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The PlayStation 3 edition of Volition's 'other' open-world franchise gets an airing; could the Stilwater sequel give San Andreas devotees what they hunger for...
The world of Stilwater and Saints Row certainly caused a brief ripple amongst early Xbox 360 adopters back in 2006; the first open-world crime-ridden title to appear on the now current-generation platform, the game managed to give players a taste of developer Volition's intentions for the franchise.
Since then, we've already returned briefly to the mean streets of Stilwater at THQ's San Francisco Gamers Day back in the spring, whilst the game has gone on to make an appearance at the comatose E3 2008. Now, just a few months away from its mid-October release, TVG heads back to the gang-ruled city to discover what PlayStation 3 owners can expect when the franchise makes it debut on Sony's console...
Escape From Alcatraz?
In the months leading up to date, both THQ and Volition have been pushing what they see as Saints Row 2's key features: a two-player co-op campaign, and extensive customisation. For our first hands on with the PlayStation 3 edition of the game however, it was time to experience some of the missions players will be getting to grips with come the autumn...oh, and testing out some of the weapons too.
The original title left gamers wondering whether their character survived an explosive encounter on the mayor's boat; Saints Row 2 answers that question. Waking up from a coma in a prison hospital ward years later, a sequence that follows the character customisation screens, it's pretty clear that Volition won't be gently exposing players to violence - the first act of gameplay is to kill a prison nurse. Right, so there'll be no taxi missions to ease players gently into the game then...
An escape to the roof soon follows, before a couple of fire-fights against the SCPD on the dockside of the prison island kicks off the next stage of what is a breathless opening few minutes. Jumping into a boat and leaving Stilwater's own take on Alcatraz, the mission ends with players blowing police boats and helicopters out of the air and water with a powerful machine. It's certainly a statement of intent for the rest of the game.
At this late stage of Saints Row 2's development, it's somewhat reassuring to hear that both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game are on parity with one another. DualShock 3 enabled, the PS3 edition of Saints Row 2 also includes some motion control implementation on SIXAXIS for certain vehicles, namely boats, jet skis, helicopters, and planes.
Thankfully dropping similar functionality for cars and bikes, another mission unlocked for us demonstrated just how well SIXAXIS has been worked into the likes of the boats. Finding our character behind the handles of a jet ski, one of many new vehicles making their way into Saints Row 2, the checkpoint-based mission delivered a surprisingly solid experience. Mauled at times for its underwhelming implementation of motion control, it's actually a relief to see it being used well here. Promises that helicopter control with the SIXAXIS is also impressive were also made, though sadly we were unable to check that out for ourselves.
Beyond the barrage of bullets, bombs, and bazookas, melee combat has also undergone something of a transformation this time around. Not content with throwing in yet more customisation with unlockable fighting styles peppered throughout the story, Volition are also adding a range of 'finisher' moves, which sound awfully suspicious like bloody execution moves. It'll certainly be interesting to see how expansive melee will end up becoming in the final game though, because far and away, combat seems much more skewed towards projectile inflicted death.
The free aim reticule of the first game is making a welcome return; obliterating any potential issues with balancing a lock-on mechanic is the addition of a Gears of War/Resident Evil 4/GTA IV over-the-shoulder view, which is also very welcome. Cover also forms a part of combat, with the usual 'duck behind a barrel or container' dynamic reinforced by a more gangsta 'human shield' feature, enabling gamers to use anybody in the gameworld as temporary makeshift protection. What's especially clever about this is that who you're fighting against will affect how they react to your shield. Cops for instance, won't fire on you unless they get a clear shot, whereas rival gangs aren't quite so conscientious...
New weapons in the game this time around include chainsaws, laser-guided rocket launchers, and sticky explosives, which are used extensively in one mission where players try to destroy a drug-factory in a trailer park.
Taking Back The Row.
Not content with an already impressive depth of customisation, Volition also unveiled several new ways that players will be able to make their own mark on Stilwater. Sticking with the same purple gang colours of the original, players will however get to choose from a range of outfits for the 3rd Street Saints to wear. Like a portfolio of work from a fancy dress store, the gangs can be decked out in a number of themes such as '80s', 'Prephop', 'Pimps', and even 'Ninjas'. The hyper-reality of the sequel just gets more and more reinforced! In addition to that, the studio has recently added a selection of facial expressions that their character can use, from dopey to angry, and these (like the other physical features) can be changed throughout the course of the story by visiting one of the city's plastic surgeons.
Vehicular customisation will also feature, though how extensive this'll actually be come October is yet to be detailed.
Side-quests formed an integral part of the gameplay in the original Saints Row - in fact, a little too integral a part - with story missions only getting unlocked once players had earned enough Respect through completing a mix of activities. A restructuring of the gameplay now means however, that the activities will no longer be the sole way of racking up respect: the addition of diversions also help too. For us, this is by far the most important feature of Saints Row 2, moulding the gameplay into a much more rounded experience.
Gain respect by killing members of rival gangs, tagging graffiti around the city, or even by pulling off stunts on the various vehicles - it now all adds up to more Respect, and quite frankly, this will do a lot for how players enjoy the game.
One key way of enjoying the sequel will be blowing half of the city to kingdom come though, as another mission (one of the many 'stronghold' objectives) during the hands on demonstrated. Set in the city's airport with the aim of disrupting a drugs deal, the mission sees players infiltrate one of the hangers in order to copy some computer files. Not content with driving up the body count, a short gunfight ensued where we had to defend the computer from a counter-attack against ever-increasingly well-equipped enemies. Once thwarted, attention turned to outside the hanger, as the gang's trucks became targets, quickly followed by a number of planes that were trying to taxi down the runway to escape. A couple of those rocket launchers soon put a stop to that that though...
There's a definite sense of fun that runs through every line of code of Saints Row 2, with features and details there to build and develop a strong and enjoyable experience. Sure, there are a lot of things in the game that have been developed from its predecessor or Rockstar's back catalogue - but it's looking very much like its own game this time around.