Review by Rottenwood

"Grand Theft: Game Design"

If the word 'shameless' didn't already exist, 'Saint's Row 2' would be cause to invent it. The design, from the major details to the minor ones, is basically a complete rip-off of the 'Grand Theft Auto' series. Bad language and excessive violence occur every 10 seconds. And the game includes all sorts of absurd mini-games that defy all logic just to let you blow stuff up, spray human waste all over the city, or perform acts of absurd cruelty while serving as a cop or bodyguard. Of course, the biggest stunt of all is that the game somehow gets away with it, mostly by being so over-the-top that it's hard not to be won over. The dirtier secret to the game's success is that it actually improves some aspects of 'GTA' while letting you run amok in the world's bloodiest playground.

The game's revolves around a washed-up gang leader (you can customize them in great detail; I'll be using the 'he' pronoun for simplicity) who wakes up after a long coma. Needless to say, his beloved Saints have fallen apart in his absence, by the Laws of Video Games which require you to start from the bottom at the beginning of any sequel. The game will chronicle your antics as you rebuild your crew, slaughter the other gangs in Stillwater, and do battle with the Generic Evil Corporation Promoting Orwellian Law And Order.

The story itself is utter nonsense, which is perfectly fine for a game of mayhem, but few games abandon common sense and logic as readily as this one does. Your gang, for example, is utterly useless, other than serving as mission guides for arbitrary plot purposes. Your lieutenants constantly need rescuing despite being alleged bad-asses (Shaundi excluded) and your grunts serve as little more than cannon fodder if you bring them on a mission. You'll eventually have Saints swarming every block in the city, but you'll still end up doing missions yourself at great personal risk. I know, I know: you're supposed to do the missions yourself, because you're the one playing the game. But one can only see a gang leader walk alone into danger so many times before wondering why they bothered with the gang idea to begin with. It's really rather hilarious... you'll have these decked-out cribs filled with dozens of Saints who apparently do nothing all day but play with your stuff and eat your food, while you (the alleged leader) do all the grunt work.

You can also purchase local businesses... which gives you a small daily payoff, and a tiny discount at the store. Huh? If I own the store, why am I still paying for merchandise? And if it's just a protection scam... why am I still paying for merchandise?

So the gang concepts are a little shaky, but everything else is quite solid, which is inevitable when you steal ideas wholesale from another successful franchise. A lot of people get annoyed at the constant GTA comparisons, but really, there's no way around it. The general design, the vehicles, the missions, the gunplay... it's just GTA tweaked towards the 'even more ludicrous' side. And you could leave it at that, but as you dig into the game, you begin to notice things that you wish GTA had, and the charm of 'Saint's Row 2' begins to set in.

Cruise control, for example, is a major asset. You can flip it on while driving and your car will keep a constant speed (provided you don't hit anything), letting you concentrate more readily on shooting out of the window. The chase missions that can be a chore in GTA are a pleasure here. The normally-useless minions are actually a gas while driving, as you've got guns sticking out of all four windows, firing wildly.

Convenience is another major asset. Missions have checkpoints so you don't have to restart the whole thing if you die. Best of all, though, is the weapon ring you bring up by holding down the B button, which makes weapon selection a breeze. Rockstar should steal all of these ideas as quickly as possible.

They should also copy the minigame philosophy, because it's done right in 'Saint's Row 2.' Unlike the dry and pointless parlor games of GTA IV, you get hilarious gigs like driving a septic truck through expensive property, mauling fanboys in the most painful and hilarious ways possible as a bodyguard, and even hurting yourself creatively to scam insurance companies. Each one of these activities is great fun in small doses, and the best of the lot, 'Fuzz,' is downright hilarious as you play the most deranged police officer in human history in order to get ratings. You can unlock small rewards for completing these mini-games, but unlike many other titles, you don't need the cheesy rewards as bait. The games are terrific on their own merit.

In many ways, they outshine the game's missions, which advance what passes for a story. Most missions devolve into big shoot-outs (for better or worse) and aren't very challenging. You have to award some points for inventiveness, though, to a game where you track down nuclear waste just to use it as a cruel prank to get even with someone. Why simply shoot the guy, when you can risk life in prison invading a nuclear facility for an absurd stunt? A few missions also skew a bit too dark (mostly involving the cruel deaths of storyline characters), which drags a bit on the game's normal cheerfully-deranged tone. The game's head villain is predictable and the final mission chain is something of an anti-climax. Still, missions were generally fun, thanks to a constant barrage of gunfire.

Combat is a little loose, thanks to hectic pacing and overly-generous vehicle handling, but thankfully, your stalwart anti-hero is very difficult to kill. You've got a lot of health, which slowly regenerates on its own if you escape the line of fire for a few moments. If that wasn't enough, you can carry four healing items on your person, ranging from narcotics to doughnuts. GTA IV at least made concessions towards using cover and other mildly conservative strategies; this game more or less demands you kick down doors like a maniac and run-and-gun at random. At any given moment, you'll be packing dual handguns, a shotgun, an assault rifle, dual SMGs, grenades, a rocket launcher, etc., etc. You're a one-man army and can act like one. This does put a damper on the game's challenge rating (your only sources of death are likely to be lucky rocket shots or getting creamed by a car on foot), but there's little point in denying the cheap jollies of mowing down an entire gang on your own. Police follow the usual GTA guidelines, but are totally inept and can be held off indefinitely. I played the game to completion and was never arrested, or felt the need to use the game's version of a Pay 'N' Spray.

You can fill in the other details on your own. Yes, you can customize your wardrobe and vehicles at various stores. Yes, there are radio stations featuring licensed music and wacky commercials. Yes, there are B-list celebrities voicing the main characters. Yes, there are car and boat races. Yes, random passerbys say funny stuff. Yes, there are annoying helicopter missions. And so on... and on... and on.

Graphics are pretty good, especially considering the number of people and vehicles zipping around at any given time. Water effects can cause slowdown, but look awfully nice while doing so. The cinema scenes are well-done and the expressive faces of the characters have a certain charm.

Sound-wise, you get just about everything. Tons of songs ranging from classical to hip-hop to the 80's, and a staggering bumber of screams, quips, and obscenities from everyone you meet. The voice-acting is generally above-average; gold stars to Michael Dorn and Eliza Dushku, who are clearly enjoying their work while scoring an easy payday. And the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as an evil reggae D.J. is a stroke of insane genius, by any measure.

While 'Grand Theft Auto' remains the big dog thanks to its mainstream brand recognition, 'Saint's Row' is hot on its heels. Those who felt that GTA IV wallowed too deeply into brooding melancholy will find a lot of relief in the goofy madness of Stillwater. GTA IV trumps this game in many regards, particularly writing quality and the richness of the cast, but for pure fun, you have to give the gold medal to the new guy. Of course, as consumers, brutal competition is a best-case scenario, as both parties will have to constantly tweak and innovate to protect their slice of the market. And that's a win-win for us gamers.

I'm sure I'm contradicting myself somewhere by defending a game that is so clearly derivative of another title, but imitation done well is still good content. If you're looking for what is essentially the drunken frat boy brother of 'Grand Theft Auto' (with all the good and bad that moniker entails), this game is for you. I'd love to see what these guys can come up with while working with a Rockstar-sized budget for an inevitable sequel.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/17/09

Game Release: Saints Row 2 (US, 10/14/08)

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