Saints Row 2 Was So Good

Saints Row 2 is the greatest sandbox game of all time. Grand Theft Auto 5 has a bigger budget, Saints Row IV gives you superpowers, The Witcher 3 has a better story and Assassin's Creed II takes you to far more exotic locales, but Saints Row 2 holds a special place in my heart. It's not the most original or best-designed sandbox game of all time, but it features some of the best player motivation in games. In sandbox games, players run around the world playing a bunch of minigames and completing the story until there's nothing left to do or they get bored. It's a formula established by Grand Theft Auto 3 back in 2001, one that has remained largely unchanged. Saints Row started off as an unoriginal GTA clone in 2006, though the series has since forged an identity of its own, one in which you use superpowers to fight space aliens and the forces of hell.

Saints Row 2 was my introduction to the series, and it quickly acclimated me to the game and its world. Rather than a lengthy, drawn-out cutscene followed by an extremely linear gameplay sequence like you'd see in Uncharted or Call of Duty, Saints Row 2 teaches you everything you need to know in about 90 seconds.

You're a criminal badarse who's been in a coma for years, a guy named Carlos gets himself shanked to help you escape from prison and the police hint at another situation, which you later discover is your former Saints gang member Johnny Gat's murder trial. You hop in a truck and race on over, rescue Gat, shoot your way out of the courthouse, find a place to hide and then you're free to do whatever you'd like.

A great game pits you against a challenge, gives you a hard time, but ultimately you prevail through skill and persistence. It's one of the reasons people like Dark Souls so much. Bad games, on the other hand, just want the player to feel powerful. They do everything to butter the player up, to give them accomplishment without the challenge. There's something really exciting about going up against a boss who's so much bigger than you and absolutely terrifying, but, through skilled play, you manage to defeat it.

A bad game makes the mistake of assuming that gamers want all their games to be power fantasies, experiences with no resistance or risk. They do everything to butter the player up, to make them feel unstoppable. Anyone who really believes this, of course, is demonstrably wrong: Many gamers pride themselves on beating hard games at the highest difficulties; they look down on games that provide them with easy modes or ways to skip challenging gameplay. Still, they are correct in understanding that players want to feel powerful. It's just that a power fantasy can never make anyone actually feel that way. It's like playing tug of war with only one side. Pulling a rope with no resistance isn't fun.

Saints Row 2 understands that players want to feel badarse but also want to feel like they earn it. To do this, the game establishes some interesting stakes: You were great, you were dangerous, you do scare people, but now things have changed. Your greatest enemy, once a lowly undercover cop, is now the chief of police. The Saints fell apart with you gone, and three new gangs have overtaken your territory. Ultor, a fashion company, has turned your base into a museum.

Yeah, you were great (and still are), but nobody else believes it, so it's time to remind them.

A great game will always provide the player with good motivation to take action. Assassin's Creed II has the Borgias murder your father and brothers in front of you and makes you a wanted man. Half-Life starts with all your coworkers tut-tutting you for being late to an important experiment. Forza Horizon begins with you dead last, with hundreds of fellow drivers ahead of you in popularity and capability; many racers express disdain for you upon first meeting. In every one of these games, you prove your greatness through gameplay. You take back the respect you deserve. You earn your happy ending.

In Saints Row 2, a lot of this has to do with the excellent characters who surround you. When Carlos breaks you out of prison, he begs for a slot in the gang. He's young and inexperienced, but beggars can't be choosers, so you take him on as one of your lieutenants. Along with him are Shaundi and Pierce, both as inexperienced but enthusiastic as Carlos. The Saints become something of a family; the characters aren't just NPCs who stand around your base giving you quests, they're people with their own interesting backstories and characterisation.

Pierce bounces off the player especially well. He enjoys subterfuge and seems continually flustered by the player's preference for directness. It's always played off as comedic, and it reinforces the gameplay wonderfully. Your character's preferences closely mirror the style of gameplay that Volition has built the game around; what you want to do just happens to be the best way to do things, whether that's causing as much property damage as possible for television ratings or spewing sewage at houses and shops to lower property values for a shifty real estate agent. Chaos and carnage is the name of your character's game. It's what you're good at, and it's what the game is good at providing.

The other characters exist to reinforce this relationship through positive feedback. Do something awesome and they give you the opportunity to do something even more awesome. Johnny eggs you on. Pierce comes up with overly complex plans that you quickly overrule, and he goes along with them, recognising that they're better. Carlos takes you on one of the most mischievous missions in the game.

Then things get real.

After you sabotage The Brotherhood's tattoo parlour, which results in toxic waste being injected into their leader's face, his girlfriend, Jessica, hatches a plan to kidnap Carlos. This mission is, without a doubt, the most memorable I've ever played in a sandbox game. The Brotherhood proceed to chain Carlos to one of their trucks and drag him down the road. You chase them down in your car, trying to get them to stop, trying to save Carlos, but you can't. Your only choice is to put Carlos out of his misery.

Many games start with a motivation for revenge. Maybe a bad guy burns down your village or someone shoots you and leaves you for dead. This is something in fiction called assumed empathy; imagine how you'd feel if your best friend was shot. Now imagine how you'd feel if someone said, "I'm your best friend" and then got shot. Too often, games do the latter. Saints Row 2 is one of the few games that spends a lot of time establishing player motivation by using its characters. The most powerful actions you take in the game were all set up long in advance. It's a rare slow-burn approach to storytelling.

Johnny Gat also functions in this way. He's one of the old-school Saints, your right hand, best friend and one of the coolest characters in the game. He plays everything cool, he's got all the best lines, and the two of you frequently finish each other's sentences. He's a loyal and indispensable ally.

The Ronin decide to take him out late in the game. They almost succeed, but his girlfriend, Aisha, manages to stop them, at the cost of her own life. This practically breaks Gat; the ensuing escape, where you and another Saint rescue Gat and take him to the hospital under an increasingly large number of Ronin assassins, is another moment of tragedy in an intensely personal game.

I'm a big fan of Grand Theft Auto V, but almost all of the decisions you make in the game are because other people want you to make them. Heck, it's like the entire game is about doing things because someone's blackmailing you into doing it. I can't think of a moment in GTAV that felt as satisfying as taking over the town in Saints Row 2. Red Dead Redemption did the same thing: John Marston does what he does because he's been blackmailed. Assassin's Creed II is one of my favourite games of all time, but after your family is murdered early on, it takes two full games to carry out your revenge plot, by which time the lust for revenge has faded.

Unlike these games, your character's motivation for revenge in Saints Row 2 is deeply personal because you've built up a relationship with the characters you're avenging. You crack jokes, you fight together and you'd die for each other. Every step of the way, you're building meaningful bonds, and when the time comes to take revenge, oh boy does it feel great.

The Ronin are a satisfying enemy to overcome, not just because of what they did to Johnny, but because they're so egotistical. Since Saints Row 2 is about reminding everyone why you're so great, The Ronin are the perfect foil because they think they're better than you. Defeating them isn't just about getting revenge for Johnny, it's about retaking your dignity and reminding people why you deserve their respect. That's what makes their defeat so personally satisfying.

Most games fail when they lack any sort of emotional satisfaction. Last year's Just Cause 3 provided some occasional thrills, but the vast majority of the game was about blowing stuff up. There was no reason to care about the characters; my loyal friend was an unlikable klutz. Everyone said I had to respect the President, but the President never really did anything worth respecting. It might be mechanically superior to Saints Row 2, but I barely remember any of it because it wasn't personal.

Just Cause 3, like many games, focuses on creating unique mechanics that compliment its gameplay rather than the relationships that make the gameplay personal and affecting. The key focus should be on how game mechanics can be used to make us feel things. What mechanics do to us is far more important than how unique or perfectly implemented they are.

Nowadays, Saints Row has gone in a completely different direction. It's still got a great crew — Shaundi's personal crisis in subsequent games or Pierce's need to be recognised for his intelligence are awesome, and moments like singing "What I Got" while racing through the streets of a new city stand out as some of the best in video games. But the increased focus on being zany and weird may be holding it back. I'm happy to partner up with Blackbeard in hell or defeat an evil alien space overlord who blew up Earth, but the three post-Saints Row 2 instalments just aren't as personal.

Saints Row 2 works because playing through the game is a process by which you prove yourself to the characters in the game instead of simply completing objectives; when victory comes, it feels completely earned. As if that weren't enough, Saints Row 2 also takes you on a journey with an incomparable cast and crew of allies. Maybe one day, Deep Silver and Volition will remaster it. Until that day comes, however, I'm happy with what I got.


Comments

    THIS!!

    this was the first saints row game i played. and definitely the best. 3 and 4 were fun, but this game just seemed to have it all.
    i had an asian avatar with grey hair and a cockney accent, he was so bad ass. think im going to revisit this game again.

      Yeah, it hit that ideal balance of gameplay and silliness.

      Sometimes people play games just to be entertained, not challenged, and for the most part this delivered on that in spades. But still had the challenge there if you wanted.

      Might have to revisit it myself. Or play SR4 or whichever version PS Plus is giving away this month.

        4 was really disappointing to me.
        becasue you basically we OP and could do whatever you want. sure it was fun being ample to wail on people and see funny kill animations and go super speed and jump like a nutter, but it just wasnt as satisfying as Saints Row 2. i didnt even end up finishing it.

          Fair enough. As its free it costs me nothing to check it out, and if its dull I move on to something else.

          As I said though, sometimes being OP is fun in itself, when I just want to switch off and blow stuff up or something like that. For some people, not every game needs to be Dark Souls.

            yeah, i definitely had fun with 4, but because of that, i dont think it was enough to keep me going through the whole game.

            For me it's all about being engaging. Dark Souls engages me by challenging my skill, but Saints Row engages me by giving me a beat to dance to. It's like skateboarding. Sometimes you compete, sometimes you work towards a goal, but other times you just need to roll around and be creative.

          That was the biggest issue with 4. The pacing was all off. The humor was there, the awesome weapons, and the return of the games flagship character, but it was way too easy to become an inhuman killing machine.

          Then with 3 by combining the three gangs, it felt less personal overall. 2 kept the gangs separate and each storyline felt great, and the last mission made me feel like I actually accomplished something after taking over the town and dealing with the man behind the scenes.

        Might have to revisit it myself. Or play SR4 or whichever version PS Plus is giving away this month.

        It's Gat out of Hell, which is more like DLC. Rather than playing as your own character you play as Johnny Gat or Kinzie, in hell, with demonic powers. It's a little small but it's a reasonably long sandbox game. I had fun with it but it's not a main series Saints Row game.
        The big thing is learning how to fly properly. It's sort of counter-intuitive and hard to learn at first but once you get used to it it becomes very natural.

          Cheers. I assumed it was the game proper PLUS GooH, with no real reason for thinking that other than expecting a full game rather than DLC.

    Really hit it at three for me.
    Coop with a friend where the game just seamlessly let you play through the story, cut scenes just ignored you had a buddy. Him as batman, me as joker...or Neo and mr smith etc. etc. etc. custom cars and characters... It was just so fun.
    Every session ended in a giant purple dick bat fight.
    Sigh, the good days.

      3 was my first Saint's game. Totally blew my mind. I remember being distressed at the thought the series might disappear with the collapse of THQ. Unfortunately, after the wonder of 3 I found 4 was almost completely impenetrable. The challenges were too confusing/difficult to bother with, the story was a step too far to engage with and the super powers were not all that much fun. I'm still hopeful that there is an SR5 and that it gets back to the things I loved in 3.

      Also - the utter OP-ness (hehe, see what I did there?) of the giant purple dildo was hilarious.

        co-op was fun, especially the giant foam hand duels

        give 2 a try. you dont have any type of super powers, but like the article says, its a great balance and a very enjoyable game.

          I shall add it to my massive tower (it's too big to be called a pile) of shame.

            ha ha, yeah. ive got one of those too.

    You can blow a train off the rails with a pipe bomb. That’s everything you need to know.

    I really hated the direction they took with SR III and particularly IV. I understand that they couldn’t compete with the detailed open world of GTAV and didn’t have the time, budget or skills to try…. but the direction they went in left the game feeling silly to the extent of pointlessness. There’s a satisfaction in having your human character bounce off a taxi bonnet and under a truck during the insurance fraud minigame that’s completely missing when you make your magic flying man fly into a truck then harmlessly sail 3km across the map.

    The first two games “kept it real” enough to allow you to relate to the characters while being ludicrous enough to allow you to experiment.

      The SR2 format was so comfortable to me that changing it up in SR3 just didn't feel right. It really rushed through the "world building" and put me in a world that felt oddly sterile, and replaced half the cast with characters that while varied and colorful felt a little bit shallow and cookie cutter. But I feel like that was their stepping stone to SR4 which really felt like a step up to me. I'd rank them SR 2 > SR4 > SR3. I only played the first for about an hour so I can't place it on my list.

    Excellent article, sums up my feels exactly. I haven't really enjoyed the last few GTA's and SR game (since #2), couldn't really put it into words, but it seems someone else did it for me. While GTA V was a technical marvel and from a gameplay point of view nearly flawless. I just couldn't get over the disjointed nature of the three simultaneously playable characters, I think it really hurt the narrative of the game overall and ultimately left me not really caring for any of them (other than Trevor because well he was just hilarious). SR III and IV were just a little to bat shit crazy for my liking (enjoyable for mindless fun but just not memorable overall as games)

    I've played all 4 games and SR2 will always be my favorite, for pretty much all the reasons you listed here, but another good one was something they removed from 3 & 4, the ability to replay missions and cutscenes!

    After 100%ing the game, I still enjoyed going into the character creator and making complete freaks and watching them interact in the various sequences, my personal fave was an overweight Sonic cosplayer.

    Plus it was the prefect balance of comedy and drama, it wasn't too far in either direction, then the last two went full on nut bar and I just stopped caring about the plot, plus with the new engine they used, the customization took a massive hit.

    Last edited 11/07/16 11:42 am

      Remember that video someone did on YouTube "Gabe Newell Rise to Power" which was just all the SR2 cutscenes with a GabeN avatar! That shit was priceless!

    Finally! an article worth reading!
    Their last good game before they hired immature 12 year olds to develop the rest

    I didn't really feel any empathy for the player character in SR2. Most of the time I thought they were a total jerk, and I didn't want to be a total jerk. I wanted to be a respectful, classy villain.

    I find it a bit jarring when a game gives you total control over your character's appearance, voice, etc., but absolutely none over their actions and personality.

    Fun game, though. The "Insurance Scam" minigames were my favourite :-)

      i think that was the point though, the story telling required the player character to be a particular cast type for it to all make sense and for them to fit in with the saints and have the relationship they did with all the other characters.

    I'm a huge fan of these games. They changed direction a bit early on but mechanically they're genius. Saints Row 2 in particular was extremely well designed. I mean it's easy to say it's just stupid non-sense at surface level, guns and explosions for the sake of it, but there's a lot of thought behind that stupidity. They really struck a balance between insanity, freedom and rules. Someone over at Volition seems to have a knack for understanding how mayhem driven sandbox games flow.

    A good example is the cars. In Saints Row 2 they don't make the joke cars or the standard cars terrible. They're not as good as the great cars but they kept the performance gap small because they know that driving around in a beat up old car wasn't fun. They still had the rule of 'not all cars are great, so you'll appreciate the good ones' but they didn't punish you for losing your good car. They recognise car travel as a vital, unavoidable part of the game. Giving players easy access to decent cars is as important as giving them easy access to decent weapons.
    In GTA they had a different attitude. Cars were either great or terrible and they had no problem filling a poor part of town with thematically appropriate but mechanically awful cars. Particularly in Saints Row 2's rival GTAIV where they wanted a realistic living world. You'd get out of a car that's about to explode and then spend 10 minutes running around because the only cars that spawn in that area are so bad they're not worth stealing. In GTAIV I had a lot of stalemate police chases that dragged on too long.
    Meanwhile Saints Row said 'hey, we know you're probably going to destroy this sweet car you customised, so we'll let you respawn stuff in your garage. It doesn't make any sense but neither does getting shot a thousand times and waking up in hospital with a bit less money. Just have fun with it'. That attitude is the heart of Saints Row. It's the freedom to just change anything about your character at any point for any reason because ultimately it's just a string of variables in a save file. It's understanding that highs can't exist without lows, but balance can be achieved without the lows being boring. It's realising that challenging the player isn't the only way to engage them.

    The other subtle thing is their attitude towards features. Saints Row 2 had plenty of bugs and stuff, but on the design side of pretty much all the features they included were top notch. They didn't just go 'ok, we can mod this fire truck to shoot poo' they sat down and designed a proper side-game around it. Think about that for a second. They made an extremely dumb, immature throwaway joke... then dedicated resources to doing it properly.
    Activities like Insurance Fraud were stupid but they play well enough they could be a standalone smartphone games. The co-op could have very easily just been 'another player appears in your game' but they took it a few steps further and added features. It doesn't seem that impressive but it's something they did consistently with almost everything. Again the final product was glitchy, but they set the bar high across the board with features.
    I always bring up the jetpack in San Andreas. It's a good example of a feature that just exists because they could do it. A lot of games go this route with their features. Someone saw they could apply the jet mechanics to the player and people had fun with it for a second so they put it in. It's like a Game Shark hack. However I believe with Saints Row 2 they wouldn't have stopped there. I think they would have committed to either finding a use for it and doing it properly or not doing it at all. It would have turned into something like SEGA's Iron Man or DC Universe Online's flight movement mode and it would have had a purpose. There's no guarantee it would have been good but I don't think they would have let it into the game as just a physics hack.

    Lastly Saints Row introduced an really underrated feature which should be a staple of the open world sandbox genre. They drip feed you cheat codes. They don't let you unlock them right off the bat, but they understand if you've done all the races you've probably sunk enough time into the game that you're a little bored with some of the less convenient aspects like driving from one side of the map to the other, so they give you free unlimited nitro. People generally play these games until they either get 100% or they get bored and the cheats serve as a way to help those completionists by giving them the option to legally cheat/remove grindy filler tasks, or to help the people who play until they get bored by spicing things up.

    Man, I really love Saints Row.

      I just wanted to say. I agreed wholeheartedly with the article, and I think that SR2 was the BEST sandbox game every made, and if pushed I would declare it best game ever, overall.

      But YOUR comment was the one that made me go home and replay it tonight. Thank you.

    Fantastic article.

    I agree with every aspect. SR2 was magnificent.....

    The weapon upgrading system was a lot of fun. Also, the various rewards for completing optional side missions were so worthwhile; providing you with unique and rare weapons e.g. AR-50 XMAC Special, XS-2 Ultimax and the Kobra.

    Memories....

    SR3 was my personal fave of the whole series. The way it went for all out over-the-top in everything, there was so much I loved about it.

    The Carlos mission was brutal, and the revenge was even sweeter. SPOILER ALERT! Putting Jessica in the back of her car, driving to the arena, and watching Maero land on her was a brutally satisfying moment in the game. Also, the Ronin attacking the funeral of Aisha made me want to bury all of them alive, and being able to do so was absolutely what I wanted. Everyone was screwing around with GTA:4 when it came out among my friends, and I was perfectly content causing Mayhem in Stillwater.

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