GAMING GREATS: Saints Row 2 (2008)

Is this sequel to one of GTA’s biggest clones worth another spin? 

Who made it?: Volition, Inc., CD Projekt (Developers), THQ (Publisher).

Genre: Action-Adventure/Sandbox.

Platforms: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC.

Format: Blu-ray disc/optical disc.

Release date: October 17, 2008 (UK).

I distinctly remember playing the first Saints Row, finishing it and then immediately selling it. It was a somewhat memorable if rather unremarkable Grand Theft Auto clone that’s only real selling point was its controversial subject matter (the player character being the member of a powerful street gang trying to take down even more powerful street gangs) as opposed to its admittedly formulaic, been-there-done-that gameplay.

This brings me right into Saints Row 2. Now, just because the first was a GTA wannabe doesn’t necessarily make it a forgettable retread (here’s looking at you, True Crime: Streets of L.A.). If anything, it was one of the few derivatives that actually capitalised on GTA‘s open-world gameplay instead of confining you to it, as well as offering up vast improvements on its structure. For example, if you failed a mission, no longer would the player have to drive all the way back to the start from a hospital/checkpoint; the game would simply ask if you wanted to retry the mission. Granted, much of the first Saints Row borrows quite a bit (what seems to be purposely) from the extremely successful San Andreas, what with its character customisation, ability to buy clothes and jewellery, and the innate trademark of pimping cars. Saints Row‘s customisation was just much richer, deeper, and expansive, however.

Of course, when a Grand Theft Auto sequel is released the same year as any other open-world crime sim, the development team(s) should already be well-aware of the stiff competition and immediate comparisons that will be made. Technically, GTA IV is leaps and bounds ahead of Saints Row 2. As a matter of fact, it lacks the graphical improvements you would expect and probably hope for from a sequel three years in the making. Quite frankly, it looks no different than its predecessor. Maybe a higher polygon count, some better shading and a realistic real-time shadow system, but everything else is perfectly previous-gen. That speaks volumes considering the original was a 360 launch title and looks dreadfully similar.

The game is so fast-paced and so harried, though, that the poor graphics quickly become an afterthought. After playing GTA IV for months on end, I became quite accustomed to vehicles that felt “heavier” and had some semblance of physics. At first, Saints Row 2‘s car controls feel a bit clunky. You can’t help but think they feel far too loose, but as you progress throughout the single-player mode, you’ll notice that pulling off hairpin turns and squeezing through gridlocked traffic is not the problem it was in Rockstar’s ’08 masterpiece. There’s also the ability to toggle cruise control which works brilliantly in sections where you must drive and shoot simultaneously.

The biggest difference to GTA though, of course, is the tone. Developers Volition Inc. must have worn a smug little grin on their faces throughout the entire creative process as this is easily one of the most demented sandbox games I have ever played. Over the course of a 25-35 hour game, you will play through missions under the influence of narcotics, toss the homeless into drug shacks, and spray feces onto government buildings and much, much more. Saints Row 2 aims to hit below the belt and it could care less what the rules are for this particular subgenre. Humour is omnipresent and is one of the game’s most appealing facets.

That said, those looking for a challenge certainly won’t find one. On the easiest difficulty, one could breeze through this in about a week or two of casual play, and higher difficulties would probably warrant a few more days. But it’s really all the variety that is impressive. Whereas GTA was happy enough to give you a bunch of assassination missions and a couple of chases, SR2 isn’t afraid to throw in everything along with the kitchen sink. Some of it is incredibly ridiculous and many of the tasks your character sets out to accomplish are not particularly ones you imagine hardened street thugs doing (like tracking down nuclear waste and filling a rival gang leader’s tattoo needle with it), but these diversions are fun nonetheless. They are varied and each section quite extensive, with no two missions playing the same.

Character customisation was ported over from the previous game, only heavily expanded and much more in-depth (your protagonist, which is the same character you create from the first, can now be given one of six voices, for example). Other options allow you to customise your crib (a fantastic addition), your gang, and of course, the ability to collect currency and spend it on better clothing and higher quality jewelry to “decorate” your avatar. There are always side-tasks for you to accomplish and, yes, there is still the pesky annoyance of having to fill up your respect meter before you go through the game’s main missions, but minor gripes aside, Volition have made a whole lot of something out of a whole lot of nothing.

Criticising Saints Row 2, especially now, is fruitless. The developers, I’m sure, were aware of its shortcomings as the game seems to celebrate them. You could very well call its engine “out of date” and “lacking polish” or say that its core content is crude and offensive, but this franchise was never about superior graphical representation. It has always placed firm emphasis on the gameplay, no matter if its ideas are directly stolen from the GTA series. Saints Row 2 continued that trend while finding its own voice in the process. By no means is it as rewarding and as downright fun to play as GTA IV, but it fixes, adds, deletes, and completely reworks the original title’s mechanics into a must-play sequel that no one really cared about. A superb soundtrack and fantastic locales don’t hurt, either. Its ridiculousness is all part of its charm and, although you don’t normally see hardened thugs duking it out with Japanese samurai or painting the town brown, this over-the-top sandbox game makes no concessions to the politically correct crowd.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • In its first month of release, the game sold an estimated 400,000 units. It has sold in excess of 3.4 million units as of September 2010.
  • Saints Row 2 is set in the fictional city of Stilwater. The city consists of forty-five neighborhoods divided into twenty districts. The city is roughly 145% larger than it was in the original Saints Row. The new Stilwater includes a much larger airport, a prison island, a nuclear power plant island, and a few more mild extensions.
  • An array of popular film and television stars voice characters within the game, such as Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Dorn, Jay Mohr, Keith David and Eliza Dushku.
  • Musical artists such as Opeth, Duran Duran, Lamb of God, The Used, My Chemical Romance, Avenged Sevenfold, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco and Run-D.M.C. have some of their works featured in the game.

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