It's been a little over two years since Saints Row debuted on the Xbox 360. As the first open world game to hit the next-generation systems, Saints Row was an ambitious title that, while a lot of fun, wasn't quite as polished as it could have been. Thankfully Saints Row 2 builds on what we saw in the first, giving players a game that not only offers more content, but also feels more developed, both in general gameplay and overall polish.
The first improvement that players will note is the revamped character creation system. It starts you out with four basic body frames, black, white, Asian and Latino and your choice of gender, male or female. From there you can customize to your heart's content. Want to play as a rail-thin, heroin junkie grandma? Go ahead. Feel like re-creating the Joker? You can do it. Want to lumber around the city as Fat Bastard? It's possible. In short, the sky's the limit here as you can tweak just about every major body aspect. Later in the game, you gain the ability to customize your clothes, crib, gang style and cars.
For those of you wondering how it's possible to play as a female when the character originated as a male in the first game, never fear. It all makes sense once you complete Saints Row and view the ending cliffhanger.
Once you've settled on a character, the game immediately kicks into gear. Even the tutorial is done "on the fly," so you never feel as if the action is lagging. In fact, your first mission is escaping from prison amidst a hail of bullets. After that, the city is more or less an open book. From the moment you set foot in Stilwater, you have the choice of following the mission tree or simply running around and raising havoc. The first few missions bring the player up-to-speed with the story, but after that how you attack each of the three main gangs is up to you.
Your featured opponents this time around are the Brotherhood, the Sons of Samedi and the Ronin. Much like the first game, each of the three story missions can be approached however you choose. The story is written in such a way that it unfolds in a compartmentalized fashion, so a player who starts out by fighting the Sons of Samedi will see the same missions as one who starts with the Ronin, they'll just see them at different points in the game.
Worthy of note are all the small plot details that have been threaded throughout Saints Row 2. Players new to the series will find a rich world to explore, while those who played through the original will appreciate the small nods to the backstory. There is even a hidden mission that explains the ending of the first game. If you want to check it out, be sure to explore the police station thoroughly.
It is this non-linear aspect of gameplay that really allows Saints Row 2 to shine. At any point you have the freedom to do whatever you want. There is never any waiting for part of the world to be unlocked or artificial barriers holding you back. And with the sheer number of diversions and activities available in the world, you could avoid playing the story missions for hours on end and still have plenty to keep you occupied.
Activities include things like Trail Blazing, where you race around town on the back of an ATV in a flame proof suit while setting things on fire in order to ear bonus time for the race. Or Fuzz which has you filming a twisted version of "Cops" for the local TV crew. Those with dirty minds will appreciate Septic Avenger where you have to spray houses with poo in order to lower property values for an opportunistic investor. Crowd Control tasks you with protecting celebrities from over eager fans while Heli Assault allows you to reign down death from above and Fight Club encouraged you to, well, fight. Favorite activities from the original also make a return appearance.
Each activity has six levels. Completing them earns you cash and reputation points, but more importantly they also offer important bonuses after completing levels three and six. The bonus varies from activity to activity, but it can include things such as decreased bullet or explosion damage, a crib customization discount, lowered notoriety and more. Completing activities isn't something you have to spend a lot of time doing, but if you do there are tangible rewards for it.
Complementing the activities are the less structured diversions. These aren't things you can find on your mini-map, but rather are environmental activities that you discover as you come upon them. Steal an ambulance and you can run around town rescuing accident victims. Steal a taxi and you can run taxi fares. Hop on top of a car and you can try to earn a gold star for "car surfing" by keeping your balance. You can even go skydiving if you like.
Speaking of skydiving, vehicle selection has been greatly improved this go-round, with cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooter, boats, jet skis, small planes, executive jets and helicopters all available for your use. Each handles in a distinctly arcade manner, though all of the vehicles do handle differently. Hop onto a crotch rocket and you'll go speeding around town a lot faster than on a Vespa-look-alike.
Much like the vehicle controls, combat has a distinct arcade style bent to it as well. It's pretty much point and shoot, with little complexity to get in the way. Sure, you've got a great variety of weapons to choose from, with guns, grenades, bombs, shotguns, bats, swords, satchel charges, etc., but none of them are complex in their operation. When it comes right down to it, accessibility was key and Volition delivered on that 100%.
Compared to the original, Saints Row 2 is a bit easier, but that is mainly due to the new checkpoint system. Dying during a mission no longer forces you to restart from the beginning. Instead you can now continue from your last checkpoint. It's a lot less frustrating this way, but it does have the net effect of easing the pressure on the player. Death is no longer the setback it once was.
Voice acting has been improved, both in the quality of the performance and the caliber of the actors. Michael Dorn (Star Trek: TNG), Eliza Dushku (Buffy) and Neil Patrick Harris (Harold and Kumar) all have starring roles and the game is better for it. Who can deny the brilliance of casting NPH as a pot-toking, rasta-inspired drug dealer? It's digital gold.
We did experience a few minor issues such as a random freeze, occasional slowdown and poor AI pathing (yes, your homies are better at following you this time around, but they still get lost way too easily) but none of these really impacted gamplay. The autosave system ensured that we never lost any progress, the bits with slowdown were quickly resolved and the AI, well, sometimes it's better just to take Darwin's advice and let the stupid die. Much like GTA IV the glitches we experienced weren't enough to detract from the whole.
In addition to single player, Saints Row 2 also features a full hop-in/hop-out co-op mode and a competitive multiplayer mode. Co-op mode allows two friends to compete in the same game at any time via system link or Xbox Live (sorry, no split screen). Everything you accomplish in co-op is recorded for your single player game so if you master a mission, you never have to redo it unless you choose to. It's a great way to wander through Stilwater with a buddy or call in some extra help just in case you do get a particularly difficult mission.
Co-op also features two exclusive diversions, pitting the two players against one another. The first is a simple one-on-one deathmatch, but the second is a great time waster. Called Cat and Mouse, it drops one player into a sports car and puts the other into an attack chopper. The chopper has to blow up the car. Once done the roles are reversed. The winner is whoever lasts the longest in the car.
Competitive multiplayer includes Gangsta Brawl (deathmatch) and the new Strong Arm mode. Strong Arm is a team based competition that occurs within individual districts in Stilwater. The goal in Strong Arm is not only to kill your opponents, but to complete activities before they do in order to earn cash towards winning the round. Strong Arm is an innovative take on deathmatch and looks to hold long term appeal.
For example, one of the activities is racing. Now you can play it as a straight race, or you can attempt to go postal on the other team's cars and prevent them from completing the race. If one of your cars crosses the line, but theirs don't, you win. In another activity you need to bring stolen goods to a fence. This worked well until the opposing team mined the fence with satchel charges. We moved in to collect and were promptly blown sky high.
As if all that wasn't enough, there's also Zombie Uprising to contend with. A game-within-a-game Zombie Uprising is accessible as soon as you have your first crib. Think of it as a cross between Dead Rising and the new Horde mode that's been announced for Gears of War 2. The goal of Zombie Uprising is simply to survive wave after wave of oncoming zombies. It even supports co-op so you can bring a friend.
Ultimately, Zombie Uprising is a perfect metaphor for Saints Row 2 itself. Like the mini-game, everything in Saints Row 2 is over-the-top. There are quite possibly no other games that can come close to the sheer number of explosions, bullets, murder, and vulgarity on tap here. And you know what? We wouldn't have it any other way.
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