It’s simple enough to see from the outset that Saints Row 2 was never going to tackle the trials and tribulations of gangland America with any amount of gravity. And even though this is my first serious-minded foray into the Saints Row series (Cyril Lachel nailed the first Saints Row review, while I’m flying in with a second opinion on this one), the pimp limps, icy wrists, and prison tats are nothing more than vehicles for turning the fictional city of Stilwater into a virtual shooting range. And with as many senseless in-game murders as I’ve committed, every face, every uniform, and every gang color (even theStilwater Police Department boys in blue) has begun to take on the airy resonance and papery weight of a firing range target.
I’ve grown desensitized with every pull of the trigger. Every bullet, every shotgun shell, and every rocket-propelled grenade is the currency traded freely among the violence-is-a-way-of-life citizens. And in case you were wondering about the exchange rate in Stilwater: Life is cheap. Every enemy is nothing more than a red blip on a minimap, every innocent bystander is likewise nothing more than a hood ornament in a race, or a body shield in a firefight. Every person strolling on the sidewalk is fodder for my fender. Every vehicle in the road is my free ticket to ride. And if they shoot at me, I shoot at them. That’s as complicated as the politics ever run in Saints Row. I’m not saying this to strong arm a layer of existential thought into things. In fact, it works to the detriment of Saints Row that the killing grows dull early on.
But then, as you spend some hours within Stilwater’s Wild West zip code, an internal transformation takes place that lets you accept the fact that the violence stacked upon violence can eventually build itself into something fun again. The growth and maturity exhibited in Grand Theft Auto IV – while still keeping that unbeatable Rockstar sense of humor firing on all pistons – is exhibited virtually nowhere in Saints Row 2. Even without having played the original Saints Row beyond a 5-day rental, it’s easy to discern just how much of Stilwater has been turned into a recycling plant.
Sure, the small geographic location of Saints Row on the Stilwater map has been replaced by a lit-up set of power-tie skyscrapers, but other than that, Stilwater is business as usual in every other way. After a full-bodied level of character customization – a screen I spent much time and contemplation on, marveling at the cross-dressing options that the game doesn’t even bat an eye towards – I’m thrust haphazardly into the kill-‘em-all Stilwater sandbox. It begins with an Alcatraz-styled prison break, where, with the guidance of a genial nephew-like inmate, we run and gun our way out. The objective: Pretty much kill everyone. I try to spare a few lives, avoiding spotlights and security guards, but the body count soars regardless. No cover. No deft maneuvering. Just trailblazing Lara Croft-style with dual-wielded pistols, which looks to be safely enough what developer Volition intended from the get-go.
But at every opportunity, Saints Row 2 proves that it’s still playing the little brother to its older GTA sibling. Beyond the character customization screen, the details dull with the chalky cityscape. Clothing stores have limited styles in stock. The soundtrack, now panning out to a dozen different genres, won’t satiate anyone’s musical tastes beyond the excellent but overly-obvious choices on the ‘80s station (rap radio is particularly weak-kneed and scatter-brained). Vehicle traffic runs at a dull roar in too many places, while pedestrian traffic has people traipsing through dead zones like it was the Boardwalk. And even though I don’t demand that Volition’s developers sport a Masters degree in Civil Engineering, I’d appreciate a city that makes more sense in its overall design. The feeling of an organic, living city is drowned in Stilwater’s often nonsensical zoning and playland styling, which extends into its often baffling interior floor plans as well. Even the dirt trails signifying the “country” run up and down a stiff ridge of topography mistakable for a model train prop.
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