Over the past few years, more and more games have been released that place the player in the shoes of less-than-perfect and morally ambiguous characters. Though the Grand Theft Auto series has been criticized ever since the first installment in the series, most people who have played the game with an open mind have realized there is some inherent fun to the irony of performing the most inappropriate acts ever conceived by man in a virtual environment as a form of entertainment. Criticism aside, the GTA series has flourished and has become one of the most popular franchises worldwide. If anything, it’s proven the the age old lesson; sometimes it’s good to be bad.
Saints Row, which was undeniably inspired by the GTA franchise, was released in 2006 and was generally lauded for the over-the-top twist the game gave to the dark and violent stories told by Grand Theft Auto III and its successors. Due to its success, Saints Row spawned a sequel in late 2008.
The game occurs five years after the events of Saints Row, where your character ended up in a coma as the result of an explosion. When you finally wake, you are being held in the Stillwater Penitentiary on assassination charges. However, once you have modeled a new character (characters from the first Saints Row installment can not be imported), you decide that the Stillwater Penitentiary isn’t your kind of place and bust out. The escape sequence sets the tone for the remainder of the game. Within twenty seconds (provided you skip the tutorial) you have a firearm in your capable hands and find yourself dispatching groups of prison guards. Three minutes later, you’ll find yourself on a speedboat set course for the mainland, using an infinite-ammo machine gun to destroy chasing boats and helicopters.
While you were in prison, the Third Street Saints lost all their influence within the city and fell apart. It is up to you to bring the city back under your colors. What follows is large collection of over-the-top activities, missions and diversions that will have you claiming territories, clearing strongholds, and assassinating gang leaders. Happily, most of these missions are accompanied with a myriad of explosions and shootouts. Only a few hours into the game, you’ll have managed to register an incredible body count, broken more laws than you knew existed, and your gang hideouts will have more hookers and strippers than you can shake a stick at.
It is here the game shows its true face… it simply doesn’t care about realism, and I mean that as perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to a sandbox game. From the first second in which you are given control of the game, it provides you with a nearly limitless amount of freedom. This is perhaps best represented with the character customization options found in the game. Since the game doesn’t care for realism, it allows you to make any type of man or woman you prefer. You can also select any type of voice, movement style and facial expression you wish. If you wish your female character to sound like a British dandy and make her walk about like a pimp, consider your wish granted. Likewise, if you want to have your Hispanic male move about with feminine flair and an high-pitched female voice, by all means go ahead! The game doesn’t restrict you in any way. If you think something would be fun to do but is prohibited by law in the real world, chances are you can do it in Saints Row 2, and get rewarded for it. And that is exactly what this game is all about: hedonistic fun.
It is striking that ‘fun’ is all it takes to make a good game great, especially when compared to many other fantastic games that have sold more units. While Saints Row 2 in no way stands up to the experience that is Grand Theft Auto IV, I dare say that the former is in fact much more fun to play than Niko Bellic’s grand adventure. Where GTA IV has made gameplay sacrifices to increase the level of realism (in terms of car handling, collision effects, etc.), Saints Row 2 has sacrificed realism for gameplay, which results in a game far more accessible. Arguably it makes Stillwater a better place to stay than Liberty City for a long-term holiday.
Luckily, during your stay there is plenty to do in Stillwater besides the story-related missions. The game includes many optional activities, which range from abducting prostitutes, racing, assassinations, causing general mayhem to spewing raw sewage onto buildings and providing cover for drug dealers with an attack helicopter. Though these activities are optional, players must still perform at least a few of them to gather enough ‘respect’ to be able to start story-related missions. Respect can also be gathered by actions in the overall world, such as vehicle tricks or the slaying of gang members, though this never becomes a viable alternative to performing the preset activities. In fact, most activities also reward you with valuable bonuses, such as discounts at stores or reduced notoriety and damage, which serve as an additional incentive for players to try and complete as many as possible. Some of these even supply the player with unique weapons and infinite ammo for specific weapon types. After having acquired these, players will be able to face nearly any form of opposition.
All this fun comes at a cost though. The game spends so much time dishing out fun, it seems to have trouble taking itself serious at times. On some occasions, cutscenes preceding or following missions set a certain tone that is not reflected by the gameplay. Even though your character may be incredibly pissed off by a rival gangs latest endeavor, the gameplay doesn’t change and it is therefore hard to relate to the emotional outbursts that are shown.
The game is incredibly violent and sadistic during some cutscenes.Though these actions are never displayed on screen, often they are not funny no matter how you look at them. This is in sharp contrast with happy and nobody-cares attitude the game shows off during most of the actual gameplay.
Also, the game is surprisingly bright and colorful for a gangster-themed video game. This isn’t a point of criticism, but surprising nonetheless. Overall, most characters look detailed, which is a major accomplishment considering the the nearly limitless amounts of clothing combinations that can be applied. Yet, it seems nearly impossible to create a character for yourself that has a realistic face or haircut. But this problem is fairly common in games where the player has full control over the appearance of a protagonist.
Saints Row 2 sports a rather impressive soundtrack from a wide array of genres, but most of the radio stations cater to such a specific audience that you’ll find yourself listening to only one or two. Surprisingly, there is no “talk radio” in Saints Row 2.
The game also includes full cooperative play for the campaign mode, which allows players to wreak havoc online with a friend. The competitive multiplayer is fun to play, but most of the action is best found in the single player mode. The matches can last a while and it is not possible to join a match currently in progress making it somewhat tedious to wait for enough players to start a new round.
Saints Row 2 is a decent game. On the surface, it fails to deliver any innovative mechanics or improve significantly on elements that have been done before. However, those who dig a little deeper will find a treasure trove of fun to be had, the likes of which has not been seen in video games for a long time. Those who are exclusively looking for an emotionally engaging story line, deep characters and spectacular plot twists should stay far away from this game. For all others, who game for hedonistic fun, this game has the potential to keep you occupied for weeks on end.
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