Saints Row 2 Review: Headin’ Back To The ‘Hood

“Saints Row 2.” The very words will automatically make the inevitable comparison to the sandbox genre’s father, “Grand Theft Auto.” It’s not really a surprise though, as both games deal with the criminal lifestyle, offer a wide variety of activities in a metropolitan environment, and involve hijacking vehicles.

Fortunately, the comparisons end there. “Grand Theft Auto 4” showed the world that Rockstar wants a Hollywood contract, whereas “Saints Row 2” shoved players down into an alternative universe filled with shit spraying trucks, chainsaw wielding cop impersonators, and purple ninjas. So how does this game pan out with all the lowbrow humor and novelty? Surprisingly enough, it’s still a good game beneath all the glitter.

The storyline starts off several years after the events of the first “Saints Row.” You were involved in a Yacht explosion in a political assassination attempt. But since you are equipped with plot armor, you survive the ordeal, and are in major surgery inside a prison. Your character in the first “Saints Row” was forced to be a guy, but you’re allowed to pick your gender in the sequel. After picking a gender, you’re off to get yourself out of prison and rebuild your gang to take over Stillwater while facing off against three other gangs.

“SR2” does offer a lot more customization the mere gender swapping though, as you can change almost anything about your character’s body via sliders. Change your muscle, age, body fat, and even have B-cups on a man. You also have six different voices, three male and three female, with each voice having a change of dialog in the cutscenes. It is slightly disturbing, but, in the end, you can’t help but applaud at the available options to you.

The customization doesn’t end just there. As you progress through the game, taking on mission after mission, you’ll be able unlock customizable features like the look of your gang members, the cars they drive, and the furnishings of your cribs. So it is possible for your gang to look like a group of pimps and hos while you stroll around with your Gangsta walk wearing a one-piece swimsuit, Borat-style.

This is not to say the entire game is based on mere customization. Unlike, say…”Spore,” this game is fun too, although not much has changed since the first “SR.” The idea is still pretty simple: you get Respect by doing activities. Once you get enough Respect, you pick your main mission that involves shooting many people. Rinse. Repeat.

The major change though is the number of activities and secrets throughout the entire game. There are many to choose from such as committing insurance fraud by jumping in front of cars, to being a bodyguard for a local celebrity. Diversions are perhaps the only truly new aspect of the sandbox genre as they are essentially “secret” activities for you to discover. For example, you can start a drive-by diversion by shooting gang members in a car, or you can get naked and do some streaking.

Gunplay and car controls are what you expect from a game with such an over the top presentation. There is no cover system to worry about, as being an aggressive gun-ho lunatic is what “SR2” is all about. Car controls respond very well even if you manage to hijack a car that looks it failed its 3000-mile trip to Graceland. It’s very accessible and straightforward, so there is no reason a new player should have trouble grasping the game.

“SR2” does have its faults though. The A.I. is wonderfully retarded, as they seem to be just as threatening as crippled Bambi. Even on the “hardcore” difficulty setting, the game is too easy and it isn’t helped by each mission having a bread crumb trail of checkpoints. Glitches and bugs are very noticeable, as you’ll sometimes see some major clipping issues and pop-ups or broken physics that will even make Japanese animators blush (e.g. stepping over a car door makes you fly 20 feet).

Multiplayer is both a hit and a miss. The good news is the entire single player campaign is playable through co-op and allows drop-in, drop-out gameplay. The bad news is connecting to online matches is a divine test of patience.

I have a rule of thumb when it comes to connecting online: If it takes longer then five minutes, it gets on my bad side. “Call of Duty 4,” “Team Fortress 2,” and countless other titles easily pass this mark, but “SR2”? Not a chance. Be prepared to be hanging around in the connecting screen for a good few minutes before you find anyone, and it’s not because of a lack of players. Players will, all of a sudden, connect to you, sometimes up to a full game, then automatically drop out again. Even if you manage to grab a full roster, then “SR2” begins to “Configure Game” which is just another chance of players dropping out, so you might end up being kicked or have uneven teams.

But let’s say things go smoothly, then your experience will depend on the game mode you play. There are only three: Gangster Brawl, Team Gangster Brawl, and Strong Arm. If you happen to land on the Gangster Brawl (a.k.a. Deathmatch), you’re going to be seriously disappointed. Most of the maps are too small for 12 people, giving you a rather chaotic experience that is akin to a knife fight in a telephone booth. Sure, the metaphor sounds fun, but the entire experience relies more on sheer dumb luck than anything else, and gets old quickly.

The meat of the multiplayer is Strong Arm. It’s only 4 on 4, but with much bigger maps filled with pedestrians and cars. The objective is simple: Get $100,000 first. You get money by either killing the other team or by doing activities. These activities are always random, and are identical to the single player activities (e.g. insurance fraud, demolition derby, etc). Tags make things even more interesting by giving your team power-ups. Like the activities, there are random ones each game placed in different locations throughout the map. Find one, spray it, and you’re team gets the Tag benefits like more accurate weapons, or pimp slap. Despite a limited number of maps in Strong Arm, the random variation with the different activities and Tags can definitely lead to rather unpredictable matches that require plenty of teamwork to win.

The question still remains though: Is this the “GTA4” killer? That depends on who you ask. If you were expecting a serious storyline that, for some reason, is constantly compared to “The Godfather,” then “SR2” isn’t for you. However, if you’re like me, and you enjoyed the “GTA” series for it’s constant pop culture references, dark humor, and the mocking of gangster culture, then there you have a reason to lighten your wallet again. “SR2” is an incredible sand box game, with an experiance that edges out “GTA4″’s, despite it’s glitches and multiplayer shortcomings, and it deserves an 8 out of 10.

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