In which I describe some of the silly fun I had in Volition’s 2008 absurdist gang warfare sandbox murder simulator comedy, and why I like it after all.
A few months ago I picked up Volition’s 2008 game Saints Row 2 for €12 on a whim. I’d bought the German version at first –which makes sense what with me being in Germany and all– but shortly afterwards decided to start over playing the uncensored UK version instead as the DE edition is basically a different/crippled game. (The game was really butchered in order to sell it here, to the extent that XBL actually treats both editions as two entirely different games. It’s a huge letdown.)
Well. Not expecting much but maybe a few hours of slightly awkward silliness and probably nothing else, I was in for a surprise.
You play an unforgiving (and hilariously snarky) gang leader who awakes from a coma which he entered at the end of Saints Row 1. Fleeing the surprisingly open high-security prison complex without much trouble, he sets out to revive his old gang, the 3rd Street Saints, with some help from old and new friends.
The story missions are mostly fun and engaging, but not without flaws. Some of the checkpoints had me pull my hair out because they were obviously placed by mad men who hated me personally. Also, there were (very few) occasional glitches, but nothing to lose sleep about. All in all your tasks are fun. So far, so unremarkable on paper.
Yet I came to really like Saints Row 2 because it’s not ashamed of what it is, because it’s not afraid to proudly fly its colors: a game for adults who understand that this –at its heart– is pure and unadulterated satire. Volition took the basic setting (gang wars in an urban setting) and made it willfully surreal. It’s to real, dramatic gang-related stories what Naked Gun was to gritty, hard-hitting detective movies.1
I mean, name another game where you can dress in a pink Borat-style swim suit, wearing a traffic cone as hat and space-age biker boots – and then fly an attack helicopter or conduct “business” meetings. That alone is an indicator of the level of grit, reality and seriousness Volition had in mind when it made Saints Row. They left the grit and deep story telling to the excellent GTA IV that came after it.
Take its mini games for example. Like the one involving insurance fraud. And the one about pleasing ladies in seedy locations2. And the one about stealing cars. And the one about “rescueing” other hard-working ladies from their dubious employers. And the one about poopifying3 parts of the city for money. And the one about ATV-based arson. And the one about running around town butt-nekkid, flashing your pixelated man parts and raking up cash doing so. And many, many more. Most of them are worthwhile, many are so-so, none of them are about making a point in any way – they’re about having fun and making some quick money for your ongoing quest to style your growing number of increasingly elusive cribs in the process, and nothing else.
So yes, gang warfare. You fight three enemy gangs, the police and a big-ass corporation which owns most of the city. And 99% of the time SR2 successfully manages not to question its playful background. Stilwater is a clear-cut caricature of a sprawling US city. It’s incredibly easy to get lost there in the gang-related shenanigans of the main characters there, their almost comical lack of regard for other people’s lives and property and the often hilarious mission pieces. It is a game that full-well knows it is a game, that its city is a ludicrous sandbox, and that’s not shy to brazenly cater to its select audience, both in and outside of missions.
Case in point: there is a particular outlandish cutscene after the, let’s say, “forceful eviction” of a good number of drifters from the new designated Saints gang hideout. Johnny Gat and the player character sit on a couch, bodies strewn all around them – then they banter and fist-bump, and you were forgiven for thinking they were just like two regular dudes after another day of hard labour if it wasn’t for the dead guy in front of the couch they were using to prop up their feet.
I’m man enough to tell you: yes, I laughed, exactly because it was crazy. Volition knew it when they wrote it, I knew it when I saw it, we were sharing a joke there. Was it deep, meaningful high-brow humor? Hell, no. Funny it was nonetheless.
And while the question of morale is avoided for most of the game, it isn’t entirely absent. In one of the final missions there is a dialog between the protagonist and his former leader and mentor, where –in the last minute of said mentor’s life– they discuss their respective motivations. And while the mentor is trying to talk sense into him, telling him all the violence and death can’t go on, the Boss (the player character) all of a sudden spouts: “I don’t give a shit… I own this city!”. I applaud Charles Shaughnessy for his crackerjack voice work as the Boss4 – in this very moment I came to realize that this character does have his own agenda after all, apart from allowing me to wield him as my chosen tool in the joyful redecoration of entire Stilwater city blocks. He is a ruthless asshole, even if I came to forget that over all the lol’ing and giggling in the hours prior. In that dialog his true colors shone through, and though the entire game is basically a huge hedonistic exercise in violent and juvenile humor, the Boss’ short monologue gave him quite a bit of added depth – it hit home for me.
It was a good, maybe even great moment in an outstandingly insane game. How good? I still remember and think about it, even two months after finishing the game. It managed to give SR2 a slightly different tone that reverberated back from the end of the game through my memories of the whole experience. It wasn’t a heavy-handed “Gangs are bad, mmkay, kids?”, far from it; again, Volition acknowledged its audience, recognized it for what it is –adults– and gave a little bit of reinforced context to make a subtle point: they know full well what they’re making fun of.
So my overall verdict of SR2 is “absolutely worth my time”. I refuse to hand out arbitrary points or scores for games as that system is bollocks anyways. Instead, I’ll opt for Marcus’ scoring scheme which basically asks you what you would be willing to pay for the game once you’ve actually played it. How much money do you feel is justified for a copy of this game? For me, the answer is:
Saints Row 2: €40.