Saints Row 2 is two games in one. The first game is capable, competently paced and crammed with distractions; the second can be needlessly cruel, tiresome and ultimately rather depressing. In blending the two, Volition has created a genuine talking point: this is a title that challenges you to examine the relationship between content and context, to explore how the success of a game’s mechanics is affected by the bodywork bolted on top.
Those mechanics will be familiar. Tear around the city, acquire a reputation, take on rivals and, inevitably, spend at least a little while parachuting out of a plane in your underwear while trying to land in a swimming pool. No one could accuse Saints Row 2 of lacking diversions. Stilwater may not be the most detailed of environments – even up close it tends to seem out-of-focus and under-imagined – but from the lengthy character customisation process through co-op and multiplayer options to the surprisingly varied side-quests, there’s enough to keep you plugging away.
Yet what makes this otherwise generic experience truly individual is the unremitting unpleasantness in every level of its design, from the missions (kill a doctor, butcher homeless people, blow up a trailer park), to the parade of stereotypes the game scrapes together to tell its tale of revenge. GTA may have explored a similarly seamy side of life, but recent releases have tended to ground the player in some kind of otherness, presenting their world from a perspective of (often sympathetic) exclusion, adding a moral dimension by offering real characters and consequences. While Saints Row 2 stalks somewhat similar territory, its blank-slate protagonist and fratboy misanthropy invites you to view society as nothing more than a bloodied rabble of interchangeable freaks, where the only human distinctions are whether you’re alive or dead, and the only character development is how you transition from the first state to the second.
It’s an agenda that eventually undermines the largely capable missions, as the game piles on the brutal wackiness, unaware that there’s no drama to be had in a world designed with such a contemptuous vision, and that violence carries little weight when everyone’s equally ugly, or stupid, or callous. It doesn’t help that the whole thing feels so unconvincing – even as a pastiche of gangsta life, its recruitable homies and upgradeable bling are flimsy constructions.
So while dredging up such calculated grottiness has granted Saints Row 2 an identity to call its own, the price it pays is desensitisation. Few of the game’s details will stick in your mind for long, and its pranky focus means it rarely gives you anything interesting to do with the toys on offer. It’s not necessarily badly constructed, but in many ways it is badly intentioned, failing not just because of its conga-line of racial and sexual clichés, but because of the way it makes it a little bit easier to criticise videogaming as a hollow and sadistic pursuit. Despite being ostensibly cut from the same cloth as Rockstar’s series, in some ways Saints Row 2 is the anti-GTAIV – something that has been reflected in its marketing. If the advertisements tempt you to give it a try, prepare to do so with gritted teeth.