Saints Row 2 Review - 20/10/2008

Lauded for its laid-back, tongue-in-cheek approach to the world of sandbox gaming, and not afraid of its debt to Grand Theft Auto, Volition's Saints Row 2 was all set to surprise gamers the world over come launch day. Has it succeeded?

It's always going to be hard to challenge the behemothic GTA series, so why the hell bother? Volition have marketed their child as something which should be bought in conjunction with GTA. It's true, they have their distinct similarities, but there is one huge, face-punching, crotch-kicking, bullet-firing difference. One is fun, the other…not so fun. I really enjoyed GTA IV of course, everyone did, but there is a different type of enjoyment in Saints, one that was even lacking from the original game. It is perhaps a little predictable that this review will be comparing Saints to Rockstar's flagship IP, but I promise, once this it out of the way we'll get down to the nitty-gritty of the reviewed game's own offerings.

Saints Row 2 is probably the most relaxed game ever made. Its morals go out of the window after 5 seconds of opening gameplay, the characters are all larger-than-life stereotypes, the story is funny and rarely serious, and the gameplay itself is so simple a six year old could play it (not recommended). Contrast this to GTA. In number IV, while you can hardly say Rockstar should be allowed into classrooms to teach life-skills in primary schools, the realistic setting of the game and a variety of repercussions for your actions generally keep you in the atmosphere and don't actively encourage your mad rampages and civilian genocides that take place in Stillwater, the revisited city from Saints Row. With Volition's game you get pedestrians that hobble about and deliberately provoke you (you being a burly man carrying a samurai sword). There are activities which reward you for killing civilians, doing damage to public property and setting fire to people. The closest GTA gets to reckless and irresponsible behaviour in terms of encouraged objectives are getting drunk at bars and stumbling home. The latest in that series has a definite severity to everything on screen.

Plenty of carnage on offer.

You start in Saints Row 2 by creating a character, who can be anyone you want. Unfortunately, you can't retrieve your character from the original using game data, but this is explained away as you resume your role from the first game having been in a coma for years and basically with a new face due to your injuries. While on my first play I decided to try and recreate my old character (I loved the story in the original and wanted it to continue in the same vein – though you can change everything again using Plastic Surgeons in the game world), the depth to the creation engine is fantastic. It is quite simply a library of hilarity. You can pick humorous voices, permanently goofy facial expressions, create thin men with boobs, fat men that are 8ft tall – generally, make monstrously funny lumps of flesh that are depicted in every cutscene up close throughout the story. There are all the usual sliders which actually have a noticeable affect on your figure; you can choose a walk, fighting style and taunts specific to your character. You then have to break out of jail (you were being detained while in your coma) and start to rebuild the 3rd Street Saints from the ground up.

This in itself is a nice change, and similarities can be drawn to Niko Bellic setting foot on American soil in a country he knows little about. In the first Saints Row you are canonised into a gang already up and running. There are also many changes in the physical engine and gameplay, but not so in the general structure of the game - somewhat disappointingly. Again, I very much enjoyed the first game, but after about an hour's play I was recounting previous experiences – driving down the same roads (it's set in the same city remember), completing very similar tasks, and encountering different, but what can only be described as fairly rehashed, characters. With thirty-hours plus invested in the original, being able to see landmarks and familiar streets and roads is nice, but it means the game does feel old relatively quickly. The city has been renovated and while there are graphical improvements with the rebuilt engine, it still doesn't hold up to its rivals consistently. Some areas and lighting look fantastic but it seems to depend on time of day and location as to whether you'll be smiling in an impressed manner or rubbing your eyes in pain. In places this sacrifice has been made and your ability to accept it will reflect on how much you'll enjoy the second outing in the Saints series.

The gameplay is not quite this complex.

Gameplay however is brilliantly, quick, free-flowing and effortless. There are very few impassable objects or barriers in the game that often plague GTA's play. The amount of times you are being chased by the police and get stopped or heavily slowed by a thin wire fence at 50mph was very frustrating. Looking for an escape route down an alleyway only to find a raised level at the end, frantically searching empty beaches for boats with which to make a getaway, and being severely punished for hitting other vehicles all bore a similar feeling. It was realistic (at least relatively). Even the original Saints Row shared some of these characteristics. Now though you can turn blindly down an alleyway, assured that the end will be clear.

Garden fences are destructible, allowing you to take a beeline off the main road and through people's back yards to evade very persistent police who aren't afraid to knock the scenery down either. Empty vehicles are placed intelligently where you may need them, and you can go places that you would never attempt to in GTA. Jumping off cliffs or over jumps in vehicles is easy enough to make it a viable escape route. It creates a wonderfully free-flowing style of play and one that creates many more memorable moments than GTA IV or the first Saints Row. It makes escaping from the police fun again, rather than a laborious chore.

The highlight is undoubtedly the chase scenes.

Chases are made all the more fun by a great physics system. Cars will veer off the road to avoid your gunfire and you can really see the effect it has on everything else. Chain reactions ripple through the traffic, cars fly through the air as collisions occur, causing yet more mayhem. It is during these high speed-sections that you really notice the frame-rate drops. It never ruins the experience, but is pretty tough to ignore with something as usually-fluid as high speed driving. Motorbikes are great fun to drive, but get thrown off and you will often die in one – this is of course completely at odds with the health in shooting sections, but can also be tied into fall damage which is remarkably heavy. That aside, the engine makes for unpredictable gameplay – no two chases will ever feel the same, and in co-operative play you'll be recounting extraordinary moments from the game for months and even years to come.

There are problems however. The physical play of the missions you are given, which are split between the three factions in the game, are pretty thin in terms of strategy and complexity. They tend to be chase a target, kill a target or wipe out an entire area of enemies. The story behind them isn't bad and in fact the game has an early cutscene which pokes fun at this simple mentality to the objectives (one of the Saints has devised a clever plan for hitting an enemy casino, but you decide to just go in all guns blazing), but compared to GTA's well constructed variety of missions it pales in comparison. This hasn't changed much from the original game however, and so, if you enjoyed that regardless of this issue, you won't have any trouble loving Saints Row 2. It has to be said though that the locations for these missions, and some of the mechanics in them, are very nice indeed. Rather than office complexes or abandoned construction sites you visit a cacophony of exciting and bizarre locations. One-off gameplay elements are introduced requiring adapted controls for a five-minute stint, and there are many epic set-pieces. Where the innovation falls down is with the enemies. There are just heaps of them, all pretty devoid of intelligence and standing around waiting to get shot. Ammo is scarce, but the sheer amount of fodder in front of you will keep your bullet-pouch bulging.

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Volition, Inc.