Wot I Think: Saints Row 2

By John Walker on January 12th, 2009 at 11:00 am.

Saints Row 2 is out now on PC in the US, both at retail and on Steam. It doesn’t reach Europe until the 30th January. The delay is apparently due to localisation, which seems odd for a months old console game. I’ve had a copy for a while now, and below is Wot I Think of the single player game. We’ll take a look at the multiplayer once the game arrives in Europe.

It had me with the shit-spraying. Of the very many non-story tasks available in the sandbox world, the one that made me realise I love this revolting game was the septic tank challenge. I was tasked to reduce the property prices of an area for a corrupt real estate agent by coating the buildings, the cars and the people in gallons of faeces. The police keep coming, and I kept splattering them in the brown stuff until their cars careered of the road, and the officers lay drowned in the crap. Enough damage racked up, the challenge was complete, and offered me level 2. Then 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Saints Row 2 is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a GTA clone. There’s no escaping it, there’s no point pretending otherwise. From the driving to the narrative structure, from the animation as you pull someone from their car to glowing mission markers on the streets, the most generous, non-litigious word you could use would be “tribute”. However, there’s two reasons why this doesn’t matter. First, it’s really good. Second, while it lacks the conviction and emotional complexity of Rockstar’s GTA IV, in many ways it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

It’s also a sequel, of course, but to a game that never saw an appearance on PC. It’s surprising how much the story tries to pick up where the previous game left off, especially when there’s absolutely no need for this to be the case. The first Saints Row distinguished itself (and barely) from GTA with the gangs. Rather than playing your way through a single narrative, instead you played through a series of narratives as you take territory for the Saints Row gang from the other rivals in the city of Stillwater. At the end of that story, your character finds him or herself in a coma. Years have since passed, and now your character wakes again.

Which is problematic, since SR2 begins with one of the most fantastic character creators I’ve seen. Finally City of Heroes has been bested. The freedom you have to create your character is extraordinary, but more impressive is that no matter how hard you try your result is going to look like a sketchy character. Mine is a slightly overweight, almost-pretty Latino girl, with a dodgy hair dye. She’s believable. Of course, she has nothing in common with the character I played that time I previewed Saints Row.

You begin, after waking from your coma, by busting out of jail. Once free the next task is to rescue your former boss from the courthouse where he’s about to be sentenced to death for hundreds of murders. The solution? Kill everyone in the court building (including the judge if you choose to go back and get her). Once he’s recovered, together you take over a new base – an underground, run-down hotel. From this base of operations you once again begin the process of taking back the city’s territory for the Saints.

However, there’s a just extraordinary amount of freedom. Not only are there three separate stories to work through, in any order you wish, but there’s dozens of mindless side-games that will earn you money and respect, the latter used to open up more gang missions. These are multi-stage tasks that invariably involve doing something extremely childish: setting yourself on fire and trying to burn as many people as you can, in a checkpointed race; helping doctors commit insurance fraud by throwing yourself in front of as many cars as you can in a time limit; and of course spraying districts in shit.

Of course, much of the game is about driving, and oddly it’s here that SR2 is at its weakest. The controls themselves for the game are a mess, with more options required than I could comfortably fit onto my 360 controller. Going to mouse and keyboard, I was then infuriated to find it doesn’t recognise the fourth and fifth mouse buttons, and while you can program something to the middle button, the game will then refer to it as, “Press to open door.” This scrappy porting feels at its worst when driving, the cars steering in peculiar increments with the keyboard controls, rather than smoothly turning as you’d obviously hope. It takes some getting used to, and while it’s serviceable, it’s never enormously satisfying. Different cars handle extremely differently, which is in many ways a good thing – it gives you that correct desire to get the fastest, sleekest vehicles – but with the twitchy steering getting too fast can just be uncontrollable. Then there are problems with lag. Despite having a fairly decent machine, I was having to ration the graphics settings to get something in which I could steer before corners were memories, without playing in a washed out world. Not really good enough.

On foot you’ve got a decent amount of sprint, and with the mouse you’ve obviously got a big advantage when aiming. Strangely, I found myself more comfortable out of the cars a lot of the time, and the game seems to know this. Most of the story missions put their emphasis on indoor sequences, or using cars for minimal transport between bouts of murder. And this really is about murder. There’s none of GTA IV’s sentimentality or imaginative justification for your actions. This is no-holds, all-out butchering. It’s the game the Daily Mail thinks GTA is. In fact, I’ve a feeling it’s the game that’s trying incredibly hard to make sure to be that.

It’s astonishingly immature. This occasionally bubbles over into the unpleasant, especially with some of the jokes referring to race and sexuality. However, it’s oddly toned down since the first game’s rather desperate attempts to be controversial. You’re no longer bombarded by shrieked jokes about their burger joints being called “Freckled Bitches”. Instead they’re just shouted a bit. Cars mechanics work at Rim Jobs, there’s a women’s clothing store called On The Rag. You shouldn’t be expecting anything smart.

However, despite all this the writing is often superb, and the performances are almost all fantastic. Cutscenes are invariably a pleasure to watch, even if they are seemingly based on a fourteen year-old’s understanding of how gang culture might work. This same childishness extends to many details. When decorating your private crib, in one corner you have a pile of boxes. The upgrade options read in order:

Boxes
Nice desk
Stripper pole

Idiotic. But this is a game that celebrates everything you do. Have a crash and fly through your windscreen, and the game will boast how far you travelled, and whether it’s a personal record. It self-references throughout, most impressively during the Fuzz minigame. In a spoof of Cops, you are dressed as a police officer and accompanied by a camera man, asked to deal with various crimes in a way that will gain enough ratings. So you gun down litterers, slaughter old ladies driving too slowly in their cars, launch rocket attacks at skateboarders, or baseball bat your way through a queue for an ice cream van. But some of the arrests you’ll have to make feel very familiar. Someone’s spraying sewerage over the town, someone else is setting people on fire, another is committing insurance fraud.

This unrelenting stupidity is the game’s success. While I’ve struggled to stomach the brutality of other games in this genre, somehow the crazed, sociopathic dispassionate nature of SR2 runs straight through the wall of taste and out the other side. That twinge of guilt you get when you run someone down by mistake in GTA is never present here. Here you aim for each and every one of them, knowing that the lackadaisical police will likely not care at all. This is SR2′s other masterstroke – while you can get yourself stars for illegal actions, they’re pretty hard to come by despite some of the abhorrent acts you might aim to do, and they’re easily cleared. Where GTA has the mechanics who’ll respray your car to get the cops off your back, you have to reach them without accompanying blue lights. Here they could follow you through the drive-thru forgiveness buildings and it wouldn’t matter. In fact, if you’ve got heat on your tail, just start a side quest and, ping!, they disappear. It’s ridiculous, but it sums up the game entirely: SR2 puts having fun far ahead of realism or conviction.

The cartoonish design is possibly the factor that keeps this outside of grotesque. Well, that’s not true – it IS grotesque, but the cartoon stops you from having to find a priest for absolution each time you play.

Stillwater is a huge, elaborate city, amazingly detailed and extremely destructible. Carving your own route through backyards and trailer parks is fun. It would have been better if it weren’t designed to run at full spec on super-computers from the future, as it seems the PC should be able to emulate the 360 without having to strain. And if the steering were smoothed out, there’d be less frustration as you explored it.

However, it’s still a ludicrously good time, with a motherload of things to do. Be fully aware that this is about as stupid and immature as a game can get, and blimey, you’ll enjoy yourself.

, , , .

79 Comments »

  1. Schmung says:

    Spot on, it’s GTA mixed with loony toons and targetted at 13 years olds and it’s bloody great. Still, a shame about the shoddy port. Hopefully it retains all the multiplayer fun as well. I spent ages playing this on the 360 – far more so than GTA IV, simply because the end of the story in GTA is really the end of the fun. With Saints it’s not really a problem because there’s just so much stuff to get through.

  2. Jp1138 says:

    Another horrible conversion then? After the GTA IV fiasco I was hoping I would be able to play this decently on a medium/low spec pc, but it seems this wont be the case :(

  3. John Walker says:

    The other thing I forgot to mention above is that it only supports widescreen resolutions at 1280×720, and 1900×1200, rather weirdly omitting the standard 1650×1080.

    But I want to stress, it’s not a bad or disastrous port. It’s a scrappy port – things like the above, where it works fine, but not quite as you might hope. It’s nothing like GTA’s explosive series of problems at all.

    • Alec Meer says:

      It’s worth pointing out I didn’t experience the performance problems John did, but that may be down to my running it on a GeForce 280.

  4. Ginger Yellow says:

    I picked it up for PS3 (sorry, but it was dirt cheap) in the January sales. I haven’t played much yet, but I’ve liked it a lot so far. As you say, the obnoxious “humour” which really annoyed me in the first game is toned down, and Stillwater seems to have more personality than it did before. And given GTA’s change of direction, there’s certainly room for a well executed clone which amps up the silliness.

  5. macc says:

    Damn, you’re a lot more positive then IGN, they kept going on and on about the crappy performance and the crappy port. I might try this.

  6. Optimaximal says:

    Those cutscenes (are they cutscenes) look really weird because they seem to completely lack in depth or substance – nobody has any chins!

  7. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    PC ports really ought to be able to manage as-pretty-as 360 level graphics, given that most gaming PCs less than a year old seem to be able to manage better than that (compare HL2:Ep2 on a newish PC to Halo 3).
    Anyway, might get this for the 360, I know my flatmate would enjoy it more, he got so bored by GTAIV he had busted the cheats out with in half an hour.

  8. stavrosthewonderchicken says:

    You’ve got to be kidding.

  9. John Walker says:

    About what, stavros? Meaningless comments tend to get snipped, so let us know what you’re so astonished by.

  10. Muzman says:

    GTA IV taking itself a little serious made me really hesitant about it. Still haven’t tried it yet myself. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t seem quite expoitation movie ‘serious’ enough and almost…earnest in places, in amongst all the gonzo nonsense and violence. Most games have tonal lumps and bumps, particularly those taking themselves seriously. But the GTA series managed to dodge all that rather spectacularly up until now, with its stupidity meets mythic period settings.
    Saints Row 2 does consistently sound like a ‘more of everything those other guys did!’ style wannabe in the exploitation-hype arms race. Like if Postal 2 was actually good.
    Did GTA IV’s seriousness become a problem (for anyone who’s played it)? Or does kinematic ragdolling motorcycle crashes make up for it all?

  11. hydra9 says:

    Waaaaa, it sounds so good and I know it won’t run properly on my slightly geriatric system :(

  12. Simon Jones says:

    This makes me feel old. I’m pretty sure I’d have lapped this up when I was a student, but it no longer seems to appeal. I imagine I’d have great fun playing it with a few mates in a ‘party’ style atmosphere, but as a single player game the apparent immaturity really puts me off.

    What I’m really surprised about is how reviewers seem to be getting so excited about pouring shit over pedestrians. It’s not that I object on moral grounds, Daily Mail style, it’s just that it seems like a bit of a waste of time. Is there any real purpose to the Saints Row determination to be ‘controversial’, or is it just-for-the-sake-of-it? Seems to be a pretty cynical, headline-grabbing way of making games – as if they’re realised that they can’t possibly compete against GTA on a level playing field, so instead they’ll be as filthy as possible so that people can’t ignore them.

    I suppose what surprises me the most, though, is that it’s apparently a genuinely good game despite all that. Ultra cynical, lowest common denominator game design, yet also a good game? Madness!

  13. Colthor says:

    Hehehe, it seems funny to see cute, cuddly John Walker enjoying one of these “hyper-violent murder simulators” when you’re more used to him getting brilliantly overexcited about cute puzzle games. And Tomb Raider (but that’s probably the only reason I have TR:U, and it’s great, so that’s alright then).

  14. jamscones says:

    I had a go of this yesterday, running the PC and 360 versions alternately through the same monitor (both at 1280*1024). I also had a 360 pad plugged in to the PC.

    There is no comparison – SR2 PC is a pale shadow of its 360 incarnation. The performance is fucking horrific, even when the graphic options are turned down to “fugly”, and they’ve done *something* to make the driving completely unenjoyable on PC, even with a pad, whereas on the 360, it’s fine.

    The performance for me was even worse that GTA4. Completely disagree with Walker that this is just “scrappy” – it’s an utterly dreadful port. I don’t believe for a second that this is just about mistargeting the specs. Visit the PC performance thread on the official SR2 forums to see tons of people listing high-end rigs and getting single-digit frame rates. Appalling.

    Strongly, *genuinely* recommend that people save their money and avoid this pile of toss. I absolutely love SR2 on 360, it was my second favourite from 2008 after Fallout 3, and I was really looking forward to the PC version after the disappointment of GTA4PC

    My PC Specs, for reference:

    - Athlon X2 3800
    - 2gb RAM
    - 512mb 8800GT

  15. Schmung says:

    @Muzzman : Yes, for me GTA IV relatively po-faced storyline malarky got really wearisome towards the end. It tries to suck you in and play with your emotions, but falls flat on it’s arse and comes across as melodramatic toss towards the end. Niko and his brother are both great characters, but some of the supporting cast are woeful. The problem for me was that once you’re done with the plot the relative seriousness of the world removes a lot of the the sandbox style fun you could have in the old games. It’s that factor that SR2 relaly amps up and is the main difference between the two IMO

  16. Deme says:

    This game is, maybe just not all the time, amazingly fun. The way you treat your fellow humans and surroundings has me, for the first time ever, looking at the cutscenes several times each.
    I could go on and on about the greatness of this game, but I do not like to compare it with GTA, because the gameplay, story, cars, everything is emphasized in a completely different way.

    Oh, and don’t miss out on “male 1″ in voices.
    I’m loving the freedom and character customization.

  17. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Did GTA IV’s seriousness become a problem (for anyone who’s played it)? Or does kinematic ragdolling motorcycle crashes make up for it all?”

    Depends. Personally I loved GTA IV, but a lot of people didn’t and I do miss the OTT cartooniness of San Andreas. I’d be sad if future GTAs all stayed in that semi-serious vein.

  18. Songbearer says:

    Horrible port, amazing game. I have this for my 360 and it’s one of the few games I’ve completed but still play even now.

    This game does and will get a lot of flak for its lack of polish and blatant GTA-ripoffery, but if you stick with it, it’s a beautifully fun game with some amazing voiceacting and entertaining cutscenes.

    It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – it’s definetly a love-it-or-hate-it type of game, and it’s certainly on the rough side of the beauty scale, but it does so much to entertain you that you can’t help but love it.

    Shame the PC port is so guff. I still intend to buy it, I just hope they can put some effort towards fixing it up. Between this and GTA4, it’s inexcusable.

  19. PHeMoX says:

    “GTA IV taking itself a little serious made me really hesitant about it.”

    Yes, it almost seemed like Rockstar got scared about going over the top yet further. I don’t really like GTAIV’s humor as much as I liked the older GTAs, but it looks better and you’ve got plenty of things to do. I found it difficult to control on my PS3, but it’s totally a very enjoyable game.

    I might look into SR2 though, as over the top almost Postal-style games are really my thing. Total Overdose, Postal 2, Carmageddon… yes baby! We need more of those. :P

  20. Stenl says:

    Thank god some people agree with me ! This game is probably the best I have played all year, and I am trying to convince people to stop that GTA 4 gritty, realistic nonsense and have some good, filthy fun. They all point to reviews whining on and on about the car control and go: “Everybody thinks that game is shit but you.” Finally I have some article to point them towards.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Morph says:

    5 mouse buttons? Are you some sort of millionarie?

  22. Larington says:

    @Morph: There are in fact some stupidly over the top mice available for PC gaming, including some that allow you to chain a sequence of actions together as a macro. Ever fought anyone who seemed to left right strafe in an almost perfectly mechanical way? Its quite possible that person is using one of these mice. Of course, the big issue is that it creates a divide between the haves and the have-nots that I’m really not comfortable with in gaming, why should someone get such an advantage (Not having to put effort into pressing the strafe keys in whatever pattern) just because they can afford a ‘better’ mouse… Its bad enough having a divide between people with good computers and so so computers, yet alone something which has negative consequences for gameply.

  23. FunkyB says:

    @John: You describe her as ‘slightly overweight’? She’s clearly no more than a size 10… :)

  24. CitizenParker says:

    For widescreen players like myself, the fan-made Saints Row 2 resolution editor is a godsend. You can grab it here. It allows you to set it to 1440 x 900, 1650 x 1080, etc. etc.

    A big second on your review. The game itself is great, but suffers some unexplained performance issues (minor though) and the controls are a little botched. Trying playing much of Fight Club on your plugged-in 360 gamepad to see what I mean – it’s impossible to do a takedown, for instance.

  25. John Walker says:

    FunkyB – Actually that’s a result of my fantastic wardrobe skills! I deliberately made her podgy, because clearly that’s best, but then the jacket and t-shirt I dressed her in were really flattering. Um, I might regret writing this.

  26. Schmung says:

    Are you PC gamings answer to Gok Wan?

    Oh god, I’ve just realised that by having even contemplated the existence of style consultants for MMOs and the like that they must, as dictated by the laws of the interweb, exist somewhere. I’m afraid to google it, but I know it’s true.

  27. Bananaphone says:

    Excellent game, one of my favourites of 2008. It’s so much better than GTA borefest.

    Shame they’ve made such an absolute mess of the PC port, though.

  28. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    Oh my god this is ugly. Not in a “omg not realistic enough, lol” way, but aesthetically, those colours/textures/dunnowhat.. Yuck!

    That being said, I understand how enjoyable it can be, still I wish I could have that “mindless fun” without the immaturity and the whole urban/gangsta culture.
    Something that has other references than MTV’s craps.

    Not that it scares me away from those games, but it just keeps me uninterested in them, their stories and quests. In the end, I sandbox* until I’m bored and don’t touch the game for another year.

    *as in the verb “to sandbox”, right? :p

  29. Rich_P says:

    I’m against buying shitty console ports (which is what this sounds like from everything I’ve read). Your $40 could instead support devs who actually give a crap about PC gamers /guilt

  30. CitizenParker says:

    To be fair, I don’t think the PC port is any absolute mess. The performance is a little worse than I’d expect since I comfortably ran Crysis and Far Cry 2 on high settings, but it’s no gamebreaker. And like Mr. Walker said, the controls you can adapt to without much hassle. It’s just at some points they become a pain to deal with.

    The pros far, far outweight the cons, however.

    Oh, and the menus are a bit insane for a keyboard setup.

  31. feffrey says:

    there is a program that will force SR2 to use 1680×1050 res or any other res for that matter
    http://www.amaderforum.com/showthread.php?t=160244

  32. Frosty840 says:

    I can picture the final screenshot in motion, with the polygons juddering around during a pan, like they used to do on the Playstation.

    Pass on a bad port until I can find some video of the PC verison in action…

  33. Chaz says:

    Shame to hear about the poor port, as it was one of my faves on the 360. Don’t get me wrong GTA4 has quite a few things to recommend it, such as the excellent driving, but SR2 beats it for sheer balls to the wall fun. Played it co-op with a friend of mine on XBL and it had us both shouting with glee and giggling like a couple of school boys at some of the outrageous pandemonium going on around us. And yes the cut scenes are rather juvenile but the dialogue is still great and has some genuine laugh out loud moments. Me personally I chose the English accent for my bloke, and it’s bloody excellent, know what I mean.

  34. Lilliput King says:

    Larington, I’m not sure I agree with you. The difference between a £15 mouse and a £40 mouse are pretty much minimal, and really aren’t going to make the difference between a skilled and unskilled player, in the same way that having surround sound, low ping and a good computer will make fractional differences, unless taken to their extremes.

    You can see a similar thing in almost every sport. If a runner has the very best spikes available, he’ll run fractionally faster, if he has a better training ground/trainer/gym/whatever, he’ll be slightly better than he would be otherwise.

    Its not fair but its how it is, I suppose.

    Also, This is one of the ugliest games I have ever seen.

    Also also, I guess that those of us that enjoyed GTAIV’s fairly mature and understated stylings are in the minority.

  35. Radiant says:

    That was my issue with GTA 4 too.
    I just didn’t feel any connection to the characters so when the story dictated to me that I should care about them I really didn’t.
    I mean I just spent 20 minutes running over my cousin to start a fist fight so why should I care if he’s in trouble?
    He’s not even real; all I want to do is jump off buildings with a parachute not play darts for the 50 eleventh hundred time.

  36. Radiant says:

    Spraying poo on cops is a perfect waste of my time I had no idea saints row 2 was a decent jape.

  37. Heliocentric says:

    You are wrong. The difference between a £1 and a £20 is indeed nothing. But a small number of gaming mice offer greater precision and extra buttons. For example anyone scrolling through weapons or reaching for a number is slower than me tapping one of my thumb buttons on my mouse. Or tapping my mouse wheel sideways to activate my gas mark. When reloading becomes slower than switching weapons your sidearm becomes more useful. Indeed advantages can domino.

  38. Hoernchen says:

    Runs like shit. GTA IV at least managed to look awesometastic while running like shit. But then again, there is no rockstar live crap nagscreen before playing, so it’s even.

  39. Radiant says:

    Actually I find that, so long as the mouse has at least 4 buttons, if the mouse has a decent update rate then any mouse with a few strips of sticky backed teflon on a decent mouse mat will do.
    Regardless of price.
    Gaming mice or mouse shaped like a pair of boobs are a complete rouse.

  40. Radiant says:

    I meant ruse. [bloody spell check]

  41. MetalCircus says:

    Im playing this on 360 and it’s ace. I’ve been glued to it for days.

  42. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    But at least, it has a character editor, so you can relate a bit more to your character.

    It should be standard in most games, actually (when they have third person view & real-time cutscenes).

    (most, but not all of them, of course, of course…)

  43. Duke Goosington IV says:

    I was totally put off the game by the, not just immature (I understand immature is the point after all), but plain offensive advertisment of the game, in which, once again transgendered people get to be nothing but a laughing stock in order to shift more copies of a game. The thing is, I don’t even have a problem with comedic stereotyping an entire community, but I didn’t see ‘charlie the chink’ or ‘Narcella the nigger’ so I’m thinking it’s just ‘randy the tranny’ because jokes are all we are. Of course, if I’m wrong, and other minorities/majorities are mocked just for existing, I’ll consider giving it more of my time.

  44. pepper says:

    Is it just me or do those screenshots, not all of em, but some of them lack any lightning? Or any shaders or something alike?q

  45. Andrew F says:

    Where GTA has the mechanics who’ll respray your car to get the cops off your back, you have to reach them without accompanying blue lights.

    Eh? I haven’t played GTA IV, but this isn’t the case in any of the preceding three. You can be followed into the garage by a motorbike cop and be on fire and as long as he doesn’t arrest you and/or you don’t blow up before the doors go down you’ll be fine.

  46. Funky Badger says:

    Favourite bit from the 360 was the cockernee wankah male voiced character starts singing along to The Final Countdown.

    (GTAIV was great too, just different)

  47. Oddtwang says:

    My housemate’s been playing this a lot the last few weeks on 360 (after finishing Fable 2) and it does look like fun in a stupid kind of a way – he played a bit of GTA but this slightly-more-casual style seems to have grabbed his attention more.

    I was impressed by the voiceacting too, although the lack of lipsynch seems a bit odd these days.

  48. Leeks! says:

    I think my favourite running gag in the game was designed specifically to address the inevitable incongruence between the hero of the first game and your new avatar. For the first couple missions in every gang plotline, a character will remark “You look different. You change your hair or something?” Maybe not a great gag on its own, but given the fact that the first game was helmed by a young black man (I think, never played it), and my new avatar was a cross-dressing Guy Ritchie reject, it got a solid chuckle out of me.

    Also, isn’t the Saints’ hideout an abandoned mission?

  49. Garu says:

    You’ve persuaded me to make an impulse purchase. Any disappointment will be on your head, Walker!

  50. FaceOmeter says:

    So John (or anyone)-

    I’ve played (and loved) this on a friend’s ps3, but I’m only running a PC (albeit a reasonable one). Is this going to frustrate me or will my heartstrings resonate as they did when i was bent over a dualshock pad?