Saints Row 2

Is the open-world genre big enough for Volition?

360, (PS3, PC)

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By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Grand Theft Auto is one of the greatest game franchises ever conceived. The latest iteration has been on the market for barely six months, but already its many idiosyncratic boulevards, districts, panoramas and parking lots are the stuff of industry legend.

GTA IV is the ultimate package, marrying an iron-cast technological haft to razor edge concept and implementation, top-notch multiplayer options and combat tweaks to an award-winning open world formula. We can't overstate how much we love it. And in no way is THQ's Saints Row 2, built on almost exactly the same principles, its equal.

Thing is, Saints Row 2 doesn't give a tinker's toss about GTA IV. Rockstar might have taught Volition everything it knows about foul-mouthed, free-roaming havoc, but the developer pays its screamingly obvious inspirations about as much respect as it does the hapless pedestrians who riddle its east coast setting. As such, the best way to play this game - and it's worth the effort - is to simply flip the bird to any precedents and get stuck in. Yeah, it's quite like Grand Theft Auto, right. Duly noted. What do you want, a frickin' medal?

It's also quite like the first Saints Row. Once again you're confronted with the gargantuan mid-nineties metropolis of Stillwater, its shopping arcades and overpasses liberally blotted with mission markers, clothing stores, garages and weapons outlets. Your tools are numerous and destructive - chainsaws, baseball bats, assault rifles and flamethrowers, to name but a few - and your means of transportation range from agile, sturdy Minis through ice-cream vans to quad bikes, helicopters and articulated lorries. There are hidden jumps to exploit, Easter eggs to be collected, walls to vandalise and countless side quests to be undertaken.

"Just when you think you've hit maturity, along comes Volition to remind you that smacking a carnival mascot over the head with a fire hydrant is obscenely amusing."

But before you get undertaking you'll need to create a character. The editor is almost Oblivion-esque in scope, with toggles for forehead dimensions, lip and hair colour, an array of gangsta accents, musculature, body fat, posture and signature taunt. Taking the irreverent stylings to heart, we threw together a middle-aged mountain of a woman sporting a glossy grey 'tache which belongs in the Twenties, livid purple hair and a street mime's make-up. Naturally this walking, talking oil painting needed some threads to compliment her walrus physique, so we tricked the old dame out with baggy denim shorts and a fluorescent pink hard hat. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Thankfully, Saints Row 2 caters both to advocates of the straight and narrow and the bulls-in-a-china-shop among us. Do you concentrate on the sensationally cynical but also quite well-scripted plot, with its 20 to 30 gameplay hours of trash-talk and beatdowns? Or do you duff up airport security, grab yourself a passenger jet and spend your recreation time nose-diving old ladies in the park? The choice, young apprentice, is yours.

Underpinning this omni-directional flow are the same old "respect" and territory systems which served the original so well. In brief, you earn respect by wearing stylish (or at least conspicuous) gear and doing impressive stuff, such as dancing a jig or sending an exotic hurtling off a building into an advertising billboard. Respect unlocks missions around the city and beefs up attributes such as health and stamina, though to be honest we found the age-old thrill of scoring points ad hoc more of an incentive.

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