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.
In reality, getting the game to run smoothly is something of a dark art, even when the PC in question meets or exceeds the required specifications. Played on the average gaming rig, the frame-rate drops to single figures and is virtually unplayable, even with sliders knocked all the way down. Played on a high-end rig the result is obviously improved, though the frame-rate is still far from steady.
The same was true of the PC version of GTAIV, of course, but the technical wobbles prove more problematic for Saints Row. While the console versions improved on GTA's old combat mechanics considerably, the absence of both usable cover and lock-on aiming combines with the laggy visuals to create a situation where gun battles that take place over anything more than medium distance become maddeningly inconsistent, even with the benefit of mouse and keyboard control. Driving, too, suffers when the frame-rate stumbles, as the heightened arcade handling struggles to keep things playable during a judder moment. Adding cruise control to the cars may make it easier to pull off drive-bys, but it's all for nothing if you can't straighten the car out in the first place.
It's not even as though Saints Row 2 was some graphical watershed that warranted such stringent technical demands. It was popular on the basis that it was dafter than GTA, not that it looked better, so while Rockstar's opus can justify its steep requirements somewhat, there's little incentive here to make the technical investments required for a game that is never going to be graphically spectacular. Far better to produce a PC version that was scalable and accessible, the better to showcase the game's broad charms.
It's especially galling to be playing a console port on a machine considerably more powerful than the original platform, yet suffering noticeably worse performance. If the PS3 and Xbox 360 can cope with this level of detail in an open world, there's not really any excuse why a top-class PC shouldn't be able to do the same.
Balancing out these persistent grumbles is the fact that the game remains indecently entertaining, and comes with a solid drop-in multiplayer element. Unlike GTA, which parked its online elements separately from the main game, Saints Row 2 allows you and a friend to tackle the numerous bonus games or the story missions, competitively and co-operatively. You share the same wanted level, however, so while it's quite possible to split up and never catch sight of the other player, they can still get you in trouble. Unless, of course, a laggy connection combines with a moment of juddery frame-rate, in which case it all becomes a bit of a mess.
And that's the Saints Row 2 PC experience neatly encapsulated: a great - and often underrated - game, but one that is rendered significantly less appealing than in its original console incarnation. Cautiously recommended, then, for those with the sort of monster kit that will smooth out the technical glitches, but the majority of players might as well stick with their Xbox 360 or PS3.
7 / 10