The story picks up five years after the events of the first Saints Row. The player character has been in a trauma induced coma (players who finished the first game should know why) for the past five years, in which time the titular 3rd Street Saints have fallen apart and three new gangs have risen to power in their place. It is here that you’re introduced to the incredibly deep character creation system, which allows you to choose your gender, (the character was unchangeably male in the original) voice tone (he was mostly mute too), fighting style, appearance, and even their positive and negative taunts. Once the player and a new accomplice have staged a daring escape from the prison island where they are held, it’s once again up to you to bring the Saints back to their former prominence as the unofficial rulers of Stilwater.
In terms of storytelling, there are times when Saints Row 2 shows much improvement over the original and others when it seems Volition desperately needs some help. On the plus side, their skill in creating well directed and often wildly over the top cutscenes has improved, making Saints Row 2 a more cinematic experience than the original. Another positive is the efforts taken to bridge the gap between the original and Saints Row 2. Unfortunately, they still need a bit of work in the crucial area of pacing, which varies wildly throughout the storyline. For instance, there are a few moments in the story that tug at the ol’ heartstrings but are pushed aside in the very next instant and never brought up again. Those of you who have played the original Saints Row will recognize a number of familiar faces, either in glorified cameos, or, in the case of your psychopathic cohort Johnny Gat, slightly deeper roles.
The city of Stilwater itself has changed considerably in the five years the protagonist has been out of commission. Many neighborhoods have seen drastic redesigns, while others have received only minor alterations. Traveling around the city evokes feelings of nostalgia while at the same time providing a pleasant sense of unfamiliarity.
During the last five years in which the Saints fell from grace, three new gangs have arrived in Stilwater and have divided the streets of Stilwater among them, leaving the Saints in complete disarray. The Brotherhood, Ronin and Sons of Samedi all have their own story arcs that unfold independently of the others. Unlike the gangs in first Saints Row, these gangs seem to lack a certain personality. The narrative surrounding the new gangs is pretty weak overall, even though there are a few good moments here and there.
As a third person shooter, Saints Row 2 is thoroughly entertaining, if lacking in refinement and subtlety. Unlike GTA IV, and…pretty much every third person shooter these days, there is no environmental cover system, placing emphasis on running and gunning over tactical planning. Despite or perhaps because of this, rooms filled with a half dozen or more heavily armed gang members were barely a challenge, even on medium difficulty. In spite of there not being an environmental cover system, you do have the ability to take human shields with the press of a button, easing your progress even more. The main protagonist is not only gifted with a regenerating health bar, but also the ability to shrug off bullets and even the occasional RPG round as if they were Nerf darts, making confrontations almost excessively easy.
The original Saints Row was praised due to its physics engine which, at the time anyway, was among the best in its genre. Saints Row 2 takes no risks in terms of handling physics, which feel entirely unrealistic. Even the new vehicles, consisting of not only motorcycles but sea and air vehicles have their own handling quirks and take a bit of time to get used to. There are times when the physics can go suddenly awry during collisions and sometimes even while driving down the street or flying around but that has more to do with the physics engine as a whole.
At any given time, you are prone to random physics glitches. For example, I was once walking around in my downtown loft when suddenly, I turned toward a group of bar stools and they spontaneously exploded into a pile of splinters. Another particularly annoying instance of the physics bugging out occurred while I was in the middle of a particularly long mission. I jumped, rather haphazardly, into a shallow ditch and when I hit the ground, my body was flung a dozen feet into the air, causing me to die upon landing and forcing me to restart the mission. Cue frustrated controller throwing.
Saints Row 2 specializes in the absurd, not only granting you the freedom to do such outlandish things as base jump from the top of a skyscraper or run recklessly around town wearing nothing but a dopey grin but rewards you for doing so. The sheer number of activities to partake in is quite staggering and there’s never a shortage of different things to do. This sense of boundless freedom is one of Saints Row 2’s defining characteristics. It puts you in the sandbox, tells you to go nuts and doesn’t bother you in the slightest.
Like the original, Saints Row 2 features a number of side missions for the player to play in between story missions. All of the activities from the first Saints Row return in the sequel alongside several new ones to further expand on the already impressive variety. New standouts include the incredibly ridiculous Septic Avenger which puts you behind the wheel of a septic truck, painting the town brown with a steady stream of foul liquids and Fight Club, an obvious homage to the cult classic film, which shows off Saints Row 2’s deeper melee system. Stalwart activities from the original are as fun as they’ve ever been in the sequel and I must say, there’s something oddly cathartic about the insane killing sprees incited by the Mayhem activity and throwing yourself in front of cars in Insurance Fraud.
The ability to customize practically everything around you has expanded considerably in Saints Row 2. Along with the obligatory enhancements to vehicle, clothing and accessory customization, there are a wealth of new things just waiting to be customized. Around Stilwater, there are a number of safe houses to buy, all of which can be upgraded from dingy domiciles to classy cribs. Even the look overall style of the 3rd Street Saints can be customized and I have to say, it’s awfully cool to walk down the street with a gang of well armed ninjas at your command.
The most brilliant new addition to the series is undoubtedly the co-op mode. As long as you’re not currently engaged in a mission or activity, players can join your single player game in progress and the two of you are free to do whatever you want in the streets of Stilwater. All of the activities, story missions and diversions have been optimized for co-op play and is greatly encouraged. Going through the game with a partner in crime is a joy that makes it the best way to take on the gangs of Stilwater, or just have fun doing whatever comes to mind, be it group drive bys or beating miscreants senseless in the FUZZ activity.
As far as the competitive multiplayer modes go, Saints Row 2 includes the Gangsta Brawl and Team Gangsta Brawl (deathmatch and team deathmatch) from the original and a new mode called Strong Arm. Strong Arm plants two teams in a neighborhood and tasks them with completing a certain number of activities to earn a certain amount of money to win the match. The activities are culled from the single player story and scaled down a bit to fit the confines of multiplayer. It’s a bit sad that the older modes like Protect the Pimp were cut from the sequel but Strong Arm makes for a nice replacement. Overall, much like the original, the competitive multiplayer experience is largely forgettable.
Saints Row was never much of a looker and in that respect; nothing has changed. Many of the same visual problems that plagued the original rear their ugly heads once more in Saints Row 2. Screen tearing is back in abundance, though it can thankfully be disabled in the options menu, although at the expense of the overall framerate. Scenes are also frequently marred by considerable aliasing, a relatively minor annoyance but an annoyance just the same. Pop-in was also an issue, more so with cars and characters than the landscape. It seemed that each time I moved the camera around, the cars off screen would disappear. Character models in general have received a noticeable visual upgrade in the finer details of clothing and skin complexion, making them look more human. Overall, the game is passable considering its sandbox nature but, to bring up GTA IV once again, the bar has been raised considerably in terms of the visuals we should expect from an open world title.
Audio presentation hasn’t changed much since the first Saints Row. There is a standard selection of radio stations, offering up tunes from various genres. The soundtrack isn’t exactly amazing but it gets the job done. Sound effects from the first game have returned once again, making for a relatively familiar sounding experience. Voice work is one of the audio highlights in Saints Row 2, improving on the first with a great voice cast. On occasion, it does sound like the voice actors and actresses are going through the motions in delivering their lines, but these occurrences are thankfully rare.
Saints Row 2 is, at its heart, obnoxious, crude and immature almost to a fault, capitalizing on the void left by the Grand Theft Auto series, providing mindless entertainment that rarely fails to deliver. By embracing and expanding on this premise of mindless fun, Saints Row 2 has moved out of GTA’s immense shadow and made a name for itself. With all of the additions Volition has made to Saints Row 2, it almost feels like an entirely different game. What it lacks in terms of polish and refinement, it makes up for in over the top wackiness. If that sounds like your cup of tea, especially if you disliked the new direction taken by GTA IV, Saints Row 2 may be right up your alley.