But the thing that really holds back Saints Row 2 for me is that its city, Stillwater, never really feels like a real, coherent place. Instead, we get a bunch of generic neighbourhoods, sparsely populated with traffic, criminals, police and citizens, where hardly anything you do seems to have any real consequence. Remember the slightly guilty feeling you got when you ran someone over in GTA4’s Liberty City? Well, in Stillwater you can run down, whack or shoot who you like. You won’t care – it’s all played for laughs – and neither, it seems, will the police unless you make a real ruckus doing it. Saints Row 2 has the eccentric characters, the crass humour and the radio stations of its inspiration, but the wit isn’t witty and the characters lack real personality. The more you played GTA4 the more you connected with the city and its denizens. The more you play Saints Row 2 the more you wonder whether there’s really anything worth connecting with.
And this leads me to my next point – taste. I moaned a bit in my review of the original Saint’s Row that there was something adolescent and moronic in its humour, as if a whole game had been designed by Stifler from American Pie. Saints Row 2 takes things further by being downright nasty from time to time. I’m sure the early mission where you beat up vagrants is meant with a satirical tongue in cheek, but it still left me wondering whether this was all just harmless fun. Violence is treated with an incredibly casual attitude. Frankly, I’m not all that surprised that the NYPD has spoken out against the game.
Some of you will find this offensive, some of you will think it nothing to worry about. I’m not going to get too caught up in it or go on for too long about the game’s technical shortcomings for one simple reason: whatever I think about these things, I have to admit that Saints Row 2 is pretty more-ish. While some of the ideas and execution are shockingly amateurish, there’s still something about it that makes you say ‘one more mission’ or ‘I wonder what happens if I do this.’ And while I don’t think it’s as out and out enjoyable as Mercenaries 2, it still provides many hours of good (if morally dubious) entertainment.
The level of customisation also helps. From clothes to cribs to vehicles to your own face, hair and tattoos, there are so many ways to stamp your own gangsta identity that it’s impossible not to get a little bit caught up. Finally, you should remember that all this fun is available multiplayer, with a two-player, drop-in, drop-out co-op mode that spans the whole single-player campaign. I’ve had limited experience of this, writing just one day before release, but from what I’ve seen it should be a hoot.
You’d have to be mad to buy Saint’s Row if you haven’t finished off GTA4, but if you have and you need another city to terrorise, then you will get your money’s worth from this. Not a great open world game by any means, but a good one? Despite my misgivings, yes indeed.
While no match for GTA4 on any level – and a mess in many technical terms – Saints Row 2 still knows how to party. Just be aware that there will be many better games in the next few months.