Saints Row was a very successful game for THQ. How successful you ask? Well, before Assassin’s Creed, Saints Row was the biggest selling third party Xbox 360 game. That’s a pretty good feat and the folks at Volition are coming out with the sequel here soon. THQ was kind enough to let me get my hands on the almost finished product on the Xbox 360 and take it for a spin. I was able to start from the beginning and had my hands on the build for a good few hours. There weren’t any restrictions and I was able to do whatever I want.
The sequel sees you you wake up from a coma after the explosion on the yacht that was thought to have killed you only put you out of commission for five years. Things have changed a lot in Stilwater as the 3rd Street Saints that you joined in the first game have fallen apart. After busting out of prison, you travel back to Stilwater in order to get some revenge on those that tried to take you out reforming the 3rd Street Saints.
Let’s start with the character. Saints Row 2 features an all new character creation feature with a ton of new options and a greater control on how you want your character to look. The sequel lets you choose from both a male or female base model to start with so those that wanted to play a female protagonist in the first game can now do so in the second.
Options available are vast and I mean vast. You can adjust the character to very minute details like how the eyelids are shaped both upper and lower individually, the eyeball depth, the depth of the back of the neck, and so forth. I could talk for a good few pages on what you can do to adjust your characters appearance but Volition’s character creation feature is really top notch. You can also change your fighting style, taunts, and voices as well to complete your avatar. I had to remember that I only had a limited time with the game but you could easily be lost for hours in creating a look for your character. For my game I took a suggestion from the THQ rep and created a nice little rendition of the Heath Ledger Joker from The Dark Knight with a British accent and an insane look when he’s standing around. He actually sounded like Mel Gibson and I was thrown off a few times when he would talk during the cut scene. Either way your created character will appear as is in all cut scenes.
So starting out you have to bust out of the prison and here is where you can either go through a tutorial to teach you how to play or a take a different route where you get into the main game faster. The tutorial does a nice job at giving you the little ins and outs of how to control your character and interact with the environment. After you bust out of prison, you’ll get back to your old stomping grounds, Stilwater.
Stilwater has undergone a dramatic change since the first game. The developers have really done a great job redoing the city from the ground up. In the story, the Ultor Corporation is responsible for the major changes that have gone on around town and that let the developers go on to develop new sites, areas, and update old settings. As far as size goes, you can expect it to be bigger than the original giving you more room to explore. Right from the beginning, you can go anywhere on the map. You won’t be limited so if you want to travel all the way to the opposite side of Stilwater, go right ahead. No there won’t be random road blocks or police chasing after you should you decide to explore certain parts of Stilwater and having the ability to wander around uninhibited is a great touch. The city is pretty much opened to you and all the locations are marked but with question marks until you drive by them. Unlike Grand That Auto IV, there is a great deal of locations to visit in Saint’s Row 2 giving the player a nice variety of things to do in every area of the game.
Driving around Stilwater, Volition has done a great job at offering up great graphics with little or no pop-in. Every transition of environments and incoming objects were smooth and didn’t suffer from the sudden appearance that’s evident in Grand Theft Auto IV. I did see an occasional texture pop but it was pretty rare. Stilwater does look pretty nice and Volition’s attention to detail in the open world can be seen when driving around. The building’s architecture differs in various areas with some great sites like the University and Arena. The textures are also very detailed as well adding to the creation of a visually appealing city.
While the amount of cars on the road isn’t that many, the variety is there. Traffic does get a little bit heavier at times but never to the point of being heavily congested. One thing that Grand Theft Auto IV suffered from was the car you were driving usually populated the roads. I was happy to see a lot more different cars driving around than the one I was currently in. Some of the cars do have some independent objects that break off when crashed into. I was driving around and rear ended an RV with a bike and spare tire on the back. To my surprise the bike and the tire fell off the car and tumbled in different directions while the RV continued driving. It’s a small but pretty cool little feature that might not add to the gameplay but its good eye candy.
The car models offer some good distinct looks and different driving abilities. I found the cars to be easier to drive than those of Grand Theft Auto IV for the most part. Even the motorcycles felt a little easier to control. I was able to pick up the game quickly and drive without any paroblems, even power sliding with precision in certain cars. One vehicle that really shows off the different handling ability is the tow truck. Without anything behind it’s not too bad but once you’re dragging another car it becomes a very touchy vehicle to turn in jackknifing at the drop of a hat. While the one mission I used the truck had me towing a car away, I was surprised that I was able to drop the tow and pick up another car instead. In my case, it was a cop car following me that unlucky got hitched to my hook. I bet that was a big surprise to him when I started to drag him around. Car damage is pretty subtle in Saints Row 2 and nothing as overly distinct as Grand Theft Auto IV. You’ll see small dents here and there no matter how hard you crash though and at certain times headlights can be destroyed. It’s almost on the opposite spectrum of Grand Theft Auto IV where in that game I was driving around half the time with no hood because slight hits would knock it off. In Saints Row 2, your car can take a lot of punishment and still look pretty good. You’ll still get the missing doors or flipping hood once you take a few hits so you’ll see some physical damage but I don’t think it’s as extent as Grand Theft Auto IV. In reality that’s not a bad thing though and I didn’t mind that the vehicle’s look didn’t become overly distorted.
I saw a lot of the rain effects during my playing time and it was cool to see the dark clouds appear above you. Some of the nicer AI features were shown off where some folks pulled out umbrellas while others held a magazine over their heads and ran off. When driving, the rear tires kicking up water from the street were very impressive and looked very realistic. Of course, rain affected the way the car handled as well and doing some quick turns resulted in a more slippery result.
While the city and cars looked great in my opinion, the character models range from very well done to average. Your character always looks top notch though and it’s great to see the model actually in the cut scenes and various videos. The detail on the others can sometimes be a little bland but there are some characters that have a really nice look to them.
For the few hours I spent in the single player mode, I have to say I had a lot of fun and to be quite honest the game felt more like Crackdown than Grand Theft Auto IV. That’s not bad as I loved Crackdown and you can see some of the same things in Saints Row 2. One example is there are ramps in certain parts of the city with an icon stating that it’s a jump location. It’s very similar to the jump rings in Crackdown. But playing the game for a few hours on single player mode, my feelings of a Grand Theft Auto IV clone were dashed away leaving a fun experience that felt more so like Realtime World’s great game.
As with Grand Theft Auto IV, you’ll sometimes run afoul of the law and the police will be after you for the crimes you commit. There are various threat levels and their response to will differ depending on the threat level. What’s different though about Saint’s Row 2 is that there is no circle where you have to get out of for the notoriety level to go away. For example, I had a one star offense and a cop kept tailing me across the bridge. After a little while, his siren shut off and he drove on by. Sure enough my threat level was gone. It’s a different way of handling notoriety and while it might be as “realistic” as Grand Theft Auto IV, it can lead to a less frustrating experience in trying to evade the law as all you have to do is just drive around long enough even if other cops see you.
One feature that I liked was the ability to use people as human shields. I had fun picking up people and walking around with their bodies protecting mine. You do move slower though and the enemies can quickly get to your side if you are close to them. When you’re done you can either throw them or execute them. In fact, one mission had me destroying some shanties by grabbing bums and throwing them into the structures. It was quite fun and seeing them fly into the shanties as they crumbled to the ground was good for a few laughs.
The missions are structured in a nice variety and some had multiple checkpoints. There were only one or two where I got really frustrated but for the most part all the missions for the main story that I experienced were fun and different. One really great thing about Saint’s Row is that if you do fail a mission at a certain point you can restart at a checkpoint rather than all the way from the beginning. I can’t tell you how much less frustrating this is compared to the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV where I would spend a good ten to fifteen minutes on a mission only to die and have to restart from the beginning. With Saint’s Row 2 just pick up from the last checkpoint in the mission and you’re good to go.
Like Grand Theft Auto IV, there are some side missions as well and in Saint’s Row 2 you can do some in order to get enough respect to access one of the main story’s missions. You don’t have to but they will be activities that can get you to the respect level to continue the story faster. I had a chance to partake in a few and some are quite fun like plastering the city with raw sewage, riding an ATV in a flame suit causing explosions wherever you go, throwing myself around in traffic to cause as much damage as possible in order to fake an injury for insurance fraud, and upholding the law for a reality TV show as a cop.
Since Saint’s Row 2 is about gangs, you’ll be able to call upon some gang members to help back you up during some missions. I did find them to be quite stupid though in certain situations and they seem to be caught as human shields a lot but it’s always nice to have some backup even if they aren’t the most intelligent folks around. What I liked was I was able to find some of the gang members just wandering the city and I was able to recruit them into my gang without having to go to a specific location to do it.
You’ll need money to purchase cribs, change your appearance, pick up new weapons, and other miscellaneous spending options. Running a gang isn’t cheap so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to grab some cash either by finishing missions or performing activities. With the time I played, I wasn’t too frugal and was able to always have a good amount of cash in hand. It’s a little slow to build up though but as I said earlier, there are plenty of opportunities all around Stilwater to earn money. Speaking of changing appearances, the clothes that are sold come in both female and male varieties and either sex can wear the opposite’s clothing. If you want to create a male running around in women’s lingerie it’s possible with Saint’s Row 2.
After the few hours playing single player, I was treated to a demonstration of the co-op mode as well as get my hands on going through the game with a friend. First off, it’s dynamic drop in and drop out similar to Crackdown. You can filter out certain people for those that join your game and you’ll always be asked for verification on allowing a playing in. Second, the game scales the difficulty up for co-op over single player games. Since two human players should be pretty effective, the AI changes a bit and more enemies appear to help balance it out.When playing co-op, you’ll be able to go through the single player campaign like normal. There are changes to some missions and activities though allowing for a more joint experience. For example, with the trailblazing activity I described earlier where I rode an ATV with a flame suit, one person drives the ATV while the other sits on the back and tosses Molotov Cocktails around causing more havoc. The roles at what each person does switches up though adding some variety and not having one person stuck at one job.
The host will designate the difficulty and the amount of story completed but anyone can join anyone else’s game. I’ll give an example of how a difference in story completion is handled. Say one person is 75% done with a game and a person that’s only 10% through jumps in. Now all the inventory from the saved game that both people choose carries into the co-op experience so you’ll have access to anything you have picked up until that point that’s specific for each player. Now let’s say the person farther ahead chooses a mission that the 10% person hasn’t gotten yet. Both will be able to complete the mission without any problems and progress in that mission will be saved on both machines. Now when the person who’s farther behind finally catches up to that mission he finished with the other, an option will appear allowing you to skip the mission since you already completed it cooperatively. That’s a great feature and it lets people go through the game quicker but not have to do it linearly if they are playing co-op.
There are two modes unique to co-op though that was shown and it happens when one player kills the other. The player that dies can initiate two co-op only modes called Death Tag and Cat and Mouse. Death Tag is a straight deathmatch between the two players to see who is the best and allows you to earn money for winning. Cat and Mouse puts one player in a helicopter and another in a sports car. The car’s job is to touch all the checkpoints on the road while the helicopter’s job is to destroy the car. The winner is whoever achieves their objectives first and roles are reversed for each round. If I am not mistaken, each co-op only activity goes to three rounds and can be canceled at anytime. It’s a nice little side thing you can do but don’t have to if you don’t want to.
When one player goes down, the other player has 30 second to get to the downed player and revive him. It’s a feature that’s appearing a lot in lately seen in a recent title like Castle Crashers and of course Gears of War.
Now going through the story in co-op will let you grab both single player and multiplayer achievements at the same time. All cut scenes will involve your own created character and you can even skip the cut scene provided that the other player agrees to it as well.
I played the PS3 version for this portion of the event and I have to say playing co-op adds so much more fun to Saints Row 2. It’s not to say single player isn’t fun but having a competent ally really adds a lot more to the experience. It’s definitely a feature that I am really happy to see and it looks like it’s really polished as well with much thought into making it play well. Yes there are also other multiplayer features which will be detailed later but the co-op feature in Saints Row 2 really sold it for me. By the way, SIXAXIS is used on the PS3 for controlling planes, helicopters, and boats but can be turned off.
With the 99% finished build I played, I did run into a few bugs here and there. There are still some AI issues where they would get stuck in an area while trying to get to me. I had one problem where I was riding on a motorcycle and slammed into a highway sign with lights underneath. The motorcycle got stuck under the lights and when I tried to climb back on it seemed like I clipped through the ground as all I saw were grey polygons. After a little finagling I was able to finally get myself back up onto the street. Another thing I saw was one of the enemies was running on a pile of trash and I couldn’t hit him. He didn’t fire back either but all my bullets would just cause puffs of smoke on him. Finally the enemy was able to free himself from the trash and eventually I was able to kill him. A few other small issues were also seen but nothing else that seems to be a showstopper. The game never crashed on me though so that’s a definite plus for the build.
Coming away from this event by THQ, I really liked what Saints Row 2 had to offer and I think it’s a really solid and polished third person open world action game. There’s plenty to do and plays well while offering a large variety of activities to participate in. Expect a full review of the game when the final product is out.
Finally, I like to thank Craig of THQ, Scott of Volition, and the others responsible for being such wonderful hosts.