Name: Saints Row 2
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
It’s pretty much impossible to review Saints Row 2 without comparing it to two other games: the original Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto IV. When the first Saints Row was released, it basically served as a holdover between GTA: San Andreas and the yet-to-be-released GTA IV. It was met with mixed reviews, with most of the criticism stemming from technical glitches, extremely derivative gameplay, and a story that focused more on vulgarity and juvenile humor than character and plot. It did, however, introduce some new wrinkles to the genre, including a now essential GPS system, enhanced car customization, and drivers who fly through their windshields during high-speed collisions. The game sold well, mostly due to people’s desire to play an open-world urban shooter on an HD system, but once GTA IV arrived, Saints Row became a distant memory. This year’s sequel promises more of everything: more mission types, more customization options, a better, more fleshed-out story, and a vastly improved online experience. Can the sequel of a GTA clone make a splash in a post-GTA IV world? Surprisingly, yes.
Saints Row 2 begins a few years after the events of the first game. After the explosion that ended the original, your character went into a coma, and was picked up by the police. Waking up in a prison hospital bed, you discover that the explosion caused injuries that required plastic surgery, drastically altering your appearance. This is basically just a set-up for players to customize their gangster, which is one of the game’s best features. The customization options are staggeringly deep, allowing you to modify everything from hairstyle, to clothes, to speech style, to taunts. There are slider bars for almost every conceivable facet of your appearance, both for your face and body, and the resulting characters you’ll create can be anything from a realistic British hooligan, to a morbidly obese African American, to a 90-year-old emaciated transvestite (we went with the transvestite, natch). During the story, there are several cut-scenes that make reference to your new appearance (“did you do something with your hair?”), and depending on how you made your character, these will either seem totally apropos or absurdly funny. Your character has gained something in the explosion as well: a voice. Whereas the protagonist of the first game was a mute, this time, you’ll hear tons of well-delivered, often funny dialogue in whichever voice you choose for your character. Once your character has been created, you’re freed from prison by a fellow gang member in what amounts to a tutorial level. After escaping, you’re free to explore the entire city of Stillwater, causing random havoc and destruction, or set about following the game’s main story, which involves rebuilding the 3rd Street Saints and taking the city back from the three new gangs which have arisen in your absence, as well as the evil Ultor Corporation. The main plot of the game is a far better experience than what we got in the first game, with more believable characters, far better voice acting and well-animated cut-scenes. It’s not quite at the level of GTA IV, nor San Andreas or even Vice City, for that matter, but it’s a fun anti-hero tale that remains entertaining throughout.
The only real problem with the story is that you may never actually get around to playing it. As of the writing of this (admittedly late) review, I have not been able to finish the game, because I am constantly being distracted by the game’s innumerable side missions and diversions, not to mention the allure of random chaos. As far as content goes, Saints Row represents not only a huge leap over its predecessor; it’s also way more packed with stuff to do than any of the GTA games. Car surfing, escorting prostitutes, insurance fraud, a zombie survival mini-game, and a brutal fight club are just a few of the game’s many distractions, and almost all of them are great ways to waste time (and pedestrians).
From a technical standpoint, Saints Row 2 looks far nicer than the original, but doesn’t have the level of polish that GTA IV does. The art style is a bit less realistic than that found in Liberty City, which fits the madcap style of the game, but character models are nicely rendered and the city itself looks great, despite some nasty pop-up issues and some ugly textures. Ragdoll physics are in play, but after GTA IV showed us all what can be done with the Euphoria engine, seeing your character go totally limp after colliding with a car feels artificial and shallow.
Anyone who played the first game (or any iteration of the GTA series after III) will instantly be familiar with the controls. Shooting is fun, but a bit wild. There is no lock-on feature, but this is made up for by a regenerating health bar and a relatively generous hit detection. Other than tone, perhaps the biggest difference between this game and GTA IV lies in the driving. Whereas Rockstar’s latest opus delivered realistic cars that skid and slide when pushed too hard, Stilwater’s inhabitants drive weightless vehicles that turn on a dime and never lose control. While this makes driving much easier, it also makes it feel less rewarding when you swerve through a series of cars at 175 mph, despite the new Burnout-inspired dynamic driving challenges, which instantly update you when you break your own record for driving in the oncoming lane, driving on two wheels, or air time. The lack of a cover mechanic makes this game decidedly more of a run and gun affair than GTA IV, though the ability to use pedestrians as human shields mitigates that to some degree. Melee combat is actually better than in GTA, and includes the ability to change your fighting style. You start off as a standard street brawler, but can eventually learn specific styles like capoeira, kung fu and an MMA style that utilizes pro wrestling moves. The most notable addition to the melee system is the ability to grab and throw people. Not only does this help in crowded gunfights, but it also serves as an endlessly fun distraction. Especially when you find a nice overpass or a stairway that leads to a high rooftop.
The last Saints Row featured a multiplayer mode that was simply awful. A tiny amount of game types, laggy gameplay, and tiny play areas ensured that very few people even bothered with the gimped online aspect of the game. This time around, the online options are far more fleshed out, with more players per game, and a whole map available for online play. There are only three game types: Gangsta Brawl (deathmatch), Team Gangsta Brawl (team deathmatch), and Strong Arm. Strong Arm allows the game’s host to select one or more objectives for the two opposing teams to complete, such as Insurance Fraud, Mayhem or Theft, which involves stealing items from pedestrians and returning them to a safe point. The modes would be a lot of fun if it weren’t for the technical issues that hold them back. Connecting to a game can be a frustrating exercise in futility; repeatedly and unceremoniously being bounced back to the main menu after waiting five minutes for your room to fill up is infuriating, and has happened almost every time I’ve played online. There are also serious lag issues in-game, with characters suddenly teleporting around the map as the system tries to catch up with itself. It’s usually an annoyance, but at times, it can render the game unplayable. The other major draw of online play is co-op mode, which lets players jump into and out of their friends’ campaigns to help them complete missions. The lag issue in this mode is not quite as pronounced, but it always seems to be present, and sudden connection losses are common as well. It’s also annoying that any time a player with cheats enabled joins your game, there is a risk of tainting your save file with the cheats, disabling many Achievements.
Saints Row 2 feels like Volition stole the code from a GTA game, dumbed it down by 10%, then let a bunch of 12 year olds decide what kind of stuff you can do in it. I mean this in a good way, and honestly, I wish more games would take this approach. Volition has prioritized fun over everything else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s cheat codes, which range from “Heaven Bound,” which makes enemies and citizens rise up into the sky when killed, to “Super Explosions,” which causes booms to be more BOOMish, to “Low Gravity” and “Drunk Pedestrians,” which are pretty self-explanatory. The game never takes itself seriously, but within the realm of sandbox games, you probably should. The online options lack polish and have no shortage of technical issues, but there’s more than enough content in the single-player campaign to make you quickly forget these problems. It’s goofy, violent, sophomoric, vulgar, and provides plenty of fuel for those who call games “murder simulators.” It also happens to be an absolute blast to play, and should be a high priority game for fans of action and immature hilarity during this busy game season.