Saints Row 2 Xbox 360, PS3
It may be impossible to review Saints Row 2 without mentioning the words Grand, Theft and Auto. The shadow of Rockstar’s franchise loomed over the first Saints Row and caused many people to overlook how Volition was trying to do things differently.
With Grand Theft Auto IV taking a more serious cinematic route that’s mostly grounded in reality, and Saints Row 2 revelling in over-the-top insanity and mayhem, the differences have never been more pronounced. Saints Row 2 never tries to pretend that it’s anymore than a video game, designed around the central concept of the fun that can be gained from lack of morality and an abundance of freedom.
Our second trip to Stilwater is set five years after the abrupt explosive finale of the original Saints Row, with the unnamed protagonist waking up from a coma in a prison hospital. As they’ve suffered disfiguring burns, the local plastic surgeon has had to rebuild their face; this conveniently allows the player to customise their appearance to an astonishingly huge degree. Whether you’d rather be a black cockney buck-toothed obese woman with a purple Mohawk and a bushy green beard, or an anorexic Oriental Latino-voiced man with huge breasts and a traffic-cone on his head, this game has you well catered-for.
As swiftly as the opening jailbreak mission, which sees you gunning down helicopters from the back of a speeding boat, you know this is a far cry from Liberty City. Once you set foot in the city of Stilwater the whole city is open to you from the start. Your map is chock-a-block with shops and activities. The variety of gameplay present is almost overwhelming, and even after 20 hours of play you still won’t have close to seeing all that Saints Row 2 has to offer.
In a sense it feels like the spiritual successor to GTA: San Andreas, in that there’s always something to do, and you’ll frequently find yourself sidetracked from the main missions by the optional entertainments on offer. Activities such as spraying human waste onto houses to devalue property prices, or roughing-up fans who try to get too close to their favourite celebrity, all gain your money and special unlockables like new guns and outfits.
These diversions also gain you Respect, which is crucial to progress in the main storyline. Luckily the side-missions are always a pleasure and never a chore, and adding to that the fact that general flair in driving and gunplay during the game gives you more Respect anyway, and it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself unable to progress the story.
The story itself concerns the 3rd Street Saints, a gang of which the player is a part, and their renewed attempt at domination over the city of Stilwater. Standing in their way are three rivals gangs – The Sons of Samedi, The Ronin and The Brotherhood, as well as the sinister Ultor Corporation. Although the story certainly doesn’t have the depth of a game like GTAIV, the characters are colourful and memorable, the cut-scenes well-directed, and the voice-acting is good.
Sometimes it can be hard to sympathise with the player-character, who rather than being a misunderstood anti-hero, is pretty-much plain evil. But, as the saying goes, “It’s good to be bad.” Driving is handled in an accessible arcade-style, and the addition of a cruise control button means that shooting from a vehicle is easier than ever. On foot, combat is just as enjoyable, although with the lack of any feature for the player to take cover, it can feel a bit loose. There’s no auto-aim here, but to compensate Saints Row 2 gives you regenerating health and the ability to take human shields.
The difficulty is very well-balanced on the default setting, but handily the challenge can be modified at any time for more casual or hardcore players. At times, Saints Row 2 can feel like a check-list for righting all the criticisms and disappointments of Grand Theft Auto 4 – modifiable cars, recruitable homies, turf wars, huge variety of clothes and accessories, tattoos, option to save cars in your garage, learning new fighting styles, ambulance and firetruck missions, pimping, planes, parachutes, purchasable properties and businesses, taunts, less restrictive police force, flamethrowers, gambling, option to warp to land when in water, save anywhere and checkpoints to name but a few…
However, the best new feature has to be the co-op, which can be played with strangers or friends over Xbox Live and PSN. The story progress is played from wherever the host has got to, and both players progress is saved. Anything that can be done in singleplayer can also be done in co-op. So one player could be shopping for some ‘bling’ on one side of the city, and when their partner on the other side initiates a mission then they will be given the option to instantly join them. Enemies are given increased health to compensate for the benefits of teamwork, and all side activities have also been optimised for co-op play.
Saints Row 2 also has competitive multiplayer modes as well, including one which cycles through different activities, alongside the standard Deathmatch modes. But, to be honest there’s so much to do in the main game, it might be a while before you’ll want to leave it alone.
There’s no question that Saints Row 2 is an excellent game, but unfortunately its flaws are mostly technical rather than through any fault in design or gameplay. There are glitches ranging from minor graphical irregularities to the game crashing, although whether that was due to the game itself or the Microsoft hardware it was being played on is hard to determine. A pre-release patch did seem to lessen the occurrences of these bugs though, leaving us hopeful that these could be eradicated before too long.
Saints Row 2 is a huge improvement over its prequel in every manner, and has successfully carved its own niche in the sandbox crime genre. The co-operative play is almost certainly one of the best such experiences available on consoles, and the sheer variety of things to do in Stilwater is so deliciously satisfying that the technical hitches can be overlooked. It’s so fun, it’s almost criminal.