STAFF REVIEW of Saints Row 2 (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008.
by Stacy Code

Saints Row 2 Box art It?s autumn, and once again, the tranquil oceanside city of Stilwater rings out with the sound of gunfire ? gunfire, rockets, flamethrowers, chainsaws, electric machine cannon, and more explosions and shouted profanity than a 3 pm episode of the Jerry Springer Show. It?s Saints Row 2, and it?s everything you hoped you?d get in a sequel to the first game from Volition and THQ.

Saints Row 2 takes the free-exploring world of driving-and-crime games like Grand Theft Auto and give the player an unprecedented amount of power and freedom in customizing their experience in the world. In short, Saints Row 2 is a game where you play a gangster who is whoever you want him (or her, now) to be, and you take over the city of Stilwater by establishing the 3rd Street Saints as the most notorious, strongest, and uncompromising gang in the city.

The story of Saints Row 2 takes up five years after the conclusion of the first game, and the situation is less than idyllic. The player has been in a coma for five years following a catastrophic explosion, which explains the different appearance of the player if you decide to make a different looking character from the first game ? this freedom has actually been written into the narrative as a story element. The 3rd Street Saints are gone and disbanded, having found themselves leaderless, and a few new gangs ? The Ronin, The Sons of Samedi, and The Brotherhood are eking out what existence they can under the heavy control of Ultor Corporation, who have stepped in and taken unilateral control of Stilwater in an attempt to gentrify the city ? think OCP taking over Detroit and privatizing it in the RoboCop movies. The player awakens in the prison hospital, the bandages come off revealing the new face of the character, and immediately you break out of the prison to find Stilwater ripe for the taking again, if only you can reform the 3rd Street Saints, recruit some new gang members, establish a reputation within the city, and take as big a piece of the pie for yourself, even if (or especially if) it means taking the pie from someone else. Characters return from the first game ? Johnny Gat, whom you rescue from death row in a courtroom shootout, Aishaha (yeah, she?s supposed to be dead, but I?m not giving anything away here, she?s alive in the first five minutes after it?s given that she faked her death) and it?s a bit comforting to find a few familiar faces and voices after coming back to what?s a meaner, colder, less friendly town since you left.

The gameplay of Saints Row 2 is familiar ground for players of the first game in the series, and for those who missed or dismissed it because they thought it was Grand Theft Auto, think again. The game centres around one key principle ? taking over the city. This is done by attacking the other gangs who control territory in Stilwater, and is done through different missions ? story missions which advance the overall narrative, or attacking enemy strongholds in the city operated by other gangs ? drug farms, crack houses, prostitution rings operated out of strip clubs, and suchforth. The game centres around the reputation or notoriety of your gang ? the player has to earn a reputation in order to advance in the game, and this is done through the different activities available all over the city. Players can fight in underground fight clubs, take part in illegal street racing, star in a semi-legitimate reality-tv show based on C.O.P.S. called ?FUZZ? and engage in some seriously violent street vigilantism, escort high-end hookers on drive-and-serves while evading pursuing paparazzi, and many others. Each of these activities can be performed again and again, serving up larger returns of cash and gang reputation, both of which pay off. The cash can be used to buy better rides, better clothes, better weapons and cribs or hideouts bought all over the city, all of which increase the amounts of reputation you gain all over the city, and the reputation earned allows you access to the bigger and better crime jobs available in Stilwater that will advance the story and will gain you an increased hold on the city. Success in activities will also give you treats in the game like classier rides for your gang members through the game, or better weapons (or perks like unlimited ammo) for your own character. The overall game, when you?re not looking over your steering wheel or down the sights of a gun, almost plays like Risk, with the gangs vying to take back parts of the city you?d fought back from them, and often you?ll find yourself zipping to some corner of the city to put down some dogs that thought they could roll in and take what?s yours when you?re not looking.

The actual play of the game is well-designed and implemented. You play the game on foot or in a vehicle, and in both cases the controls are intuitive and easy to use. On-foot gameplay gives the player total camera control, easy access to switching weapons or healing through the use of a single button and a radial hub-control that lets a player switch guns with a simple flick of the analog stick, and the vehicular controls are similarly simple, which optional schemes (a nice treat) that let the player use buttons for driving, or the analog triggers for acceleration and breaking for the extra control.

The extra control isn?t even necessary, as driving in Saints Row 2 is a different experience from crime-driving games that have come before. Rather than focussing on realistic vehicular physics and Gran-Turismo-style driving, Saints Row 2 is determined to serve up a more cinematic spectacle that puts you in an action movie with far less frustration. Think Need For Speed. Some of the cars in the game can go incredibly fast and handle much more tightly than expected, and are much more resilient to damage than one might expect. So, a high speed pursuit that might last three blocks and end in a smashed, flaming car and a dead player in some other game is instead a blistering five-mile race through oncoming traffic, complete with blurring from the nitrous-oxide-boosted speed, beautiful powerslides through corners, lots of smashes and sparks from sideswiping other traffic, and a pretty exhilarating experience. Another nice touch to the driving gameplay is that reputation can be gained for the player simply from really slick driving around the city ? hanging out in the oncoming lane with the pedal down, near misses, jumps, two wheeled corners ? anything you wouldn?t actually go out and do in your Honda Civic (hopefully).

The game?s not going to knock you out with graphics you?ve never seen before ? it?s tweaked, improved version you saw in Saint?s Row (which still blew all Grand Theft Auto?s you?ve seen away), but the graphics are more geared to a clean, animated-feature approach than pushing to full photo-realism ? the game never tries to pretend that it?s not a game. The visuals are clean, there are some great weather and environmental effects that add to the atmosphere and the draw distance is as far as you can see ? no pop-in?s or stuff materializing in front of you - if it?s as far as you can see, you can see it, which makes a big difference if you?re thundering a stolen Lamborghini through oncoming traffic at 100 miles per hour ? you kind of want to see the oncoming traffic to suss it out ? but the game doesn?t try and blow you away with a still-frame screenshot. It?s pretty in motion, it doesn?t layer on a ton of visual effects like motion blurring or depth of field for the sake of storytelling ? it does what it was presumed to do, which is to serve up a gritty city in a lot of detail, down to the graffiti on the walls, the Coke sign over the shop window, or the skyline of northern Stilwater rising up out of the waterfront. In short, the graphics aren?t going to make you scream ?wow? environmentally, but when you can see to the horizon in every direction, or make a character in the game that looks exactly like your passport photo (down to the sticky-outy ears and beak nose, in my unfortunate case) it serves up a living fantasy world to play in, wreak havoc in, and trash to a very satisfying degree.

Regarding your own character, the amount of control you have in the look and presentation of your own personal gangster in Stilwater is off the hook. I haven?t seen a game yet that allowed this degree of input in creating your own personal persona in the game ? with a mirror and a fast ten minutes I made a rather disturbingly accurate recreation of my own bad self to go stake his claim in the city. Additional levels of customization let you tweak everything from how you?d flip someone off in the game (I personally chose a rather obscene gesture that went past a middle finger) to what kind of strut you?d walk up the sidewalk with. Added to the level of customization that follows within the game - I spent twenty minutes in a clothing shop at one point to finally put together the t-shirt that I wish I could own in real life ? robot mecha decal on front, black t, grey collar and cuffs ? and what you end up with is a rich level of control in a world you can definitely go roll around in for a good long while. Cars, cribs, and everything else are just as customizable ? want that loft apartment you bought to look bohemian and lived-in, or ready for a Martha Stewart photo shoot? It?s your call. Same goes for the ride you go to work in. Steal any car off the street and park it in your garage ? it?s yours. Then you can take it for a ride to a mod-shop and fix it up to your own personal taste. (Don?t have to spend a mad amount of money in-game to do it, either ? this game?s about fulfilling a fantasy, not making you sweat for hours for a treat - and only in a fantasy world can you get a beautiful pearlescent jet-black paint job on a stolen sports car for one hundred dollars.)

This is a game where the sounds and voices and music are a part of the mosaic of the experience and not just an afterthought ? the spectrum of radio stations you can listening to while driving range from classical (always a nice contrast to onscreen crime and vehicular mayhem) to heavy metal (a damned good selection of tracks) to easy listening (hilariously ironic, especially when your out misbehaving in someone else?s stolen car). The voice acting is also great; I was glad that the cast of characters wasn?t killed off in the first game and some of the favorites came back ? Johnny Gat, your right-hand man, is hilarious every time he opens his mouth in a cutscene ? ?Well, you know what they say about old dogs, and - ? blowing ***t up.? ?Great plan. Wouldn?t it be easier to just walk in the door and kill every ******er in our way?? It?s especially trippy to see your own character talking and interacting with these people in the cutscenes, and in an improvement from the first game, you can review and show off these cutscenes with your character by watching the tv set in your crib (which also has a video game you can play, Zombie Uprising, where you defend a small group of survivors against a Resident Evil-style attack of zombies... just another level of detail, and an achievement on your gamerscore, for the George Romero fans out there.) This is also the case with the co-op play, where you see your character on-screen and in the story with user-made characters from anywhere else on Xbox Live.

The multiplayer is where Saints Row 2 is a head-and-shoulders improvement over the first ? although there has always been competitive multiplayer with a variety of different game modes, this is the game where Volition has given us a drop-in, easily implemented co-op multiplayer in which your character, as he or she exists in your single player game, can either drop into someone else?s campaign and help out (as driver, gunner, cover, - )or enlist help from other players on your friends list and come in and help out. Providing fire cover for a friend who is busy trying to gun down a recalcitrant drug runner, or hanging out the side of a car driven by your friend (and in my case, trying to backseat drive and shout out tips through a microphone while shooting a drive-by at the same time) are the kind of experiences that this game is about this time around. Missions are scaled to the extra help ? there might be a bit more resistance when you?re rolling into an enemy stronghold with a buddy at your side packing guns, but it?s balanced to give an appropriate level of challenge. The multiplayer in the first was a bit more clunky and almost felt tacked-on to me, but in the sequel it?s as much a part of the game as the single player campaign ? it?s the multiplayer in Saints Row 2 that will keep players showing up in Stilwater into late autumn or Christmas when the last of the season?s big titles will be coming down the pipe.

It?s not a game for the achievement hounds or for those padding their gamerscore? Saints Row 2 is a return to recognizing what achievements really should be; an award for doing something difficult, diligent, dangerous or otherwise award-worthy within the game. So don?t expect the green icon to blip at the bottom of your screen every ten minutes with this one ? this game awards players for dominating whole areas or challenges of the game (defeating whole gangs, busting every challenge within the game) although there are a substantial number of secret achievements within the game as well. But in all, this is a game where only with perseverance and, moreover, time put in will you start to see your work reflected on your gamerscore.

Overall, Saints Row 2 is like a perfect movie sequel; give ?em more of the same, but it?s got to be bigger, better, faster, and louder. By serving up a superior multiplayer experience over and above a rich single player campaign that lets the player loose in a complete living, breathing city, and putting a fine polish on it with a kick-ass soundtrack, wry and funny voice acting, and some great writing in both story and dialogue, Saints Row 2 is a crime movie with slick cars, loud guns, flashy clothes, and great music that you can roll around in for quite a while. It?s not just more-of-the-same. Take it a spin for yourself.

Overall: 8.8 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.8 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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