The original Saints Row was a real disappointment - a good-looking GTA clone that had plenty of violence, variety, explosions and fun that turned out to be as bug-infested as a run-down hotel. A patch list as long as my... arm couldn’t make me fall back in love with it. Oh yes, and the multiplayer mode was hopeless too. Running around a lag-ridden multi-story car park or office building trying to shoot a bunch of cheats who’d do nothing but find the sniper rifle and camp. Great fun. OK, that’s consigned the original game to the sin bin, now on to Saints Row 2.
Well... from the off, like me I don’t think you’re going to be impressed. Despite what you might see in movies and screenshots, it’s hard to call this return visit to the city of Stilwater anything but “fugly”. Gone are the nice textures and detail of SR1, to be replaced with a game engine that put me more in mind of Grand Theft Auto 3 than 4.
SR2 has been touted as in many places as GTA San Andreas’ spiritual successor, but unlike San Andreas that required you to follow the storyline for as while to unlock things, there’s a whole lot to do from the off. SR2 supplies a considerably better story than Saints Row, and you get dozens of activities laid in front of you at the start - SR2 says “come play with me”. And you will, oh yes you will.
The game starts with you editing your character. You can be anything from a tattoed, shaven-headed 20-stone monster of a man to a red hot Hispanic babe with big boobs. You then wake up in a prison hospital, and set about escaping. Wanting to reform the Saints as quickly as possible, you rescue the gang leader from the law courts, and so the game’s story and pattern is set – you complete various tasks and activities to earn ‘respect’ to unlock more missions from the Saints, and involve the other gangs in the city to advance the story mode. Much like GTA you have complete freedom to just tour around the city stealing vehicles, shooting people and generally having a mindlessly great time until you realize that several hours have passed and you’ve accomplished exactly nothing.
As you progress you’ll be able to recruit follower Saints from all over Stilwater, and they can really help – leaning out the car windows to shoot enemies and backing you up well on foot, the only problems I found with these guys are that sometimes they’ll take an age to jump into the car with you and their weapons seem to be defective (either that or they or fire blanks) as they don’t kill enemies very quickly even if they’re looking straight at them. Baseball bats, knives, Molotov’s, grenades, handguns, machine guns, rifles (including the mandatory sniper rifle for killing from afar) even a rocket launcher all feature in the game and deal suitable amounts of damage – SR2 is very satisfying in the gunplay & explosions departments. A new grab/human shield/throw move works well too. As I mentioned there are several ‘activities’ icons dotted around the city and one of these is ‘Mayhem’ – this plays like GTA’s Rampages, and quite frankly I missed them when they were dropped from GTA 4. Mayhem is like a Rampage, only more so – great, mindless fun. Other activities include: Races, Escort, Hoes, Chop Shop (nick vehicles to order), Hitman, Drug Trafficking (guard a drug dealer as he travels around the city), Crowd Control (be a celeb’s bodyguard), Septic Avenger (use a septic tank truck to spray liquid poo all over enemies’ property), Base Jumping, Demolition Derby etc. I felt that maybe SR2 allows just too much to do at the start, which lessens the impact, the feeling of reward, and maybe some of the fun too, but I know people will disagree and love the game for letting you do so much “stuff” from the outset, without having to follow the story missions. What it does do is allow you to do a ton of mad things that you’d never even attempt in real life, and makes the game more immediately entertaining than GTA IV and the like, if less immersive.
Despite using what appears to be a different game engine to Saints Row, SR2 retains some of the same faults. Pop-up and disappearing vehicles are a major problem; you’ll see one you like, turn around to steal it and it’s gone, and this is made even more apparent during chop shop missions, where an icon appears on the mini map to indicate the vehicle’s position, and will often vanish before you get there. I’ve even had vehicles disappear right in front of me, and on at least one occasion a vehicle seemed to ‘pop’ into existence on a slope and I smashed into it without warning. Stilwater is a big old place, and you can set waypoints on the map to help you find your way to a location. The GPS “route finder” is hilariously bad, not bothering with anything as conventional as roads and sometimes indicating that the best route is through a wall or fence, or even down a slipway and across water! Now admittedly you couldn’t use boats, fly copters or planes previously and you can in SR2, but surely this GPS should stick to roads?
As for the new vehicular modes for SR2, choppers actually feel like you’re flying them and you can stall planes too – an admirable amount of attention to detail. Fortunately you come equipped with a magic parachute that you can open every time you jump from a great height. The various watercraft feel just about right and the water looks nice. In fact the new modes of transport probably feel better than the land vehicles in terms of physics & handling -there’s nothing wrong with it but it just doesn’t feel as correct in every department as GTA IV’s.
SR2 has three multiplayer modes, co-op for 2 players, an objective-based team game Strong Arm for up to 12 players and Gangsta Brawl, which is a team deathmatch. The co-op works quite well, especially with friends, and Strong Arm is a blast as long as your team co-operate, communicate and actually work as a team - a real problem on PS3 as so few people seem to use headsets. Gangsta Brawl is complete mayhem, with death coming from all sides and no one seeming to know what they’re doing – great fun nonetheless. We did have periods when we seemed to get kicked from game lobbies arbitrarily though, which could become annoying if it went on for too long.
Even though I condemned it as ugly at the start of this review because of a general lack of definition, horrible horizontal tearing (you have the option to turn V-synch ‘on’, but will then have a worse frame rate), poorly modelled vehicles that lack detail, and damage modelling that is way inferior to the competition’s, there’s plenty in SR2 to keep your eyes happy. Flames and explosions look great, and the dynamic weather certainly makes things look different, even if the rain comes too often and strangely fails to make the roads look wet.
SR2’s sales might suffer because Mercenaries 2 arrived just before it. Both games are good, explosive fun, don’t take themselves too seriously and never let you forget that “it’s just a game”. And I reckon there’s room for GTA IV, Mercs 2 and Saints Row 2 on your shelf. They’re all fine examples of sand box games, and allow for experimentation and freedom, generally letting you do things that no other genre will. SR2 is technically less than sound, violent, tasteless, loud, bawdy - sexy even, but is seldom less than entertaining, and ticks a lot of boxes – I mean, how many games let you run around playing as a half-naked babe toting an assault rifle? Don’t let Gran see you playing it though.