Saints Row 2 AU Review
Australia, October 9, 2008 - Grand Theft Auto IV, despite the hype, the technology and the maturity, was for some ultimately a mundane and even bland experience. Given a pedigree of games that allowed you to wreak bloody mayhem, commandeer ridiculous vehicles and gave you some very wacky and clever missions, GTA IV felt shockingly sparse to those hoping for San Andreas' free-for-all content. This has, intriguingly, left the door open to Volition's Saints Row 2 to fill in perceived gaps in Rockstar's game, taking gameplay and tone in an almost diametric direction to the delight of gamers who'd rather skydive from a chopper or spray feces across a neighbourhood.
That's Saints Row 2 -- possibly the most diverse sandbox action game available -- and one that is entirely aware at all times that it's coming in after Rockstar's heavyweight champion. Volition has benefited from years of other games that have come and gone, each contributing to the genre's gameplay bit by bit. Because of this, if GTA IV did a few key things extraordinarily well, then Saints Row 2 offers ten-fold the gameplay at the expense of refinement, bugs and structural originality.
To begin with, we'll try and keep spoilers to a minimum. The city of Stilwater is born again, largely demolished and rebuilt by the mysterious Ultor Corporation, with their monolithic skyscraper sitting at the edge of the CBD. You've just awoken from a coma (three years on your back's done nothing to your desire for revenge) and you're about to wind up at the top of the chain of command of the Stilwater Saints crew, eventually alongside a cast of entertaining thugs and hooligans. With the deepest customisation options for character creation I've come across, you could spend hours refining your character's physical characteristics. But venturing out into the world, you'll see how far the customisation goes; cars, tattoos, clothing, colours, gang dress sense, demeanour and much more. It really is your gang.
The fresh coat of paint and modern infrastructure hide gangs like this, and in them, figures who pull the strings in casinos, entertainment quarters, museums, the business and technology districts and the white picket fence suburbs. Suddenly, as in the first game, you have instant gang war structure -- five full gangs all vying for power and running simultaneously and five gangs that each must fall to the Saints across 45 territories dividing Stilwater. Progression, as you can imagine, is pretty clear-cut for the story missions; follow the newly implemented but very twitchy GPS system on your mini-map from key point to key point as each mission progresses.
Sure, sure -- this is how the genre has operated since the original GTA -- to what end does Saints Row 2 ask you to leg it across town from mission to mission?
Respect and money.
Everything in the game's activities ultimately point you towards these two things. With respect, which is earned through completing missions, performing crazy stunts, slick driving, killing and creativity, you can unlock more and more missions to play. With money, you can buy goods and services. Or servicing. From ladies. Or men, if you prefer. Working your way up the hierarchy is all well and good, but there's a lot more to Saints Row 2 than the core missions. Many are subtle-but-clever uses of vehicles or situations that the players find themselves in during the course of the game.
If a person is still seated in the back of the car, for example, a 'Hostage Diversion' activity is triggered, where you hold the poor sap to ransom as cops give chase. Others, such as drug trafficking, keep the action high as you plug a rival gang's cars and members as you escort a drug dealer from point to point. But it gets weirder from there.
You've probably read about our crippled-granny-sex encounter. That's nothing. The game prides itself on being completely morally bankrupt. Wanna dress all your female gang members in hookerware? Go for it. Wanna go streaking and create a public outcry? Why not? In the course of the game, you'll participate in 'FUZZ' missions that ask you to impersonate a cop on a COPS-style show that has you beating up minor offenders in creative ways on camera.
But the penny dropped when we had to spray lumpy brown turds all over a neighbourhood to lower property values for a particularly enterprising home-buyer. Is it sophisticated? No. Is it funny? Kind of. Is it a clear movement away from Grand Theft Auto's realism? You bet your backside. Lowbrow though it may be, this game ends up scoring more points for pushing open-world gameplay into new, strange directions than you might expect.
This is the way mission design goes in Saints Row 2, too; the game hands you an AR-50 machine gun with infinite grenades for no good reason. Later, you'll appear with a katana -- all your weapons mysteriously and temporarily removed -- for one showdown. You'll suddenly be told to leap off a balcony and fall seven storeys and activate your parachute that you didn't know you had as the building blows up around you. Others will see you in a flame-proof silver suit on the back of a quad-bike, setting people, cars and inanimate objects on fire for points. Why is this game so incoherent? Who knows -- it's a quirky cutscene-prefaced sideshow attraction, as is the Zombie Uprising minigame -- which honestly isn't that fun or that much of a selling point. It's just another point of difference and diversity and spectacle.
It's this spectacle that will ultimately turn you on or turn you off of Saints Row 2. Racing, killing, pimping, customising -- these are options you've had before, but they now feature a whole new set of slacks, with just enough depth to each to justify their inclusion.