Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Saints Row 2 (PC)


Good ports of console games to PC are the exception rather than the rule. Recently I found one of those surprising and pleasing exceptions in the form of GTA4... which probably biased me a bit against Saints Row 2, since the games are so very similar but the quality of each port have a wide gulf between them.

Comparisons between SR2 and GTA4 are inevitable, so hunker in and get ready for them.

Graphics -
While the overall look and feel of the game is a degree simpler than the detail of GTA4, the human character models I found to actually be of better quality, especially the textures. The plot love interest in GTA4 for example, Kate, often looked hunched and/or blurred and ugly, with dark smudges marring her face and really for a purported love interest I felt they did a horrible job. You don't run into this sort of unintentional ugliness in SR2. Oh, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of fat, ugly and old people who can look of varying degrees between comedic and revolting, but when they do it's intentional.

Where everything in GTA4 was dull, dark, muted, realistic and oppressive, SR2 is over the top, cartoony, bright, flashy and somewhat surreal really. At least that's what they were going for. The port was not kind here, and the game takes a noticeable performance hit vs the console version, where things often don't look quite as good or run nearly as smooth. There are frequent stutters and framerate drops for little reason. The lighting effects in particular are completely jacked up.

Inexplicably, several widescreen format resolutions are completely missing from the selection, as the widescreen resolution choices jump from 1280x720 to 1920x1200. That's basically a jump from a 17" wide LCD to a 24" wide LCD, ignoring the resolutions common to the widescreen LCDs ranging from 19 to 22 inches (where the best deals of size vs price are commonly found)... no 1440x900 or 1680x1050 to be found.


Sound -
One thing the game definitely has going for it is the voice acting. The delivery of the lines are believable, 99% of the time anyway. There's quite a bit of extremely foul language, sometimes bordering on the 13-year-old "I'm cussing because mom's out of earshot" level. I realize this is how "gangstas" talk for the most part, but it does get downright gratuitous to the point of sometimes sounding unnaturally forced. On the whole though, the dialogue is well done (and it's a b-star studded cast. I think I heard Doogie Howser at one point). I do wish they'd provided more audio "personality" options for your character, but seeing as how every personality option requires basically the entire range of dialogue for the main character for the entire game to be rerecorded by a different actor, I can see why they limited it to 3 men and 3 women.

Volume is a constant problem though... people talking even a small distance away from you can sound almost silent while you yourself can be incredibly deafening. I've seen this sometimes in other games (especially World of Warcraft), and the problem usually lies in Creative Labs' EAX. In the other games, disabling EAX support fixed the problem but I haven't found the way to do that here yet. Naturally, if this is the case, people without Sound Blaster cards won't experience this problem.

The radio selection, and the number of songs on each, leave quite a bit to be desired though. What can I say, I miss Vladivostok FM.

Control -
This usually doesn't get its own section in my reviews, but it does this time because it's such a problem. The graphics and sound have their little hiccups due to the transition from console, but the controls often have real problems. The cross from dual analog gamepad to mouse and keyboard here was slapdash, and it shows. Some activities, such as graffiti tagging, are frustratingly unresponsive because the mouse sensitivity and ballistics are suddenly shunted into the "insufferable" playability band. A number of the controls are unintuitive (sometimes bordering on the random), and at least once every minute or two the keyboard stopped accepting movement input for me altogether, causing me to miss a turn, crash, or stand there getting shot for a second or so until the game decided I was allowed to control my movement again. Some of the cars in the game are downright undrivable at any speed and in any circumstance.


One control gimmick that is not the fault of the conversion, but is just an inborn game flaw, is the "precision accuracy" shooting mode is frequently anything but. Since the view switches to zoom in AND move to the side, your shots often become blocked by things that don't appear to obstruct line of sight. Also, the targeting reticle lights up to indicate when it is on a target, but it does this even if you don't have line of sight... so if you're ducking behind a couch and try to shoot somebody, the reticle will trick you into thinking you CAN shoot them when in reality your bullets are just hitting the couch immediately in front of you. It would have just been better to have an option to switch to first person perspective for "precision accuracy" rather than this nonsense.

Movement as a pedestrian is also very much imprecise, with no way to turn your character's facing without also taking a step in that direction. The "walk" key is inconveniently bound to caps lock (and yet is counter-intuitively a hold-down modifier instead of a simple toggle on/off switch... and there's few things in the PC gamer's mind that will fry as many little circuits as having to hold down caps lock with your pinky to modify something).

Gameplay -
But unlike GTA4, at least you don't have friends and relations calling you up every 30 seconds to go to bowling alleys, bars, and strip clubs or else they won't like you any more. That alone was enough to merit some kudos from me. There are other differences, of course, some better and some worse.

The best way I can summarize the difference is GTA4 feels more like a simulator and SR2 feels more like an arcade game. GTA's pace is more sedate, the action more cerebral, the controls more precise and responsive, the effects understated and often subtle. Saints Row 2 doesn't really encourage you to fire from cover or be careful and precise in any way... or even to think things through. You run, you gun, you blow stuff up. Sometimes it's satisfying to be much more direct and less convoluted in your methodry. The phrase that first occurred to me while playing it was "Fisher Price My First GTA Clone." But as you play it, it grows on you, and once you accept it isn't GTA and adapt to the direct, brute force style the game wants, it grows on you.

Basically how the game progresses is thus... to do the missions that advance the plot, you have to earn enough "respect" to start a mission. The respect meter is filled by doing stunts, driving recklessly, and playing subgames they call "activities." These activities are all over the city, and entail such things as causing as much monetary damage as possible in a given area, spraying graffiti, acting bodyguard for celebrities, impersonating police officers to commit acts of atrocity on camera, vehicle racing, or ultimate fighting. The entire city is open to exploration from the start, so it is very open ended to the player to decide where to go and what to do first.

The missions themselves are much what you'd expect. Go here before time runs out, kill these people, protect this other person, destroy that other guy before he gets away, storm the rival gang's hideout and kill them all, rob this other joint, get away from the cops, and so forth. This isn't to say the missions are boring, just that those familiar with the genre will not be stretched too hard. Speaking of which, the amount of damage you can take, and how your health regenerates on its own if you don't take damage for a while kind of makes things a smidge on the easy side, even on normal difficulty level.

One nice touch is how customizable the player's character is. You can be male or female, skinny, fat, muscular, or anything inbetween. You can customize a far-too-numerous-to-actually-be-worth-bothering-with number of aspects of appearance, ranging from control sliders that control cheekbone position to ones that control how much your body sags from age. You can also visit a plastic surgeon to change any aspect (or all of them at once, even gender and voice/personality) of your appearance for a very small fee during the game. As previously mentioned, there are also 3 male and 3 female voice personalities to choose from, which change your character's voice during all cut scenes and other spoken lines. Throw in the number of clothes stores scattered around town, and you can pretty much completely customize your character how you want. This part actually reminded me a little of the character generation process in City of Heroes, which got me thinking that while I never considered GTA a likely candidate for a MMO, Saints Row got me thinking such a thing might not be so far fetched.

Speaking of which, there is multiplayer to the game as well. The single player experience can be played cooperatively by 2 players, and though I haven't tried it myself reports seem to be that it works rather well. There's also competitive modes with the usual deathmatch/team deathmatch variants as well as competing in the activity subgames.

Conclusion:
Saints Row 2 is a decent gaming experience sullied by a very poor job of porting the game to PC. If you want to play the game, I recommend doing so on its native consoles if at all possible. Definitely not for the kids, of course.

Verdict: C-. Would have been much better if I'd played it on console, most likely.


1 comment:

Dint said...

I just finished the last Ultor mission in the game and gotta say I really liked the game. I played it on the pc and as you already mentioned: the controls really suck. However, I used both my mouse/keyboard AND a xbox 360 controller for windows to play the game, which made it more doable. =P

The game has some weird flaws (like people wearing a helmet next to their head instead of on it and mobile phones floating away while calling, but all in all.. it's a nice game to play. And co-op works good indeed. =)