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Saints Row 2 Interview

15 Sep 2008  by   Paul Younger

Releasing an open-world crime game in the year as Rockstar can’t be easy and, with Saints Row 2 about to land, we spoke to the game’s Lead designer, James Tsai, about all things Silwater. He told us about co-op, multiplayer and the quest for repect. And Niko didn’t come up once.

How has the city of Stillwater changed in the years between Saints Row and the sequel? What has happened to the 3rd St Saints?

JT: In the time that’s passed between the first and second Saints Row games, the 3rd Street Saints have all but collapsed. After the big boat explosion that left the main character out of action and presumed dead, the remaining leaders of the gang were arrested, went into hiding, or were revealed to be doing undercover police work. To say the gang had a few issues would be an understatement.

In the meantime, Stilwater has reinvented itself with a wave of new construction and expansion. The city, now one and a half times as large as it was originally, has several new districts to explore like the University, marina and boardwalk, and trailer park. A prison island and nuclear power plant are accessible by boat or plane, and a huge network of caverns and a massive mall, both underground, have become big tourist attractions for the city. Meanwhile, a huge multinational conglomerate known as the Ultor Corporation has pumped tons of money into the city and thus all of the returning districts from the original game have undergone significant renovation and growth as well.

We understand the main character in the game will have a voice this time around. What prompted that decision?

JT: From a storytelling standpoint, it became too constrictive to not have the main character speak in Saints Row 2. Since players are no longer a lieutenant taking orders from Julius but instead are the gang’s leader, we needed to empower them with a voice. The main character gives orders, interacts with the Saints lieutenants, and demonstrates a lot of emotion – as a result, we were able to make the story more interesting and distinct.

How will the co-op system work? Will players be limited to certain areas and activities or will the full story be available? If so what if the co-op players are at different points in the story?

JT: Saints Row 2 is fully co-op enabled. The entire game, from the beginning of the story to the drop of the last bullet casing, can be played on-line or over linked systems with a friend. Our game also tracks each player’s progress in the campaign independently, so you can drop in and drop out freely. This means you can play with one friend and then with another or by yourself later without being bound to a particular save file on someone else’s console. You’ll be able to jump ahead of missions that you’ve already finished previously if you hit them again in the course of a different playthrough.

What engine is Saints Row 2 based on? What visual enhancements have been made since the first game?

JT: The Saints Row 2 engine is an improved version of the original Saints Row engine, which was built in-house at Volition and uses Havok for physics simulation. There’s been a major overhaul to the streaming system to allow smoother loading throughout the city, which was necessary so we could include all the new vehicle types. Character models are leaps and bounds more detailed than they were in SR1. We’ve improved our lighting, which makes the city look great at night, and added things like motion blur to give the player a better sense of speed when driving or turning.

One of the major issues with open-world games is framerate. Have you had any problems maintaining a stable framerate?

JT: Since we’re using an improved and modified version of the Saints Row engine, we had the advantage of not having to write everything from scratch. While there were definitely times during development when we’d try out a new system and the performance of the game would suffer for a few days, we’ve gotten the time to make the optimizations we’ve wanted to make and as a result the game is both stable and smooth.

How do the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game compare? Can we expect any differences either in terms of visuals or functionality?

JT: We wanted to make sure that the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions provided the same game experience in terms of gameplay and visual quality. Of course when you’re dealing with two different technology platforms, you’re going to face specific challenges and obstacles to each one given the different processing, memory constraints, et cetera, but you learn how to adjust and adapt to make things work. Each console has its own unique elements that we’ve designed and created support for, such as the Live achievements and the Sixaxxis, but the core features are the same on either.

How has the ‘Respect’ system evolved? Are there new ways to gain it?

JT: Earning respect is more fun and is no longer a chore in Saints Row 2 since we’ve added a whole new mode of gameplay known as diversions. With diversions, the player is always earning respect and thus making progress to their next mission, even when just messing around. Players can now get respect by doing things like aggressive driving, showing skill in combat with headshots or groin shots, finding tags and jumps, and so on.

Activities are still a great way for the player to earn large amounts of respect quickly, but we’ve also increased the number and impact of rewards earned for completing them. Players will now get special abilities like unlimited sprint or special weapons faster and more often, so there’s now more reasons to try out the cool activities in world.

Finally, we’ve adjusted the style bonus system so that players are free to experiment more. In Saints Row, if you wanted to maximize your respect, you had to wear the most expensive clothes and specific tattoos, which really sucked for players who hated wearing loafers and suits. In Saints Row 2, your style respect bonus is granted based on how much stuff you own and buy, rather than what you’re wearing at the time. So players can go all-out when shopping and can change clothes all the time without penalty.

In the trailers we’ve seen new hand-to-hand combat moves? Will these be accessible from the outset of the game?

JT: Hand to hand combat is far more effective in Saints Row 2, and we’ve built some activity gameplay that focuses on it specifically. Players will have access to a full set of kicks, punches, and finishing combos from the start of the game and will unlock new move sets as they fight with each of the gangs in the game.

Saints Row was widely praised for it’s slightly OTT gunplay. Were you reticent to tweak it? What changes have been made? Can we expect an auto-aim?

JT: As developers, we’re always looking to improve upon what we’ve done in the past. In the case of the combat system, we chose to keep the free-look aiming system from SR1 since we got lots of positive feedback on it, and enhanced it with lots of new player options like fine aim, human shields, dual wielding, and more effective melee combat. We also added lots of new weapons and simplified the ammo management. There’s no auto-aim feature in place, but the combat is balanced such that players won’t need either that or a full lock-on.

The driving physics in the original were quite forgiving. Will it be a similar system in the sequel?

JT: Every vehicle in the game received multiple handling passes to ensure it was fun to drive – with all the new vehicle types like helicopters, airplanes, speedboats, jetskis, motorcycles, and so on, this was no small task. We strove to preserve the feel of driving from the original Saints Row, so the emphasis was on maintaining responsive steering, strong acceleration, and tight turns that <!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:”Cambria Math”; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1107304683 0 0 159 0;}@font-face {font-family:Tahoma; panose-1:2 11 6 4 3 5 4 4 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:1627400839 -2147483648 8 0 66047 0;}@font-face {font-family:”Eras Light ITC”; panose-1:2 11 4 2 3 5 4 2 8 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:”"; margin:0cm; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Arial”,”sans-serif”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}p.MsoBlockText, li.MsoBlockText, div.MsoBlockText {mso-style-unhide:no; margin-top:0cm; margin-right:2.0cm; margin-bottom:0cm; margin-left:2.0cm; margin-bottom:.0001pt; text-align:justify; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:8.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Eras Light ITC”,”sans-serif”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}.MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-size:10.0pt; mso-ansi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt;}@page Section1 {size:612.0pt 792.0pt; margin:72.0pt 72.0pt 72.0pt 72.0pt; mso-header-margin:36.0pt; mso-footer-margin:36.0pt; mso-paper-source:0;}div.Section1 {page:Section1;} /* List Definitions */ @list l0 {mso-list-id:801777608; mso-list-type:hybrid; mso-list-template-ids:-2127818640 134807567 134807577 134807579 134807567 134807577 134807579 134807567 134807577 134807579;}@list l0:level1 {mso-level-tab-stop:43.1pt; mso-level-number-position:left; margin-left:43.1pt; text-indent:-18.0pt;}ol {margin-bottom:0cm;}ul {margin-bottom:0cm;}–>Can you tell us about the multiplayer side of Saints Row 2, beyond the co-op? What new game modes can we expect?

JT: In addition to co-operative play, Saints Row 2 features a full separate competitive multiplayer mode.  We feature the traditional gangsta brawl and team gangsta brawl for players eager to warm up with a nice deathmatch, but the heart of the experience is the new team-based Strong Arm mode. 

In Strong Arm, teams fight for control by trying to out-earn their opponents in one of many district-themed maps.  Money is awarded for basic actions like kills, but the real path to victory lies in successful completion of activities, which are similar but not identical to their single player counterparts.  So teams will need to balance performing their own activities, disrupting the other team, and also fighting over tag spots which don’t add to the score but give each team a special benefit when controlled like police support, stealth, unlimited sprint, increased damage, and so on.  There’s a lot of strategy and teamwork required for success in Strong Arm.Do you have any plans for downloadable content, post-release? If so, will this tie in with the customisation features that have been talked about?

JT: We aren’t really revealing if there are specific plans or details about downloadable content yet. We’ve investigated and had some discussions, but there’s nothing concrete we’re ready to unveil.

Finally, although Saints Row got stick from some corners of the gaming community, many reviewers thought some of the game mechanics (eg GPS, mobile phone, multiplayer) pushed the open world genre forward. What features of Saints Row 2 will be celebrated in the same way?

JT: We’re going to continue to push on all fronts, large and small, when it comes to improving the open world genre. From the perspective of the “big ticket” stuff, people will see how fun open world co-operative play can really be in an urban setting. But the less-heralded detail oriented work of the team will also contribute greatly to the players’ enjoyment of the game as well. For instance, we’ve added cruise control to make pursuit combat easier, made ambient AI in the world more believable, and given players even more customization options to round out what is a very complete open world experience.

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