There’s no denying, Saint’s Row 2 is pure entertainment and last time we checked, that most definitely isn’t a sin
Are you a saint or a sinner? We’d like to think that we’re the former, but having been exposed to the raucous anarchy of Saints Row 2 and let loose on the streets of Stilwater, we can’t pretend that we don’t relish the many errant delights at our fingertips in Volition’s hotly anticipated sequel.
By now you’ll have probably heard that you can strip naked and streak along the streets to cause maximum offence. You’ll be more than aware that you can execute rude taunts at the touch of a button and go on a bloody rampage with a samurai sword. But you may not realise how deep Saints Row 2’s diverse chocolate box of activities goes, presenting an obscene number of mini-games and customisation options for you to experiment with.
”It’s hard for me to figure out why we’re compared to GTA IV,” says Greg Donovan, Lead Producer on Saints Row 2 (see our full interview for more). And after playing Volition’s follow up to their 360 hit, it’s entirely obvious why Donovan no longer acknowledges the similarities between the two. Development began on Saints Row 2 long before Rockstar’s magnum opus hit the shelves and it most definitely shows. Tonally, visually, stylistically and thematically, GTA IV and Saints Row 2 couldn’t be more different in terms of the experience on offer.
No matter how unfair they may seem, comparisons to GTA IV are going to be inevitable, but it’s to Volition’s credit that they have struck out in a markedly different direction with Saints Row 2. SR 2 is to GTA IV what Burnout is to Gran Turismo. Both are recognisably from the same genre, but vastly divergent in their aims. Overtly anarchic, ridiculously over the top, surreally cartoonish, offensive and crass – SR 2 will likely divide opinion with its unique brand of offbeat humour.
Every inch of Stilwater city is geared towards making the experience as fun for the player as possible. 45% larger than the original Saints Row’s rendition of Stilwater – excluding the network of underground areas - there’s certainly a lot to take in. Stilwater provides a setting more akin to San Andreas than GTA IV’s Liberty City with a vast number of modes of transport to choose from including a few surprises, which we won’t spoil by revealing here.
Suffice to say that Volition’s solution to addressing the looming shadow of GTA IV is to throw absolutely everything but the kitchen sink into the game. And you know what? It almost works. Saints Row 2 is riddled with tiny flaws. Small imperfections that pale into insignificance once the game’s unabashed ridiculousness takes hold. Some might call it asinine and unrefined, which is almost certainly true, but in jumping to this summation, you’d be missing the point entirely. Saints Row 2 may seem juvenile and silly, but it also manages to be enormous fun with it. And what’s more, it’s fully aware of its own base humour and revels in it.
The crux of Saints Row 2 has to be the numerous mini-games known as ‘diversions’ on offer. These have absolutely no bearing on the story (more on which later) whatsoever and fully demonstrate how far Volition has gone in embracing out and out insanity. There are simply too many diversions to list here, but stand out examples include shooting footage for a ‘Cops’-style show in ‘Fuzz’, protecting a celebrity in ‘Crowd Control’, riding a flaming quad bike in ‘Trail Blazing’ and spewing excrement all over the Stilwater streets in ‘Septic Avenger.’ Nice.
Crowd Control is exceptionally daft, placing your character amongst the throng at a red carpet event, with the sole task of protecting a celebrity from harassment. The environments change as you progress through each stage with each arena offering different segments of interactive scenery. So, while one level allows you to throw over-zealous fans into a helicopter’s rotor blades, another lets you push them in front of a jumbo jet engine, sucking them in and spitting them out in a shower of crimson chunks. What’s surprising is how inexplicably funny SR 2’s diversions are. On the surface, they’re horribly unsophisticated and tasteless, yet when you’re playing the game they somehow work – especially with a friend in the all-new co-op mode.
At the heart of SR 2 is a darker narrative than the one found in the original Saints Row. This seems at odds with the manic customisation options and frenetic diversions, placing SR 2’s tone in danger of being interpreted as schizophrenic. Volition simply believes that this is their way of promoting player choice. You don’t have to play through the story as a fat guy in a hotdog suit. You can play the game your own way. And the option of being able to visit the plastic surgeon and change your appearance at any time means that you’re not restricted to following a predefined path through the game. It’s a brave move that could have made SR 2 seem somewhat unsure of what it wants to be and despite a very real danger of the game having no discernable identity of its own, the shape the game takes is left entirely up to you.
It’s this complete freedom to shape the game in the way that you want to that proves to be one of the game’s biggest strengths. The wealth of customisation pervades almost everything you own in Stilwater, including your crib, your entourage, your car and (obviously) your own character. Yet, almost certainly the most significant addition and the one that the game’s development team is most proud of is the two-player online co-op mode, which grants both players the ability to dress up as they wish and tackle the storyline together. And you don’t have to be at the same place in the game as you can play to either person’s level without having progressed through certain points in the narrative. So you can join a friend to complete the final mission, even if you’ve only just started the game with your character.
In addition to now being able to play through the entire story with a friend, Saint’s Row 2 also boasts a fully featured competitive multiplayer mode. While somewhat lacking in variety compared to GTA IV’s many multiplayer game types, SR 2 nonetheless encourages hours of online play. Comprised of two basic modes, Gangsta Brawl (deathmatch) and Strong Arm, SR 2’s online component is robust and immensely enjoyable. Each match is preceded by a playable lobby area where you can scrap with other players while waiting for the host to fiddle around with settings. Strong Arm mode is a frantic compendium of some of SR 2’s diversions such as Insurance Fraud and Demolition Derby where players compete for the highest scores in each event.
There are some fundamental problems with Saints Row 2. It’s not the most visually accomplished game and next to the majestic beauty of (sorry) GTA IV, it does look incredibly dated. We also sorely miss the weight and feel of GTA IV’s vehicles and the real world AI and physics that the Euphoria engine brought to Niko Bellic’s world. At one point in SR 2, we twisted our front axle sending our wheels in opposite directions, but were still able to drive in a perfectly straight line. There are also occasions when the ragdoll physics and AI are questionable, making the game appear a tad rushed and sloppy in places. Often, the controls can feel fiddly too, with the weapon selection especially unwieldy during a heated gunfight. Rather than mapping taunts to the D-pad, it would have been wiser to use it for flicking between your assortment of guns. Instead you have to hold B and use the analog stick to select the weapon you want. It’s a system that’s not always reliable.
Overall, these issues don’t conspire to break the game, as essentially Saints Row 2 proves to be an unadulterated joy to play. There’re simply too many things going on, too many distractions and activities to allow you a moment’s pause to dwell on the game’s many niggling faults. Ultimately, you’ll be too busy laughing or getting immersed in SR 2’s hokey, incredibly sweary and violent narrative to care. There’s no denying, Saint’s Row 2 is pure entertainment and last time we checked, that most definitely isn’t a sin.
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