to keep things interesting. What’s more you can tweak the options if you have a particular favourite you’d rather keep playing over and over. What is good is that although you have to start from scratch with your online character in terms of items, you are able to import your single player character, or if you feel like a change, create an entirely new character specific for the multiplayer portion of the game. The multiplayer certainly provides some solid entertainment for those of you looking for a departure from going solo.
Saints Row 2 sticks two very long pointed fingers up at the pomposity that is GTA IV (there I said it) by offering something it can call its own. Whilst Rockstar moved their series into a more story driven realistic affair, Volition have stuck to what made the original Saints Row a success and built upon it. That’s not to take too much away from the greatness that is GTA IV, but more the two games offer very different playing experiences in similar spaces.
Saints Row 2 offers a grand playing experience that is smeared in delectable moments of sheer brilliance. The familiarity might slap you at first, but once you’ve delved deeper into the heart of the game, you’ll find that the neat quirks and variations will have you laughing out loud, and quite frankly entertained fully. Gaming is about entertainment, and I think the guys at Volition have taken on board the complaints we all had, and provided a playing space that not only you can place your own personal stamp on, but can live in for hours on end and simply not get bored, frustrated or lost. That’s some really great game design, and one that should, and will be appreciated by the masses. I’m really enjoying the game still and feel compelled to keep on playing as long as my eyes can stay open.
There are lots of games out this holiday season, and Saints Row 2 should be one of the games that you play, as there’s nothing at present that can rival its madcap adrenaline fueled flamboyance. It looks like the Saints have made a distinctive return to gaming by placing the enjoyment back where it belongs. The fun factor oozing from every street corner can most definitely be regarded as the game’s true and most cherished protégé.