When the first Saints Row game was announced in 2006 for the Xbox 360, people quickly dismissed it as just another Grand Theft Auto clone. The early screenshots and movie clips made the game seem like nothing more than a cheap knock off of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in high definition and without the depth of the Rockstar Games gem. Once the demo and subsequent game were released in August of 2006, however, many opinions changed. The game had a goofier vibe to it thanks to the various side-quests that became more ridiculous than the last. More importantly, it beat Grand Theft Auto to the online punch by adding multiplayer games for up to 12 people. The game was such a huge hit that there was talk of a PS3 port of the game before it got cancelled. Two years after the release of the original title, THQ and Volition have teamed up once again to release Saints Row 2 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Like the original, this is a game that is not only proud to copy some of the things that Grand Theft Auto did right, but it also does a few things on its own to make it more fun than the original title.
The story is about as basic as they come and certainly won't make people forget about other open world adventure games. Five years after the end of the events of the first game, your character wakes up from a coma to find himself (or herself!) in an island prison. After an action-packed first level where you and a fellow prisoner escape from the island, you find yourself back in the city of Stilwater, a city that has undergone major changes since you last stepped foot there. New gangs have taken over, a major corporation rules most of the city, and your old gang, the Third Street Saints, is all but a forgotten memory. After helping an old gang member escape a trial where he would have faced the death penalty, your objective becomes clear. Your mission is to rebuild the Saints, take out the other gangs, take out the Ultor corporation, and re-establish the Saints as the rulers of Stilwater.
The story structure is very loose, letting you play out the events of the game in just about any order you want. You can, for example, choose to take out the Brotherhood of Stilwater first or save them for later. You can also try to take on all three gangs simultaneously if you wish. Except for a few key events, you can choose any way you want the story to play out. Story-based missions are pretty standard stuff, though. Everything there ranges from taking out key gang members in certain areas to getting into shoot-outs with cops and escaping to trying to run one gang out of their drug trade business.
Saints Row 2 begins to set itself apart from other games of its type through the respect system. While you can go through each gang in just about any order and manner you want, you'll need a sufficient amount of respect points to do so. Respect points can be earned either through side-quests or doing other activities. In other open world games, players often find themselves killing off other people for the fun of it or doing other crazy things, like driving on the other side of the street or performing stunts with their characters and vehicles. Saints Row 2 encourages the player to continue doing these things by giving them respect points. Killing rival gang members earns respect, as does driving on two wheels, taking big ramps for jumps, and driving on the wrong side of the road. While the respect given for doing all of this isn't exactly a lot, it's good to see the development team recognize the fact that players will do these things anyway and reward them for doing so.
Side-quests are another thing that make the game different from the rest. Some of these things have been done before, but just about every activity has something that makes it more over-the-top than the rest. Players can impersonate cops and earn money by having a camera crew shoot footage of you trying to dispense justice in the most unlawful ways possible. Players can also initiate drive-by shootings or take a combat army chopper and rain death from above. Don a flame-retardant suit, and you can race around on an ATV while burning everything in your path. Injure yourself for some insurance fraud, or spray houses with raw sewage to devalue the property. Mark over rival gang tags or impound cars for cash. You can drive around a prostitute and keep the car away from the paparazzi before the deed is done. Become a bouncer and throw rowdy fans into structures or off building rooftops. You can even become a hitman and lure out victims for more cash and respect. In short, the game is packed with so many mini-games and side-quests that completing them all could take as long as the main story itself, if you let yourself get carried away.
Customization also plays a big part in Saints Row 2, and the level of customization you are initially given is a lot like a Tony Hawk or Tiger Woods game. Every aspect of your character can be tailored to your tastes. Customization starts with your character's build, sex and facial features, including make-up and the look that you always sport, whether it be a smile or a constant angry glare. Race and height are also customizable. The customization also extends to your voice, fighting style, walk and taunting. All sorts of clothes can be purchased and placed on your character, no matter what the sex. If you really wanted to, for example, you can have a girl with men's jeans or a guy wearing a dress. The clothing option also extends to your gang members. You can have your character dress up as ninjas, old-school gangsters, or have an '80s theme if you really want to. Add all of that to the tweaks and mods you can do to any car you own, and you suddenly have a game that gives you freedom in just about any area you wish.
While the single-player game is pretty beefy, the multiplayer offers fewer modes than it did in the previous game, but there's more to do. Following the lead of games such as Crackdown and Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, the game features a full co-op mode for the entire single-player campaign. Even though it can only be done online, having the campaign be playable for either one or two players is a fantastic option and something that Grand Theft Auto 4 still doesn't have.
Outside of the campaign, the game only features two modes: Gangsta Brawl and Strong Arm. As expected, Gangsta Brawl is your standard deathmatch mode where you have to score as many kills as possible against 11 other players before time runs out. Strong Arm is a team-based game with a twist: The objective of the game is to earn enough money to buy out the neighborhood you're fighting in. While that can be accomplished by killing your opponents, you can also earn money through the various activities that pop up throughout the match. Winning activities earns money faster, while controlling certain tags gives your team bonuses. The mode is good and ensures that no two matches are ever the same. The only knock against multiplayer has to be the fact that there's no Free-for-All mode; having the ability to just mess around in Stilwater with some of your friends would've made for a great experience.
For those wondering about installation, it's really not that bad. The game data takes 3.9GB of HDD space but only takes eight minutes on average to complete installation. During this installation, there's a timer that counts down the remaining time alongside a progress bar. It's still a good amount of time to wait, but at least you won't wait as long as you would with other high-profile PS3 games.
The controls for Saints Row 2 are the same as before, which is a good thing. Controlling your character is the same as any third-person shooter, with the left analog stick controlling movement and the right analog stick controlling the camera. Shooting and fighting are done with the L2 and R2 triggers, while the face buttons handle things such as jumping, opening doors and jacking vehicles. Saints Row 2 relies on free aiming instead of a lock on feature, making it easier to target exactly who or what you want to shoot. With all of these positives for the controls, driving remains the area where some control issues still exist. While the driving is more manageable than GTA4 when you go forward, hitting reverse becomes problematic due to the camera not turning fast enough. Unless you can navigate vehicles well, this will likely be a frustrating point of the game.
The graphics are good, though flawed. The character models are done nicely and have a good amount of detail to them, and the same can be said for both the cars and the city. Weather effects look good, especially the rain, as do other particle effects, such as sparks, gunfire and fire. The game's graphical flaw comes from pop-in and pop-out that happens pretty often. Seeing buildings pop in is pretty normal, due to the size of both the buildings and the city in the game. While that may be acceptable, seeing cars and people suddenly pop in or disappear if the camera moves too quickly dampens the experience a bit. The pop-in is also noticeable when you have a high star rating, since you will suddenly see SWAT trucks appear in a seemingly clear road.
The sound featured in Saints Row 2 is one of its strongest aspects. Like other games, the musical selection has a wide variety to it. You can easily go from modern rock to classic rock to classical to rap with a press of the d-pad. Saints Row 2 relies solely on well-known tracks rather than mixing the familiar with new music. You'll like what you hear, but you'll also wish there were something new to listen to. The beauty of the music, though, is that it can still be heard when you exit your car but are near it, a good audio trick that other games would be wise to use. Speaking of effects, each one comes in loud and clear. There is a definite distinction between the different types of guns fired based on sound alone. Finally, the voices are top-notch. Other games may feature well-known actors delivering mediocre voice-over performances, but the actors here are convincing and add some depth to their roles. Special mention has to go to the various actors used to portray your main character. The fact that the game features six actors, three men and three women, all saying the same lines shows just how much care was given to get your character involved in the story in any way possible.
Saints Row 2 is a great open world adventure game. The graphics, while not perfect, are very well done and the sound is amazing. The controls are easy to handle, ensuring you won't have to fight with the controller while you're busy fending off your enemies. More importantly, it offers enough different features and activities to prevent it from being overshadowed by the more popular Rockstar game. If you like open world adventure games, then you should definitely pick up Saints Row 2.
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