I am dressed in a one piece bikini, wearing a gladiator helmet, carrying a rocket launcher and blowing an illicit casino in the basement of a community center into tiny explosive bits. I am insanity with ordinance. I am death in a funny Halloween costume. I am a Saint.
I never expected to be dragged grudgingly to the conclusion that a violent cacophony of destruction in an open world environment would be my favorite title of last year. I can at least take some solace in making that statement without talking about a certain game by Rockstar. Saints Row 2 is to Grand Theft Auto 4 as Burnout is to Gran Turismo, which is to say that the similarities are enough to talk about them in the same sentence but only so that you can immediately point out how completely different they are.
I understand the hesitancy some have to hear sung the praises of Saints Row 2, and no one should seem less likely to be warbling this a capella. Approach it the wrong way, as I almost did, and you’ll never pierce the flimsy veneer of yet another gangsta drive-by shooter. The game opens with all the wrong vibes where a splash screen Volition logo pops up all pimped out — the kids still say pimped out, right? — in graffiti style artwork. The main menu is accompanied by what I am assured is called “rap music.” You start the game in prison and almost immediately someone gets shived or shanked or whatever the hell they call it when one guy stabs another guy with a sharpened twig. You would be entirely forgiven for turning the game off there.
That would be a mistake.
Followed by a cameraman and illicitly dressed as an officer of the law, I am dispatched to a violent gang uprising at a near by overpass. I arrive to find that the gangland rumble is in fact a group of ninjas fighting a group of pirates. I set them all on fire.
What sets Saints Row 2 apart is not its setting, its plot or even its presentation. It’s the complete lack of pretension. It stands in stark contrast to the morally dubious yet tediously self-absorbed affectations of GTA 4, and once you get as far as the character creation screen, you may realize that this is a different kind of beast entirely.
Myself, I created a well spoken character with a mid-Atlantic kind of accent who seems affable enough, though when you see him strolling down the street with his asynchronous gait gaping at the world like a deranged Sackboy you would do well to suspect that he is indeed six kinds of crazy. Often witnessed sporting a bowler hat and Casual-Friday attire -- when not in a Speedo and gladiatorial gear -- he dispatches justice in uncomplicated and unsophisticated ways.
The game delivered its mission statement to me in an early briefing. One character is explaining a complex assault on an enemy stronghold in detailed plans with sophisticated plot devices and precision timing. It’s the sort of elaborate and convoluted trial of skills that ached with tedious familiarity. My character, as if channeling my own thoughts on the matter, interjects with a better solution: run in and blow everything up. Oh, crazy, leering, psychotic, bowler-hat man, truly we are shorn from the same bolt of evil cloth.
The bulldozer, speeding hazardously through pedestrian filled streets, tears toward the intersection, and just as it begins its aching and screeching turn, I hurl my body into its path. I soar through the air, ricocheting off a sign at a nearby fish market, turning gracelessly through the air and eventually impaling myself onto a lovely white picket fense. My injuries amass a tidy $20,000 toward my total insurance fraud goal of $250,000. I giggle madly as I launch myself into the path of an oncoming dumptruck.
I imagine somewhere in the bowels of Volition, now tragically run through with THQ's budget slashing sword, scribbled on a whiteboard, underlined and surrounded by a box marked with Do Not Erase is the phrase, "Yes, But Is It Fun?" Such a simple philosophy too rarely applied to games. Great, I need to storm the enemy hotel, blow it up and then base jump down the atrium as the explosions tear out the foundations around me. Sounds terrific, but is it fun? I rarely make such grand statements but at almost every turn Saints Row 2 answers the question with a resounding yes.
The streets are populated with endless diversion, and surprisingly few repetitious ideas. I mean, we’re talking about a game here where you are encouraged to deface high-value property by the liberal dispensing of sewage. Childish? Absolutely. Silly? Without question. Who cares?
That I am staring at a glowing checkpoint some four blocks in the distance is nothing new. That I am riding an all-terrain vehicle and that I am on fire; that is new. I blaze through populated intersections, sending cars exploding high in the air and lighting nearby pedestrians up like dry kindling. Understand that each innocent bystander nets me an additional second to add to my clock when I finally cross that checkpoint, and that is why I veer into a picnic table full of seniors.
I suppose I must address the rampant and completely indiscriminate violence of Saints Row 2. To take it seriously, would be to take the violence of a Kill Bill or Evil Dead seriously. While the game certainly gorges itself on destructive lusts, it never rises to the occasion of malice. Your character doesn’t struggle with his demonic manifestation. He doesn’t even seem to notice it. It is not cruelty; it is a mechanic, and Volition never allows the game to take itself seriously long enough to matter.
This is realistic violence in exactly the same way that internet pornography is a documentary of human sexuality.
I’m as surprised as anyone to be extolling the virtues of Saints Row 2, and holding it up as somehow equal or superior to some of the most critically acclaimed games of 2008. Yet, here I am still playing it after 3 fairly dedicated weeks, and finding new things that make me giddy every time I fire my Xbox 360 up. While certainly not a game for everyone, if the game ever seemed for a moment intriguing, you may be doing yourself a disservice by not playing it.
Let it be enough that it is fun -- hobo throwing, mini-skirt with a tank-top wearing, sewage spewing, crazy to the very top of the rafters fun.