The original Saints Row was often looked at as a Grand Theft Auto rip-off. A lot of gamers displayed their distaste for the game's lack of originality and merely thought of it as the bridge to Grand Theft Auto IV. Little did they know that Saints Row would display the staying power and appeal that it did to warrant a sequel. Unlike Liberty City, the streets of Stilwater provide gamers with an over-the-top, open-world gangsterpalooza of mayhem that strays away from realism and instead offers up an entirely different style of gaming. Let's step into that crazy world and find out what it’s all about.
Imagine losing two years of your correctional life to a coma because of a yacht explosion. It would be devastating if it wasn’t a quick way to pass your jail sentence. A lot can change in that span of time and Stilwater is no exception. The streets have been taken over by new gangs and colors, but all of that can quickly change with the pull of a trigger. It’s time to regain consciousness, break out of this prison and get your crew back together. It’s time to take back Stilwater.
Following the steps of the first installment, users start the game off by creating their own custom protagonist. While this is one of the best parts Saints Row has to offer, it’s a slight disappointment to only have three male and female voices to choose from. Outside of that slight limitation, users are granted a plethora of options within every category imaginable, including full facial sculpting capabilities in order to make your gangster truly personalized. If you’re not quite happy with your original decision, don’t fret; Saints Row 2 offers plastic surgeons that can alter your appearance at any time. On top of that convenience, there are several different apparel options you can earn along the way, one of which includes Borat’s infamous swimsuit.
Now that your gangster is ready to start cappin’, it’s time to bust out of that confining prison lifestyle and free your long-time gangbanging friend Johnny Gat. From here on out, the two of you will do what’s necessary to rebuild those famed Saints, recruit new lieutenants and take back what’s rightfully yours -- Stilwater.
As you’d expect, breaking out of prison ends up being a lot of fun and a nice change of pace over the usual lackey jobs you’re stuck with at the start of open-world titles. Instead, the action is hot and heavy right from the get-go, sliding you to the edge of your seat as you mow down pursuing cops from a gun boat in your escape from the joint. Don’t expect to Taxi anybody around to get your footing, this is your city and it’s about time you remind people why.
The biggest draw of open-world titles is their pure, untempered freedom. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row 2 doesn’t force you to unlock small sections of the map bit by bit. After you complete the first couple of missions, you have full exploration capabilities right out of the gate. This is both a positive and a negative; while you get to check out everything from the start, you don’t have any new territories or sections to look forward to.
The mini-games are what set Saints Row 2 apart from the competition. You can take part in a sex-based mini-game or try your hand at Septic Avenger (yes, that’s you read that correctly). My personal favorite is Trail Blazer. After donning a flame-retardant suit and mounting an ATV, your objective is to race through the streets of Stilwater while lighting pedestrians and vehicles on fire. This results in some beautiful explosions and crazy outcomes. For those fans of the original, you can still commit insurance fraud, go on helicopter assaults and take part in races. Again, mini-games are where Saints Row shines, not only because of the remarkable variety they pffer, but due to the simple entertainment value of each one.
Mini-games don’t only serve as side distractions though, as they’re also used to progress the main story. These games result in you gaining respect, and certain missions require a particular level of respect in order to take them on. As expected, the story follows a simplistic design where you must take down your three rival gangs and a corporation at the end. Each of your lieutenants is assigned to check out a specific gang, whether it be The Sons of Samedi, The Brotherhood or The Ronin. When it's time to take these color-coded enemies to war, those lieutenants will accompany you on your mission. Oddly enough, Saints Row 2 does a good job emotionally attaching you to your comrades. This is heightened by the fact that some characters do happen to die. The voice talent is kept at a relatively high quality throughout, which also helps add on to the attachment level.
Improved voice talent isn’t the game's only improvement, however. Saints Row 2 has added a couple of great innovations to make the gameplay experience more enjoyable. The human shield mechanic is one of my personal favorite additions. Being able to grab someone and utilize them to take on incoming bullets is a relief when you’re heavily outnumbered. Once you’re done with your shield, feel free to just toss it aside and watch the ragdoll effects prolong the hilarity. A major criticism of the original was a lack of a checkpoint system during missions. This often led to longer missions having to be replayed from the very beginning which could cause unprecedented frustration later in the game. Thankfully the developers recognized this problem and added mission checkpoints to make things less tedious if you happen to bite the bullet.
Speaking of bullets, Saints Row 2 differentiates itself from the competition with a free aim play style. This gives the user more control than a simple lock-on mechanism. Twisting back and forth to take on enemies from all angles is a cinch. How about shooting from a car though? That's always been difficult in the past, but no more. The new cruise control setting for vehicles makes performing a drive-by easier than ever. Instead of worrying about monitoring the gas pedal, you're able to set a constant speed and cap guys walking down the sidewalk at will.
Unfortunately for Saints Row 2, the technical downfalls may result in some gamers passing on the title. The bug that stuck out most seemed to be the extremely poor collision detection. I can’t begin to count how many times pedestrians got stuck in my vehicle after running them over. I know I could just leave them alone, but it's hard to resist plowing over somebody who is strolling down my sidewalk. Another issue that plagues the title is a temperamental framerate. While it’s not bad enough to put you off from playing the game, it is rather ridiculous to see this happening so deep into this generation’s lifespan.
Finally, the biggest issue I have with Saints Row 2 is the random freezing problem. I’m not sure if THQ and Volition are working on a patch for this or not, but Saints Row 2 seems to freeze at the most weird and inopportune times. This will undoubtedly frustrates many gamers and may result in them just giving up on the game overall. Add onto these couple of issues the disappointment that friendly AI is often as sharp as a marble and the game's growing pains are scarily evident.
Even if those growing pains hurt, you can power through them in the game's online co-op. You can complete the entire story mode with a buddy online. This is a fantastic addition simply because you and your friend are never tied together. You both can go your separate ways within Stilwater, or you can tackle missions together. One thing to look out for, however, is the ability for your online counterpart to cause chaos which results in the police coming for you as well. Outside of this fantastic co-op option is a small but pleasant online component that includes a standard deathmatch and a triathlon of mini-games where two teams compete for supremacy.
Visually, Saints Row 2 is nothing to write home about. While Liberty City was filled with detail and visual subtleties, Stilwater tends to lean a bit more towards the unrealistic side of the spectrum. Don't let that concern you too much though, as the visuals go hand-in-hand with the over-the-top play style. Meanwhile, the sound effects that are far more impressive. Explosions and gunfire help make the experience feel more legitimate, and the soundtrack, though small, isn’t going to irritate you after long gaming sessions.
Saints Row 2 won't receive 10s across the board like its comparative counterpart, but it will give gamers the opportunity to enjoy an open-world title that doesn’t become stale within a couple of weeks. With the inclusion of entertaining mini-games and an online co-op worthy of your time, Saints Row 2 shines through the cracks of a release calendar that includes titles like LittleBigPlanet and Far Cry 2. THQ and Volition have delivered a title that deserves a home in any gamer’s library.
-The Final Word-
Saints Row 2 isnâ€™t Grand Theft Auto, but that's a good thing. With strong replayability and wacky mini-games, the game will remain relevant for months down the road.