Saints Row 2 Review
I’m in two minds right now. I sit here debating whether Saints Row 2 is any good. And it’s bugging me, it really is. You see, I had the pleasure of reviewing the original (on another website) and I praised it like I’ve never praised a game before; I loved every second of it. But something, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, is stopping me from loving Saints Row 2.
First and foremost, I’ll mention it once and only once. Grand Theft Auto IV is not going to be mentioned twice. I won’t make any comparisons because Saints Row 2 is a completely different game and THQ have marketed it that way. So where shall we begin on our journey…?
Well essentially, if you have played Saints Row you’ll have an idea of the location of Stilwater, which has undergone many aesthetical changes, with its new areas and locations. You begin the game with your character (the lead doesn’t have a name or specific look as you create he/she yourself!) stuck in a prison hospital following the end of the original game, when you were blown off a yacht and badly burnt. The whole story has cleverly been interlinked to allow for character customization from the off-set.
So what does that mean for you? Well, you can create a character essentially to look either similar to you, or as wacky as you want. What is nice is that you can choose from a male or female lead which gives you the opportunity to play as a women; something many games avoid. This also includes a variety of different voices and traits you can give your character, including a taunt and a comment of praise. Some of the taunts are particularly amusing and it is quite difficult to pick one out to use. The use of posture is also a nice inclusion with you being able to choose a walk style, again, this reflects the different way in which people walk. Finally you can choose physical traits including adjusting head size, body and colour. The possibilities are quite exhaustive; you can create some fairly mean looking gangsters or fat nobodies.
The opening missions in Saints Row 2 really do throw you in the deep end. Busting out of prison is where it all begins and straight away you’ll be shooting and escaping prison officers and police. It is a very intense first mission and although it isn’t easy to die; you will find yourself getting frustrated with the police roadblocks which can punish you with a nice cliff jump into the sea. There are no real nice and simple tutorials to get you started; this is a real gritty mission with guns, cops and an escape by boat with some machine guns to boot. The weather reflects the mood of the game at this point; the sky is black and the rain is pouring with thunder and lightning to give it atmosphere.
It doesn’t stop there however; as soon as you’ve selected some clothes to wear and perhaps an armband or two along the way you’ll be trying to release Johnny Gat; one of your old pals from court. Once again this mission gives you something to get your teeth into, and is a breath of fresh air compared to the introductory missions of old. The game gives you a more free-roaming aspect following the conclusion of this mission and the aim is to build the Saints Row gang back to what it once was.
We’re now left with some choices; do you follow the story missions or play on the variety of side missions that litter the game world? The city of Stilwater is completely free-roam from the off, with no unlocking of boroughs, and this really gives you a wealth of things to try as soon as you begin the game. What the original game lacked in is the ability of air movement, but the heights of Stilwater are now accessible thanks to the helicopters littered across the map.
Saints Row 2’s strong-point is that the activities are fun and engaging and sometimes produce quite hilarious results. The games ethos is the word ‘fun’ and THQ have come up trumps with that. Crowd Control is one of the new activities making an appearance and allows you to protect a celeb as they engage with the crowd. This bouncer-esque style game means you’ll be throwing and punching out-of-control fans and earning money as you do by throwing them into all manner of objects in the environment. This isn’t even one of the fun activities however, Mayhem activity makes a welcome return and the aim here is to destroy everything possible within a certain borough. You get unlimited use of certain guns and grenades and the destruction can be immense. For everything you destroy you can build a combo up and rack up significant amounts of money to achieve the target and complete the level.
Some other new activities are Trail Blazer and Septic Avenger as well as an analogue stick based sex mini-game. Both the former are quite quirky with Trail Blazer giving you the ability to drive in a flame-retardant suit and blow cars up while racing round the streets, while the other puts you in control of a septic tank and devaluing as much property as possible by essentially spraying faeces all over the place. Throwing yourself in front of cars and racking up a huge medical bill is as fun as it ever was in the original and these niche activities are what put the fun into Stilwater. Each activity features six levels of difficulty and after the third and sixth you can increase your stats or unlock items by completing them. This gives additional emphasis on completing them as they do feel a core part of the game and not something that has been tacked on. Even if you played the original, each one feels fresh, and the new activities give everyone something new to play with as well as of course the obligatory achievement.
But how does the character feel in their movement within the city? Realism goes out the window in Saints Row 2. With the tap of RB, you can sprint around until you become tired. The sprint is very quick and gives you chance to avoid enemy fire when you need cover the most. Weapons can be accessed with the tap of X which brings up a sub-menu in the bottom right hand corner which allows you to choose a weapon quickly using the right-analogue stick. This quick system means that even in the most intense fights, accessing the inventory is painless.
Shooting a weapon involves moving the analogue sticks to aim. There is no targeting system here, but the free-shoot system is very effective and even when running you can shoot enemies down with ease. One of the things I cannot get used to however is that you jump with X and when driving the triggers isn’t used. Instead, like old-fashioned times, you push A to go and B to brake. This is because you use the triggers to fire your weapon while you are on the move in a car, and again, this is a useful feature which doesn’t sound half as difficult as it reads.
Of course the main element of Saints Row 2 is the campaign and this is something that came under fire when the original game was released. People said it unnecessarily used swearing and racist humour. Yet for all the laughs I had playing the original and the witty accents, Saints Row 2 has gone and blown that all out of the water. The level of voice-acting has improved massively and characters in the game now seem to have a personality; best of all they are witty and some of the comments they come out with will make you laugh out loud. This is videogame comedy and it is good.
The NPC characters on the other hand aren’t quite so impressive, and you won’t find many walking the streets either. What is nice is that police will be driving around and actually catching criminals while you sit back being a good citizen. Sirens may wail but they aren’t for you…yet. One of the problems I’ve faced is finding a vehicle when on foot now and again. It seems that they randomly spawn and sometimes you can be waiting a while for a car to appear, which is disappointing when you need a quick getaway.
The main story itself sees you taking on three gangs, The Sons of Samedi, The Brotherhood and The Ronin. At the end of the game you will also face a superior gang called the Ultor Corporation (when were gangs corporations eh?). When you want to undertake a mission for a gang you’ll need to earn respect, and respect can be earned in various ways. You can either undertake some activities as mentioned earlier, when you are driving around, or by killing people you can earn respect, for example, when you kill someone in the head or when you drive erratically. You can also recruit lieutenants and each of the three will help you with a particular gang. I won’t reveal what happens but things can get a little heated and emotions will run high during the course of the story.
Best of all, when undertaking a mission during certain key points a handy checkpoint system will mean you won’t need to drive miles across the map before arriving at the destination where you died about fifteen minutes ago. This was a frustration in the first game and congratulations to THQ for sorting this out. Other introductions include cruise control which allows you to keep the car at a steady speed which only comes in useful when aiming and firing using the other hand. Otherwise it’s not a particularly useful system and its use can be minimal, unless you find shooting and driving tricky at the same time. If you find a shortcut through paths or buildings using a vehicle, a message will state that the GPS has unlocked a shortcut and each time you do this you can find quicker ways to get to destinations throughout the game. Finally a warp system means that if you drive off a cliff into water and can’t be bothered to swim, tap Y and you’ll be warped back to shore. A nice small feature which can make all the difference when faced with a ten minute swim!
The ability to pick randomly dotted items, such as bar stools and lobster pots, gives you an idea of the interactivity with the environment in Saints Row 2. Each item can be highlighted and inform you that you can push A and grab one. Something that characters will use against you is CS Gas and this makes your screen all blurry while ittemporarily knocks out your character. I thought this was a nice way of knocking you back as you try and beat everyone up and shows that you aren’t quite invincible! There are many more additions that can be found and you’ll need to play the game to fully appreciate them all.
But why all the negativity at the start of the review and why does it mean I’m undecided if I like the game or not? For all the good aspects of Saints Row 2 there is a downfall, and it is a technical one. While the original suffered from pop-up and slow streaming of the city, this is still occasionally a problem in this sequel too. Framerate suffers now and again and the environments aren’t the most detailed we’ve seen. Another issue is the collision detection, there has been various times that I’ve hit a barrier with a car and then wedged myself to a point were I am unable to move. These aren’t major issues but minor niggles, but it still affects my view on the game. For all the spit and polish that has been applied to Saints Row 2, there is still very much those problems that plagued the original.
My other personal issue with the game is the combat, which despite the fancy cut-scenes, seems awkward at times, especially when you have multiple people trying to smack you. Usually it’s a case of sprinting away and approaching each one at a time, otherwise you end up with some crazy melee and a lack of punch. The AI sometimes suffers from irregularities’ too, such as being stood there as they are shot and not bothering to attack you. The same happens on Crowd Control when the people you need to take down just run round aimlessly like lost sheep. The actions of the AI can be random and for me this is a disappointment.
Alright, so we’ve figured there are some technical glitches and most games without a massive budget suffer from this now and again, but what else should really make you want to play Saints Row 2? Well the sound is particularly impressive, from thequality of the voice-acting that really enhances the storyline to the radio stations that have such a great variety of music. The 80’s station called The Mix is one of my favourites; driving around and shooting people while listening to Aha ‘Take On Me’ is rather surreal but great at the same time. There is a variety of music stations from Classical to Rap and Reggae. Something for everyone is the motto here and while speech is limited and playlists are slightly small, I’m sure you’ll enjoy what is on offer.
The best bit about Saints Row 2 though is its multiplayer, which is by far is one of the greatest features. Co-op play is something THQ boasted about and they’ve pulled this off spectacularly. You can play over Xbox LIVE with a friend or via System-Link, if you still dig the retro alternative, and you can play each of the missions in the campaign. Of course they have added more enemies to make things a bit harder, but the co-op mission mode makes the game ten times more fun, especially when you are with a friend. In similar vein that Halo 3 co-op was anticipated highly, Saints Row 2 co-op should come second on that list. Other multiplayer games are confined to neighbourhoods and involve shooting and objective based games with a maximum amount of players of eight and twelve.
So we reach the end of our rather long journey around Stilwater and whilst THQ have taken on board the issues that plagued the original game, some of them have cropped up once again here. My main issue with the game is that while the element of ‘fun’ makes the game quirky and amusing to play, underneath I can’t find the defining factor as to why I don’t enjoy it as much. Whether it is because a certain unnamed open-world action title has already been released this year and showed us what the potential of the console can do; then perhaps that is why. But with the budget for Saints Row 2 you can’t really complain. THQ stepped on the feet of Rockstar last time and released the first open-world action title on the 360. And now they’re following the biggest videogame in the world. Have they succeeded this time? No. But I think I may just be finding my love for it at last.