Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Live the Hood Life, It's a Good Life

A Review of Saint's Row 2

Ok, I'll admit it. I was among the group of non-believers, those who thought that the Saint's Row series was nothing but an unabashed GTA knock-off. Seeing the adds in my local EB games dissing GTA IV's less appealing aspects(bowling, watching TV), I was ready to dismiss Saint's Row 2 as a "GTA for morons".

I scoffed at the add, venomous derision dripping on every syllable as I voiced my disgust to a friend. "Pah," I began, squinting my eyes "Those hacks at Volition have no idea what GTA IV is about. It's not just an open-world game, it's a skewering social commentary! The underlying politics of GTA can't be beaten by a chainsaws and a flame-retardant madman on an ATV!"

I was wrong.

Saint's Row 2 doesn't try to imitate the GTA series entirely. Comparisons can be drawn, but pound for pound, Saint's Row can stand tall against Rockstar's juggernaut.

Saint's Row 2's main strength is that it doesn't try to take itself too seriously. The main point of the game is to rise to the top of Stilwater's criminal underworld by any means necessary(emphasis on the 'any'). Ditching the over-reaching social commentary, Saint's Row 2 tries to present itself as a fun open-world game, and it succeeds brilliantly.

SR2 begins with your character waking up in a prison hospital after a five year coma. Players are brought up to speed on what has been happening in Stilwater in your absences, but newcomers to the franchise may feel a bit lost at first. Not to worry though; aside from a few references to the original the slate has mostly been wiped clean. It's a new Stilwater, baby, and you're back to take your place at the top.

After the short prologue, you're moved into the character creator where you can mold your very own gangster. For the amount of customization available in the creator, it never feels overwhelming. You can choose your sex, and pretty much take it from there. The usual customizing stand-by's of face, hair, and body shape are there, but Volition has packed a bit more into the selection.

You can customize your voice, walk, fighting style, and many things in-between. Want to be an overweight gang-banger? Go for it. A striking blond model with a penchant for firearms? The world is your oyster with the creation system. At the risk of sounding cliche, if you can dream it, you can probably do it.

After your debauched master piece is created, the game seamlessly injects your creation into the in-game cut-scenes. You can visit an in-game plastic surgeon at any time and change your look, and the game keeps up with no problem.

Saint's Row 2 starts out heavy, with your daring escape from incarceration resulting in a triple body count left in your wake. Upon gaining your freedom, you set out to rebuild the Saints and claim your throne as king of Stilwater's seamy under-belly. To accomplish this, you have to do to sets of missions: the story missions, which advance the game's plot, and activities, which gives you the respect you need to start a story mission. Respect is measured in a half-circle bar below your health, and you fill it up by doing a variety of activities, like I just mentioned.

While this might sound tedious at first read, believe me when I say that Volition really thought out of the box with some of these. You have the basic racing, drug smuggling and fight club(which is awesome) options, but you have a few eclectic choices thrown in. Whether you take control of a rogue septic truck and cover buildings in brown justice, or board an attack chopper to dominate the skies, it's very easy to overfill your respect meter by playing these activities. You can boost the amount of respect you get by increasing your style points. You can do this by wearing a vast selection of clothes, or upgrading one of the many "cribs" available for purchase around Stilwater. if you've got the cash, you can set your crew up with some pretty nice digs. It's a small feature, but it certainly adds to the feeling of being a bad-ass crime lord with money to blow.

The story missions themselves are pretty standard fare. You either blow stuff up, steal things, and usually leave a tail of bodies in your path. It never gets too repetitive, though, and the regenerating health system makes staying alive pretty easy. If you do die, Saint's Row 2 features a mid-mission checkpoint system that will drop you back pretty close to where you died so you don't have to replay the whole mission over(something GTA IV sorely lacked).

The controls are managed pretty well, too. Running, jumping and driving are all easy and accessible. Fist fighting is much easier here than in some other games, thanks to the well used implementation of the trigger buttons.

The only two gripes with the control scheme comes from inventory management and reloading your weapons. To access your inventory, you press and hold "B" and use the left thumb stick to select your weapons. Using the D-Pad while your inventory is open will select one of the four food slots you have for mid-mission healing(or getting high, if you're feeling bold). It's rather unwieldy in combat, you'll often find yourself putting up your dukes when you wanted an RPG. Reloading your weapons is also a problem. SR2 doesn't have an assigned button, so the game reloads for you. Fine in theory, but you'll sometimes be left standing in the open waiting for your character to reload with a few bullets left in the magazine. Not too much of a complaint, but since ammo can get rather expensive, the lack of micro-management here can lead to some pretty thin wallets along the way.

While we're on the subject of shortcomings, I might as well get my major complaints out of the way. AI is consistently a problem. Nobody in the game world is particularity bright. Aside from a few moments where the AI truly shines(like shooting an RPG correctly), you'll often be left sighing in frustration as your computerized buddies run into walls, stand in the open while being shot, or use a rocket launcher to shoot an enemy point blank. The AI for your opponents suffers from the same problems. Mowing down groups of them is never a problem, as the AI rarely seeks to get out of your way or find cover. In the rare times that they do grab human shields(one of the game's more useful-and nasty-features)it's never a determent to your wall of hot lead.

Using the in-game map is a problem. The map shows you a close up view of the city, instead of pulling back and letting you see the whole thing. Not a problem if you want to find the nearest gun store, but if you're trying to locate a mission on the other side of Stilwater, you'll have to scan the map carefully. Aside from being slightly bigger than the other icons, mission indicators don't stick out much. To be fair, I am playing SR2 on a standard definition TV, but I frequently bemoaned the lack of a "fast-find" feature.

Besides a few minor AI and control annoyances, I'm greatly enjoying Saint's Row 2. If you're looking to spend a few hours having fun, SR2 definitely offers plenty of distractions. From missions to activities, to a game within a game(Zombie Uprising) Saint's Row 2 is packed to hilt with amazing content. If you don't mind gratuitous violence or the F-bomb being dropped constantly, I recommend picking up Saint's Row 2.

No comments: