Monday, October 20, 2008

Saints Row 2 single-player

I've beaten the single-player campaign, though I have a nagging suspicion that I haven't seen everything in that mode (I can't explain without giving something away). I haven't tried multiplayer yet, co-op or competitive. I'm really looking forward to trying the co-op, since the entire single-player campaign and gameworld is open to it.

The Saints Row series is about silly, raunchy, over-the-top gameplay in an open world. The heart of its appeal is variety and that it seldom takes itself seriously. Saints Row 2 expands and improves on the original game in more ways than I could list. A few annoyances remain, but the game offers a truly unprecedented variety of activities for the player to enjoy, and the humorous tone only adds to the replay value.

There's so much in Saints Row 2 that I'm only going to talk about a fraction of it. So, for example, I'm only going to talk about three of a dozen or more Activities.

The old activities are back, along with new ones and a lot of mini-games called Diversions.

One new activity has you riding in a sewage truck spraying people, buildings, and cops with crap as your communist driver makes comments like "I shed no tears for the bourgeois!". Another has you in an attack helicopter guarding a homie driving below as he makes his drug deals. That one is particularly fun and unlike anything I've seen in other games. Unlike the aerial guard duty in one of the Call of Duty 4 levels, this makes you fly as well as aim and attack. It's easy to bump into a skyscraper while focusing on the ground.

The activity Fluff is also a lot of fun. In it, you pose as a cop and take a cameraman along as you distribute justice in, shall we say, eccentric ways... including shooting streakers and cutting up violators with a chainsaw (which looks very much like using the chainsaw in Gears of War). It's particularly funny when you get called to break up a fight between pirates and ninjas, or when there's a "hooker uprising in progress" and you get called to "inspect" the hookers.

Old activities have been improved and expanded upon. Insurance Fraud again has the player leaping in front of vehicles, but now you can build up to Adrenalin Mode. With adrenalin, you're knocked much higher and farther, allowing you time to aim for other vehicles and be knocked around like a pinball, earning more fraud money. Destruction Derby allows limited customization of vehicles. You earn points with each win, and those points can be used to increase the offense, defense, or speed of your vehicle. Defeat all levels of Destruction Derby to unlock the Special Derby. In that derby, you can compete in monster trucks, golfcarts, 18-wheelers, and even Lamborghinis, just to name a few.

Diversions include familiar activities like taxi driving and tow truck driving, but also new stuff like blackjack and poker, flashing, streaking, zombie uprising, and drive-bys. Diversions also include what I'll call passive activities, because they have no set timeframe or clearly defined challenge. For example, as you drive, near misses (with other vehicles) and driving against oncoming traffic will earn you respect with your homies, as will jumping ramps and driving on two wheels (or one wheel on a motorcycle).

Simple additions like enabling the taking of a human shield or tossing NPCs make a big difference. The ability to throw NPCs is much like the sticky grenade in Halo, in that there are countless ways it can be used to different effects. You can toss someone head-first into a brick wall, or toss him over a rail, or off a building, or into an oncoming vehicle, or through a window, etc. And this time around, you can click a button to enter an over-the-shoulder view for better aiming and a more intense FPS-style experience.

Just like in the original game, you can customize your character's appearance to fine detail, both at the onset and mid-game. The amount of sliders will annoy many gamers, but there's a Randomize command so you can just flip through optios until you see a face you like. What's really great this time around is that you can choose from one of three voices for your character (three male, three female), as well as choose a compliment and taunt. I can't help but think my character's British accent goes perfectly with his giant green mohawk and punk-rocker style.

This time around, you can customize your gang with a general theme (80s, prephop, pimps and hos, gangstas, sporty, etc), a taunt, three vehicles, and... umm... something else.

There are eight cribs for you to call home. Two will be earned in the beginning, but the rest must be bought. You can buy customizations at each crib, and a slick crib will add respect bonuses to your activities, but these customizations represent progression and don't reflect personal choices of the player.

You can purchase every store in the game (at least fifty) and earn daily cuts of their revenue. There's definitely a thrill to earning money through ownership. And you might even be surprised to see your character's face on a billboard advertising one of the stores you own! That one took me completely by surprise.

There are many weapons and clothes to both buy and earn. Before the campaign's end, I unlocked a new shotgun and infinite shotgun ammo, as well as a biker's leather jacket and a pimp's outfit. Different clothing shops sell different clothes. All clothing can be changed in color, while many can be accented with a symbol or word logo.

Vehicle customization seems improved since the last game. There are many more rims and other additions available. And this time performance improvements include frame and tire endurance. There are dozens of vehicles in the game. The majority of them can be captured, stored, and customized. You can also collect a handful of boats, planes, and helicopters (one with missiles and guns).

As you progress through the story, each mission will earn further renovation at your gang's hideout. It's really satisfying to see your rise to power visually reflected in this way.

This game features an insane amount of dialogue, store signs, and other momentary thrills waiting to be discovered. It's all well voice-acted, and it plays a huge role in keeping the game fun and light-hearted.

Much of the dialogue is semi-randomly blurted from passing NPCs, but other dialogue is tailored to a specific NPC or group. For example, a student sitting down on the ground with her laptop at the Stillwater University has a line or two specific to her. Cops have different lines than hicks, who have different lines than yuppies, who have different lines than bums, etc.

You could play this game for many months and never hear every line of dialogue or notice every funny sign or store name. There's so much.

I thought the campaign was both interesting and amusing. Most of it doesn't take itself too seriously, though there are certainly some intense moments. It's well-written and well-acted. I've started the campaign over to see how much it changes with a different character voice.

Just like in the original game, all cars but your own disappear the moment you turn your view away. If you see a vehicle you want but it drives beyond your vision before you can catch it, you're out of luck. This issue is particularly annoying when playing Insurance Fraud, when the timer is ticking down and no vehicles are moving your way. I can only guess that this system of spawning vehicles only in the player's view was designed due to memory limitations, to eliminate lag, but the average gamer can't be expected to understand that this is the lesser of two evils.

My 360 has frozen a few times while playing the game over this past week. I haven't had freezing troubles since I played Oblivion a year ago. Perhaps this is just a hardware problem, but none of my other games have caused a freeze in many months.

The game stalled after I completed the campaign, forcing me to replay the last mission (you can continue to roam the city, customize vehicles, play activities and so on after you've completed the campaign). My console didn't lock up when this happened, but I was forced to exit the game and restart it.

I've gotten stuck a couple times, and seen NPCs stuck once or twice as well. It's a big, complex gameworld, so it's understandable that this could happen, but being forced to reload the game is still annoying. And again, average gamers aren't aware nor care about technical inevitabilities.

Sometimes, I get the feeling modern developers all play their games only on giant HD-TVs. On my 32" standard-definition TV, many logo and message customizations for clothing are unreadable while browsing them at a store.

Overall, it's a great game, one of my favorite games on the 360. Advancement focuses on variety of ways the player can interact with the world, more than increases in strength and challenge; and the variety is staggering.

The style of humor, the music, driving controls... whether or not you enjoy these aspects of the game depends on your personal preferences. Some people won't get into it, I'm sure. It's unfortunate that there isn't a demo, though not surprising since it's more sandbox-style than linear. If you're not sure if it's for you, then I recommend renting it and seeing if you catch yourself wishing you could play it more a few days after returning the game. This is the sort of game you can enjoy for however long, take a break, and return to it over and over again.

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