Zero Punctuation reviews this week's sandbox crime game, Saints Row 2.
It just struck me that whenever there's a sandbox crime game, it's always the same gangs: Italians, Yakuza, or street gangsters - you’re always either going on about respect, honour, or wearing your belt around your thighs. You know what there needs to be? A sandbox crime game where you play a Batman villain. You run around doing dastardly crime equipped with freeze-rays and jetpacks, completing story missions that lead up to you building a giant, brightly-coloured doomsday machine shaped like a top hat or something. Then Batman comes along and beats you up because you forgot to strap him into your overly elaborate, slow moving deathtrap. Then you mysteriously evade capture in order to come back and do it all again next week. Sadly, mankind has yet to recognise my genius (which is, incidentally, the title I have in mind for this project).
I bring this up because Saints Row 2 came appealingly close to my vision. The level of character customisation is straight-jacket wearing, small animal tormenting insane, and after I'd gotten away into the game and kitted out my Cockney-accented psychopath with a black and red silk suit with bow tie, two-toned shoes, and matching bowler hat, then started a mission in which I drove around the suburbs hosing things down with raw sewage, I suddenly realised I was role-playing as some kind of extremely unsubtle cousin to the Riddler. I wondered if there could be a follow-up minigame in which I composed a set of elegant rhyming couplets pertaining to houses covering in poo. Sadly not.
I know I said we should drop this term, but Saints Row 2 really is a Grand Theft Auto clone without shame. You’re in a huge sandbox city (that residents of New York would find weirdly familiar), you jack cars (that is, you steal them, not masturbate them), there are silly in-game radio stations, and you do missions pertaining to rival gangs that run you through a colourful set of vehicles and gameplay modes. The only thing it doesn’t have is your fucking cousin ringing up every ten minutes to invite you on dinner dates, and that’s just one reason why Saints Row 2 is better than Grand Theft Auto IV.
If you give players a sandbox world full of guns, cars, and innocent, blood-filled, squishy people, they are going to want to fuck this world’s shit up. This is something that GTA IV didn’t seem to grasp. When you put a child in a sandbox, you do not spend three hours explaining proper bucket and spade etiquette, devote lengthy cutscenes to explaining the child’s motivations, nor do you interrupt the child every ten minutes to make them talk to grandma on the phone. And you also don’t paint the sand brownish grey or stir in a few shovelfuls of grit.
Saints Row 2 shows a much better understanding of its audience. It is fully aware that most gamers are dickheads, and if you give them any kind of freedom their first instinct will be to abuse it. If you give them guns, they will shoot old ladies. If you give them cars, they will run over old ladies. If you give them aircraft, they will ascend to the highest possible height and hurl themselves out onto an old lady. And if you give them customisable outfits their first instinct will be to take off all their clothes and run around the streets hip-thrusting in the faces of old ladies. If you try to stop them doing all this, they'll hate you for it. Not only does Saints Row 2 not stop you, but it keeps score! Every single one of my examples has a little mini-game attached. You’d never see Niko Bellic farming points by casting his Serbian flag-patterned underpants aside and waving his willy at someone's grandma. Or, for that matter, embarking on missions in a floral print dress and top hat. But maybe if he had it'd have least brightened up his miserable little brown life for five minutes.
GTA IV was a game that spent its entire playtime drunkenly stumbling back and forth between "wacky fun" and "gritty realism," unable to decide where it was going to set up shop. So while the funny radio stations were there, the lead character was an angsty cunt with a selection of dowdy outfits, like the world's least stimulating G.I Joe. The cars handled realistically (i.e., like supermarket trolleys full of rocks), and when you drove into a pedestrian they just rolled realistically over your bonnet and collapsed in a screaming pile of broken hips. Run someone over in Saints Row 2, by comparison, and their rag doll will be launched into the sky Team Rocket style and end up with their spine curled around a lamp post. I found myself becoming a lot more attached to my character, because whatever personality you choose, they're in this for the same reason you are: to have some fucking fun!
I'm not so keen on the rather dictatorial gameplay mechanic in which you must play the aforementioned minigames to build up respect points before you get on with the story missions. It leads to this bizarre scenario where you can be controlling half the fucking city, with legions of misguided youngsters at your game, but you're still not respected enough to do a mission until you go and fling shit at someone's house. The minigames are fun, and I admit I probably wouldn't have played them if this game hadn’t folded its arms and closed off the plot until I did, but I guarantee their entertainment value will run out before the story missions do. The game's also a little too easy on the medium setting; your handgun can shoot accurately enough to pierce someone’s nipple from across town, and our old friend regenerating health makes a show-stopping appearance, essentially making you RoboCop with more flexible ethics and trousers.
Saint's Row 2 isn't the most sophisticated gaming experience. In fact, if it were a person it were wear Deely-Boppers and laugh at dead baby jokes. But it understands what it's trying to be: pure, mindless fun, like wrestling an excitable dog in a paddling pool of disembodied breasts. (Don't think too much about that simile - I certainly didn't).
The history of gaming technology has been one long quest for total realism, but now we’re on the verge of it I’m seeing that it’s probably not worth the effort. The ultra-realistic games of recent years have been one long, gritty, depressing grey-a-thon after another, and it’s up to games like Saints Row 2 to remind us that realism is an acceptable sacrifice if it means I get to throw old ladies into jet turbines.
Gardening ain't nothing but sticks and hoes: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Actually after completing this video the game bugged out and I couldn't finish it, so try to imagine this review with around 10% more bile
I'm willing to write up a treatment for that supervillain idea if you're interested, Volition