When it comes to massive, open-world gameplay, there are two heavy hitters: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series and Volition's Saints Row. Although the original Saints Row was criticized by some as being a copycat, it managed to do what countless others before did not — mimic the positive aspects of GTA while infusing the genre with a number or improvements and an exaggerated style that defined the franchise.
Or, to hear Greg Donovan, a producer at Volition, describe it, "You know what, we're like 'Pulp Fiction'. On the surface, it's a serious movie, but when you get down underneath, it's a hyper-realistic experience that's fucking cool." With Saints Row 2 set to debut this August, we had Donavan walk us through some of the basics for our return visit to Stilwater.
Set some five to 10 years after the end of the first game, both Stilwater and the Third Street Saints are in disarray. You've been in a coma the whole time, and control of the city has once again disintegrated into splintered factions. It's up to you to rebuild the Saints and reclaim the city. You won't be going it alone, as multiple characters from the original, such as Julius and Johnny Gat, make a reappearance; this time around, they're all following your lead.
Much like Saints Row, customization plays a major part in the game, and the developers at Volition have spent just as much time upgrading the character creation system as they have on the game itself. You now have the choice of playing as a guy or a girl, as well as customizing your taunts, compliments and combat style. You can also customize your crib in greater detail than before.
In the time you've been gone, Stilwater has gone through a number of physical, as well as political, changes. The same basic districts are still there, but they've all been revamped and upgraded. The total size of the city has increased by approximately 45 percent. Some sections will be immediately familiar to returning players, while others have changed drastically. For example, the docks have been completely flooded. There are also four new underground districts in the caverns beneath the city, where competing gangs have established a foothold. All in all, there's plenty here to explore, and Donovan promises a number of hidden Easter eggs throughout Stilwater.
Vehicle selection is probably the biggest change, as there are now more than 85 different rides throughout the game. In addition to the standard cars, trucks and vans, players can take control of motorcycles (crotch rockets and Harley-styled bikes), boats, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft such as biplanes, fighters and executive jets.
New weapons include the Annihilator, a laser-guided rocket launcher and the satchel charge. The satchel charge is basically a remote-controlled sticky bomb. You can toss it into a crowd, onto a car, into a building or even onto a person. Then, pull the trigger at your leisure to detonate. It is possible to drop multiple charges and then detonate them in succession or use some creative driving to turn a car into a (somewhat) guided missile. Slap a satchel onto the hood, drive toward the target, gun the engine and jump out. As soon as the car reaches its destination, detonate and watch the boom. In total, there are more than 30 weapons in the game.
Much like the first, missions are handed out in a non-linear fashion, allowing players to progress through the storyline at their own pace. To encourage experimentation, the team implemented a diversion system that rewards players for trying new things and mixing up your play style.
Multiplayer has also gotten a revamp, with Saints Row 2 featuring a completely integrated co-op story mode. Players can start a single player game and migrate to co-op and then back again to single player. The game keeps track of all missions that you've played, so anything completed in either mode reflects in the other. This way you're never loosing progress. This allows you to call in a friend for help if you get stuck on a particular mission or grab a "sneak peek" at upcoming areas if you've got a buddy who's farther along.
The game bases the available missions on the host's save game. If you complete a future mission, it won't be immediately unlocked, but the data will be saved, and once you reach it through the standard progression, the game will recognize that you've already completed it and give you the option of skipping it while rewarding you appropriately. About the only drawback to the co-op mode is that it is only available online or via system link. There's no split-screen.
Donovan did let it slip that Saints Row 2 also features a number of competitive multiplayer modes, but he wouldn't give any more details, promising only that more would be revealed this summer. Volition also wants to do downloadable content, but again Donovan was mum on the matter, refusing to commit to anything. The only thing he said was that Volition knows "people want to be able to download missions and the like."
Grand Theft Auto IV may be the two-ton gorilla in the room, but Saints Row 2 is more than capable as a contender. This summer is shaping up to be a great time for fans of the open world genre.
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