Friday, 5 December 2008

In which I post my first ever review: Saints Row 2

So this is the first ever review I've done for any outlet, ever. It's not been published yet (will it? who can say.) so I thought I'd share it with my readers if for no reason other than this game is Batshit Effing Insane... if you want to employ Ben for a game review (will accept food or games as payment) feel free to contact me via email or blog comment.

Edit: This review is now live in it's final form here.

Saints Row 2 is set in a parallel universe from our own, in which gun fights and massive explosions are so commonplace as to become everyday for the inhabitants of Stilwater. The police bat nary an eyelid at your antics as you mow down pedestrians in a bulldozer, doing little to stop the brazen killings and wanton destruction. Choose your weapon of mass demolition. Feelin’ gangsta? Dual wield some Desert Eagle types. Feeling a bit in the mood for some Yakuza-style samurai executions? Borrow a sword from a friendly Ronin on a passing motorbike. He’s not a member of the Saints, so it’s okay to murder him. It’s apparently cool.

“What did you expect?”, quips my middle-aged, ‘west coast Latino’ accented protagonist after another kill. Having not played the original Saints Row, I didn’t really know what to expect. I wanted to create some kind of rationale for my female lead character, however, I wanted some pretense of a credible history to help explain why this middle aged woman had gone mad with rage and no longer seemed to identify other human as worthy of receiving their basic human rights. Let’s pretend that her kids were killed and, now that she has nothing to live for, decided to become a gang leader as a 30-something – your standard revenge story, yeah? So anyway, the start of my experience with Saints’ wasn’t a good sign that the rest of the game was going to be ‘all there’, nicely polished to perfection. After exiting the somewhat hit-and-miss character creator at the very start of the game, I was treated to an intro cut-scene with (surprise, fool!) no voice track. Ah, well played Volition - this must be some kind of trick to make it difficult for me because I’m just such a Pro. When it came time to bust out of jail by beating up a single doctor and a few guards, followed I might add by what has to be the worlds easiest/slowest jail-break ever, I didn’t really have any idea what in the world I was doing.

But that turned out to be actually rather okay.

This review is probably in danger of becoming a ‘how I learned to stop worrying about inconsistencies and start loving Saints Row’ review, so allow me to explain. If one were to focus on all of the strange goings on within the world of Saints Row you would have to conclude that, more often than not, it just doesn’t make sense. As in, none at all. Mow down ten to fifteen rival gang members on one street corner and then, inexplicably, there’s another bunch just round the corner, all fresh and ready to have a cap busted in their collective asses. The AI is pretty whacky at times too; I had some pursuers charge blindly off-road after me, only to promptly fall into and get trapped in an empty swimming pool. I’ve also seen retiree’s sitting on their lawns typing on their laptops, while two more laptops protrude at right angles from their thighs. Hmm. Pimps, casually strolling down the street with Yankee-doodle style feathers in their caps (and heavy jackets, in ‘the heat’ no less) turn on passing police cars and beat down their occupants like they were owed money. Double hmm. At a million points throughout this game I could barely restrain fits of hysterical laughter at the strange absurdity of one or other situation. And no one else seems to notice.

So, perhaps inevitably, neither do you. And when you start to accept the inanity of this world, you start to realize that Volition have actually made a really, really decent GTA clone. Granted, it is just a GTA clone – you’ll find little that’s ground-breaking or genre expanding in Saints 2 – however it still manages to be quite fun, even intentionally humorous at times. Much of the situations and dialogue skate the thin line between taking the piss and treating the slaughter of (literally) hundreds of rival gang members somewhat seriously. When one of your Saint brethren, upon seeing a stripper, remarks “Damn those are nice boots!” it’s genuinely quite a funny moment. It’s also hard to tell whether the developers fully appreciated the irony of setting a mission during a funeral – by that point so many others have been slaughtered in your ambitious gang-advancing rampage that caring about the funeral of just one person seems incredibly nihilistic. It’s like mourning the death of a Nazi prison camp guard in the middle of the holocaust – yes they were indeed a person too, but remind me again what the difference was of this person from all the nameless masses that went before, and why you don’t care about any of them? I assume it was supposed to instill some dramatic tension, however it once again comes over as just another ‘WTF???!’ moment, for better or worse. Maybe by this point you’ll be like me and stuck somewhere between genuine horror, and laughing at how hilariously B-grade it has all become. Well actually, who am I kidding, it’s probably deliberately B-grade, and I guess that’s part of its charm. Again, take it too seriously and the flaws really start to show; switch off your brain for a bit and it’s quite passable as fun.

Key to the joy of Saints is that it runs almost constantly at the full 60 frames per second, or near enough to not notice. Even when the police-car you’ve hijacked smashes into some pursuing officers and explodes in a flurry of sparks and the High Def propagation of super-advanced particle systems, the Xbox 360 keeps chugging along. A note should be made about the quality of the world that has been created by Volition – there’s no loading between city sections and generally it presents an adequate level of detail.

Difficulty is rarely an issue. For some select occasions you are given infinite ammunition for your weapons in the interest of being able to kill all those pesky Brotherhood gang-bangers from up town without having to pop into a corner store and buy some more bullets. In the end it hardly matters that there is always more of them than you as generally nothing short of an RPG to the head will kill you. Try standing on a grenade, and watch as the hilarious, Havok powered rag-doll physics kick in. Get blown high into the air, and tumble to the ground. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on keeping on, like some kind of insane Duracell bunny for videogames. There’s also some pretty neat full-screen effects similar to what you get in Call of Duty 4 when a grenade goes off in your face – it will make your vision and hearing go all dull and fuzzy. Alternatively, get sprayed by a cop with a bottle of mace and watch as your eyes water, distorting the screen into waves. May I suggest you remedy the situation with a prompt shotgun to the face? The guy had it coming, by the way, apparently all the cops in Saints are crooked. There’s a story here about a big corporation having the city in their pocket, etc, etc, nothing particularly experimental is going on, but if you want to ‘stick it to them man’ Saints Row 2 certainly gives you plenty of opportunities to say ‘Fuck You’ to the establishment. One side mission sees you spending some time spraying feces from a septic truck around an area of the city inhabited by corporate high-fliers. Not my favorite mission-type; that spot is reserved for ‘trail blazing’ in which you drive around on a quad-bike, while on fire, blowing up conveniently placed barrels of gasoline, car, people. Yes that really is the type of game this is.

One last thing of note, and actually one of the better aspects of Saints, is the in-game radio (again, unconcernedly riffing on the whole GTA series) which has a bunch of fantastic songs from some genuinely big-name bands. Hot Chip, MGMT, Does it offend you, Yeah? and Panic at the Disco are all on the radio and there’s a bunch more from other styles of music on the reggae, rock and 80’s stations. Quite a surprisingly solid selection however Volition have clearly chosen quality over quantity for Saints, as there’s only about 8 or 10 songs for each station.

Let me sum up the game by using the character creator as an example – it’s really, really great for some things (pimps, ho’s and awesome cornrows) but it is also quite, er, average when it comes to others – specifically any non-black Gangsta that you can make. The Asian fellow that my younger brother sculpted is rather so-so, and my own Latino momma… well let’s just say she doesn’t look much like a momma. So why did they bother including the creator then? I think Volition would have been better served to stick with the GTA style single type of protagonist approach (think Tommy Vercetti in Vice City) or narrow down the choices to a small number of more appropriate characters. Thankfully, like the rest of the game, it gets better and via the magic of in-game plastic surgery you can change anything and everything you didn’t like about your character.

One last addendum: the game is, how shall I put it, “buggy as all hell”. I have heard story after story of glitched up missions, weird behavior generally and a couple of more serious crash bugs. Still, my verdict stands – if you don’t mind some brainless mayhem, Saints might be a game you could learn to love.


Travis Megill said...

The first Saint's Row was pretty much the same. A decent GTA clone that was actually pretty fun. It definitely one-upped GTA's combat by actually letting the player aim. Then GTA4 came along...

I specifically liked the option to create a heavyset character, which you don't see very often in games. Is that possible in Saint's Row 2 as well?

Great first review!

Ben Abraham said...

Thanks for reading! I realise it's a bit longer than the usual blog post, weighing in at 1500 words, so thanks for sticking it out. =)

Yeah I think you can make a 'larger' character if you want - I've seen screenshots to that effect.

Like I said though, it seems rather incongruous (I guess absurd is the vibe they're going for, not completely sure if it works for me) that essentially a crazy porky white guy could be the leader of a gang... Ah well, all part of the whacky world of the saints.

I guess the message to take away is very much that your mileage may vary. =P

Unknown said...

"you’ll find little that’s ground-breaking or genre expanding in Saints 2"

I'm assuming you haven't played the original Saints Row, because the following features made it quite genre expanding over the previous king of open-world gameplay, San Andreas:

GPS navigation on map
Infinite saving of vehicles, including modifications made to vehicles which weren't all visual
Very high level of character customisation (in these sorts of games I think this is a step forward), not just the body but clothing too
Robberies! Finally you could rob places without it bugging to hell and generally being dodgy (ala GTA).

These are just off the top of my head but there were a plethora of other more technical improvements on top of this (saving, physics, civilian AI etc).

And me personally, as a game, would rate either Saints game well over GTAIV in many departments, and I personally view GTAIV as a bad SR1 clone :P.

Oh well, just thought I should let you in on some of the background to the games.

Not a bad review otherwise, would be nice to see you actually tell what if any effect the bugs have on the game. Does it ever make the game "unplayable" etc?

The original SR of course (open-world gameplay is notorious for it) had a few buggy moments (possibly saw some cars do some silly things) but overall it was very solid and didn't effect my enjoyment.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Jon,

Good point about the character customisation, I guess I'm a bit spoiled for choice having gotten used to games like The Elder Scrolls series which have been

doing elaborate character customisation for ages. I don't think I mentioned it in the review, but I'm not hugely experienced with the GTA's, so admittedly I don't know all the ins-and-outs of the genre.

While I'm sure they're useful improvements, I don't necessarily buy the argument that the things you listed were particularly "ground breaking", but hey, I could definitely be wrong. I mean, I don't think I would have missed if I couldn't customise my character to the same degree and I actually think the GTA model of providing you with a single character (or better yet a small range of characters) makes more sense, narratively. Not to labour the point, but it seemed to facilitate some awfully crazy moments in the game. =P

As for bugs, they were mostly polish issues for me, however my good friend at The Graffiti Gamer had a couple of show stoppers that corrupted his saves.

Thanks heaps for reading, Jon, and taking the time to tell me where you disagreed with me.

Unknown said...

True, they weren't ground breaking changes, but an incremental improvement. I think it's hard to penalise a game for not being ground breaking though, especially in the money driven games industry where rarely are games given the chance to be ground breaking. I was actually hoping for more from Saints Row 2, from what I've seen it is more of a small expansion on Saints Row in all regards rather than something inventive.

No problemo though, I am always watching you (and Josh's) blog. ;D