SummaryCloning without substance
The GoodThe significance of GTA III for the game industry of the new millennium can be compared to the influence of Doom to that of the 1990's (actually, for me GTA III will always remain a sort of a "Wolf 3D", the "real Doom" being Vice City). Just like the market was flooded by FPSs following the release of Doom, it got overrun by sandbox driving and action games after GTA III showed us the fun behind malicious mayhem and other criminal activities.
Saints Row 2 copies the concept, the style, and the core gameplay of GTA games almost verbatim. It focuses mainly on the violence, disregarding the genre's evolution; it's basically a kind of a "back to the roots" experience, a radical version of an early GTA template. I haven't played the first Saints Row due to my detachment from the console world in recent years, so I can't comment on the differences between the two; from what I heard, it isn't that big. Basically, if all you care about is running around a large city and wreaking havoc, Saints Row 2 might just deliver the goods.
It does add a few interesting gimmicks to the recipe. By far the most fun I had with the game was during character creation. The physical customization is extremely detailed; you can create a ridiculously-looking freak of a protagonist and amuse yourself by watching cutscenes where your character appears just as you have made him (or her). I created a grotesquely obese, somewhat dark-skinned man with purple hair, full brown beard, green lipstick, and a completely idiotic expression; I then forced him to walk around the game world wielding a rocket launcher but wearing nothing but a top and pink tights.
There are plenty of side activities to do, and some of them can be quite entertaining. My personal favorite was driving around a big truck and spraying everything around me with manure. Few things can compare to the satisfaction of stopping in front of a police car and methodically reducing it and the nervously shooting cops to an accurate pile of crap.
Other than that, it's in many ways a replica of Vice City with a touch of San Andreas: you are a vicious criminal, and all you do is kill, earning "respect" by particularly shady or even gruesome deeds (in my opinion, more so than whatever Tommy Vercetti or even CJ did on their turfs). There is loyalty and a friendship of sorts between the protagonist and other gang members, but they are all so psychotic that it is hard to take any sentiment that passes here and there seriously.
The BadFree-roaming driving and action games are often called "GTA clones". However, many of those games, while "cloning" the basic formula, added interesting elements of their own. Mafia had a serious story, realism and advanced shooting stages; Getaway provided an intense cinematic experience in an authentic environment; True Crime put you on the right side of the law and had hand-to-hand fighting sequences; Mercenaries transferred destructive gameplay into a war zone, and so on. Each of these games enriched the genre; Saints Row 2, on the other hand, pulls it back.
The game tries very hard to be "more GTA than GTA itself". But behind all its gimmicks lies artificially created premise and concept that haven't really advanced since Vice City. The game is focused entirely on criminals; it is all about road mayhem and destruction exactly the same way it was in GTA games; it copies that series' mission structure and visual style, and even attempts to recreate its trademark dark humor. In essence, this game appeals to the "lowest", most basic, most primitive aspects of the genre: it feeds us a huge amounts of diversions, all the while forgetting that there must be something in it to distinguish it from other games besides the possibility to customize the protagonist.
Vice City was interesting in its cynical, grotesque presentation of a criminal world. Saints Row 2 is rooted in the same style, but the "softening" of the macabre story with humor doesn't work this time. It tries to entertain at all costs, but fails to find the right balance between the serious and the funny. All the characters in the game are psychotic killers; the storyline is full of cruelty, murder and torture; yet the game always returns to pleasant, nonchalant chit-chat between the main characters as if they were protagonists of a Monkey Island game. This crass discrepancy ruins the game's tone, as it stubbornly tries to force us to like characters that are impossible to like. GTA games had detestable characters and laughed at them with bitter cynicism; Saints Row 2 has detestable characters and refuses to admit it.
This kind of calculated, "promotional" approach to everything bothered me in the gameplay even more than it did in the story. At first sight there is a lot of variety in Saints Row 2; but very soon you discover that every single mission is built like a simple, unimaginative mini-game that constantly holds the player by the hand. Open-word games are supposed to be about freedom; in Saints Row 2, freedom is a big illusion. All the missions can be approached only in a strictly prescribed fashion; needless checkpoints appear every few meters; you basically do what the designers tell you to do. Again, this mini-game-like attitude was evident in GTA games as well; but they have evolved over time, while Saints Row hasn't.
On top of all that, there are other annoyances, of which I should mention the irritatingly high amount of "places of interest", which turns the city into some sort of an amusement park rather than a believable location; the necessity to seek out said places and perform side missions before you are magically allowed to proceed with the story; and the weak, unattractive graphics, both from artistic and technical standpoint. I rarely complain about technical issues, but when I am unable to control a car normally because of the choppy framerate while playing the game on a powerful rig with medium settings, I'd say it adds insult to the already substantial injury.
The Bottom LineI was almost ready to describe Saints Row 2 as "guilty pleasure" when I realized there was more guilt than pleasure there. It can provide a few hours of rough, dirty fun, but for that I'd rather choose Mercenaries 2. Devoid of true originality and content, Saints Row 2 is an unpleasant, hollow experience that can be easily surpassed by those open-world driving and action games that actually contribute something to the development of the genre.