Why should anyone be interested in a sequel to Saints Row when GTA 4 is looming ominously over the horizon? That's the question all gangster sandbox fans will be asking themselves, now that THQ has lifted the lid on Saints Row 2. We sought the answer to this question and many others during our first-look at a pre-alpha build of the game in London. You'll be surprised by our findings.
Instead of shirking the question, lead designer Greg Donovan was happy to tackle it head on. "The only thing I know about GTA is what I've read," he explains in front of the assembled European press. "From what I've read it seems like they're going in a more realistic direction. For us it's more about almost a hyper-realistic quality, over-the-top, all about these memorable moments, very compelling gameplay and frankly we wouldn't be releasing this year if we didn't think it would be competitive."
A bold claim indeed. To think that Saints Row 2, the sequel to the rather surprisingly excellent Saints Row, will compete with the sales behemoth that GTA 4 promises to be demonstrates either extreme confidence or blind stupidity. Remember, the original SR filled the next-gen gangster vacuum following last-gen's San Andreas. This time it's different. This time SR2 is going toe to toe in a rude-boy blinged-up deathmatch. This time there's pressure.
"I think coop is a huge distinguishing factor," says Greg. "Unless they are really holding something, I don't think they are. I think that's a big step, a plus for us. We also remember that SR1 was the first one to do competitive multi play - we're going to continue to blow that out as well."
Fighting talk. That's what we like. But we haven't even set one foot outside our drug den. Let's back up a bit and delve a little deeper into the changes the development team has implemented into the city of Stillwater.
'Immediately we get a sense that SR2 will be a much darker and sinister game than its predecessor, dealing with revenge, anger and brutality on a much greater scale than SR.'
At the beginning of the game the player wakes up from a coma in a prison infirmary, having miraculously survived the boat explosion from the end of SR. You're not sure what's going on at first. Things have changed. You discover that three completely new gangs moved in on Stillwater when the Saints disbanded, and you come to learn that the reason you were in a coma in the first place is because you were betrayed by one of your own. You're charged with rebuilding the Saints and reclaiming Stillwater as the head of the gang. "In SR you were a passive member of the gang," explains Greg. "In SR2 you are the angry leader. You're in charge. You're giving the orders."
Immediately we get a sense that SR2 will be a much darker and sinister game than its predecessor, dealing with revenge, anger and brutality on a much greater scale than SR. Fans of the first game will know that part of its charm centred on its light-heartedness. While it makes sense for SR2 to be a darker game, since it's a tale of revenge, we'll have to wait and see whether the bleaker tone makes for a better game.
After the background check we're shown SR2's character customisation, a huge leap forward from the previous game. You can now create a female character, something that wasn't in the last game. You can customise your race, masculinity and femininity, build and age, and choose from six different voices. You can affect the personality of your character by tinkering with their emote animations, all of which will affect the way people react to you in-game (we weren't told how). You can pick from a huge selection of walks, including the "South London Bop" as I like to call it. There are tonnes of "compliments", including the salute and thumbs up, and taunts, including giving the finger, chest bump, neck slice and "the wanker". Not all of these are available at the beginning of the game - some need to be unlocked as you progress. This mid-game customisation takes place at Stillwater's plastic surgery, appropriately enough.
We're told that every single piece of clothing you see in the game can be worn. That gives SR2 500 individual pieces of clothing, not counting colour changes. You can even set your own melee style. Indeed each of the three new gangs has its own distinct melee attack, which you can assimilate into your own selection as you defeat them.
The gangs, as well as your crib, can be fully customised too. This time there are nine cribs compared with SR1's three. At the beginning of the game your crib will be a run down piece of crap. We saw gang members moping about downstairs, sitting on worn out couches and overturned crates. But, as you'd expect, the more powerful the Saints become, the better your crib becomes. You're able to customise individual elements as well as the overall appearance (from three levels - cheap, classy and ultra modern). As you build up "respect" you'll be able to increase the rank of your homies, making them much stronger in combat. During our demo we purchased a home theatre set, pool tables and, of course, a stripper pole. And sure enough a stripper started sliding up and down, catching the eye of most of the gang loitering about our crib.
Style plays an important part in the game. As your style increases, through the purchase of more expensive clothes, you'll gain more respect. Respect is the currency you then use to purchase missions. The more money you spend on pimping your crib, the easier it will be to gain respect and unlock new stuff to do in Stillwater. In your crib you'll be able to save pre-sets in the wardrobe, perhaps a pirate theme for example. This makes for quick and easy dressing of the main character.
It's clear that Volition has ramped the customisation up for the sequel. It's even included vehicle performance customisation, a first for the series. But will this alone be enough to prize gamers' fingertips from the streets of Liberty City?