Writing video game previews is always an interesting task because you never quite know going in what it is you're going to see. Sometimes, the publisher won't even let you touch the game, and you're only allowed to watch and listen while a producer walks though a demo level. Other times, you're given little more than a glorified demo. Often, time with a preview build can be quite limited, perhaps 30 minutes if you're lucky. So when THQ offered us a full day with a nearly final version of Saints Row 2, we jumped at the chance.
We were set up in a hotel room with a TV, an Xbox 360 and a build of the game. THQ's PR guy handed us a copy of the instructions and said, "Go to town." There were no restrictions on what we could do or see in the single-player game. No one was looking over our shoulders to make sure we didn't access a hidden area. Instead, we were given a full eight hours to just play. While we obviously didn't see everything there was to see, we got plenty of time with the story, game mechanics and new missions. What's here isn't going to change, and based on what we saw, that's a very good thing.
As a sequel, Saints Row 2 manages to blend just the right amount of new content with familiar places. Players who completed the original Saints Row will appreciate all of the small touches and nods to the original, while those who are jumping in for the very first time won't feel like they missed out on the experience.
The game picks up a few years after the first. Having been betrayed and blown to kingdom come at the end of the original Saints Row, you wake up a new man (or woman) in the prison ward of a hospital. Carlos, another inmate, shanks himself in order to get close and let you know that there's not much left of the Third Street Saints. He offers to help you break out of prison and escape back to the city so you can attempt to rebuild the Saints and reclaim Stilwater.
For the first hour or so of gameplay, Saints Row 2 is somewhat linear, but the time is used primarily as a way to ease the player into the game world as well as set up the story. To the developer's credit, this introductory area doesn't feel contrived or forced.
Your first mission is to rescue Johnny Gat from his court ordered death sentence by breaking him out of the courthouse. Direct, but efficient. Then, it's on to recruit your new lieutenants, including Shaundi (voiced by Eliza Dushku of "Buffy" fame) and Pierce. It's here that Saints Row 2 really opens up, as all artificial limitations are gone. There are no magic restrictions about where you can explore or what you can do. The city really is your playground.
Given that our time was limited, we decided to focus on one of the three main story arcs. Just like in the original, Saints Row 2 features three competing gangs that are vying for control of Stilwater. There's the Brotherhood, the Ronin and the Sons of Samedi. The Ultor corporation also has something of a presence, but we didn't have a chance to go at them directly. Call it a hunch, but we're suspecting that the Ultor story line opens up near the end of the game.
Our selected takedown target was the Sons of Samedi. Influenced by the Voodoo loa of death, Baron Samedi the Sons of Samedi are a Caribbean gang that makes its trade in a hallucinogenic drug known as Loa Dust. Shaundi gets to work on learning all she can about the Sons of Samedi as you start on your first task — acquiring samples of the drug in order to duplicate it.
These early missions were rather straightforward, but they gave us a chance to really appreciate the changes that have gone on "under the hood," so to speak. Combat was effective in the original, but here it feels polished and tight. Sure, you still have the option to run and gun, but now you can also pick up random items in the environment, grab opponents to use as human shields and even throw your shields at other targets (or simply throw them off a roof).
Once we had the samples, it was time to reverse engineer the drug. Unfortunately, the required skills were beyond a group of gang-bangers (see kids, you really should stay in school and study up in chemistry class), so it was time to head back to prison and break out Shaundi's friend — a happy-go-lucky soccer mom who just happens to dabble in the drug market.
Breaking into prison introduced us to a few new options, including stealing a boat to make it back to the island, then stealing a helicopter to get off the island, and getting the drug-dealing soccer mom back home to idyllic suburbia. Both vehicles controlled well, while at the same time giving a distinct sense of handling.
Flying through the air in the chopper was a great way for the game to show off the new weather effects. Wind and rain have a direct effect on your vehicle and aren't just there for show. Flying through clear skies is noticeably easier than making your way through a storm.
As the mission tree progressed, we found ourselves destroying a trailer park drug lab, burning down a drug farm, raiding a few enemy strongholds and getting into a shootout with a drug-addicted DJ at a local nightclub. Oh yeah, and there was also the mission where we had to board a cargo ship at the docks and blow it sky high. That was fun.
One of the more notable Sons of Samedi missions, however, was the one in which we were involuntarily dosed with Loa Dust and had to complete the mission while high. Reaction time was slowed down, visuals were blurred and audio was slightly distorted. Every movement overcompensated just enough to give the illusion of being out of control. Overall, this mission was relatively short, but it stood out for its creativity as well as the fact that it highlighted the negative effects of taking a hit.
The mission tree capped off with a battle against the Sons of Samedi leader, the General, in the middle of a downtown mall. Not one to fight like a man, the General ran around the inside of the mall in his heavily armored SUV. Taking him out netted us the General's SUV, as well as all of the gang cars and the gang fighting style, which could be used to further customize our character.
Character customization is an area that we glossed over earlier, but suffice it to say that with the provided tools, you can create just about any type of look you desire. The game allows you to choose from male and female bases, with African American, Asian, Caucasian and Hispanic skin tones. From there, you can go hog wild. Nearly every body feature can be tweaked, from facial features to body fat. You can choose your character's walking, combat and taunt animations. You can apply makeup. You can adjust the hair. You can even choose from one of six (three male and three female) voices. Yes, voices.
Unlike Saints Row, where you played the strong but silent type, you're the one in charge of building up the gang in Saints Row 2, so you're the one giving orders. Your character has a great deal to say throughout the game, and he or she does it all in the voice you select. The look of your character is also persistent, showing up in the cut scenes exactly as you created him or her. After playing for a few hours, it was almost disconcerting to jump into co-op with another player and see another character in the starring role.
The main missions drive the story forward in Saints Row 2, but the activities provide a lot of the side action. Just as in the first, you must earn enough rep before you can attack a story mission. Thankfully, the variety of activities has increased, and the rep seems to come a bit faster this time around, so you're never really prevented from jumping into a story mission if you really want to.
Each activity is broken down into six levels. Completing a level earns money and rep, but you also earn a bonus at levels three and six. This can be anything from a reduced damage bonus to unlocking special weapons, such as the flamethrower and Annihilator rocket launcher. As a result, there is an actual benefit to the activities beyond earning rep.
Some of the new activities we tried were Fuzz, where we raced around town in a cop car dispensing "extreme justice" against lawbreakers for the benefit of a TV crew as well as Heli Assault, where we took to the skies in an attack chopper in order to take out our enemies. Other new activities include Crowd Control, where you play a bouncer who needs to keep the public away from a celebrity; Fight Club; Septic Avenger, where you literally fling poo around town; and Trail Blazing, which puts you on the back of an ATV in a burning flame suit.
In addition to the gameplay upgrades, the world of Stilwater has also been given a lot more depth. There are more stores, more vehicles, more pedestrians, more buildings — more of just about everything.
Hidden tidbits are packed throughout Stilwater, so it is to your benefit to explore. For example, on one of our Sons of Samedi missions, we had to infiltrate the Stilwater Police Department. We could have just completed the mission and left, but our prying eyes spotted an open door to the detective area. Here, we discovered evidence that Julius had betrayed us in the original game, while learning that both Dex and Troy had their own motivations for getting out of the Saints. While we didn't have time to explore it in detail, simply checking out this room appeared to open up an entirely new story tree on the mission map.
Some sections of the city are easily recognizable, while others have gone through quite a number of changes. There is a whole new underground area to explore, and the airport has morphed from a regional strip to a full-fledged metro airport. We already mentioned the boats and choppers, but those aren't the only new vehicles. A number of airplanes have been added to the mix, as well as smaller vehicles such as wave runners and motorcycles. Each one feels different, so they're all worth checking out.
Visually, the world has gotten a makeover, with a lot more detail present. That's not to say there aren't a few kinks with pop-up and slowdown, but for the most part, all of the new shine really pays off.
Other minor improvements include the addition of diversions, mid-mission checkpoints and an auto-save feature. Diversions are spontaneous activities that can include things like stealing an ambulance and rescuing accident victims or base jumping just because you feel like it. The game also keeps record of small accomplishments, such as how long you can hold a powerslide through a turn or how far you can toss someone you've grabbed.
Finally, there's the one big addition that everyone was anticipating: co-op play. Co-op mode is entirely seamless. You can move between co-op and single-player mode on the same save file, and the game records all of your progress. When playing co-op, the base game is set to the save file of whoever created the game, but each player has access to his own character, cribs and weapons. Playing through a mission in co-op automatically unlocks it in single-player, so you never have to repeat something you've already explored. Because there are two players in co-op, the game automatically ramps up the difficulty as well, ensuring that the challenge level stays consistent.
There are two diversions exclusive to co-op mode, Death Tag and Cat and Mouse. Death Tag is simply one-on-one deathmatch, while Cat and Mouse places one player in a high-performance car and the other one in an attack chopper. The player in the car needs to survive as long as possible, while the player in the chopper needs to blow up the car. Once the player in the car is eliminated, the roles switch. Whoever lasts the longest in the car wins.
All in all, our day spent with Saints Row 2 felt incredibly short, and we certainly left wanting more. There will no doubt be comparisons to GTA4, but it's important to note that Saints Row 2 isn't GTA4, nor is it trying to be. GTA4 is akin to a dramatic gangster movie, whereas Saints Row 2 is more like an action movie with gangs.
We'll have more details on the competitive multiplayer mode within Saints Row 2 at the end of the month, and our full review will be available in early October. Based on our eight hours with the game thus far, it's certainly looking like a must-have. We can't wait to see more.
More articles about Saints Row 2