Saints Row Retrospective: Part 2
In a twist so shocking that it would make M. Night Shyamalan blush, I have decided to use the second installment of my Saints Row Retrospective to discuss…Saints Row 2. I know, it’s crazy. I’ll just give you a few seconds here to recover. Okay, now that you’re all settled let me tell you about a game that is better than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way.
Much like the original, Saints Row 2 takes much inspiration from Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise. In fact, this time around Volition has even added the few parts of GTA: San Andreas that were absent in the first installment: namely gambling, boats, helicopters, and airplanes. But that is more or less where the similarities end. Whereas Rockstar has attempted to take their carjacking saga to more realistic levels in terms of story and character over the years, Volition has carved out their own niche by proudly placing ridiculousness on the same pedestal as the ultraviolence.
This game starts up a couple years after the original, story-wise. You play the same character as before, who has now spent the interval between games in a coma to allow for a few cosmetic changes to take place in the city of Stilwater. Despite controlling the same character, you are given the chance to rebuild them from the ground up. In fact, you are forced to since there’s no Mass Effect style import device here. You could probably build a reasonable facsimile, but why would you bother? You now have so many more options available, including six unique voices and the ability to play as a female. So you might as well take it in a completely different direction. It’ll just make things funnier when all your partners in crime keep asking if you did something different with your hair.
The story, in all honesty, is not the game’s strong point. And I don’t think it’s supposed to be. Much like in the original, a bunch of other gangs have what you want. So you kill them in the order of your choosing and take all that stuff in the name of the Third Street Saints. This time around though, you’re going up against essentially four gangs. The Brotherhood are a crew of heavily tattooed biker types led by the gigantic Maero (voiced by my hero Michael Dorn). The Ronin are a crotch-rocket and sports car loving Japanese gang modeled after the Yakuza at their higher levels and Kill Bill‘s Crazy 88’s gang filling in the rest. Then you’ve got the Sons of Samedi, a gang of Caribbean drug runners who are basically the Jamaican voodoo gang from Predator 2. Heading it all up is the sinister megacorporation Ultor, who make designer clothes and maintain their own private police force and who I am not at all going to compare to OCP from RoboCop. Wait, I guess I just did.
Where Saints Row 2 really excels is in its insane variety of stuff to do. Most of the activities from the first game make a return here, in addition to a few new greats. The “FUZZ” activity was possibly one of my favorite things in the game. You get a police car and uniform and a ride-along cameraman, and are tasked with stopping crimes for a COPS-style reality series. The twist of course being that you are reprimanding litterers with a rocket launcher, or breaking up domestic disputes with a chainsaw. Slightly less successful in my opinion is the Heli Assault activity, in which you are given an attack chopper and a variety of targets to take down within a time limit. It sounds fun, but iffy controls left my helicopter upside down and exploding in traffic often enough that I just gave up.
In addition to the missions and activities, Volition has added a “diversions” category to the mix. You can mug pedestrians, buy a trenchcoat and become a flasher, go car surfing, skydive, put out fires, play some blackjack…basically if you get bored between missions, you’re doing it wrong. Unlike the other categories though, there’s not much to be gained from diversions aside from minimal amounts of cash and a couple minor unlockables here and there. They’re mostly just for fun.
Weapons were something I felt got handled poorly in the first Saints Row game. Weapons were incrementally updated in stores and could be purchased for a large amount of money, but once you ran out of ammo during a mission you’d likely ditch your shiny new piece for whatever was lying by the nearest corpse. Every single weapon had a different ammo type, and they weren’t given to you for free until you unlocked that particular tier after completing a gang’s final story mission. This time around once you buy it, it’s yours forever at any one of your lavish and upgradable cribs. Ammo is plentiful since its thankfully divided into categories, so you don’t have to worry if your opponents gear isn’t as cool as yours. More powerful weapons are unlocked by completing level 3 of certain activities, and the sixth level of that same activity will unlock infinite ammo for that style of gun. Once you’ve got unlimited ammo for just one or two weapon types, you’re basically unstoppable.
Similarly, your unlocked and meticulously upgraded cars are also yours to keep. In the Grand Theft Auto series I never used any of the cool unlockable vehicles because I lived in constant terror of blowing one up during a mission, or of it inexplicably disappearing when I turned the camera 360 degrees. In Saints Row 2, once a car is added to your garage, it’s there for keeps. You can ramp the unique Kaneda motorcycle off a cliff and base jump to the ocean below, and once you get back to a garage a shiny new replacement will be waiting. You can even purchase docks and an airport hangar for your less conventional whips. You can really tell that Volition wants you to have fun with your new toys rather than constantly conserving resources for a later mission.
On the subject of keeping things fun, missions now have generous checkpoints dividing each section. Unlike your last trip to Stilwater, if a mission now includes a tedious chase-free two-minute drive across the city just to get started, you’re only going to have to do that drive once. I can’t even verbalize how much more fun these checkpoints make things. Because while you’re kind of an unstoppable tank throughout much of the game, that won’t stop you from dying 14 minutes into a 15 minute mission when the police helicopter you just shot down somehow lands directly on your speeding getaway car before going supernova. That happened to me twice.
Before you go off thinking this is the world’s most perfect game though, I do have a few minor closing complaints. The soundtrack, for one thing, does not feel as good or as varied as in the first game. It’s not a gamebreaker by any means, but much of what’s here just doesn’t fit the mood or the tone of the game. Even if I like classical music or reggae, I don’t like it while I’m murdering. One station seemed to just play Sister Christian and Karma Chameleon on an infinite loop. Also they got rid of the talk radio, which I feel is something that a game like this should have. The one in the first game only had like four or five segments but I still think it’s what I listened to the most. I guess there are songs that you can unlock for every ten hidden CDs you find in the game. I played for 30 hours and found seven CDs, so maybe they should hide them less or just go ahead and give you those songs from the start.
The clothing also feels a little awkward. You get a lot more options (like the hot dog costume finally), but a lot of things like leather jackets or football jerseys just look, well…odd. Some things look great, and others look like they came out of the character creator in a late 90’s PlayStation wrestling game. Also they inexplicably got rid of a lot of the better jewelry options, really cutting down your choices in the crazy medallion or giant pimp ring department. This means that even with all these options I pretty much had my outfit together two hours in and never changed it. Although I realized towards the end that when you rewatch cutscenes via one of your cribs’ televisions, the game just inserts whatever clothes you’re wearing at the time. So if you’re wondering how that pivotal moment would have played out in an antique diving helmet, or a bikini/sombrero combo, that’s a nice option to have.
I also regret to inform you that I cannot expound on the game’s much-lauded co-op experience. Apparently you can play through the entire game online with a friend, but I wouldn’t know because when I tried this it wouldn’t let me. The game was insistent that we possessed differing DLC although I can assure you that this was not the case. I suspect it was because we own two different releases of the game (original and double-pack), and if this is the case then it is truly poor form on someone’s part. So if co-op is a main selling point for you, make sure you’re going to own the same “version” of the game as a friend, just in case.
So there you have it: all the words I have available on the impressive and entertaining Saints Row franchise thus far. As I said in the beginning there’s a double pack available right now for about $20 new, which is a pretty spectacular deal. Really just the second game is well worth $20 on its own, and you could consider the first one a free bonus game at that point. The only downsides are the exclusion of a manual (you just get a slip of paper telling you where to download a manual in PDF format), and the fact that it may not be compatible with earlier versions for co-op purposes. Although maybe that wasn’t the case…if it was another issue and you can help me please do, I’d like to try it out.
Thanks for reading, go play some Saints Row, and hopefully we’ll be following this up with another review shortly after The Third releases, whenever that may be!