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Following the explosive climax of the 2006 original, THQ and Volition are back in 2008 with the next instalment charting the gangsta story of Stilwater's Saints...
For some, Volition Inc.'s 2006 open-world action title Saints Row was a decent stab at creating some competition for Rockstar Games' GTA IV, getting a release far in advance of its established rival. For others, it was a bug-ridden watered down version of GTA, one without the planes, bikes, and vast expanses of land that San Andreas had indulged gamers with eighteen months before. In truth, the original Saints Row was a bit of both, offering a solid enough foundation for a future franchise without ever really looking like pushing CJ Johnson, Sweet, and Big Smoke off their throne.
Two years later, Volition Inc., and the city of Stilwater are preparing to make their return on Xbox 360, and their first mark on PlayStation 3 with the second title in the series, the aptly named Saints Row 2. At an event held underneath the mean streets of London, TVG got a first hand look at what's in store...
A Facelift For All Sorts.Set between ten and fifteen years after the somewhat explosive cliff-hanger in the original, Saints Row 2 will begin with the player's character waking up from a coma in a prison infirmary. Remembering the betrayal at the end of the previous instalment, and the fact that they've lost everything, the character sets out on a darker and sinister tale of revenge and a fresh bid to create a new incarnation of the 3rd Street Saints.
Character customisation was always a big part of the original title, and Saints Row 2 is far from deviating from the course set by its predecessor. In fact, Volition seems to be putting customisation of all kinds right at the heart of the game, beginning the Saints Row 2 unveiling with a focused and in-depth look at how its being extended this around. Male or female? Short or tall? Black or white? Thin or morbidly obese? Muscular or weedy? OK, so perhaps these are the sort of decisions that players will be used to from other games, but how about choosing the swagger of their character like the 'Gangsta Lean' or variations of a 'Thug Style'? How about choosing from a selection of taunts and compliments, with apt names including the 'Neck Slice', the 'Spit n Flick', and the classic laddish gesture, 'Ride the Donkey'? Injecting some humour, the addition of a 'Riverdance' compliment proves that the despite the darker tone, Saints Row 2 will retain some light-hearted elements. Of course, an 'import Saints Row character' button would be a neat option for the sake of the franchise vets, though with the new customisation options and technologies being added this time around, such an enticing ability is unlikely. Additional customisation will come in the form of gang and vehicular combat (the latter also affecting the performance of the cars), though details on both are largely being held back for now.
The Cribs however, were a different matter.
Tripling the number of cribs in Stilwater to nine, players will be able to mould and develop the interiors of their loft-apartment bases, taking them across three style levels that boost the level of 'Respect' (yes, that gameplay mechanic very much remains at the heart of the Saints Row experience) as they go. Customising the apartments with home theatre systems, pool tables, even stripper poles, make a more entertaining pad for the player's character and their homies, who quite happily chug on beer and generally have a good time. The fact that there's actually a point to upgrading the pads rather than just act as some sort of home improvement dynamic is something that we're grateful for - quite frankly, any help in raising the speed that 'Respect' can be earned is alright by us! Taking them from near slums to apartments that would quite easily make a case study on Grand Designs, the pimped up cribs are set to become the ultimate bachelor pads - for him or her.
What's On In StilwaterThree new gangs have filled the vacuum after the widespread eradication of Los Carnales and the other rival gangs in the original title, this time featuring overly stylised mobs such as the drug-pushing Caribbean gang, the Sons of Samedi. Each with their own storylines and agendas against the player and the reformed 3rd Street Saints, Volition naturally didn't go into any great detail about any of the twists in the plot, but if the climax to its predecessor is anything to go by there'll likely be a few.
The streets of Stilwater have changed beyond the gangsta landscape however. The intervening years between Saints Row 2 and its predecessor has resulted in the crime-ridden metropolis growing by about 45%, with six new districts added to the sprawl, including a trailer park worthy of the name 'Chez Redneck'. The location for one of the missions demonstrated during the presentation, the static caravans of the Trailer Park district proved to be a prime place to show off one of the new weapons making their debut in the game: limpet satchel charges. A versatile explosive in every sense, the charges ripped the caravans to shreds, offering a glimpse at the boost to the visuals being implemented by Volition this time around. The near-whiteout of the resulting explosion was a show of HDR glory, and ensures that gamers should probably wear high-density sunglasses when they get their mitts on Saints Row 2 later in the year. The explosions were one of the few impressive details about the first game, and Volition hasn't been resting on that rare laurel; these are explosions of skin-blistering proportions.
The charges themselves can also be thrown onto an enemy gang member, turning them into impromptu human bombs that can take down several of their cohorts with a single hit. Handy, though an ability that will no doubt be picked up and scorned upon by some of the more 'sensitive' elements of society, the limpets look to be very handy items to have on the streets. Let's hope that they're just the tip of a whole new iceberg of weapons to help players forcibly take the gang turf of Stilwater one block at a time...
But the visual gloss will be extending beyond the explosive elements of the game; Volition are actively improving the look of Saints Row 2, with an increased level of detail and the toning down of the garish colour schemes on show last time around. The rag-doll physics, which at times re-defined the very meaning of the phrase 'over-the-top' is also being reworked, and now looks to be a lot less preposterous. Improved lighting and shadows, not forgetting draw distances, also meant that Saints Row 2 is set to become a much more polished affair compared to the original.
Ready...Aim...Combat is also being looked at, and that goes beyond just adding new weaponry. Players will be able to use a closer over-the-shoulder view to pull off shots of increased accuracy, with bonus Respect points rewarded for fancy shots too. An issue that's always been fair long-standing in third-person sandbox shooters, it now seems that both Saints Row 2 and its competition at Rockstar Games are latching onto improving the combat experience all round, which can only benefit the player.
Using pedestrians and rival gang members as human shields is also a new combat mechanic this time around, challenging tactical changes to opposing AI and offering gamers an impromptu escape plan (not to mention the ability to absorb an extra few bullets). Stilwater's cops for instance won't fire upon a player if they use a human shield - unless they're shot at first - though it's worth pointing out that gang members are a little less fussy. Human shields can also be thrown at shooters as a distraction, and there's also the option to 'silence' them once the gamer's character is out of danger...we told you Saints Row 2 was darker.
One element that was very obviously missing from the first title was the ability to use planes or helicopters, both of which had been utilised in the GTA franchise on the previous generation platforms. Saints Row 2 naturally changes all this, and will include a sheer air armada or flying vehicles, including biplanes, executive jets, helicopters, and even small fighter jets. Whether the last example needs to make an appearance over the fictitious US city of course is up for debate, but hopefully Volition will make use of it in the actually gameplay - perhaps limited bombing runs in an enemy gang's territory???
It's also worth pointing out that Saints Row 2 won't feature Home support on PlayStation 3, though it will offer SIXAXIS motion control support for driving and flying vehicles. Let's just hope that the team is paying close attention to past games where motion control falls flat; sadly, we're looking at you Factor 5.
The first open-world title to offer multiplayer gametypes, even if they were very much separated from the solo campaign, Saints Row 2 goes one better and will be giving players the chance to progress in a fully integrated co-op mode. Apparently seamless, it'll certainly be interesting to see whether there'll be self-contained co-op gameplay or whether it'll be some sort of playground of sandbox destruction over PSN and Live later in the summer.
Despite putting forward a very confident presentation to outline some of the new features heading to Stilwater in just a few months time, with Producer Greg Donovan going so far as to say that "we wouldn't be releasing this if we didn't think it would be competitive," there's little doubt that both Volition and THQ would have preferred Take Two Interactive not to have delayed Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto IV to April this year. That's not to say that Saints Row 2 won't be able to stand on its own two feet; everything about the game from what we've seen shows a much more developed experience this time around, with improvements right across the board including a less rigid gameplay structure, perfect for a more immersive open-world.
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