Saints Row 2 Review

Originally posted in [crude] magazine, Dec /Jan 09 issue

Saints Row 2
Xbox 360/ Playstation 3 / PC

You can’t talk about Saints Row 2 without acknowledging the elephant in the room, so allow me to make a few things clear; Saints Row 2 knows its limits. It is not a life-sim, it doesn’t attempt to force emotional attachments between the player and his polygonal playmates, and it isn’t a bleak commentary on the trappings of criminal life in the USA. In short: Saints Row 2 is not Grand Theft Auto IV – it is an open-world sandbox game that goes out of its way to facilitate the most entertaining gaming experience available on any console. That said, since GTA IV is the yardstick by which all open-world games are judged, some comparisons will have to be made.

Defying convention, Saints Row 2 returns to the original game’s city for an encore, but instead of feeling cheated by a cheap rehash, players will appreciate the amount of expansion and tweaking done to the city. Wandering around this new iteration of Stillwater commands an unusual emotion in a videogame, as a comfortable sense of nostalgia occasionally mixes with an unnerving unfamiliarity (I’m quite confident that I’m not the only one who felt uneasy when I wandered into a house I owned in the previous game, only to find new inhabitants inside).

Saints Row 2 goes out of its way to remove any barriers keeping the player from having as much fun as possible, so much so that its innumerable technical errors can be overlooked by the solid design decisions made by Volition Inc. Frustrating mission retries are alleviated somewhat by a clever checkpointing system, players have the ability to instantly warp to shore when they find themselves shipwrecked a mile off the coast, favourite missions can be replayed at any time from an in-game menu, and a generous health regeneration mechanic means that a player need never stray too far from a battle to return to fighting fitness.

The storyline tells a solid, if predictable tale, and missions are bookended with cut-scenes more concerned with style than substance. The pace of the game is refreshing – the tutorial mission is an explosive baptism of fire, in which the player escapes from prison to a hail of bullets from boats and attack-choppers alike – and the action only ramps up from there.

Considering that shooting people is one of the most common activities in the game, it’s a good thing that the combat system is as enjoyable as it is. The developers have improved on the already-solid free-aim mechanic of the original by adding the ability to look down the sights of your weapon for greater accuracy. Rather than emulating GTA IV’s tense shootouts in which cover is key, SR2 offers a balls-out Rambo style of play, which brings a different kind of intensity to the table. The player can now take hostages with the tap of a button, providing a valuable form of mobile, albeit fragile cover. The body count in SR2 seems higher than any game in the genre, but to keep the action from getting monotonous, the player has access to an incredibly vast and creative arsenal, from samurai swords to the ludicrously-fun satchel-charges.

While the story-missions are the central pillar of the game, they only constitute a quarter of the gameplay. Upon arriving on the Stillwater mainland, the player is inundated with activities distracting him away from the main narrative, whether it’s discrete side-quests that include spraying sewage on property or imitating a police officer for a ‘Cops’ parody, or the diversions that bleed over into general gameplay, like stealing certain cars; assassinating certain people; or holding the passengers in a stolen car for ransom. It seems as though the developers implemented every “y’know what would be cool” suggestion that came up in the break room, judging by the daft throwaway extras that are in the game, such as the streaking and flashing minigames. Saints Row 2 is an ADHD sufferer’s wet-dream.

Ultimately, Saints Row 2 excels when the player is calling the shots. Think of it as a toy box with which players can create their own memorable moments. The 2 player cooperative mode, in particular is smattered with these moments, such as when you lose track of your partner in a firefight for a few moments, only for him to fall out a plane overhead and splatter on the ground in front of you – completely nude. No game has ever prompted the kind of riotous laughter that Saints Row 2 has, and I’d wager that it’ll be some time before another one does.

Saints Row 2 is a fantastic achievement. The fact that all of the single-player content is available to two players simultaneously gives it incredible longevity, and the player is never penalised for experimenting or having fun, which is something that can’t be said of all games nowadays as the medium begins to take itself more seriously. Comparing Saints Row 2 to Grand Theft Auto IV is like comparing a cerebral Martin Scorsese opus with a visceral Michael Bay popcorn-flick. It just so happens that one of these approaches makes for a much more fun gaming experience.

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