On Saints Row 2

under review: Saints Row 2
developed by Volition, Inc.
published by THQ
released for the Playstation 3 (and several other platforms) in 2008

It’s tough to know exactly what to think about Saints Row 2. I know I put dozens of hours into it; it was clearly enjoyable at some level, even many levels. Mechanically, it’s a lot of fun; Tim Rogers might call it brain taffy, if he didn’t already have a less-than-charitable opinion of its predecessor. “Brain taffy” is pretty accurate, actually–it’s the sort of fun that you and your brain can happily just gnaw on; not much deeper is required.

Saints Row 2, at its heart, wants to be a less “serious” sandbox crime game–it wants to be, and is, more over-the-top and cartoony than, say, the grimy orangescape of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s got the right atmosphere for it–it’s admirably bright, crisp, and clean. So many of the things it has the player do take the form of the sort of groundedly outlandish stunts that action movies are made of–as Yahtzee describes it, in plenty of respects it’s like a game starring a Batman villain. Or, if not that, then a Videogame Protagonist with clear Batman villain tendencies. These missions are well-put-together and the game is solidly constructed, so doing the work of the game is an overall pleasant experience.

The cartoonishness extends to the game’s mechanics in a generally pleasant fashion as well. One of the biggest banes of the Grand Theft Auto experience, at least from the perspective of flow, is getting busted–being incapacitated by police, causing you to be taken to a police station, where you’d lose some of your money and, frustratingly, all of your weapons. The worst facet of the experience is that it tends to happen in stupid situations–you’re in a car, trying to pull away from a fight, when a policeman runs up, pulls your door open (which, if you’re not going fast enough already, causes your car to stop against both your will and, likely, your actions), and points his gun at you; you’re instantly done. Or, maybe, you get knocked to the ground and a policeman happens to be nearby: if he points his gun at you, there ain’t a thing you can do. This can happen regardless of whether you’re carrying a huge gun, or are driving a tank, or what. I’ve been dragged unceremoniously out of rising helicopters before.

Saints Row 2 presents a version of this mechanic more consistent with the game’s tone. If you’re unarmed, and allow yourself to be pepper-sprayed or knocked down, you might get busted; if you’re in a car with insufficient velocity, the police are far more likely to simply drag you out of the car and (essentially) challenge you to a fight. It feels better as a player, counterintuitive for your ostensible enemies though it might be, because it’s more fun. Other aspects of the game help set up this sort of atmosphere–regenerating health, for example, means that as long as you’re the least bit careful you should be able to avoid excessively repeating segments of game activity because you can’t stop dying.

There’s more, though–Saints Row 2‘s commitment to its own over-the-top nature extends past its action sequences and pervades most elements of its world. A number of the side attractions, or “diversions”, are downright fantastical: in one of them, “Insurance Fraud”, the player is tasked with jumping in front of moving cars and hitting a button to, essentially, activate “ragdoll mode”, whereupon the protagonist’s body is launched through the air. While in the air, the flying body can be steered into landing on or in front of other cars, causing it to rocket into the air again and allowing the player to build up a chain. In another activity, the player puts on a fireproof suit and rides a flaming ATV through the city, setting off explosions. This sort of ridiculousness is sometimes-surprisingly well-fleshed-out: take off the protagonist’s clothes and the player can engage in a streaking minigame. Put on an overcoat and a flashing minigame becomes available.

The flimsy justifications the game’s world provides for these activities is unimportant piffle–the things the player can do are often stupid, pointless, hard to justify as existing in any sort of real world. My point is that in so many respects, Saints Row 2 is dedicated to producing a full and enjoyable low-culture equivalent of the “sandbox crime experience”, and it does this rather well. It’s not by any means the mythical and overused trope “the Citizen Kane of videogames”, but it gets quite a long way towards being perhaps the Animal House of videogames.

The biggest, constantly-nagging problem with this approach is that in some ways, Saints Row 2 can’t quite fully detach itself from the games it’s unashamedly aping. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for example, presents a genuine story, an aspiringly-literary tale about a young man struggling to escape from the stifling reality of gang life. Its world, as a whole, feels real; its characters act like people. It, too, verges into the fantastical at times–assaulting a train carrying “green goo” while riding a jetpack is perhaps the apogee of the narrative’s orbit around reality–but it never forgets the story it’s telling, and even its excursions into silliness don’t detract from the consistency of its atmosphere. Saints Row 2 has a delicate balance to maintain, though–it’s filled with the sort of sophomoric humor and character-caricatures that make any pretense at seriousness into a farce.

Sure enough, every so often the game just can’t stop itself, and it attempts to inject a little spark of genuine storytelling, of “character development”, and that is the one thing that it absolutely should not under any circumstances attempt to do. And when it does…man, the whole thing just comes crashing down. Something will push the fragile internal consistency of the “cartoony” atmosphere too far, it’ll snap, and it’ll produce a strangely uncomfortable feeling. Case in point: there’s a couple of secret missions in the game that seek to tie up some of the loose ends from the first Saints Row game; they end, hurr spoiler warning, with a loud argument about the “true meaning of the Saints” between the protagonist and their ex-mentor, culminating with the former coldly executing the latter. It’s a really jarring scene–the characters attempt to convey a level of gravitas completely incommensurate with both the ephemeral-bullshit nature of the backstory to the philosophical debate they’re engaging in and the ridiculous, explosion-filled two-person fight against armed helicopters and SWAT teams and more armed helicopters that had directly preceded it. Saints Row 2 is trying to have it both ways, and it just can’t manage it–the facade starts cracking, the veneer starts peeling, the big mylar balloon of the game-world starts wearing thin and the hot air of its crazy-ass action starts to dissipate. The dark side of its dedication to craziness is that it never really bothered to develop, and definitely can’t hope to maintain, the internal consistency needed for anything else.

The moment that finally punched a hole straight through Saints Row 2, for me, came at the end of the game’s last story mission. After I’d defeated the Big Bad (by shooting him in the face, causing him to be ejected from a window), two of the protagonist’s lieutenants walk in, prompting the protagonist to ask where the third, a dude named Johnny Gat, is. You get the nonchalant reply “Oh, he’s fine. He’s still out there killing cops,” to which the protagonist responds “Figures.”

What the shit is that? Okay, so, sure, there exists a trope wherein more often than not, especially in the sandbox crime genre, “cops” are just the flavor of “opposition” the game throws at you when it also needs to present the flavor of “authority”. They’re cheap, omnipresent foes–but most games are designed by humans with functioning brains, and generally assign relatively harsh penalties to attacking them. The player understands that they’re still supposed to represent the real-world concept of “police”, and are able to rationalize the fact that killing a cop doesn’t result in a months-long manhunt by remembering that that would make a rather dull game. But here Saints Row 2 is, telling you that one of your friends is off mowing down wave after wave of cops (and, according to the ensuing conversation, isn’t even doing so for any particular reason; he’s just, you know, having fun out there).

A character in the game-world is, completely shamelessly and entirely independently of the player’s control, acting like he’s playing a video game. It reached through any suspension of disbelief I’d managed to build up and slapped me right in the face: Christ, this guy is a psychopath! All of the game’s previous high-property-damage no-consequences bravado is completely undermined–it only worked before because after storming onto a cargo ship or blowing up a building or whatever, the game didn’t straight-out gleefully remind you “ha-HA, you just killed a bunch of people! You’re totally a murderer!” Tim Rogers describes the feeling well, in his afore-linked review of this game’s predecessor:

Could you imagine a dramatic television show about a rugged cop, a great man at heart, maybe one whose wife had been gunned down by thugs, who lives only to drink whiskey, eat at the same sad diner every golden sunlit morning, and keep the streets clean — who, for some reason, the sixth episode in, pulls out his gun, fires it out the window of his patrol car, and kills a young boy riding a bike, only to have his partner keep rattling on about the drug dealer they’re looking for, only to have the writers seem to forget such a thing happened and let the show go on through eight more Emmy-winning seasons? Of course you can’t. It’d be fucking retarded, disgusting. It’s not even the senseless violence that gets my goat: it’s the internal inconsistency. It’s the complete and utter lack of artistic conscience.

That moment cast the rest of the game into a rather unsettling new light, for me. I felt insulted, like the cheesy revenge/rise-to-the-top plot I’d mostly been getting along with had pulled off its mask, revealed itself to be tone-deaf garbage, and started throwing its feces around the room. (That was a pretty damn clunky metaphor, there, but I think that’s apropos.)

After a couple rounds of thinking about this I started to get the idea that maybe that was the point, maybe the game had been hiding a secret backup satirical message all along about how videogame, especially sandbox crime game, protagonists toe a thin line between action hero and psychopath, how maybe, the fact that the protagonist is a sometimes-psychotic megalomaniac is actually the point, and the player is supposed to feel uncomfortable about some of the choices the character makes…but then I came to my senses. There’s no way Volition gets credit for that. It’s tempting, sure, especially if I put on my Roland Barthes hat and talk about how regardless of its creators’ intent (which is pretty clearly, on the whole, “create a goofy GTA clone, the kids love that”) it still conveys other messages, but that really feels too much like excuse-making.

My problem, I guess, is this: when Saints Row 2 wasn’t making me feel a little sick with sudden revelations of complete artistic bankruptcy, it was genuinely fun to play. The driving physics and various fighting mechanics were a marked improvement on the Grand Theft Auto series. The environments were big and bright and shiny (in a good way) and the city was designed pretty well, as a whole (lots of cool little architectural bits that look quite nice), and the action setpieces, apart from the talky bits preceding and succeeding them, were pretty damn enjoyable.

What could be improved? I don’t want it to have a deep, moving story, or even particularly well-developed characters–if you’re setting out to create schlock, be proud of it! Don’t try to muddle it up with more noble pretensions that you’re only going to screw up anyway–it eats away at the merit of an otherwise fine product. Just Cause 2 does the sort of story this game should have just right–over-the-top in a way that makes it completely forgettable. With just a little more care taken in creating a light, satirical, and funny world rather than a dopey, fake, often-insulting one, this could be a strikingly better game. I just wish its tone and its world could’ve been as consistent, and consistently fun, as its mechanics.

–Rob Carson
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