It’s been years since Stillwater was torn apart by rival gangs. Now the city is on the brink of massive civil unrest, being divided up by the last vestiges of powerful crime syndicates and gangs who want a piece of its various illicit markets from drugs to prostitution through to car theft.
You wake from a coma, incarcerated and with a looming date with old sparky coming up, you’ve got no choice but to fight your way out of prison and try and get back to the Row.
This is how Volition / THQ choose to open the sequel to one of the surprise early hits on the Xbox 360, Saints Row. In Saints Row 2, the developers have given up the ghost trying to compete with that well known other sandbox gangster-style game, and have taken the opportunity to throw everything at the player including the kitchen sink.
Within the first ten minutes of the game you get to give yourself an entirely new face (this time you can even play as a female character) and then take control of your character to blast your way out of prison, aided and abetted by a mysterious cohort.
From there, it’s time to try and get the Saints back to their former glory. Gathering up your old gang members and busting Johnny Gatt (one of the leading characters in Saints Row 1) out of a courthouse, the game hits the ground running and doesn’t stop, piling on the action and set pieces until you feel like your eyes are bleeding.
…And your peepers won’t just bleed because of the relentless assault of action, they’ll probably bleed because Saints Row 2 boasts one of the glitchiest and ugliest game engines yet seen this generation. It’s workmanlike and functional but that’s not to say that it doesn’t work in the context of the game, it does – almost perfectly. There is V-Synch tearing (which can be switched off at the expense of the framerates in the game so you get to choose between tearing or chronic slowdown) and there’s a lot of bizarre moiré effects whenever you see any fine grained texturing going on, but let’s be frank here, the game’s not out to win beauty contests but it’s definitely ready to wrestle you to the ground with its foot on your throat until you start enjoying yourself.
There is so much to do. Taking a swift look at the Stillwater Map might frighten you half to death when you realise just how many missions, side missions and distractions there are this time around in comparison to Saints Row 1. There’s the main story thread which can be followed religiously if you so wish, seeing you go through various stages to claw back your territory and establish the Saints at the top of the pecking order once again, but there are also a multitude of respect-earning extras that can be performed, everything from wrecking building sites with a sewage truck (spraying poo over everything has never been so much fun) to the more nefarious dealings with the city’s pimp and ho population.
Saints Row 2 is unapologetically adult in content and there’s an extremely good reason why it wears its 18 rating prominently. It’s violent, bloody, downright perverted in places and is definitely not the sort of game to stick on the 360 when Auntie Nora is round for Sunday tea (or for that matter to allow your kids anywhere near – I’ll underline that in bold red strokes if you like).
For all its faults and petty annoyances (for instance, the AI of your sidekicks can mean the difference between success and failure in a mission as they have the annoying habit of getting stuck or lost in busy bits of scenery and their pathfinding skills are appalling) it’s a guilty pleasure that you’ll find yourself grinning like a lunatic while playing. It doesn’t require you to wetnurse your gang members and keep them sweet, it doesn’t require you to babysit annoying non-player characters too much and it certainly doesn’t let you sit around twiddling your thumbs for long periods of time while you wait for something to happen.
Saints Row 2 is definitely a game that demands you get stuck in, get involved and explore the sprawling metropolis packed to the gills with content – and for that, we’re more than willing to forgive it some of its more irritating bugs.
Pick it up and approach it with an open mind and be prepared to get your hands bloody and dirty and you’ll find yourself engrossed in its in-your-face crassness and over the top action, like watching John McTiernan direct Macbeth.
If you’re the sort of person who demands peerless graphical trickery and exquisite production values you’re better off looking elsewhere but if you prefer gameplay and content over prettiness then Saints Row is going to blow your socks off.
That’s before you even delve into the multiplayer side of things. Taking the same approach with multiplayer, there are so many modes and mission types that there’s bound to be something to suit everyone. Though Saints Row 2’s netcode seems a little iffy at times (randomly dropping games and with some serious lag going on at times) once you get into a smoothly running game of something like the “fencing” mission (basically, stealing things to sell for cash with the player with the most loot at the end winning the game) you’ll once again be sitting behind a Cheshire cat grin.
If this game had been a tenner cheaper it would’ve been a serious bargain. At full price it’s definitely a case of try before you buy but if you’re like me and you like a game to offer plenty of content and longevity then you might find what you’re looking for, particularly if you liked the original Saints Row.
(Phew, I think I got through the entire review without mentioning GTA once…DOH!)