There seems to be a common thread of sympathy woven between reviews of Saints Row 2. Seemingly, the fact that it’s a broken, buggy and derivative game doesn’t matter because it’s also fun.
That notion holds up for the first five hours or so where the many fun moments that never made their way into GTAIV all manage their own special appearance. Planes are ready for piloting, the ragdoll physics make hit and run attacks all the more humourous, and chainsaws… well chainsaws are chainsaws, It’s clear THQ played a lot of Rockstar’s triumph, and in their own defense made a pretty solid list of things missing that have hence been included in Saints Row 2. So this isn’t a GTA clone, more so it finds itself at the other end of the spectrum. And that’s a notion that holds up from start to finish.
Free from the shackles of a competent team of writers, realism, and a shred of shame, Saints Row 2 runs riot with it’s distinctly outlandish brand of violence and destruction. Stillwater is once more a hive of interest with a wider variety of activities, more shops, and plenty of diversions to keep you entertained.
Which is just as well because the main game is a lesson in textbook sandbox design. Go here. Kill these guys. Destroy this boat. Kill that boss. Deliver these drugs. Protect this guy. Forty-two missions later and I couldn’t retell a single mission in an overly positive light, so unmemorable, so incredibly derivative and repetitive that the only tales I have to tell are ones of embarrassingly bad development. During one mission Pierce, the only mildly likeable character in a cast chock full of cunts, takes the wheel of a van laden with drugs and, in fitting with the predictability of every other mission, it was my job to protect him. In the end the only thing he needed saving from was himself as he repeatedly drove the truck into a river. Que restart.
Luckily Saints Row was never a game with much love for good lore and as before, it comes into it’s own with the variety of activities and diversions littering the streets of Stillwater. Back are missions like Drug Trafficking, Destruction Derby, and Insurance Fraud (by far the best, here you become invincible with the only goal of throwing yourself in front of cars/lorries/trains to cause as much damage to yourself as you can, once the adrenaline mode is activated it becomes twice as ridiculous and amusing as the ragdoll physics engine shows its worth).
Alongside those are a host of new activities, Trail Blazing sees you riding a quad bike through a series of checkpoints, and only through driving into cars and pedestrians do you gain the added time needed to finish the race. In Fuzz you don a police outfit and deal with criminals in increasingly violent OTT ways. All so the cop show, after which the activity is named, can boost its ratings (you’re being filmed after all). Its here the shine can be found, the majority of the activities are fun and each have at least twelve levels to work through.
The train of fun travels further than the activities. Player customisation is huge, and can be altered at any time through one of the various plastic surgeons. Clothes shops and tattoo artists allow you to customise your character, whilst vehicle shops and garages allow you to choose between the many vehicles of Stillwater. Furthermore your cribs can be restyled however you see fit, fifty-inch plasma screen to boot.
The variety of weapons on offer compliments a slick combat system. Rather than adopting a lock-on system the combat is left to free aiming. It’s quick, and works well. Weapons range from pepper spray and duel-wielded handguns, to the more ridiculous minigun and katana sword. More rewarding though is the ability to grab and hurl people in front of cars, off buildings, into the ocean. With a physics engine as OTT as it is here, throwing makes for far more fun than the weaponry.
Outside of the activities and missions, even driving becomes a mini-game. Careering down the wrong side of the road, near misses, two wheels, anything either against the law or flat out stupid gets a rating, the longer you sustain a trick, the more stars you earn which roll into your overall respect counter. Similarly with the combat, kills, throws, headshots, amongst other factors, all tie into the respect meter, which overall dictates when you can play new missions.
So it’s a crying shame then that Saints Row 2 is unpolished enough that its flaws often outweigh the positives. During my play-through the frame rate dropped to an unbearable level on three occasions, a car becoming stuck in a wall became a common sight; the artificial intelligence is, at best, horrendous. Your allies rarely assist in fights, though they will often die – requiring a revival. The overall intelligence of everyone in Stillwater is worrying, particularly that of drivers.
Whilst the latter may not be particularly troublesome – the game isn’t difficult – it does do a lot of damage to a city already suffering from a lack of life. Stillwater, nor the people in it, never feel or look like they serve a purpose besides your own sadism. After a few hours it feels less like you’re caught in a bustling city, more like you’re trapped inside the mind of a coma victim who’s conjured up his own lunatic playground where laws rarely apply. Look closer and it all starts to smell a little Truman Show.
Being fun is all well and good; plenty of titles forget that enjoyment is at the heart of our hobby, and Saints Row embraces all that is fun about the sandbox genre. But fun doesn’t excuse a game for being broken and buggy. Nor does having a wide range of humourous activities and diversions make a tedious textbook story any less of a struggle to see through to the end. Great fun it is, but only once you accept the core game isn’t the main quest line.
Oh and there’s also a pretty nifty zombie game too, but these days that’s to be expected.