Now that all of the hoo-haa for GTAIV has subsided, the timing seems perfect for the sequel to Saintâ€™s Row. Like the original game, Saintâ€™s Row 2 excels in the ludicrous by combining mindless violence with brash humour in a completely free-roaming environment. While Rockstar offered us a realistic, gritty insight into the life of a Russian immigrant making his way in America, Volition brings us the chance to dress up like a pirate and run around electrocuting people with a pair of hospital defibrillators.
In many ways GTAIV just seemed like work â€“ having to call up your mates to go bowling, making sure you change your clothes for your next date, trying to parallel park your car outside your apartmentâ€¦ I play video games to get away from all of this. Thatâ€™s not to say that GTAIV was disappointing however, quite the opposite in fact, but Saintâ€™s Row 2 offers plain old balls-out fun without the responsibility.
The game opens up in Stilwater prison with banter between two prison guards, one of which looks remarkably like a Baldwin brother. The ugly oneâ€¦ Stephen Baldwin I think. Anyway you soon learn that there is a prisoner in the medical ward who was involved in an explosion and is finally getting his bandages off. As you may have guessed, that prisoner is you and this whole â€śrevealing of the faceâ€ť technique cleverly leads into the character creation. One of the best features of the original game was to be able to customise your character and if you wanted you could place a virtual you inside the story. Saintâ€™s Row 2 has built on the customisation features nicely and you can have hours of fun just playing around with your character before you even get into the game.
You can create a male or female, customise their physique, give them a hair-style of your liking and even select your choice of walk â€“ whether strutting down the street like a pimp or walking around like you have electric fleas. The fact that the developers kept both male and female options regardless of what sex you are makes for some amusing combinations too. You can make a skinny bearded lady who talks with a manâ€™s voice and walks like a thug; or a huge bulked out dude who talks like a woman and walks like a super-model. There are also a variety of gestures that you can select too â€“ one positive and one negative that you can perform by using the D-pad in the game. For example a positive reaction could be a salute or the thumbs up, while the negative ones range from flipping the bird through to squatting on a dead guyâ€™s face. These are obviously intended for multiplayer but they can be used on hapless civilians in single-player as well. The only aspect of your character that you canâ€™t touch at this early stage is your costume, as obviously youâ€™re a convict in an orange boiler suit.
Shortly after creating your character and waking up from your comatose state you meet a fellow cell-mate who has a plan to get out of jail and needs your help to make it happen. This escape scene works like a tutorial, showing you the basic controls before giving you some gun-play and combat against prison guards. Once outside the prison walls, you make your way to the dock and make your get-away via boat, with your new pal driving and you armed with a heavy machine gun at the back. Immediately to fans of GTAIV, youâ€™ll notice how vulnerable helicopters and vehicles are to gunfire. Some well-placed shots can take out passengers and a few more will cause the vehicle to instantly erupt into flame. Once you make your way to the mainland, the free-roaming aspect of the game kicks-in, letting you either perform missions or to just run around and explore.
The first thing I did with my new found freedom was to beat up eleven pimps with a lobster cage I found down by the docks. Saintâ€™s Row 2 has a much welcomed improvement to the combat system and now you can string together combos by using the left and right trigger to throw blows. Depending on your weapon, you can even trigger stylish finish-him type moves that fit in seamlessly with a duel. Further to throwing fists, you can also pick up the many numerous objects scattered around, including rubbish bins, chairs, cratesâ€¦ even a fire hydrant cemented into the ground can be used as a weapon. Speaking of which, you can even pick up people now. By using the L1 button you can either use a helpless by-stander as a human shield, or throw them like a nightclub bouncer removing a drunk. There is nothing more satisfying than picking up an annoying barbershop quartet singer and hurling him into the sea. Or coming across a poor chap dressed as a hot-dog and throwing him in front of a train. Itâ€™s juvenile and gratuitously brutal but itâ€™s just down-right entertaining. The variety of weapons are impressive as well, ranging from samurai swords and dual pistols through to stun guns and rocket launchers.
When youâ€™re not on foot making a public nuisance of yourself, youâ€™ll likely be driving around and causing even more mayhem. The handling in GTAIV seemed unbalanced in parts, with some heavier vehicles being almost unmanageable - especially when it was raining. The driving in Saintâ€™s Row 2 isnâ€™t as sharp as GTA and still leaves a bit to be desired, but it doesnâ€™t seem so frustrating this time round. Cornering can be done at much higher speeds and hand-brake turns only require a slight nudge of the hand-brake to drift. Motorcycles have also made an appearance (the lack of them in the original Saintâ€™s Row must have had people complaining) and are in abundance through-out the city streets. The assortment of vehicles in Saintâ€™s Row 2 vary from your typical four-door saloon, through to sports cars and even two-lane wide combine harvesters. The airport, which was artificial and just for decoration in the first game is now open for business and bustling with interactive fun.
One more feature added to the driving aspects of Saintâ€™s Row 2 is the cruise-control. Now you can tap L1 whilst driving and your current speed will be maintained with you just needing to worry about steering. You can adjust your speed up or down whilst in cruise control and use the hand-brake to assist when necessary. But what it does allow you to do is to concentrate on your camera angle or to target enemies easier. Without having to worry about the acceleration you can put your car into gear and cruise along at 50km/ph and take in your surroundings as well. Finally, even driving recklessly is beneficial in Saintâ€™s Row 2 as every time you narrowly miss a car or drive in the wrong lane, you earn respect points. Itâ€™s nice to get rewarded for your efforts behind the wheel, especially when youâ€™re ducking in and out of traffic to evade the fuzz.
Another element to Saintâ€™s Row 2 that they have built on from the original is the sheer number of things to do. If you car-jack an ambulance you immediately have the option to do some freelance paramedic work. Blips will appear on your radar indicating those in need of help and when you arrive youâ€™ll find one or many bodies scattered about the place usually after a car-crash of some sort. Being careful not to crush your patients when parking your ambulance, you must then run over to them and resuscitate them â€“ either by performing CPR or using your electro-paddles to revive them. Both these activities require you to do the work as well and the end result is an addictive time-waster. In fact itâ€™s probably the most serious activity you can perform in the game. Other ones include Hitman (where you must track down and eliminate certain targets), Crowd Control (you act as a bouncer to a celebrity, protecting them from crazed fans), Races (first to the finish line in a route through the city), Drug Trafficking (escort a dealer to their customers through rival territory) and plenty more.
A personal favourite from the original Saintâ€™s Row is back as well â€“ Insurance Fraud. This is where you team up with an insurance salesperson and try to claim as much injury to yourself as physically possible by hurling your body in front of traffic or falling off heights. The gameâ€™s rag-doll physics make this one of the more enjoyable side activities around and where the original Insurance Fraud forced you to move to a particular zone on the map â€“ now you can hurt yourself anywhere to earn points. The accident zone is still high-lighted though and it is here that youâ€™ll find more traffic and earn bigger points before your time runs out. All of these activities add hours and hours of gameplay on top of the epic gang warfare storyline of Saintâ€™s Row 2.
One aspect of GTAIV that really annoyed me was the fact that you couldnâ€™t leap onto the back of someoneâ€™s truck and have them drive you around without you falling on your head. Saintâ€™s Row 2 has made a meal of this one and not only can you just hop onto a vehicle and go for a free ride â€“ you can now take part in a car surfing mini-game while doing so. Once activated, you get a balance meter similar to a grind in a skate-board game that requires you to nudge the stick left or right to stay balanced on the vehicle. If you feel really daring you can flip upside down and perform a hand-stand too for extra points. Itâ€™s the little features like this that add so much variety of gameplay to Saintâ€™s Row 2. The fact that the game will reward you for finding unusual locales such as a Skull Cave or a Pirate Ship (which has been converted into a restaurant) makes you want to just explore every little nook and cranny of the city of Stilwater. Strangely through-out the game I felt that my actions were being rewarded and that any extra effort was worth my while, rather than just something I should do.
Graphically this game isnâ€™t as polished as the stunning GTAIV visuals, especially with regards to the lighting effects. Some areas look extremely drab and lack colour, but these are usually reflective on the area youâ€™re in such as a run-down ghetto neighbourhood. The textures on clothing and the variety of different player models are impressive though and the whole comic-book feel of the game suits Saintâ€™s Rowâ€™s personality perfectly. When purchasing clothes from the numerous stores around the city, you can fully tweak the colour combinations of every item you get â€“ including adding decals to t-shirts or wearing pink frilly underwear. Other places allow you to further customise your appearance too, from new hairstyles to tattoos and even a Plastic Surgeon who can alter your appearance if you get bored with how you look.
There is so much crammed into Saintâ€™s Row 2 (if you have a juvenile, slightly insane creative side to you) that you will seldom be at a loss for something to do. On top of the single-player shenanigans, there is a two-player co-op mode and a wealth of online options that we'll discuss here soon on NZGamer.com. But for those who felt that GTAIV took itself too seriously at times, Saintâ€™s Row 2 is a welcome change of pace and gives us the opportunity to do those things we wish we could with Niko Bellic. Now if youâ€™ll excuse me, Iâ€™m heading back to Stilwater with a road-cone on my head, a pirate patch on one eye and nothing but a womenâ€™s one-piece swim suit on to wreck some more havoc.