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Wot I Think: Saints Row 2

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:

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.

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