Review: Saint’s Row 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Saint’s Row 2
Genre: Action
Developer: Volition
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: 10/14/08

Let’s just get it right out of the way, Saint’s Row 2 is sort of like Grand Theft Auto. Comparing the two games is something that is easy to do since there are several similarities between the two games. However this is more of a problem with the language of video games since terms like “Sandbox” make a game sound like something my cat takes a dump in, and “Open World” isn’t the best fit either since that brings up images of a massive open area. The genre still doesn’t have a term that defines it, so the easiest way to describe a game like this is to just say, “It’s like Grand Theft Auto“.

However that’s not exactly true. After GTA burned up the sales charts years ago a bunch of similar games appeared to take advantage of the popularity of that title, with such games like Mercenaries, The Godfather, Scarface, Just Cause, True Crime, and so on. The problem is that while many of these games where similar, they didn’t deliver on the scale that the GTA series did, and many of them didn’t do anything different and felt like they were just trying to cash in on the success of the GTA series.

With the original Saint’s Row game, that changed. While many saw the first Saint’s Row game as a sandbox style game to kill time with until GTAIV came out, it was one of the few games of this style that added a lot to the genre. The excellent GPS system, free aiming, using a cell phone as a menu, ability to retry missions, and overall streamlining are several features that were frustrating from other sandbox games.

However that was two years ago. In that time several other games of this type have been released, and the question with Saint’s Row 2 is if it can still improve on the pre-existing formula for this style of game, or if it just rehashes stuff from the previous Saint’s Row game.

In short? It’s awesome.

It seems to me that recently games have become darker and more serious in tone, and for some reason add a lot more of the color brown than you would think necessary. Saint’s Row 2 separates itself from the pack by being completely over the top, and after playing games with tragic main characters or serious stories this is sort of refreshing. The thing about Stilwater, all of the inhabitants, the cast of the game and the main character is that they’re all assholes. Complete assholes. There is maybe only one character the game expects you to sympathize with, but otherwise the whole city is filled with a bunch of sociopaths with only self-gratification as the reason for their existence. Seriously, they should just change the name of Stilwater to Assholetown, POP: Everyone.

I think this is great.

This genre of game doesn’t really work any other way. While other open world games have told great stories, there’s always a problem when the stories for those games treat the main character as a sympathetic one, since it’s sort of hard to empathize with someone who also has no problem slaughtering hundreds of digital people, as is often what happens in these types of games. Saint’s Row 2 throws sympathy off a balcony with the story in the game. The main character is violent, creative about how he or she commits violence, and seems to be really angry over events from the first game.

That’s right, the character you play in Saint’s Row 2 is supposed to be the same character from the first Saint’s Row game. After barely surviving the end of the previous game your character wakes up in traction in a prison hospital after being unconscious for several years. The damage received from how the first game ended is supposed to explain the reconstructive surgery that the character needs, which in turn is just an excuse for you to be able to create your own character. What’s odd is that in the first game there wasn’t an option to be a female character and now you can create a female character, or even something in between. Even though your character apparently had a major sex change in between the last game and this game it’s never really mentioned if you choose that route, though for awhile people ask if you got a new haircut, which makes me assume that this was a small joke by the developers.

Character creation is a LOT more detailed. If you want to create a male or female you can do so. If you want to create something in between, whether it’s a manly chick or a girly man that choice is up to you. Want to create an Asian grandma with dreadlocks and a goatee? The choice is yours. This is one of the best creation systems you’ll see outside of a pro-wrestling video game. The creation system is not merely limited to the type of character you can create, you can also change the look of your hideout or cribs, you can change the look of your gang, you can customize the look of almost every single vehicle in the game, and every article of clothing has multiple options on various patterns, colors to use and ways to wear them.

In the beginning of the game you create a character then proceed to break out of a prison with the worst security ever, including a pretty cool rail shooting section. In just about any other game you might still be going through the tutorial but Saint’s Row 2 wastes no time getting to the action. Stilwater has changed a lot in the few years the main character was in a coma. At first I was disappointed that the game was taking place in the same city, but after driving around the city from the first Saint’s Row game and the Stilwater presented in Saint’s Row 2 they seem to share only a few common landmarks. The Ultor Dome is still there and the docks and airport are in the same locations except the details are all different. This Stilwater feels familiar and yet it’s almost a totally different city. The goal is the same from the first game; take over the other three gangs in the city by force.

While the locations might be different, Saint’s Row 2 on the surface isn’t exactly a graphical powerhouse. Character models look a little better then the first game and there are a lot of small details added to the overall animations, it’s not going to compete graphically with a lot of other recent 360 games. Make no mistake, the game still looks like a current-gen game with some great effects, it just doesn’t compare very well.

Let’s go over some of the differences from the first Saint’s Row. There are far more melee animations. There are a ton of animations for the NPC’s that populate the world as well, you might see one reading a paper, or using a laptop, or you might see a couple holding each other on a park bench. When you commit an act of violence sometimes a bystander will run over and start taking pictures with his cell phone camera, and even little details like characters taking out umbrellas when it starts to rain. Those details of the game really add up over time since there was a few times when I was playing where the NPC’s would do something hilarious that would also completely take me by surprise.

Of course a lot of the old graphical issues return. There’s still an issue with characters clipping in environments, or even into your vehicles. Pop in has always been a problem with games like this and it’s in full display in Saint’s Row 2 as occasionally whole vehicles will pop in or completely disappear, sometimes while you are looking right at them. This isn’t a frequent occurrence, it just sort of takes you out of the whole experience when you see a car one moment and then it’s gone again the next. This happens a lot if you look behind you, switch the view to the front of you, and then look behind you again. There’s a noticeable amount of screen tearing, and in fact there’s an option to turn on V-Sync which I recommend turning on right away. The game warns that this might cause some frame rate drops but the frame rate stayed fairly solid for me after turning the V-Sync on and was much less noticeable than the screen tearing.

Partially I think this is because the developers must be getting to the edge of what they can do with the engine Saint’s Row 2 is running on. Not everyone has a 50 million dollar budget, but I’d love to see what these developers could do with that kind of money.

Another aspect of the overall presentation is the sound, and other than a few minor issues I have, the sound is fantastic. Not much attention was paid to the voice acting of the first game, but it was actually fairly well done with some notable talent like David Carredine. Saint’s Row 2 has a similar all star cast to do the voice acting in the game and while not every line is delivered well, that seems more of an issue with a slightly awkward script than the fault of any of the voice actors. The music on the radio has perhaps the greatest soundtrack of any videogame released in years. The music in the game of course will depend on where your taste in music lies, but they have a selection that should make just about anyone happy. It’s great. You can also go around to various music stores and purchase music in order to create your own radio station if there are songs in the game from the different radio stations that you would like to listen to without changing the station.

There are a few disappointments in this area as well. For some unknown reason they removed one of my favorite features from the first game: the MP3 player. In the original game you could purchase music and listen to your selected music even when you weren’t in a car. I loved this feature and it’s sadly absent in the sequel. Instead of being a mute the main character talks, and talks a lot. You can choose between character voices, but if you want to sound like something other than a Brit, a deep voiced Gangsta, or Hispanic, than you are out of luck. I like to create myself in games like this, where’s the nerdy white boy option? Also any form of talk radio is gone in Saint’s Row 2, and the talk radio from the first game was so well done that its absence in this game is sort of disappointing.

The fundamentals of the gameplay are roughly similar to the first game. The aiming system is all free aim with no auto lock option, and you still select weapons from holding down the B-button and selecting a weapon from an inventory wheel with the left joystick. While most of the controls are the same, there have been several important changes made. One of the things you’ll first notice is how dramatically improved the melee combat is. In the first game melee combat existed but it felt like an afterthought. There was almost no reason to use it over gunplay. In Saint’s Row 2 there are multiple fighting styles and after chaining together a few hits the main character will unleash a stronger brutal-looking attack. Now you can block by pressing down both triggers, and grab people by pressing the left bumper. When you use the grab button you can either tap it quickly to throw someone or hold it to use the NPC like a shield. Like everything else in the game how far you can throw someone is greatly exaggerated. While it seems like such a simple addition there is a lot of fun to be had with just grabbing people and throwing them into traffic, in front of trains, off a bridge, off of a building, you get my point. By holding an NPC as a human shield you are decreasing the likelihood of getting hit by a bullet and depending on the affiliation of the NPC you are holding other gangs or police might not shoot at you at all if you keep the hostage between you and them.

Another new addition to the gameplay deals with the vehicle controls and the addition of the cruise control. I cannot stress this enough, cruise control is one of the single greatest additions to this type of game. Driving and free aiming at the same time wasn’t the easiest thing to do in Saint’s Row, but with the addition of cruise control it’s now much easier. Cruise control works like this, once you get up to the speed you want to drive at you hit the left bumper and the car will stay at that speed. This frees your right thumb from needing to hit the A button and gives you more time to aim. This feature takes awhile to get used to, and for the first hour I hated it, once you are used to it drive-bys are a breeze. The biggest concern will just be staying on the road. While this feature is great for shooting while in a car there are other good uses for this as well, such as attaching a satchel charge to a car, diving towards a target then turning cruise control on and then bailing out of the vehicle. The car will continue on at the same speed turning it into a mobile remote bomb.

How you tackle missions in the game is similar to the first game, there will be icons for the next mission except you will need to have earned enough respect to access the mission. One of the key differences between the first game and the sequel is the fact that you now earn respect almost all the time. Reckless driving is rewarded with respect, much in the same way you earn boost in the game burnout. Headshots and even nut shots are rewarded with respect, as are gang kills. Other than earning respect like that, there are also diversions and activities. Lots and lots of diversions and activities. So many that aside from the initial missions I personally didn’t even get into the main story missions until 5 hours later.

Not all of these gain you respect but most will either give you cash, a reward, respect, or a combination of those for completing them. There are diversions I like to think of as passive diversions since you can trigger them almost anywhere. If you fine aim at a pedestrian you will initiate mugging. If you aim at a store clerk for long enough you can rob a store. If you remove all of your clothes you can start a streaking mini-game. If you jump on top of a moving vehicle you will be able to surf on top of the car. Jump out of a plan and you can start a base jump challenge. Jack a car with people inside and you can start a hijack activity, though this was in the first game as well.

There are vehicle specific diversions. Miss the ability to hijack a fire truck, taxi, or ambulance and do some missions using those vehicles? Saint’s Row 2 has got you covered with some interesting variations on these types of side missions. For example if you start the ambulance diversion you have to respond to accidents and perform CPR or use the shock paddles to save lives. There are also tow truck missions…which are interesting although I personally didn’t find them all that much fun.

There are some location specific diversions such as Zombie Uprising, Poker and Blackjack. Zombie Uprising can either be played from any crib you own or can be played in several other areas, like arcades. Zombie Uprising is perhaps the best video game within a video game that I’ve ever played. The game is fully 3D and takes place inside the basement of an old hotel. There are limited weapons and ammunition and the goal is to survive several waves of zombies while killing a specific number of them in order to trigger the next wave. The background music for this is awesome and creepy and there are a variety of zombies introduced as you get into bigger and bigger waves. This mini game is filled with a ton of moments where I realized I was low on ammunition and was surrounded by zombies and tried to just clear an area only to be swarmed again. Zombie Uprising creates that “Oh Shit” feeling of being overwhelmed by a zombie horde better than any other zombie game aside from Dead Rising.

Poker and Blackjack are very simple video versions of these games that are available at different locations in the city.

Then you start getting into Activities. The Activities from the first game return, though many have had some small upgrades done to keep them interesting. In addition to the Activities that have returned there are several new activities to do, like Fuzz, Trailblazer, Fight Club, Septic Avenger, Heli Assault and Crowd Control. These activities are all great fun, and my personal favorite of the new Activities is Fuzz. The Fuzz Activity is similar to the TV show Cops, only the main character puts on a police uniform and has a camera man following them around trying to get the best footage. In this Activity there will be notifications of crimes happening and the game tasks you with stopping these crimes, violently, and occasionally with a specific weapon for bonus points like a rocket launcher to break up a riot. Each one of these is not only fun, but they provide rewards other than respect and cash while completing them.

The reward system however is one of my issues with the game. I completed so many Activities right away because I wanted to try out all of the new ones and I ended up with some very powerful weapons with unlimited ammo before I ever really started playing the story mode of the game. This made several of the early gang missions a lot easier than they would’ve been otherwise. In addition to that the main character is a bullet sponge. You can carry around items to regain health, and if you aren’t being shot at for a few moments the main character regenerates health. At first the game just seems way too easy because of this, I mean you can buy a shotgun and a lot of ammo then just run straight at enemies and blow them away without worrying too much about it. As the game goes on there will be enemies with some very powerful weapons and there will be missions where enemies come at you in multi-team waves. During those times the game feels better balanced, and I can’t say that that the game is so easy that I haven’t died during a mission because I have. Multiple times in some of the harder missions.

Saint’s Row 2 is forgiving when it comes to death as well. If you die during a mission you can restart a mission at the last checkpoint, and with multi-tiered missions there will be multiple checkpoints. This works out great since instead of having to drive back to a mission start point or redo sections of a mission that might feel tedious after the 3rd or 4th time Saint’s Row 2 tries to keep the player in the action as much as possible. This includes dying or getting arrested outside of the missions, if you die or get arrested you lose some money but still retain all of your weapons.

Another side of the difficulty, or lack of, comes in the form of the AI in the game. The enemy AI in the game is sort of dumb. Against a few enemies you are never in any danger, it is when gangs or police, or both attack in swarms that you are ever in danger. While the enemy NPC’s will occasionally run behind cover or try to circle around you, most of the time they will just stand right out in the open and shoot you, most of the time barely hitting you. When the enemy is in a group things get a little bit more dangerous, and later on when they’re packing RPG’s and rifles the enemy is more difficult not because they are smarter but because the weapons they’re packing are just more deadly. The AI for the cops in the game feels almost off kilter, when the cops pursue you can’t just drive out of their circle of attention and forget about you, however losing the cops is as easy as just going inside of a building since they don’t appear to follow you indoors. This is strange just because I’ve had other gang members and angry pedestrians follow me into a store. Still if you are in a car and rack up the stars for police attention you can still recreate some of the fun of trying to evade a nearly unstoppable police force. There are multiple difficulty levels, though Hardcore is mostly just annoying and Casual mode is a walk in the park.

I’ve gone on this long without making too many comparisons to Grand Theft Auto, and I’m unfortunately going to have to make a comparison here. One of the things that disappointed me more than anything about GTAIV was the lack of variety of the missions in the game. Saint’s Row 2 is all about variety. Nearly every mission is unique in it’s own way. While most involve going somewhere and killing other gang members, it’s how they’re laid out that’s interesting. In one mission I had to take a character hostage at a bank, in another I had to sneak into the nuclear power plant and steal some radioactive material, and so on. These are just examples at the mission variety of Saint’s Row 2. In their first game and in this one you are required to do Stronghold missions, in the first one this was pretty much just going inside a location and then killing everyone. In Saint’s Row 2, the Stronghold missions have much more variety and no longer feel like a way to stretch out the gameplay. During the time I played I was always interested in what the game might throw at me next.

The main single player game could take you over 20 hours easily, much more than that if you take the time to do all of the Activities, find all the tag locations, CD’s scattered throughout the town, and secret areas. I think this is actually a pretty incredible feat since a lot of time is spent in similar games failing a mission then having to drive back to the original location and restarting missions from the beginning. Since this isn’t an issue in Saint’s Row 2 it’s pretty great that there is enough content to keep the game from feeling too short. In addition to the single player game you can complete the entire story missions of the game in Co-Op, and all of the activities with 2 players. I can’t express how great this is. This is exactly the kind of game where crazy shit will happen and now you can share all of those moments with a friend. The game AI compensates for this by adding more enemies to the missions.

Other than Co-Op there are also adversarial modes, Gangsta Brawl (Deathmatch), Team Gansta Brawl (Team Deathmatch), and Strong Arm. The first two modes are pretty much self explanatory, either kill the most people or be on the team that kills the most in a time limit in order to win. The biggest difference between this game and others for these modes is the fact that everyone is a bullet sponge and a headshot isn’t a guaranteed kill. The areas are confined, and that’s a good thing since it keeps the action moving. Strong Arm is the most interesting mode of all three of these. This mode challenges two teams to complete different Activities in a certain amount of rounds for cash, the team with the most cash at the end of the rounds win. These Activities can include things like spraypaint tagging, insurance fraud, escort, demolition derby, hitman and more. This is a really refreshing idea for a multiplayer game since you are constantly torn between trying to complete and objective or sabotaging the other team.

The multiplayer appears to run pretty smooth, though some players had some noticeable lag, though I believe that was more due to the player having a spotty connection instead of a flaw in the game. Once a host left a game of Strong Arm and the game simply froze on me, which wasn’t fun. If you played the first game you’ll notice an absence of some of the Saint’s Row communities’ favorite game types, like Blinged Out Ride, Protect The Pimp, and Big Ass Chains. While these might have been some fans favorite game types, I just have to encourage those people to play Strong Arm, and if the choice was between full Co-Op and Strong Arm or those three modes, that’s a trade off I’m perfectly fine with. One annoying thing is the fact that you can’t just take the appearance of the character you create for the single player mode, you need to completely recreate a character for online.

Let’s wrapped this up with the scores. I know I’ve gone on long enough about the game, and yet I still barely feel like I’ve covered everything about the game. To put it bluntly, while other games might be better technical achievements, Saint’s Row 2 is one of the most fun games to be released this year and also the most shameless.

The Scores:
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Good
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Incredible
Replayability: Great
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Classic

Short Attention Span Summary:
Saint’s Row 2 may not be the best looking game this year, and there are some minor technical issues, but if you enjoy open world/sandbox games than this game will be a game you might enjoy more than any other title this year. The action is over-the-top, violent, absurd, and never slows down. If someone asks you, “Do you want to blow things up?” and your answer is, “Hell yeah!”, then Saint’s Row 2 is the game for you. If you answer, “But why are we blowing stuff up?” then you’re thinking too hard and you’ll want to play something else.



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