THQ knows the way to win over video game journalists. All they have to do is put an event together and promise "fighting, drunkenness and nudity." And if the prospect of nakedness, alcohol and all-out brawls wasn't enough for you to make the trip to San Francisco, then they promised that there would be a man in a hot dog suit making milkshakes. Don't ask.
This week THQ decided to take the time and show off the multiplayer component of the much-anticipated Saints Row 2 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. They did this at a club called Slide, found in downtown San Francisco. They featured more than a dozen widescreen HDTVs and plenty of demos of the near-finished Saints Row 2. This was my first chance to play the game's online multiplayer modes, which I quickly learned is more than just something added on to what promises to be a deep story mode.
But first … drunkenness. After checking my ID, the Slide bartenders opened up the bar to whatever I wanted. I figure if I'm going to experience fighting and nudity, then I might as well get all liquored up. When in Rome, as they say.
With a few strong drinks in me, I was just about ready to listen to the developers talk about what sets this game's multiplayer apart from all of those other online-enabled games on the market. At first glance this Saints Row looks and feels a lot like the game that came out back in 2006. It is still a Grand Theft Auto-style open world sandbox game, the type of experience that allows you to go anywhere and do anything. The question is: how does this style of gaming translate to a competitive online arena?
As the original game (and this year's mega-selling Grand Theft Auto IV) proved, the open-world sandbox game is ripe for online gameplay. This game may not be breaking new ground in the genre, but at least the multiplayer mode was interesting enough to warrant a look. Will this be the game that everybody quits playing Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 to play? Probably not, but those looking for a unique online experience need not look any further than Saints Row 2.
As with the original game, Saints Row 2 offers several different online modes to play through. There's the obvious stuff, such as a deathmatch-style mode that you can play either by yourself or with teams. This mode is a lot like what you found in the original and should not be a surprise to anybody that has picked up a first-person shooter (or any other type of shooter) in the past ten or fifteen years. You can play it with up to eleven other people, giving you a room with a dozen competitive gamers.
Of course, if that was the extent of Saints Row 2's online mode then there wouldn't be a reason to invite us game journalists to San Francisco to play the game. The big news was a new mode called "Strong Arm," which is a four on four battle for money and respect. This isn't one of those modes that just has one or two things to do, instead you and your team try to complete a bunch of random tasks before the other team does, ultimately giving you money, which in turn leads you to victory.
So what are these tasks? Well, they're random, which means that you can go from trying to protect a "ho" (their term, not mine) to competing in a race to finding yourself in a demolition derby. I was impressed with the amount of different tasks you had to complete, each short enough to never get boring. If this mode is even half as good as I played, then this is going to be one heck of an addictive online game.The key to this mode's success is in the teamwork. At first I didn't see the strategy behind playing as a team, but I quickly realized that in order to win you're going to have to come up with plans and work as a single unit. Here's an example that I witnessed firsthand: both teams were tasked with racing through a series of gates (Midnight Club-style), however it wasn't important that everybody finish the race. So, to help get my team through, I raced way ahead not worrying at all about the gates. I picked up some heavy artillery and started to shoot at all of the cars on the other team. After blowing those up this allowed my team to finish first and get the prize money. And then seconds later everybody moved on to a competitive mode of protect the “Ho”.
And that's not it, this mode also allows you to earn various rankings and awards based on your performance. I'm not talking about just earning a better rank from winning, but the ability to earn various badges for simply playing the way you play. For example, if you are the type of person that will shoot at just about anything (good guys, bad guys, animals, etc.), you earn an award for that. The same thing is true if you are good at sniping or any other skill. These badges are actually displayed next to your name when you're waiting in the lobby, so you can brag about your accomplishments and try to avoid those who are good at sniping. I have yet to see what all of these different awards are or how they will ultimately affect gameplay and balance, but I'm a fan of having achievements that have in-game value.
Most of the game's other improvements are nothing more than minor tweaks and fixes to the original game's concept. The gameplay has been slightly refined and the there is finally a lobby system that is easy to find. On top of that are the obvious things, such as improved graphics, better radio stations, more customizable options and more vehicles. And did I mention that the game finally has airplanes and skydiving? Well, you can't use those in the multiplayer mode, but it's nice to see one of the sandbox games giving you fun things to do.
Unfortunately I did come away from Saints Row 2 with a few concerns. I noticed that in the multiplayer mode you do not have access to the full map; instead you are locked in one small area. I also noticed that a lot of the modes reminded me of things found in other games, including Grand Theft Auto IV. My other complaint is the city itself. Stillwater wasn't a terrible location in the first game, but it also wasn't as full of live and energy as Vice City, San Andreas or even Liberty City. The fact that we're going back to this city instead of someplace completely original is a tad disappointing. Hopefully I won't feel that way when I finally get my hands on the finished product and play through the single-player mode.
So there I was, drunk off of a few very strong drinks and fighting for my life in Stillwater. But something was missing? I knew it wasn't the guy in the hot dog costume handing out milkshakes; he had walked past me more than a few times. What could it be? Oh, that's right, it's the nakedness. Where was the nudity? The game does allow the main character to be completely naked, however everything is blurred out. Surely that couldn't be what they were talking about. And then I found it, the nudity they must have been talking about. It was on my way to the bathroom when I discovered a picture of a young woman from the 1920s, completely topless posing for the camera. Considering the motif of the club this picture fit perfectly, however considering that porn star Tera Patrick is connected to the game this one picture was a little disappointing. Either way, we were there for the game and not the nudity. Right?
On the way out of the club I managed to snag the Saints Row 2 press kit, which was on a flash drive that was molded in the shape of a bullet. Yes, this USB flash drive is definitely unique. And yes, it's certainly fitting. However, I quickly learned that the airport security doesn't think a fake plastic bullet is a joke. Thankfully the TSA let me through, but not before having to answer some tough questions and prove my identity.
Saints Row 2 will be out October 14 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Look for more coverage and a full review closer to the game's launch.