Version tested: PC
Should reviews try to discern between quality and amusement? I'm trying to understand the gulf in review scores between GTAIV and Saints Row 2, back when both games screeched onto consoles. GTAIV is an important game, and an ambitious one, and we reviewers do so love that sort of thing. It deserved its accolades, even if they did feel as inevitable as the rather tiresome backlash that followed.
Saints Row 2, on the other hand, is only just emerging from the shadow of its more acclaimed rival. Indeed, it's probably the first sandbox crime game to make the derogatory "GTA clone" tag seem misplaced. Saints Row 2 isn't so much a copy of Grand Theft Auto, as the natural heir to the series' brattish attitude. With Rockstar casting aside its more cartoon-like excesses in order to better suit Niko Bellic's melancholy immigrant saga, Volition was quick to position Saints Row as The GTA That Still Lets You Be Silly.
There's a plethora of character-creation options that let you define not only how your virtual gangbanger looks, but also how they talk, walk and screw up their face in fury. Clothing is not just a choice of tastefully chosen urban outfits, but a veritable fancy-dress shop. For those who want to rule the city of Stillwater as a deformed funky dancing transvestite, there's really no other option.
The things you can get up to in the game world follow this gaudy template. Yes, there's a story in which your gang leader emerges from a coma in prison, escapes and sets about reclaiming his or her territory from rival gangs and an evil Robocop-style corporation, but this is really little more than a thin guide-rope strung across the game for those moments when you feel like you should be progressing towards something more tangible than mischief for mischief's sake.
Instead you'll spend much of your time earning enough respect to tackle the next story mission. While in other games this could well be a tiresome grind, in the unabashedly snot-nosed world of Saints Row it's an excuse to undertake a generous array of bonus tasks. From protecting celebrities by roughing up fans who get too close, to riding a blazing quad-bike around town causing as much property damage as possible, there's little here that feels dull or obvious. The closest the game gets to the likes of GTA's taxi and ambulance missions is Septic Avenger, in which you use a tanker to spray liquid sewage over houses.
It's all gloriously juvenile, of course, but that's part of the genius of it. It's a true representation of the "sandbox" environment - a giddy playground where you're encouraged to act out your most puerile fantasies.
Such fun comes at a price for PC owners, however. This is a game with extremely high technical demands, with little wiggle room for those whose kit doesn't quite meet expectations. The minimum specs suggest a 2GHz dual-core processor and at least a 128MB graphics card with Shader Model 3.0 support. The recommended specs bump that requirement up to 3.2GHz processor and a 256MB graphics card.