Back during the decade of 2000s, the subgenre often referred to at the time as “Grand Theft Auto clone” was among the most popular subgenres on the market. Following the incredible success of GTA 3 in 2001 and its subsequent sequels in the next few years, it felt like everyone wanted a piece of that pie, which meant we were seeing a large number of crime-based open world action-adventure games with plenty of focus of driving and shooting. Of course, more than a few of these were good enough to genuinely capture people’s attention- but in that group, the one name that perhaps made a stronger mark than any other was Saints Row.
That’s because Volition’s series did something that so many other similar games simply couldn’t- it carved out its own niche, its own identity. Of course, the series borrows heavily from the Grand Theft Auto playbook, from its city-based open world settings and its focus on driving and shooting to the satirical nature of its storytelling and more, but as time has gone on, Saints Row has veered off in its own directions and established a very unique way of doing certain things as well, ways that set it apart from the series that inspired it, and others that followed a similar path. The zany humour and over-the-top nature of Saints Row has become a crucial element of the series’ identity- and it’s fair to say that that all started with Saints Row 2.
Of course, it goes without saying that Saints Row: The Third is when things really went off-rails (in the best possible way) and escalated to a ridiculous level that turned the series into something very, very different from a regular open world crime game. But it was with Saints Row 2 that the series started down that path. Humour had, of course, been an important part of the original Saints Row as well, but the game often played things straight, and in more ways than one, it really did just feel like a straightforward (albeit really well made) Grand Theft Auto clone.
With Saints Row 2, developer Volition very specifically set out to move away from that descriptor. Putting a greater emphasis on over-the-top chaos and irreverence not just in story and tone but also in gameplay, Saints Row 2 attempted to deliver an experience that would still satisfy that urban open world itch, but would do it in a manner that wouldn’t constantly be in the shadow of Rockstar’s behemoth. And it’s fair to say that it succeeded. For many, Saints Row 2 remains the best game in the series (though some will argue that it plays second fiddle to Saints Row: The Third), and it’s easy to see why.
Not only is the game’s important to the series as a whole as it exists today unimpeachable, the balance that it struck between goofiness and (relative) groundedness was among its biggest strengths. The chaotic action in the open world sandbox, the strong sense of personality lent to the game, the over-the-top escalation in the story- all of these were just a few ways the game benefited from toeing that line almost perfectly. Of course, it goes without saying that humour is a very subjective thing, and doesn’t land the same way (or at all) for everyone, while certain parts of Saints Row 2’s humour and sensibilities – as a game that came out in 2008 – haven’t stood the test of time and can be considered dated. For what it was though, and for its time, it clearly worked, and provided a solid foundation for the series to stand on.
It helped that Saints Row 2’s newfound goofiness as compared to its much more straight-shooting predecessor wasn’t its only claim to fame. It was just a flat-out genuinely well-made and enjoyable game as well. Open world saturation wasn’t at the point back then where it is now, and in general, standards were generally lower for games in the genre when Saints Row 2 came out in 2008, so it was obviously very much a product of its time. But man was it an absolute blast. Unsurprisingly, one of its biggest strengths was its open world city setting.
The city of Stilwater has a special place in the hearts of Saints Row fans, and there’s good reason for it- most of which Saints Row 2 is responsible for. Large, densely packed full of fun activities and side missions, varied in its environments, and brought to life by solid visuals (for its time, at least), Saints Row 2’s Stilwater was an amazing playground to set an open world game in. Exploring its nook and crannies never got boring, whether you were taking on the game’s many enjoyable optional activities or just goofing about in the sandbox with your weapons or vehicles or cheat codes or what have you. It was a riotously fun game, simply put.
A huge part of that was the fact that Saints Row 2’s world felt significantly more alive and reactive than its predecessor’s. That, of course, was something that developer Volition focused on in particular during the game’s development, with special emphasis being placed on improving the game’s artificial intelligence. NPCs became much more reactive and dynamic, and would interact with everything around them on a much deeper level, from interacting with other NPCs to engaging in activities together, from reacting to weather differently to so much more. It felt like the city of Stilwater existed independently of the player, and simply walking about in the living and breathing city became a significantly more immersive experience. At the time, in 2008, Saints Row 2’s open world was on the cutting edge of things, and it was doing things with its dynamic, reactive nature that not a lot of other games were doing.
No, Saints Row 2 wasn’t perfect. Parts of the game felt a little rough around the edges and lacking in polish when it first launched, and that feels even truer now for obvious reasons. As mentioned earlier, in terms of writing and humour, some aspects of the experience have aged poorly. Meanwhile, the game’s PC version was an absolute mess, so if you played it on that platform, you probably didn’t have a very good experience. But issues and all, Saints Row 2 was a defining game for the series. It set the tone and lay down the foundations. Sure, the original Saints Row was the one that started it all, but it’s fair to say that the series is what it is today because of things that were set in motion with Saints Row 2.
The upcoming reboot has divided opinion for obvious reasons, with many being thrilled about its much more grounded and back-to-the-basics approach, and others mourning the perceived loss of the series’ heart and soul and its over-the-top personality. For fans of Saints Row 2 though (of which there are more than a few) the reboot’s approach may very well be an exciting one. It looks like Volition is once again looking to strike a balance between goofiness and groundedness with the upcoming Saints Row reboot, just as they did with Saints Row 2. If the game does it nearly as well as the 2008 title did, boy are we in for a treat. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that it’ll be up to the task.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.
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