Saint's Row 2 Review
Let's face it. Grand Theft Auto IV was an incredible game, but in it you couldn't beat down a group of bums with a lime green chair to the tune of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" playing out of a nearby car. Nor could you impersonate a cop with a camera crew following as you take out a streaker - sporting pixellated junk - with a sledgehammer. You couldn't dress up your gang as ninjas. Hell, for that matter, Niko never really did get the whole organized crime thing, so he never had a gang. For most intents and purposes, Saints Row 2 is a furthering of the first game much more than a competitor to Rockstar's latest.
The differences are obvious right from the beginning. The guys at Volition didn't spend hundreds of man-hours studying NYC weather and rain patterns to realistically show precipitation, nor did they go to meticulous detail to help capture the true look and feel of a real east-coast city. No, instead they piled on more and more stuff for you to do. Sure, the cars don't handle quite as well and Saints Row 2's city of Stilwater doesn't look quite as smooth as Liberty City does, but here you'll get to drive a much wider range of cars - and the developers weren't afraid of being too unrealistic, so you get attack choppers and all kinds of great toys.
Saints Row 2 takes what made the first game fun and unique and tries to refine out everything that made the game only worth playing for a week or so. And they have succeeded for the most part - they've amped up the customization, number of activities, overall fun, and atmosphere while limiting or eliminating the downsides as much as they can. These guys have put a ton of effort into this game, and unlike with Rockstar, their effort didn't go so much into just getting a sunrise right or perfectly implementing Euphoria physics or modeling car damage to ridiculous levels. Attention to detail is not something that these guys excel at, but their hard work has still really paid off: you can make your gang, and their cars, to look how you want, you can customize your character to silly levels, and you can get lost in this game for dozens of hours.
In many ways, I wonder if Volition thinks Rockstar took the wrong path in the move from GTA: San Andreas to GTAIV. Sure, millions of dollars went into a new level of realism, but the sheer amount of activities available in Rockstar's previous game was toned down to a fraction of what we got in San Andreas. Volition seems to be trying to fix Rockstar's mistake for them, striking a balance between solid current-gen visuals (good, but not great), simple and fun driving and gunplay, and giving the player an absolute ton of things to do. One thing to mention, though, is that SR2 does not include any kind of lock-on aiming or cover system. Fortunately, it doesn't really suffer as a result, and it does allow for more action-oriented gunfights where you might as well charge or at least grab someone and use them as a human shield and move up. It's different, but still really fun.
Saints Row 2 has a ton of missions where you'll take on enemy gangs throughout the city and build up your own empire through buying properties and participating in a huge range of new activities to gain respect across the city. Much like other games in the genre, the player gets to do multiple levels of these activities, and here your character will pick up important and useful bonuses for finishing them. So while it's good to finish all six levels of the Destruction Derby mini-game (complete with upgradeable cars and a hilarious nitro boost) to get discounts at mechanics, you can also play some of the bonus derby scenarios afterwards for cash. Ever gone head-to-head with Combine Harvesters?
Volition has also included a good number of small conveniences here that feel fairly welcome after GTAIV. For one, you don't have to squeeze cars into parking spaces: you've got a real garage here, and any car you pull into one of your garages can be selected off of a list and brought out for you to drive - even if you've done the same thing a hundred times and crashed or ditched the car every time. Cops here will lay off of you if you cut down on the violence, so you aren't always watching little circles on your minimap - oh, and they'll always try to kill you rather than arrest you, so you won't have to load the game just because a cop managed to open your car door. That's important once you've built up a nice arsenal of weapons. That's just a taste, though, but it's important to stress that Volition played a lot of Rockstar's games and know exactly what was still annoying about them - and they've done a lot to address those complaints in their own game.
Rounding out one of the craziest and most diverse set of mini-games and diversions is a great online cooperative mode. Players can jump in and out of the game with one other person, gaining progress in their own game no matter where they're at in the story compared to their buddy, and participate in just about everything that one could do when playing alone. The only thing I still really miss is some kind of split-screen mode, but it's hard to dock them when this is the first true cooperative game of its kind and no one else has delivered anything like even that just yet. Well, that's not counting Crackdown, but since you were on the other side of the law in that game and you weren't quite building the kind of gang-driven empire seen here, it's tough to compare the two beyond just calling them sandbox action games.
Between the many entertaining mini-games and hilarious situations, it's hard to sometimes get fired up for the rather strange story in Saints Row 2. Your position as the new leader of the Third Street Saints isn't as glorious as it first seems, as you've come out of a years-long coma and broke out of prison to find that the whole city has changed. New gangs have moved in and the Saints are little more than a whisper; mega-corporation Ultor has leveled your old neighborhood and put up a skyscraper in its place. Sometimes you get super-serious, sometimes you get misplaced comedy. Your missions to take over the city are often pretty easy once you figure out how to exploit the regenerating health, and checkpoints are placed at multiple points throughout missions avoid causing that sinking feeling you'd get when you'd die 90% through a mission in the GTA games. No, difficulty isn't exactly a major part of this game, but in its place we do get a lot of fun, and that's fine with me.
It'd be futile to try and list out all the little things you can do in this game, but overall I find this to be a very worthy successor to the first Saints Row and to that massive world of GTA:SA with so many things to do you had no idea where to start. Some may not agree, but I love that feeling of having so many things to do just waiting for you, almost right from the start, and that feeling has definitely been delivered here. Of course, if you just want to jump into a session of Insurance Fraud online where you purposely get hit by cars to rack up a big hospital bill, that's always available along with multiplayer versions of many common and not-so-common gameplay modes. The competitive online play is nothing to really shout about, but it's a decent addition to the game on top of everything else and could entertain you for a while before you get back to playing together with a friend.
For the most part, the pop-culture influence that Saints Row 2 will exert over the populace is probably close to zero. This is a video game for people who play video games, and while the choices of radio stations and tracks that they play are good (I prefer both the classical station as well as the nicely-populated 80s station with legendary cheese songs like "Take on Me", "Karma Chameleon", and "The Final Countdown"), this simply won't have that far-reaching impact that Rockstar has enjoyed. Not even the voice work of Michael Dorn, Daniel Dae-Kim, Jamie Pressly, or Eliza Dushku really does much to make this game anything beyond, well, a game. But honestly, for many gamers, that's just fine. Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy your game and not have your mother-in-law calling you up to ask you what this whole "Grand Theft" thing is about that they've seen on some news broadcast.
In the end, the biggest draw for Saints Row 2 is the smooth online cooperative play that lets people experience the full story, cutscenes, free-roaming the whole city and all, while playing together. Those who are playing alone will still find the amount of things to do impressive, even if the graphics aren't quite up to the level set by Rockstar this last April. So get out there and rebuild the Saints, and don't forget to use the minigun when you're quelling Pirate vs. Ninja uprisings for a bonus!