Saints Row 2

Saints Row 2, more so than many other open world games, has a real tendency to drive one to distraction.

Publisher: THQ
Price: $59.99
Multimedia: Saints Row 2
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
Number of players: 1-2
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Volition
US release date: 2008-10-14
Developer website
"It's our city. We do whatever the fuck we want."

-The leader of the Saints

While reading over some posts regarding Saints Row 2, I ran across a comment suggesting that Saints Row 2 is "the most distracting game ever."

I found myself quickly relating to these comments as I have seen that with the Saints Row sequel, much as I felt while playing the original, that this game, more so than many other open world games, has a real tendency to drive me to distraction. By that I mean (as did the aforementioned message board postings) that when playing a Saints Row game I cannot help but get wildly off track from the main thrust of the game -- the central storyline -- because of the additional offerings that this game has in terms of alternatives to story missions.

This tendency is an unusual one for me. While I am pretty much in love with the open world genre and especially its criminal iterations (the Grand theft Auto series, The Godfather, Scarface, etc.), I generally find myself mostly drawn to focusing on playing out the main narrative, and, while I often dabble in the additional possibilities that an open world offers, I am by no means hung up on 100% completion ratings and the like. I never gave a damn about wasting my time finding all 100 graffiti tags in San Andreas for example. But, more fundamentally than that, I find little that interests me in playing around in GTA's open worlds once the credits have rolled despite the offer that those games likewise have offered me to "do whatever the fuck I want."

While Saints Row 2's final line (which leads off this review) is a nod to the sense of freedom that the sandbox style is supposed to grant the player, I am not as certain that I believe in the purity of that statement regarding this particular game, at least in terms of what most open world games are often intended to offer in that regard.

Like a GTA game, Saints Row 2, alongside its main plot line, which consists of yet another riff on the "rise of a criminal overlord" narrative that so many recent open world action games concern, offers a living world with a host of additional criminal activities that allow the player countless distractions from the linear portions of the narratives. Unlike GTA, though, what Saints Row 2 terms "activities" are fairly well fleshed out mini-games that are necessary, at least in part, to drive the main storyline (the protagonist must develop a criminal reputation in order to take on the main storyline missions -- performing at least some activities then becomes a necessary requisite for proceeding in the game as success in these activities results in the heaviest production of reputation points), but they also serve to provide some really helpful unlockables to the character that make the storyline missions much more manageable.

Gears of War, eat your heart out.

In other words, while GTA often offers "side missions" that give a player something else to do and maybe produce some minor gain for the player overall, Saints Row 2 makes these "distractions" necessary to some small degree but also extremely helpful in advancing the game on the whole by providing the player unlockables that make the game easier. Minor unlockable benefits in this game include things like discounts for weapons, food, and clothing. More essential unlockables exist, though, like faster health regeneration, unlimited ammunition for certain weapons, and the unlimited ability to sprint.

Several game-related blogs like The Brainy Gamer and Man Bytes Blog have recently hosted some rather in-depth discussions concerning the notion of "play" and what that term means for the video gamer. Throughout the discussion, my own thoughts kept returning to a distinction that I feel helps in defining the difference between "play" and "game". While we often mix these terms when talking about video games (and rightly so I believe, since most video games concern elements of both) when discussing "gameplay", it strikes me that the distinction between the two is significant in understanding what drives various kinds of gamers.

"Gaming" strikes me as those activities related to the the embedded rule system within a game itself, which matter as they serve to provide an understanding of how to accomplish or solve a game. By embedded goals, I mean those established by the designers of the game. When "gaming", then, players strategize within a given set of rules and react to these systems that are clearly external to themselves. "Play", likewise, concerns working within a gaming system, but it is an activity that is generally less structured at least by the externally generated rules systems of the game. Instead, the player "plays" by screwing around within that system, exploring as he or she sees fit, and establishing his or her own goals and purposes in the game. If "play" has rules, these are rules that are dictated by the fancy of the player. They are determined internally by the player, not externally via the authority of the designer.

While I enjoy open world games, I find myself as a player generally drawn more to "gaming", I think, than "play". This would explain my limited attention span for playing games like anything in the Tycoon series or playing The Sims in a pure sandbox mode. I like when a game gives me a set of rules, and I feel some accomplishment when I can figure out a way to achieve the goals established by some external authority. I like to "solve" a problem designed by someone else. While I am drawn to the open world design of games, I believe it is the atmosphere created by experiencing a world, more so than the liberation of being able to set my own course in such a world, that makes it so enticing.

What I am getting at is that I think that this is ironically what I find so distracting about the seeming "side missions" in the Saints Row series. Firstly, while some of the activities are fairly simplistic arcade-style shooting exercises, there are some good "games" in the mix. These are missions that force the player to come up with a strategy for producing a certain amount of monetary damage in the city in a limited amount of time require some plotting and planning (don't get me wrong -- none of these games are chess or soduku or somesuch, but they do require a little bit of solid strategizing). And secondly, because these seeming "distractions" have really useful long-term functions in the game, they become fulfilling exercises for someone who prefers a little more game in their play because they improve the effectiveness of later gaming needs.

All of that being said, while very interesting to me as a gamer, Saints Row 2 is no digital masterpiece. It is, as has often been said of it, pretty clearly a GTA clone offering (beyond some of the distinctions that I am trying to make here) similar gameplay to GTA within a very similar narrative structure. That narrative is hardly as compelling as the often thoughtful, often clever and often wickedly satirical plotlines of the GTA series. Saints Row 2's plotting is familiar. Its humor pales in comparison to GTA's, and often jars a player because of its more sadistic and brutal approaches to other elements of the plot. I realize that GTA also walks a fine line between gritty brutality and satire, but it can walk that line largely because there is something redeeming in its characters and something romanticized about its approach to criminality. Saints Row 2 offers a protagonist often characterized by little more than brutal animality. You won't find a C.J. Johnson, a troubled thug who does what he does ultimately in order to protect his family, or a Niko Bellic, an immigrant struggling to fit in with a grim past that drives but also explains some of his less pleasant behavior. Saints Row 2 is a game about criminality and makes little excuse for reveling in the kind of freedom that an amoral lifestyle provides.

At least in that sense, that final line quoted at the top of this review is true. The city of Stilwater that Saints Row 2 represents is one that belongs to the player, and, in terms of any ethical concerns, it does allow the Saints and the players that inhabit them to do "whatever the fuck they want."


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