Saints Row 2
While Volition's sequel doesn't tout the big-budget gravitas of Grand Theft Auto IV, and while Rockstar's record-breaking series is clearly this title's primary source of inspiration, those dismissing the new sandbox shooter as derivative, uncomplicated Daily Mail-fodder are perhaps missing the point. Fun, if it needed spelling out, is what lies at the heart of this new offering - pure, simple and largely unrefined.
The game begins in Stilwater jail, a desolate fortress some miles from the glamour of downtown; a setting clearly inspired by San Francisco's Alcatraz. You're thrust into the middle of a break-out opportunity, which begins with you unceremoniously kicking the crap out of a doctor, before making your way through the jail's maze of corridors, using your fists and later a gun to deal with the guards who will attempt to encircle you en masse. Free from the jail, and you get your first driving practice in, smashing through road-blocks formed by the rapidly descending police who have encircled the complex in a bid to foil your getaway.
Our anti-hero has however been in jail since the end of the last game, and this is one great escape that can't be prevented, and you find yourself cut loose from prison and returned to the neighborhoods of Stilwater that were once your old stomping ground. Its time to readdress the balance of power on the streets. The thing you'll notice fairly early on is that this game is most certainly not Grand Theft Auto IV. The influence is obvious, but the emphasis here is firmly on instant gratification, (and, if I wanted to be unkind, the visuals), and this positions the game closer to titles like San Andreas and Vice City. In Saints Row 2 you're given a gun and some intense fire-fights within the first ten or so minutes; how long did you wait for things to heat-up in GTA IV?
As extended play reveals, Saints Row 2 is not about a deep and involving plot (although it does have an overriding narrative arc, but this really isn't the point), rather its about cheap, unrealistic, but highly enjoyable thrills. As such, emotive relationship studies and past revelations are thin on the ground, as is empathy and believable characterisation for the most part. That said, this is the gaming equivalent of a 90s Arnie flick, the title moving you between comedic or action packed diversions to over-the-top fights, battles and car chases at a frankly ridiculous pace. If you came here in search of a game that makes you 'care', then you came to the wrong place - instead - this is puerile escapism at its very finest.
Despite this premise, Saints Row 2 isn't light on innovation, especially compared to the original game. For a start, you can heavily customise your character - and you can continue to do this via cosmetic surgeries dotted throughout the game world. This side of things is very intricate indeed, and you can literally create any kind of person you want - including celebrity likenesses, monstrous elephantine beasts or just an approximation of yourself. Control of clothing is also possible, while in a nice touch you can even choose how your avatar walks and indeed talks. And dresses. And insults people. And fights. The key here is that the detail is on offer if you want it.
The main crux of the gameplay - beyond the obvious freedoms offered by Volition's vast sandbox Stilwater (most of which you can reach fairly early on) - sees you moving through the city, capturing neighborhoods lost to rival gangs, either by your presence or by invading your rival clan's base. Once you've captured a crib in a given area (there are over forty 'hoods to 'convert'), you can then recruit locals for your own gang. Once again, customisation is key. You can pimp out your pad in a variety of styles (even designing your own logo for tagging across town), and make it a nicer place to hang out via additions like widescreen TVs and other niceties. A cool pad will see your character given more respect, which can in turn see you succeeding more easily elsewhere in the game. Once again, this level of detail is entirely optional, and you can opt to romp through the game with little regard for these aesthetic concerns if you so wish.
Still, recruiting members for your gang is pretty much essential, given that you'll find back-up useful during some of the more intense run-ins with rival gangs. This isn't 'Run Johnny, Run' however (did anyone have to read that at high school?), and opposing groups aren't realistic, fractured formations of flick-knife wielding malcontents. Rather, each gang boasts a unique, over the top look, my favourite being the Samurai sword-wielding bikers, who like to dress in that yellow jumpsuit from Kill Bill. Over the top combat is the key, and Volition have tightened this side of the gameplay perfectly, making the controls slicker while adding a useful targeting mode, which sees the camera zoom in to over your character's shoulder for more accuracy.
Battles with rival gangs, and occasionally the police, don't tend to end quickly. Rather, you'll find that chase sequences blend seamlessly with gunplay in glorious celebrations of Hollywood-esque violence. Enjoy, for example, a chase down the freeway, firing out the back of your vehicle with a bazooka; and watch as the chasing gang's rides are blown-up in mad, metal-twisting, fire-roaring crashes.
Cunningly, you don't always have to spend your time competing for turf in order to earn patronage from Stilwater's unfortunate neighbourhoods. Rather, there are a number of diversions in place that mix up the gameplay nicely while still giving you the chance to enhance your bank balance (money will be key at times, and it can of course be used for modding cars, clothes, pad furnishings and more). Kidnap an innocent bystander and scare their family into paying a ransom, take on a hitman mission, deliver goods, enter a destruction derby (in the stadium); the choices are endless. No dates to go on here, but the number of diverting mini-games is impressive, and there is always the radio station selection to hum along to, even if the playlists aren't quite as extensive as GTA IV's.
Technologically, Saints Row 2 is a great leap over the original. You can fly a plane during one segment now, and there are more vehicles to enjoy alongside new districts to roam and explore. The effects, especially some of the explosions, are notable also, although the enemy AI isn't going to winning any Nobel prizes anytime soon. Indeed, I witnessed some frankly suicidal actions at times. The visuals sadly won't be worrying GTA IV, either, and occasionally you'll notice areas seemingly lacking in detail (there's also the odd moment of slow-down).
Still, gripes aside, Saints Row 2 offers an incredible quantity of highly accessible content - and this includes a multiplayer mode that has clearly benefitted from TLC that wasn't lavished upon the original game. The drop-in/drop-out co-operative action is a real treat, and there are some interesting game types on offer, including one which bundles in the respect/turf-wars motif from the singleplayer game into a multiplayer setting. Carnage is the likely outcome, and the mix of gangsters and vehicles can make for some entertaining clashes - although Call of Duty won't be fretting too much.
Like a bullet to the face, Saints Row 2 is a brash, over the top, occasionally childish but actually quite lovable foil to the convention-breaking seriousness of GTA. It isn't perfect, technical glitches and imperfections abound in places, but Volition score big with the explosive, water-tight action, the user-customisation elements and in offering such an incredible amount of content allowing players to spend tens of hours immersing themselves in Stilwater's many attractions. Bling bling.