Rockstar Ain't Shit (Volition Is Where It's At)

by Arthur B

GTA IV was stale and joyless; Saint's Row 2 is a breath of fresh air.
If you play videogames and spend a certain amount of time on the Internet there's good odds you've already seen Yahtzee's review of Saint's Row 2, and given Ferretbrain's slightly ambivalent relationship with the man you're probably leaning forward in your seat to see if I'm going to loudly disagree with the man or just say "what Yahtzee said" and go home.

Well, the thing is Yahtzee's basically right about Saint's Row 2, and there's not much I can add to his basic conclusion that it's the fun, exciting, innovative, and entertaining open world crime-'em-up that Grand Theft Auto IV (AKA Grand Theft Auto: A Man From the Balkans Is Grumpy) spectacularly failed to be. Then again, that's no surprise, considering that most of the features that actually enhance gameplay in GTA IV (being able to phone for taxis and emergency vehicles when you want to, not losing all your guns whenever you die, being able to unlock friends you can phone for help and bonuses) were lifted from the original Saint's Row, and all the bits which fell a bit flat (like the pointless television and the maddening friend-dates and the not-really-branching plot - do you kill this guy you've been hunting for the entire game or is the entire revenge plot going to drown in a bucket of anticlimax? do you trust the guy who's been trying to kill you for half the game just because a clearly insane mob boss wants you to or do you act like you have a fucking brain?) are grotesque pitfalls which Saint's Row 2 manages to avoid.

Where GTA IV gives you the joy of being able to watch looping cut scenes that underline just how tired and worn-out Rockstar's writing department and general sense of humour has become, Saint's Row 2 has a zombie survival horror minigame rendered using the game's own engine, proving how adaptable it is. Where GTA IV's designers are essentially the Thought Police of the sandbox gameworld, using Niko, a character you theoretically control, to tell you what you should be feeling at any particular point, the creators of Saint's Row 2 give you full authority to customise your character to the hilt, giving you control over their gender, appearance, dress, voice and mannerisms, so if you want your nameless protagonist to be an enormously fat bald man wearing clown makeup and a Borat-style swimming costume sashaying down the streets of Stilwater and clicking his fingers at people like an especially sassy guest on Ricki Lake, then by God you can.

At some point in the last few years, Rockstar lost their soul, they got it into their head that people who play open-world crime games want to experience the designer's lovingly crafted story about a depressed ex-mercenary who is filled with self-disgust during the cut scenes and runs amok when the player actually gets control of him. Volition understand that if you are playing this sort of game your primary aim is to fuck shit up, and while they can't really avoid having your character make decisions on your behalf during the cut scenes they are at least the sort of decisions which make you go FUCK YEAH LET'S DO THIS. Niko Belloc would never raid a nuclear power plant for toxic waste to slip into a tattooist's ink solely for the purpose of horribly scarring someone for shits and giggles, but that's precisely what you want to be doing on a console sociopath simulator, and that's just what Saint's Row 2 asks you to do in one mission. My only regret when it comes to my nightmarish spree of ultraviolence and plunder is that they don't let you blow up the plant and go manhunting in post-apocalyptic Stilwater, but maybe that will be an option in the third game.

I suppose I should give you a rundown of the premise. Saint's Row 2 is set some years after the end of the first Saint's Row, at the end of which your nameless protagonist and his gang, the Third Street Saints, had taken over the city, only for you to be assassinated along with the mayor by a bomb planted by persons unknown. In the grim darkness of the near future in which you awake the city is politically dominated by the nefarious Ultor corporation, who have "redeveloped" your former hood. The Saints have been driven underground (literally: your new HQ is an abandoned hotel submerged beneath the city streets) and three new gangs have taken control of the city - the voodoo-themed Sons of Samedi, the Yakuza-influenced Ronin, and the rock-tattoos-and-monster-trucks loving Brotherhood. As in the first game, their leadership is ethnically themed, but their rank-and-file membership is more diverse, whereas the Saints are multicultural right to the top, and as in the first game your aim is to, by playing through the various missions in the main plotline, topple your rivals, take control of crime in the city, and then fight for your survival in a climactic series of missions based around the machinations of Ultor.

Along the way, you will marvel at a learning curve that is more forgiving than that of most GTA games whilst still being suitably challenging in the later stages of the game, perform a wide range of activities in return for the Respect levels you need to spend to play the main plotline missions, see a whole lot of hidden shit concealed deeply within the game, and cause ruinous hurt to various people using a combat system that draws on the over-the-shoulder shooting style of Resident Evil IV in what is, to my mind, a better attempt than GTA IV's slightly clunky combat system. My only complaint about the game is that I counted two of the large fights where the game actually slows down a bit; this should never ever happen on a console, because for fuck's sake, you know precisely what hardware specifications you are coding for. (These fights are both on main plotline missions too, so the playtesters really should have picked up on it.)

But when you compare it to the sheer psychotic joy the game provides by the bucketload, these are really small quibbles. Brutally putting down prostitute uprisings and pitched pirate-vs-ninja battles for the cops-on-patrol show FUZZ, disrupting Vampire: the Masquerade LARPs by grabbing one of of the participants as a human shield, shooting the other one in the head, and tossing the no-longer-needed human gothshield off a high high cliff, fucking strangers in seedy gas station restrooms, murdering fast food mascots, running around with a sword in an ancient Greek museum dressed as a Hellenic warrior as nerds run away screaming "This is madness!" - those are just some of the zany things I got up to, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of the world of fun the Saint's Row 2 team have come up with. Endlessly creative, they show up the Grand Theft Auto series for the po-faced, dried-up husk it has become. They might be imitating classic-era Rockstar just a little, but arguably when Rockstar themselves have become fat and complacent (seriously guys, looping cut scenes and friend dates? What were you thinking?) this wake-up call is absolutely necessary. Volition were talking some heavy talk with this trailer for Saint's Row 2, but amazingly they actually walk the walk. They should be rewarded with your cold hard cash. (Don't kill too any hookers to collect it, though.)

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:57 on 2009-01-20
Yes, I completely love Saints Row 2, too. There's a lot that's a bit dodgy about it and occasionally - in my opinion - it crosses the line into stuff that it's just not okay to be offensive about (I mean, in the sense of being cheap rather than challenging - like some the racist / sexist stuff is just roll-your-eyes annoying) but it's just such pure unadulterated fun that it's hard to condemn it. What I found most disconcerting about it, actually, was it's made me really impatient with other games that *aren't* pure unadulterated fun - I can't quite tell what that says about other games...
Arthur B at 11:24 on 2009-01-20
I think Saint's Row 2 drifts into racism/sexism a bit less frequently than most of the GTA games, but only a bit. You do have the weird thing where the leaders of the other gangs are all of specific ethnicities, but at the same time the rank and file are completely mixed, which seems like a messy compromise.

That said, I think the fact that you can pick the gender and ethnicity of your character is massively liberating, especially when you consider that of the 6 games from GTA III to GTA IV you don't get to play a woman in any of them. (That's kind of alarming, when you think about it - in Rockstar's world, women are always either victims or provide support and/or sex to the protagonist, they're never protagonists in their own right). The fact that Saint's Row 2 allows anyone to become a remorseless engine of destruction, whatever their gender, race, weight, or extent of facial deformity, is both a massive step forward and a quiet indictment of just how homogeneous the GTA protagonists really are.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 15:20 on 2010-02-22
It might be interesting to compare Saint’s Row 2 with another sandbox game that came out around the same time, Radical Entertainment’s Prototype. In both cases, the developers seem to have looked at the sandbox game, decided what makes them work (i.e. the ability to do whatever the hell you want to complete strangers without consequence), and built games around that insight. The main difference, however, is that while SR2 goes the early GTA route by making their sandbox a giant cartoon, Prototype puts you in a setting fairly close to the real world and gives you a bunch of horrifying superpowers. In the end, you get the same result but with different effects; SR2 is a power fantasy you can treat as a joke, while Prototype is a power fantasy that gets a little creepy after a while.

On the other hand, you can destroy attack choppers in Prototype by chucking air conditioners at them, so it's got that in its favor.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:35 on 2010-12-20
I finally managed to grab this for the ridiculously low price of $10 CDN, and I've been enjoying it quite a lot. I'd agree with Kyra that the parts that are dodgy aren't gamebreakers simply because the world of Stillwater is so hyperbolically childish that just seems par the course.

As for the avatar creation system, I got lazy and just made a copy of myself, only to find it made the game even more hilarious. Just imagine a pudgy white guy with a store-bought haircut, a fussy little mustache, and a purple-and-green sweater vest (yet who sounds and acts like Jason Statham) leading a vicious gang war against Mr. Worf, and you'll never be able to take anything in this game seriously ever again.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:32 on 2011-07-19
So, Saints Row The Third is winging its way to consoles and PCs, and this is the trailer they came up with to promote their preorder bonuses.

Then there was this from Red Faction: Armageddon.

I am beginning to suspect that Volition is not right in the head.
Michal at 03:30 on 2011-07-19
Well...I'm sure somebody thought those were funny.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 03:43 on 2011-07-19
I didn't say they weren't... :-)
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