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Saints Row 2
Graphics: 7.2
Gameplay: 7.9
Sound: 8.6
Control: 7.6
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 7.7

When the original Saints Row launched on the Xbox 360 back in 2006, it was the first next-gen attempt at a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure. Most critics and gamers found the title to be a solid and entertaining game with plenty of attitude and flash, although this year, Grand Theft Auto IV clearly reset the bar. Hence, Saints Row 2 faces supremely stiff competition – despite the fact its almost six months removed from GTAIV’s release – and in all honesty, it’s more difficult to compare the two than initially expected. What you’re looking at in this highly anticipated sequel is a game that emphasizes chaos and completely unrestrained criminal acts, which in turn creates a production that feels more cartoon-y and arcade-y than GTAIV. Now, this distinct difference may appeal to those who felt constrained by the more authentic feel of Rockstar’s gem, but Volition falters a bit when it comes to solidifying sound technicals and controls. Saints Row 2 is certainly fun, but in other ways, we found it somewhat disappointing.

First of all, it’s clear the graphics received a definite touch-up as the character models are better, there’s enhanced city and background detail, and although the cut-scenes aren’t overly polished, they’re mostly accomplished. Unfortunately, much like with the gameplay, a variety of technical issues plague the overall visual presentation and they can be difficult to ignore. Clipping is a common problem, as is pop-in, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t as refined as we would’ve hoped, but the good news is obvious: with so much going on, you’re not likely to nitpick over the graphical inconsistencies, which are admittedly small, and don’t typically impact the fun factor. There just isn’t a whole lot of get excited about; the color seems a little bland and drab, and in general, Stilwater simply lacks the realism and authenticity of Liberty City. There aren’t anywhere near enough vehicles or pedestrians, too much of the expansive town appears repetitious, and we just weren’t impressed with the design. Even so, for what the developers were gunning for, this palette works just fine. You’ll see why below…

The sound is markedly better thanks to excellent voice acting, crisp sound effects that continually drag you into the action, and a diverse and kick-ass soundtrack. Plenty of established actors cement the voiceover cast, and while we experienced a lack of balance between certain effects when things are hectic, we’re not about to complain. The sound really injects a sense of in-your-face urgency, and when you step inside a vehicle, you’ve got plenty of radio stations; everyone will find something to enjoy. In this respect, Saints Row 2 eclipses GTAIV in our mind, only because we don’t particularly enjoy modern-day music, and we had all sorts of options in Saints Row 2. We could choose to listen to everything from classical to heavy metal to hip-hop to ‘80s, and that’s just plain awesome. Much appreciated, especially considering the amount of time we spent in vehicles. The voice acting really is outstanding and the effects punctuate an experience riddled with over-the-top insanity. Balance is the only recurring issue (and sometimes an annoying one), but that’s about it.

At the start of our gameplay analysis of Grand Theft Auto IV, we mentioned the most pronounced and impressive change in the franchise: the emphasis on control. Overall, the player simply needed to be more controlled in every action they undertake, from the driving to the combat to simply wandering around the town. It was a wonderful enhancement and fell directly in line with Rockstar’s claims of “the most realistic GTA ever,” which turned out to be 100% accurate. However, in direct comparison, Saints Row 2 is all about exhibiting a lack of control: police officers and civilians will suddenly and for absolutely no reason break out into firefights in the streets, other drivers will stick a gun out a window and shoot at your car if you hit them, and there’s virtually no strategy whatsoever when it comes to turf wars. Nope, they’re a-comin’ and you gotta take ‘em out, and that’s that. Now, there are two ways to interpret this significant gameplay difference: 1. it’s taking a step backwards from GTAIV, or 2. it allows the game to move faster, allowing for an endlessly entertaining experience with virtually no downtime.

After playing for quite some time, we don’t really side with either conclusion, although we do find ourselves leaning towards Option 1. First of all, if the gameplay as a whole was as super refined as it was in GTAIV, we’d most certainly lean in the other direction, because Saints Row 2 really does move at an excellent pace. But the gameplay isn’t as tight, and it isn’t as accessible. While we could utilize an excellent cover system in GTAIV, due to the apparent lack of AI in this game here, there’s not much “covering” going on. You can crouch, but besides hitting the R3 button for more accurate aiming, there’s not a whole lot here, and the controls are…well, we want to say “slipperier.” Sometimes the camera got in the way in GTAIV, but that can happen in Saints Row 2 as well, and we found ourselves missing the tightness of the controls in the better sandbox-style game. The driving physics were also better in GTAIV, although we didn’t have too much trouble with the cars in Volition’s effort. Still, does anyone know how to change the view when driving…? Because we couldn’t find it, and that was irritating. We didn’t want to be that close.

See, everything just seems so out of control in this game. At first, it was somewhat jarring, but we did get used to it, and we did have plenty of fun in doing so. The first time you land a headshot and you hear that gut-churning gush of blood coming from the skull wound, you’re going to cringe. Then you’re going to watch your partner grab a foe, take a shotgun, and extinguish the enemy’s life with shocking execution-style brutality. Not a single solitary soul has an ounce of morality, and many will argue that’s part of the appeal. Once can argue that side of it, but we maintain that without a compelling set of characters, one can quickly grow tired of the premise. After a while, we weren’t playing to see what happens next in the story; we were simply playing because we wanted to create more havoc. Granted, that is a big draw, and we’re not about to lie and say we were discouraged with everything in the game; that’d be both inaccurate and unfair. But Niko Bellic was an intriguing main character, as was his situation. Your character in Saints Row 2 can be customized to the gills, yes, but we never really cared one jot what happened to him.

Things do pick up in the storyline later on, though, and previously boring characters quickly become more interesting. That’s a great incentive to keep playing, and the other incentive is obvious: you can check out more of Stilwater and build up your rep with every passing minute. It seems as if everything you do wins you extra respect – that includes running over pedestrians and running around shooting wildly at anything that moves – and you’ll need that respect to access new missions. Furthermore, with all the extra goodies to be located, all you would-be virtual gangsters will always have something to do. You can wander around trying to find every last one of those 50 Tag spots (fending off annoyed rival gangs in the process), pimping out your favorite ride at the nearest garage, acting as a pimp, and racing like a madman to establish your road superiority. There’s never any shortage of activities and that’s a huge benefit for all gamers, especially those who complained of an occasional lack of direction in GTAIV. In this way, Saints Row 2 holds a great deal of almost universal appeal.

However, several glitches just kept annoying us. For example, in the first hour of play (the first hour), our vehicle became immovable when it got stuck on an object that wouldn’t stop a bicycle. Then, our partner at the time got stuck trying to get out of the vehicle, and because we couldn’t move it, everything came to a crashing halt. It also wasn’t much of a challenge to weed out the unruly gangsters in the streets, primarily because they had about as much sense as a pack of rabid gerbils. Thing is, some people will get a huge kick out of those loose-cannon, winner-take-all, brutal-as-possible criminal endeavors, while others will tire of the constant and seemingly senseless massacres. Many of the missions had no rhyme or reason to them, and all we did was shoot a lot of people. Sure, there were a few of these in GTAIV, too, but for the most part, the missions were more diverse and, in our opinion, more intriguing. We wanted to see where things were headed, we wanted to know who Niko was seeking. Here, we’re supposed to reunite the Saints and get sh** rolling again.

Well, okay. Like we said, this may be more subjective than anything in terms of enjoyment factor, but the technical glitches are tough to ignore. The vehicle controls aren’t fantastic, running around on foot works just fine although you move a tad too slowly in R3 super-aim mode, and in most cases, the AI is non-existent. The glitches just kept piling up, too. We’re in a massive firefight in this building, and a gangster tries to come running through a doorway, but gets stuck in – get this – the curtain. He just keeps running into it over and over, which was downright comical. Then there’s the shotgun-toting policeman who just starts firing on this woman with a handgun; completely random, out in the street. They stand three feet apart from each other and blast away for a loooong time…of course, neither dies because apparently, they’re all cardboard cutouts until you get involved. But hey, dual-wielding is always fun, isn’t it? The good does indeed outweigh the bad, but the bad makes it painfully clear that this game simply isn’t in the same universe as GTAIV.

Saints Row 2 is a fun, absorbing, guilty pleasure that, for the most part, remains fresh and entertaining throughout. The story isn’t too bad at all, the voiceovers are great, the atmosphere is spot-on, and we just love the soundtrack. But the controls are iffy, the flaws and glitches are a significant irritant that can impact your enjoyment, the graphics are okay but disappointing in some respects, and there’s often a lack of purpose. As we said right at the start, this is basically a cartoon-ier version of GTA with an emphasis on gratuitous violence and some sexual content. It’s the kind of game that will hook a certain audience but will eventually grow wearisome for another, and it really just depends on your own personal taste. From a technical standpoint, this sequel isn’t overly impressive and even a flat-out letdown in some ways, but there’s no denying the underlying appeal. We can’t overlook that, but we’re not about to overlook the other stuff, either.

10/20/2008   Ben Dutka