Review: Saints Row 2

Rise up homies, flash your colors, and throw up your gang signs: Stillwater’s number one crew in purple, the 3rd Streets Saints, are rolling once more, and this time it’s in a city nearly one and a half times larger.

The original Saints Row, also developed by Volition, is a sandbox-style game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto or Crackdown. The sandbox action genre has seen a boom in the current generation of consoles. Developers can quickly jump on a format, and completely suck the life out it by offering a relentless series of clones. So far, this does not seem to be the case for the Saints Row series. Clone? Yes. Lifeless? Not by a long shot.

Volition’s first iteration took a bit of a chance, and rather than produce a complacent, GTA clone, it offered what is considered by many to be one of the better examples of a true sandbox action game. Where other games focused on allowing you to control a tightly scripted protagonist, Saints Row left your hero mute. The goal here was to allow the player to perceive the in game character more as an avatar, and less like a preconceived character. What it really did was leave room for awkward cut scenes where your character simply pantomimed his reactions to other characters in the story.

While the strengths of the original Saints Row did not lie in the story or character development, it did succeed in allowing a completely customized experience, introducing unique mini-games, and innovating what are now standards for the genre. Unfortunately, the original iteration was also held back by a number of bugs, and never quite made it on to the radar of the general gaming crowd. Luckily, it found enough success to warrant a return.

Perhaps what Saints Row is best known for, the character customization, is back and it’s even more detailed than before. On par with the level of detail offered by a number of role playing games such as Oblivion, you can now truly create your Saints Row doppelganger. This time around you can create heroes that are male, female and anything in between. You also get a number of other customizations such as voices, taunts, expressions, and cheers. It’s completely possible for you to terrorize Stillwater as a bikini-wearing, transgender individual that cheers using the Fonz’s famous thumbs up, "Hey," and taunts with a teabag straight out of Halo. No matter which "style" you choose, you will easily find something to horrify your friends and family. Thus if enjoy reveling in the number of oddities that can be created, Saints Row 2 is your game.

Though the premise of Saints Row 2 is nearly identical to the first, five years (in game) have taken place since the final events of the original Saints Row. You are quickly befriended by a fellow thug, and will spend your time overtaking rival gangs, as you fight your way (back) to the top. For those that completed the first game, the events of the original Saints Row are alluded to fairly regularly, and you should enjoy being able to pickup on many of the characters that have returned. However, playing the previous game is not a prerequisite for enjoying Saints Row 2, it’s just a bonus for those that did.

Once you pass the opening events of Saints Row 2, you’re off to begin taking back the city that was stolen from you in the original game. As before, there are three rival gangs, and they can be battled and defeated in any order you choose. Of course, mission progression is subsidized by gaining respect through a variety of ways including: completing activities, killing rival gang members, and otherwise wreaking havoc on the city.

As with the previous iteration, your main source of respect will come from completing activities, and depending on your style of play, completing these activities can become more tedium than unadulterated fun. Though there is plenty of variety in the types of activities available – you can do everything from covering the city in septic sludge, to streaking through the quad – they often feel more like a forced requirement to gain access to missions, and progress the main story. Combine this with the fact that most destinations (activities, stores, etc.), aside from main missions, require you to drive near them before they can be identified, and a bit of frustration may set in for some players.

If the various activities are becoming stale, add a bit of spice to your virtual life by taking to the streets, waters, and skies of Stillwater. Yes, Saints Row 2 allows you to travel by car, boat, or aircraft. Not to mention, you can now set cars to maintain speed through the use of cruise control. Taste for terror still not satiated you say, then set out to terrorize the city’s denizens by killing rival gang members, driving recklessly, and adjusting your wardrobe, all the while earning additional respect and bonuses. Plus, be sure to customize every aspect of your gang life including the appearance of your gang and crib – you can finally install that chrome stripper pole and 50 inch plasma TV.

Finally, if you still find yourself underwhelmed by the single player experience it likely you can find value in new coop feature. Previously, co-op was limited to special missions only. However, you can use a sort of hot-swap system that allows you to join, and quit another players game at any time. While playing coop, it is purported that enemies will be scaled up in difficulty, though both players will get credit for an accomplishments. Also, Multiplayer has been reduced to three modes; Gangsta Brawl, Team Gangsta Brawl, and Strong Arm. The first two modes offer deathmatch and team deathmatch respectively, while Strong Arm pits two teams against each other for control of a neighborhood.

Once you have spent some time in both the single and multiplayer areas of Saints Row, you will recognize some of the innovations that have been included in the latest iteration. As mentioned previously, cruise control is a nice feature, but it has its set backs, and can often send you careening off an elevated highway if your not paying attention. In perhaps the most comical of the new addition to controls, you can now throw any character in the game a good distance, or use them as a human shield. Also, melee weapons, like the samurai sword, now offer special fatality/finishing moves that are graphic, but can become repetitive. Beyond these additions, the rest of the controls in Saints Row 2 are identical to the first game. The camera is natural, rarely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and keeps combat fluid. Simply said, the control is solid. If anything, the only complaint would be with regard to driving vehicles. It seems to be a standard among modern games to use the analog triggers for acceleration and breaking. In Saints Row 1 and 2, this is done with the A and X buttons, and at times seems awkward, though it does not hamper game play. In short, if you played the original, you will be right at home with the sequel.

To appreciate Saints Row 2, you have to understand what it’s trying to do, and you absolutely can’t compare it to GTA. Saints Row 2, as with the original Saints Row, takes a more arcade-focused approach to the genre. When it comes to graphics, none of the games in this genre are known for being cutting edge, and while Saints Row 2 is not a bad looking game, it’s not the game you would use to show off your system either. Further, although the voice acting is top notch, there are no memorable characters or moments from the story. The best thing that could happen here would be the continued success of games like Saints Row, allowing for more competition, and thus better innovation across the genre.

For those that want the bottom line, Saint Row 2 delivers for fans of the previous edition, as well as those looking for a lighthearted view at sandbox games and thug life – seriously, you can add a stripper pole to your crib, and turn your gang into a group of ninja assassins.

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