Saints Row 2 UK Hands-on
UK, July 31, 2008 - You have to feel a little for Volition, for every time they bring Saints Row 2 out of its stable to show the great unwashed that constitutes the games press, there's always going to be a tirade of questions regarding that other open world game that so recently wowed everybody with its assured move onto the current generation.
Indeed, the first Saints Row was perhaps unfairly seen as a stopgap until Rockstar had readied its latest instalment of Grand Theft Auto, but those who dared dip into the anarchic world of Stillwater were met by a game that actively went to solve many of the criticisms laid upon the GTA series, and in the face of extreme cynicism managed to mark itself out as a game that stood out by its own merits.
But that was back in 2006, since then we have seen Grand Theft Auto IV go on to receive so many plaudits. It's therefore a profoundly different landscape that Saints Row 2 struts into, yet Volition and THQ aren't afraid to invite comparisons to Rockstar's game, judging by its recent tongue-in-cheek campaign highlighting Stillwater's credentials over Liberty City.
And it's not just in the marketing department that GTA IV is being referenced -- Saints Row 2 even has its own phone on which you can invite your "homies" to indulge in various leisure pursuits. While we didn't get to try the phone in action -- it was hidden away in a submenu, so doesn't look to be as ubiquitous as Niko Bellic's cell -- it's certainly a brazen acquisition from the competition, and as opposed to Niko's somewhat worn model, Saints Row 2's phone sports a look that's not dissimilar to the gadget du jour that is Apple's iPhone.
But, again, there's a lot here to mark out Saints Row 2's own distinctive territory, not least of which is the wealth of customisation that's on offer. Nearly everything that comes under the player's command in the game can be twisted to their own ends, from the vehicles to the cribs through to fellow gang members -- it's even possible to run with a troop of ninjas if you so desire. How this will complement the supposedly gritty and dark storyline is anyone's guess, though the fact that the player's choices regarding their appearance will be reflected in the cutscenes should add a little light relief to an otherwise grim tale.
Saints Row 2's story opens in prison, whereupon the first requirement is to kill the doctor. Why? Don't ask, just pummel them with your fists, which are controlled independently with either shoulder button. There are a number of cinematic finishers, triggered by performing three of the same punches in a row, and most animations continue Saints Rows giggling predilection for well placed strikes to the nethers. Different fighting styles can be unlocked throughout the game, adding another layer of customisation to an already malleable game.
It's also possible to use people as a human shield in a gameplay trait shared with the forthcoming Gears of War 2, with the idea being that moving cover means levels can be attacked with more pace than is possible in other, more stilted action titles. It certainly ups the tempo of gunfights, giving the game an arcade lilt is pronounced throughout much of the game, from the luminous palette that brings Stillwater to life, to the stocky handling of the cars.
Click the right analogue stick and the camera will swoop in over the character's shoulder, with a free-roaming reticule at the player's disposal to unload any of the sizable arsenal into Stillwater's inhabitants. There's no lock-on system in Saints Row 2, Volition being of the belief that it would lead to more confusion than continuing the tongue-in-cheek feel that distinguishes the game. There are some truly outrageous inclusions, none less so than a laser-guided rocket launcher -- the sort of fare we're more accustomed to in the likes of Call of Duty 4 and Ghost Recon -- that's an endearing addition.
In fact, Volition claims that much of the technology is shared with the Red Faction team, allowing Saints Row 2 to share that game's destructible environments. While it's certainly the case with certain buildings -- well, from our brief experience it was just one, a water tower that was all too happy to tumble under rocket fire -- elsewhere the scenery remains stubbornly sturdy under even the most extreme duress, despite our frenzied attempts to unload a small militias worth of firepower into the side of a skyscraper.
There seems to be a general obsession with explosions through much of what we saw, and one of our most cherished moments taken from our time in Saints Row 2 was witnessing a helpless goon having numerous satchel charges attached to him before being ruthlessly juggled in the air by a succession of blasts. Flair in gunplay -- and, indeed, throughout the game -- is rewarded with respect, which works to unlock missions in the game. It's there to negate any of the bottlenecks that were seen to taint the original Saints Row, and with a constant influx of score updates on the games HUD, it's another signifier of the game's more action oriented disposition, with certain action sequences playing out like a hyperventilating mix of The Club and Grand Theft Auto.
Underlying the whole affair are a number of worrying problems, however. Not only does the setting of Stillwater lack the charisma of the likes of Crackdown and GTA IV, it's execution is also decidedly underwhelming. The code we've seen was alarmingly broken -- normally a problem we'd happily accommodate when seeing an unfinished game, but the level of bugs combined with the proximity of the proposed street date this October leads us to believe that the finished article won't be the smoothest of operators.
I don't want a big car, particularly. I have no need for acreage, and I don't like the fuel bills. But I don't want a small one because they're all like supermarket own-brand cola: weedy imitations of the real thing - Jeremy Clarkson
/--\ - Lance Corporal
Petrol Heads - High Roller