Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Saints Row 2

People might remember that I've already reviewed the last game in the Saints Row series, which might make it kind of weird that I'm going back and reviewing the second game in the series.  Well, I was going to go back and replay the first one, but to be honest, I don't really remember liking it that much.  It wasn't until I played the second one that the series really "clicked" with me.

Copying the infinitely more profitable (and, in my eyes, lesser of the two series) Grand Theft Auto, the Saints Row series took what made the GTA games fun, figured out what dragged the entertainment down, and promptly threw out everything that didn't work and just let you, the player, go nuts.

If GTA is the Martin Scorsese of sandbox crime games (just not to that level of quality), then Saints Row 2 is the Quentin Tarantino version.  Saints Row 4 was the Michael Bay version (except infinitely better).

The game starts in an interesting and engaging way.  At the end of Saints Row (I guess, I lost interest in the game myself) you wind up in a coma.  You spend an extremely long time in the hospital at a prison healing, and when you finally wake up all the hard work you've done to claim the city in the name of the Third Street Saints has been undone.  The police have a new leader, three gangs have divided up the city among themselves (Yakuza, monster-truck driving tattoo thugs, and some black drug dealers), and a mysterious giant corporation has moved in, manipulating everybody behind the scenes.

You, naturally, immediately recover from months of not using your body for any kind of physical exertion, get a few key players from the last game back together again, recruit some new lieutenants, and start working to reclaim your city.  There are explosions, gun battles, air strikes, and a surprising number of missions that involve racing against random people to earn respect.

Respect is the key game mechanic of Saints Row 2; you need to complete side quests to earn enough respect to unlock key missions.  Like the games that came later, some of these are more mundane missions like "race these other drivers and be the first to the finish line," "throw yourself in traffic to commit insurance fraud," and "drive around in a septic truck shooting fecal matter at buildings to drop property values."

However, something I prefer over most other sandbox games is that Saints Row, as a series, encourages you to win however you want to.  Perhaps you're really good at the first half of a car race, but you struggle on the second half.  If you wanted to, you could load up your rocket launcher ahead of time, zip ahead of your enemies, and then blow them up as they race towards you.   The game simply presents you with a goal and then lets you figure out the "how" in any way you want.

For example, the game has one of the large final boss fights take place in an oversize shopping mall.  The enemy is in a large armored truck with guns mounted to it.  The game encourages you to chase the truck with a little four-wheeler ATV, shooting guns back at it as you do an elaborate dance up and down staircases, around planters, and with other vehicles on both sides smashing into each other.  My reaction was to simply walk along until I found part of the mall hallway I knew the truck was going to come down, pulled out my rocket launcher, and then I waited.  When it approached, I flooded the hallway with rockets.

Yes, it lowers the difficulty rating some, but considering how often an "event" would involve "kill all the people trying to kill you" except "oh, by the way, they have you surrounded and are going to shoot their guns at you immediately."  There were multiple scenes where I was cartwheeling around, diving behind bushes, and blindly firing weapons to try to hit people without having all of my character's blood suddenly wind up scattered thirty feet from me in every direction.

There's a lot to like about a game like Saints Row 2.  Character customization is in-depth to the point that you can decide what angle you tilt your headgear towards, the game play is simple but engaging, and even when you're simply goofing off the game finds some way to turn it into a game that you can earn points from.

There's also a rather impressive voice actor list of people playing secondary characters.  Neil Patrick Harris, Keith David, Daniel Dae Kim, Eliza Dushku, Jaime Pressly, Jay Mohr, Michael Dorn, Michael Rapaport, Phil LaMarr, and Brian Tee all play memorable characters, and there are a few voice actors I personally recognize who I love hearing and would love to see them do bigger things.

Saints Row 2 is significantly more down to earth than its later sequels (there are no hoverbikes or super-powers), but it doesn't take itself too seriously, which strangely enough makes some of the powerful character moments stand out more than if everything was simply somber and dark (again, see GTA).   It's a blast to play, it allows co-op so you can act silly with a friend in tow, and opens the doors to a lot more fun in the sequels.

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