Working overtime to piss off Jack Thompson.
The ESRB describes Saints Row 2 with the following phrases: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, and Use of Drugs. I’m happy to say that, at least in this case, the ESRB wasn’t being generous. No, they were actually being pretty damn reserved. Saints Row 2 exceeds every single one of those descriptors in pretty much any way possible.
[image1]This is a game that’s so wildly over the top, it’s enough to make the GTA:SA Hot Coffee "scandal" look mild in comparison. And you know what? The game is all the better for it. Just like movies, not every game has to be high art. Sometimes you’re simply in the mood for a big, shiny, Bruckheimer-esque, explosion fest. That’s exactly what Saints Row 2 promises and exactly what it delivers.
Set five years after the first game, it picks up where the original abruptly ended. After getting blown the fuck up you’ve spent the intermediate years laying in a coma in a prison hospital. Due to the miracles of modern science (aka an incredibly flexible character creator) you can recreate yourself however you like. This includes anything from a svelte, stocking clad working girl to a morbidly obese man with fat rolls so large they hide the thong he is attempting to wear.
Sadly, I had to spend half-an-hour looking at such a creation when Duke and I sat down for some co-op for the first time. The poor guy grabbed a random character and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
To say you could spend hours with the character creator isn’t an exaggeration. The lazy among us can just quickly select a sex and ethnicity – white, black, asian, hispanic – and be in the game, but spend a little time with the options and the depth of the customization starts to dawn on you. Just about everything you can imagine, from the size of a girl’s boobs to the size of a guy’s *cough* "package," can be tweaked. With enough time you can play as yourself, your favorite hero, a historical figure, whoever. Hell, you could have "W" running around town killin’ folks if you liked. Sadly, Saints Row 2 is lacking a "Bush" voice option.
[image2]Yes, that’s right, in Saints Row 2 your character actually says quite a bit, unlike his mute-ass self in the first. There are six voices to choose from, three male and three female, each with their own accent and inflection. All of your custom work carries over into the cut scenes, which are rendered in real time. It may not seem like much, but this level of customization does a great job of drawing you in to the game. It’s not just some random schmuck up there on the screen, damn it. It’s *MY* schmuck up there on the screen.
Anyone you create can be carried over into multiplayer, so expect to see some memorable opponents once you hop online. Once your masterpiece of a character is finished, it’s time to hop into the action.
Your first task in Saints Row 2 is to murder the doctor taking care of you before escaping from the Alcatraz-inspired prison. Yes, it’s quite possible to rack up a triple digit body count while in the training mission, in fact, I recommend it. There’s no better way to quickly arm yourself than by killing a whole bunch of cops and taking their weapons.
After the escape, the game leads you through a short series of introductory missions to lay out the story, then, the city is yours. When I say the city is yours, I mean it. There are no artificial barriers here. You are free to wander around town and raise hell to your heart’s content. If you just want to plow through the story missions, feel free. If you want to waste time with diversions and activities, go ahead. There is very little to prevent you from playing the game however you want to play it. The sheer level of openness is perhaps the game’s biggest strength.
Activities have gone through a bit of a revamp since the last time we visited Stilwater. They’re still required insomuch as they are a way to earn the rep needed to play the story missions, but this time around the rep comes much easier. It’s possible to spend 15 minutes with a single activity and never worry about rep for the rest of the game.
[image3]So why play them? Mostly because Volition did a hell of a job in creating some mini-games that are both fun and rewarding – literally. Every activity you master earns you an in-game reward, so there is a real incentive beyond "earning rep." All of the activities from the first make a reappearance, with a few tweaks to spice them up a bit. The ever popular Insurance Fraud has you purposefully throwing yourself in front of cars, in order to win big money. In its new incarnation, you get an adrenaline meter which, when full, sends you higher than a superball. Successfully aim the landing so you hit another car on the way down and you’ll bounce even higher. Nice.
New activities include Trail Blazing, Heli Assault, Crown Control, FUZZ, Septic Avenger, and Fight Club. Trail Blazing has you racing around town in a flame suit atop an ATV setting cars and hapless peds on fire. Heli Assault grants you an attack chopper to mow down the baddies – well, the other baddies. Crowd Control encourages you to be a hyperviolent bodyguard while FUZZ requires you to be a hyperviolent police officer. Septic Avenger has you spraying homes with shit (no, I’m not making this up) and we can’t talk about Fight Club. You know the rules.
Both vehicle selection and character controls have been given a noticeable upgrade. You now have the ability to ride motorcycles, scooters, choppers, small planes, executive jets, boats, jet skis and ATVs in addition to the standard collection of cars, trucks and assault vehicles. Taking a boat out over the water is surprisingly enjoyable, thanks to the realistic water modeling and stealing a plane allows for a great view of the city from on high. It’s also a good way to go skydiving. You can jump out of a vehicle at any time and aircraft are no exception. As soon as you dive out, you have the option of deploying a chute and starting the BASE jumping diversion. I actually found flying across the map and parachuting down to be an efficient way of crossing long distances quickly.
Diversions are basically smaller activities that are context sensitive. You can’t find them on the map, but can play them whenever you come across one. In addition to skydiving, you can also perform driving stunts, combat tricks, you can be an EMT, drive a taxi, fire truck or two truck, manage some whores, play blackjack or poker, hold-up a store, perform a drive by, take a hostage, mug someone, participate in a street race and go flashing or streaking upon unsuspecting citizens. Did I mention the game has variety?
[image4]Character controls got the most work in the sequel, though to be honest I didn’t notice the difference until I went back and played a bit of the original Saints Row. The small touches like fine aim, the ability to pick up just about anything and use it as a weapon and grabbing a bystander to use as a human shield all make for a much better combat experience. Add in a selection of tasty new weapons (yay for remote control satchel charges) and you’ve got a winning combination.
That’s not to say everything in Stilwater is a bed of roses. While the team has made a large number of upgrades since the first, not all of the blemishes have been fully covered. For one, the A.I. still has the occasional bit of trouble when it comes to pathing, with jerks getting stuck on fire hydrants like autistic tubes of epoxy. No, it’s not nearly as bad as it was, but it’s there. I also noticed a few visual glitches, though none affected gameplay. It’s worth noting that the game did freeze after a l0 hour play session, but I’m not quite sure if the blame for that should fall on Saints Row 2 or the Xbox itself.
Thankfully, the brand new autosave system meant no play time was lost. In addition to the single player game, Saints Row 2 features a full co-op mode with seamless hop-in/hop-out functionality. Mission difficultly scales up when you are working with a friend which keeps things from getting too easy.
If your friend manages to piss you off for some reason, just turn around and shoot them. They then have the option of activating one of two co-op exclusive diversions. The first is simply a one-on-one deathmatch, but the second caught my attention. Called Cat and Mouse, it pits an attack chopper against a sports car. The driver of the car simply has to survive. The chopper has to destroy the car. You alternate positions and whoever lasts the longest in the car wins.
[image5]If a bigger crowd of hooligans is what you had in mind, Saints Row 2 offers Gangsta Brawl (deathmatch) for up to 12 players but the real draw is the 8 player Strong Arm. Best described as a sort of "megamode" Strong Arm drops two teams into one of Stilwater’s many districts. You can earn cash by killing opponents in the standard fashion, but the real money is made doing activities. These can run the gamut from racing, to ho-ing, to fencing stolen goods. Winning means working to succeed while also sabotaging your opponent’s efforts.
Keeping things fresh are a random selection of graffiti tags that offer team bonuses when claimed. It’s a bit hectic the first time through, though after a few rounds I found myself getting into the groove and liking this even more than the Protect the Pimp mode in the original game. Topping it all off (as if there wasn’t enough to do already), is Zombie Uprising. A game-within-a-game, you can even play Zombie Uprising with a co-op buddy if you like. Combining elements of Dead Rising and old school arcade games, Zombie Uprising has you taking control of a mullet maestro as you fight off multiple waves of the living dead. It’s bloody, it’s violent and it’s completely over the top, just like the rest of the game.
Saints Row 2 isn’t going to be the next Godfather, but it’s not trying to be. If you want class and moral dilemmas with your gang warfare, then look elsewhere. But if you want explosions, revenge, sex, money, drugs and rock and roll, then a trip to Stilwater is just what the doctor ordered.