Game: Saints Row 2
Developer(s): Volition Inc, CD Projekt
Year: 2009 (for PC version, 2008 for console)
Reviewed: March 2014
Game Type: Action-adventure
Sandbox games can be very fun: they allow freedom of movement in terms of where you want to go, they allow you to choose what order you do particular quests in, and tend to have mini-games that help to pad out the gaming experience you get. Saints Row 2 manages to provide all of that, and at times, it can be very fun, but all this is undone by an unpolished and sloppy PC version. To be truthful though, it isn’t just issues with the PC version that holds back Saints Row 2, as there are some incredibly stupid design decisions that make the game-play extremely frustrating regardless of the platform you play the game on, and I’ll cover all that in this review.
As a brief introduction, Saints Row 2 is an open-world sand-box third person shooter set in the fictional city of Stilwater, and is intended to be a silly, and hopefully more fun, gangster style game, rather than being a direct competitor to the more ‘serious’ GTA 4 with which it was compared to at the time of its release. A lot of the content is rather ‘adult’ in nature, with plenty of sexual references, such as strippers and pole dancers making up a large percentage of the population. A lot of the stuff is pretty sexist and the game is very much male orientated, so if you are a moral champion, you’re best avoiding the game otherwise you’ll probably self-immolate.
Firstly, looking at the PC version in particular, I had long known that the game was a buggy mess. It isn’t a new game, and a lot of people know about the game already, since it has been out for five years at the time of writing. Under normal circumstances, I just wouldn’t touch a game that I knew had major issues, but Steam has a habit of dangling tasty carrots in front of people, in the form of their sales, where you get games for ridiculously cheap prices. For me, I paid a paltry £2.49, and I was prepared to put up with some of the issues for that kind of price, especially so as I had researched into the game and decided to use the Gentlemen of the Row mod for the game, which helped fix some of the issues.
Out of the box, the game was supposed to have issues with game speed, making people speak too fast, cars become undriveable due to going in fast-forward mode, and I assume other annoyances as a result of the glitch. Thankfully, the Gentlemen of the Row mod did mean that I never encountered this issue, but at the same time, I still had crashes to desktop, with this being the most crash-prone game I’ve played since Blacksite: Area 51, in fact, it’s possibly the worst game I’ve ever played for crashing. Early on, the game had a habit of crashing right after completing a quest, and because the game doesn’t allow you to save during the main missions, you basically lose everything and have to redo the whole thing again, which is extra annoying if you were to struggle with it. Thankfully the early missions were easy, but the later ones… well, I’ll come to them in a bit, as they made me want to tear out what bit of hair I have left on my balding head. Eventually I managed to solve the issue, kind of, by turning off dynamic lighting in the graphics options. Unfortunately, though, the game looks pretty terrible as a result, although I could just about live with it if it meant that I could just get on and play the game for the game-play, which as we all know, is what really matters in a game. That fix didn’t stop everything, though, and I soon found out that heading into the costumes/suits section of shop menus also made the game crash, as did a few times when I went too quickly in a helicopter. It’s a bit of a shame, since I was hoping to wear a ridiculous outfit for the majority of the game, having previously played this games sequel, Saints Row: The Third, already and dressing up as something crazy in that. Thank-you game, you’ve spoiled my fun even more.
Right, that’s the bugs covered, now to talk about the games other flaws, and these are ones that carry through whatever version you play, since they are game-play design flaws. The worst has to be the saving system itself, which is ok when you’re just pottering around, driving in-between mini-games, but downright awful when you’re doing the compulsory main-story missions, since you can’t save at all during them (meaning you are screwed if the game crashes) and worse still, it has a checkpoint system that seems to either save once about 20% through a task, or not at all, meaning in some harder stretches of the game, you’ll be redoing the same mission over and over and over and over and over.....; you get the picture. It’s very frustrating, and only the ‘1337’ gamers that love repetitive action will get on with it. Sometimes I’d get quite far into a mission, thinking I was doing well, but then game would randomly increase the number of enemies at what felt like exponential levels, meaning I would be swamped in seconds, failing the whole mission, and due to the crappy checkpoints, starting from a much earlier point. I tried different tactics, like avoiding shooting some enemies, since the game design increases the number of enemies the more of a particular gang or law enforcement that you kill, and even that would make no difference. All of this would have been a lot less annoying if the checkpoints were actually regular.
Another poor design decision is that to get to the first part of a quest or mini-game (this is after you’ve started them, bear in mind), you often have to drive half-way across the game world, so if you die at any point during the quest, it makes any re-attempts even more infuriating. What clown thought that was a good idea? It’s the kind of tactic any MMO would throw in to extend game-play time so they get more money, but this is a single-player (or co-op if you get it to work) game where cheap tactics like that to make the game longer are just not welcome.
The combat itself isn’t the most exciting in the world, since individual enemies themselves are always very weak and go down with very little effort, with the difficulty only getting harder when the game swamps you with too many enemies. Even the boss battles can be unsatisfying, involving boring tactics for the majority of occasions. However, the game can be fun at the same time when you can do things like firing rockets into crowds of enemies, watching them fly everywhere, shooting at a vehicles wheels to make it fly off and meet a fiery end, and simply running over gang members with whatever vehicle you happen to be driving. If you happen to get hold of one vehicle called the Grizzly, you also get to fire rockets that can lock on to other vehicle targets, and simply going round blowing things up can be quite fun, making up for the games other combat shortcomings.
The vehicles do end up making the game, really, as driving around (or crashing as I often did) can be quite fun, despite the initially far-too-twitchy controls that you somehow eventually get used to after playing the game a while. You get little bonus-xp messages when completing jumps, from driving in the wrong lane for a length of time, and also for doing power-slides or driving on two-wheels. Put simply, the driving part of the game can be very enjoyable, and once you realise that this game isn’t trying to be serious, you kind of give up trying to avoid the crazy pedestrians that wander into your path, or just get in your way. I think I must have run over a thousand people through the course of the game, and only half that were genuine enemies! Some of the vehicles are pretty crazy, too, with the option of driving things like a monster truck through the city streets, to something as bizarre as a van in the shape of a french-fries container, and a little mini motorbike that you barely fit on, and wouldn’t look out of place in a circus.
The game offers a number of customisation options for the cars, so you can have them pimped up as much as you like. The same goes for the ‘cribs’ that you can buy (basically a place where you and your Saints ‘Homies’, i.e. your fellow gang members, can stay), with more expensive custom options giving you accommodation that’d impress even Hugh Hefner. From your crib, you can collect a monetary income from any stores that you have bought, and customise your gun load-outs, appearance, the style of your ‘homies’, and you can also play a rather boring zombie mini-game.
Silliness is what this game does well, and is what sets it apart from the GTA method of doing things. Right at the start, in an early mission, one of your ‘homies’ starts talking serious tactics, before another main character (Gat) interjects and basically just says ‘f*ck that, lets just go in the front and blow things up!!’ Most of the game has a light-hearted approach to things, with blowing things up for the sake of it, and creating mayhem being the rule of the day.
To help flesh things out, the game has numerous mini-games dotted around the city map, and while a lot of these could do with a bit of polish, some of them I found were really quite fun, particularly, for me, was being able to compete in the demolition derby events at the Ultor Dome, and once I had done every level for that, I got to keep all the cars! Some mini-games can be bizarre, such as one that requires you to steal a sewage truck, and spray liquid faeces at nearby buildings. Other things are more regular, like being able to play blackjack or poker in the casinos. You can do random things, like surfing on a car, taking passengers hostage in Taxi’s, and even streaking! I’m a bit disappointed though, that although you’re some hard mother-trucking gang member, you can’t actually rob any of the shops, which seems kind of odd for a game of this type.
The characters in the game, mainly your support crew, do end up sticking in your mind, and I can quite easily recall my fellow ‘homies’ Shaundi, Pierce, and Gat. Other major characters were the heads of the various gangs, of which there are three, as well as the head of the Ultor Corporation, and while these characters aren’t as memorable as your comrades, they aren’t completely forgettable. Part of this is because a lot of characters are voiced by semi-well known actors, at least in some circles, and I easily recognised a few actors and actresses from various Sci-Fi shows in the ending credits, including Michael ‘Worf’ Dorn, Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), and Eliza Dushku (Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It’s a shame that the game failed miserably with the recording quality at times, since some dialogue sounded like it was recorded in a bathroom with headphones instead of a proper microphone.
While the story starts off like a wet weekend in...some horrible place that I don’t want to offend, it does garner more interest as it progresses, and although it is never anything approaching what I’d call a literary masterpiece, it is good enough for this type of silly sandbox game. It is split into four sections; three story branches involve the three quest lines for the three main gangs that you have to defeat, which can be completed in any order, and the fourth is the continuation of the main story after all your gang-foes are eliminated. Once the main story is over, you do get to continue with the game, and receive monetary bonuses, however, even after completing every mission, there still isn’t enough money in the game, unless you are really very good at the mini-games, to enable you to buy all the really cool vehicles, which is a shame, as I really wanted to try that alien spaceship I saw for sale! What’s more, the game commits the terrible crime of forcing you to watch the end credits for several minutes, with no option of skipping, so if you wanted to continue the game, you can’t just ‘Alt-F4’ your way out of it either, since you’d lose your progress due to the games lack of saving.
Graphically, the game looked alright before I had to turn off settings to stop the game crashing. It certainly wasn’t what I’d call epic, or cutting-edge, but it was good enough for a game from 2009. There are a few little issues with the animations, like the way your character waddles when you walk (most of the time you’ll be running so you won’t notice), and how you can walk through some objects due to clipping issues. It’s just a shame I never got to see the game as it should be seen, for about 90% of the time I played it.
Sound wise, as I mentioned earlier, the voice-acting cast is pretty decent, but spoiled somewhat by the amateur recording. Weapon and vehicle sounds are kind of so-so, but passable. What is cool is having a number of radio stations with music from a number of genres and eras, from rock, to metal, to punk, to 80’s pop, to electronic, and even classical. You can even create customised play-lists if you ‘purchase’ CDs in the music stores. While a lot of music isn’t as cool as the soundtrack for a game like Mafia 2, for example, it is a varied selection that should cater for differing musical tastes.
So then, it’s on to the conclusions, and it’s sad to say it, but Saints Row 2 is a very mixed bag, and a bit of a failure of sorts. It has a lot of potential at the core to be a really fun game, but it is spoiled by poor design decisions, and major bugs that the developers (or more so the publishers I expect) could never be bothered to fix for the PC platform.
I’ve already played the sequel, Saints Row: The Third, and I can tell you right now that it basically solves pretty much everything that is bad about this game, while keeping nearly everything that is good, so if you are going to play any Saints Row game for pure silly fun, you’d be better off starting there. However, I must rate this particular game, and for me, this has been quite a hard decision. Due to the many hours of fun I had with the game, I really want to a least give it something like three to three and a half stars, but, conversely, due to the many hours of frustration in this game, I want to give it about one star. So I’m left having to average things out. The score shows why any form of arbitrary final scoring system is flawed, since I’m basically giving the game the same score as something like Red Faction: Armageddon, a game that is completely opposite in that I found the game-play pretty weak, but it was about as reliable as a Honda (I.e. It was good, no crashes!) It is a shame I have to score it so low, but it really is a game you should only touch if you are prepared to put up with its flaws, and manage to get it very cheap.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: GTA, Sleeping Dogs
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