Tuesday, 4 January 2011


Having exhausted the Grand Theft Auto oeuvre for now, I've been casting around for something to fill my need to vicariously commit crime and run over pedestrians. After a positively glowing review from a favourite online critic, I turned to Saints Row 2, a GTA clone that, ostensibly, cuts the dull bits of GTA IV and amps up the fun bits. At least according to said critic.

Set in the fictional American city of Stilwater, SR2 is centred around the rise of the Saints, a criminal gang run by the player character (PC) and his (or possibly her; see screenshots) chum Johnny. Things start from a rather lowly position, with the PC recovering from a Saints Row 1-induced coma, and Johnny needing breaking out of jail. But it's not long before all sorts of GTA-themed mayhem is taking place involving turf wars in Stilwater and reputation-boosting criminal enterprises. The former take place against a heavily stereotyped triumvirate of yardie, yakuza and white-trash gangs, while the latter involve a diverse, and occasionally imaginative, range of property and personal crimes. Eventually, the Saints squeeze out the other gangs only to run up against Ultor, a monolithic corporation that has hitherto secretly been turning the gangs against one another, and is now keen to cash-in on a relatively crime-free Stilwater. Needless to say, the PC steps up to the plate and single-handedly returns the city to its rightful heirs, the Saints.

sr2_pc 2010-11-14 08-52-26-92

I suppose that the first thing to note is that, yes, SR2 can be a lot of fun - at least on occasion. As it goes to great length to note in adverts, SR2 avoids the slower, "character-forming" concepts that dogged GTA IV, and focuses entirely on frenetic activities and missions. Some of these are very familiar from GTA, but there are number of more unusual tasks, of which personal injury fraud and so-called "toxic avenger" are particular highlights. The former has you instigating "accidental" self-injury for cash, while the latter has you spraying sewage over more salubrious districts of Stilwater in either an act of revenge or to reduce local property values.

sr2_pc 2010-11-14 09-02-44-11

However, for all the fun to be had in Stilwater, SR2 is seriously hamstrung on a number of counts. Never fatally to be fair, but enough that the idea that this game is superior to GTA (and, especially, GTA IV) rings pretty hollow. First of all, and unforgivably, in generating the player's immediate environment SR2 has a memory that makes a goldfish's seem immeasurably long. Turn your back for a moment and cars or pedestrians just metres away completely vanish, only to be replaced by fresh NPCs when you turn back. The game does remember when a NPC is chasing you (at least for a slightly greater distance), but its amnesia the rest of the time is a jarring feature of life in Stilwater. And completely unnecessary - while the same is also true in other sandpit games, but they've the good grace to remember nearby NPCs until they at least reach the fringe of draw distance.

sr2_pc 2010-11-14 09-05-56-77

Secondly, in jettisoning anything "slow" and focusing solely on action, SR2 short-changes anyone looking for a more meaningful gaming experience. Characters and story are streamlined to the point that they're practically irrelevant. It would almost make more sense to just present the player with one mission after another on a conveyor belt, and skip anything that gave the game any semblance of coherence or meaning. Everyone that the PC meets is a cardboard cut-out of a two-dimensional stereotype, and NPCs serve only as easily killed impediments to progress, or occasional "friendlies" that seemingly exist just to get in the way. While NPCs in GTA IV often introduced tiresome hurdles to clear, they were also fleshed out to a degree that made me take them as seriously as I would a character in a film or a book. To wit, I was genuinely shocked when a decision I made towards the end of GTA IV backfired and led to the death of a NPC I'd spent hours "getting to know". No chance of that here.

sr2_pc 2010-11-14 22-11-43-79

Overall, while SR2 was well worth the £3.73 that I paid for it (thanks Amazon), it's a pale imitation of even early GTA titles. It does often look quite good, there are a lot of fun activities to partake of, and it is occasionally very funny (in particular, the taunts that can be selected for the PC). But it's just not in the same class as its rivals, neither technically nor artistically. I don't think I'll be checking out SR3 should it ever appear.

sr2_pc 2010-11-14 08-45-08-58

One aspect of SR2 that I did quite enjoy messing with was my PC's attire. In what was akin to dressing up a rather foul-mouthed doll, I managed to give her some pretty odd costumes, as the images here show. More, as ever, over at Flickr.

No comments: