The original Saints Row was a solid action game that benefited from the fact that it was the only GTA-style sandbox game on the market. With its "gangsta" story and non-stop violence, it was easy to draw a direct line from Rockstar Games' popular franchise and this THQ action game. But even though the parallels were blatantly obvious, many critics (myself included) were willing to forgive the game's sameness as a stop gap before GTA IV. Sadly there's really only one way to accurately summarize Saints Row 2: It's a pre-GTA IV game living in a post-GTA IV world.
Saints Row 2 picks up quite a while after the events of the first game. Despite the fact that you were blown to smithereens in a boat bomb, you play as the exact same person you played in the first game. Confused? Well don't be, because within the first few seconds of the game everything is explained. Apparently you were kept alive in a prison hospital. In the years since you were incarcerated you've been in a coma and, for whatever reason, plastic surgeons have had their way with you. This means that the game can get away with allowing you to create a brand new character all while still keeping the continuity alive. As far as I'm concerned they stole this plot device straight out of a daytime Soap Opera, but if it means playing as somebody else then I'm perfectly fine with it.
The cool thing about this game is how much freedom you have to create a custom character. Not only do you get to design the face and body type, but you can also choose their sex, voice and walk. I decided to create an attractive (yet still bad ass) female warrior; mostly because it's about time the fairer sex had a chance to take part in the sandbox fun. No matter what kind of character you decide to go with, you'll be treated to a protagonist with a lot to say, which is a real departure from the first game.
After escaping prison you flee for Stilwater, which has gone through something of a transformation in the past few years. Landmarks from the first game have been turned into tourist traps, there are skyscrapers everywhere and the Saints (the main gang from the first game) has been completely destroyed. It's up to you to make your mark on the city, convince people to join your gang and, most importantly, take back the city for the Saints. In other words, you're doing almost exactly the same thing you did in the first game.
Apparently being in a coma at the Stilwater prison didn't help rehabilitate you, because it doesn't take more than a mission or two before you're back to your old habits. We're talking about getting revenge on people you don't like, killing other gang members, sabotaging people and screwing with the police. The sad truth is that if you jumped into this game four or five missions in you would think that you were playing the first Saints Row, not a brand new story set years later.
Unfortunately this been there/done that feeling doesn't end with the missions. Even the city feels like a left over from the first game ... which is probably because it IS a left over from the first game. That's right; you are still thugging it up the city of Stilwater, the only sandbox game to name their city after a fake band in a Cameron Crowe movie. Although the city is slightly larger this time around (around 30% larger, from what I can tell), it's disappointing that we weren't sent to a completely different city.
The truth is, at first I didn't even notice that I was in Stilwater. It wasn't until a few missions in that I had a weird sense of déjà vu. All of a sudden I knew exactly where to go and how to get there. I knew where all the short cuts were and what I should be avoiding. I knew everything about the city I needed to know to survive, which certainly gave me a leg up when dodging the fuzz and tracking down other gang members. But that's half the problem, because as big and open as Stilwater is, it's never been all that interesting of a location. To me it just felt like another generic sandbox city, devoid of the humor and character that we've seen from Vice City and San Andreas.As I continued to play through the game I couldn't get over how similar the whole thing felt. Oh sure, they've rebuilt a lot of the locations and there's certainly a lot that is new here, but at its heart this is just the same boring old city all over again. I couldn't get over the fact that this felt like an elaborate expansion pack, similar to what we saw from games like Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. It's not like they didn't have an opening, they could have easily had the character go to prison in another city. But instead they chose to start the game back up in Stilwater, which is probably the most disappointing thing about the game. Half the fun of these sandbox-style games is that you get to explore the world and see all of the nooks and crannies. But in Saints Row 2 I felt like this part of the game was robbed for me, even with all of the new stuff added in.
Speaking of familiar things, all of my likes and dislikes about the first game came flooding back as I played through this game. For example, I had completely forgotten that in order to play missions you had to play the various mini-games (which I'll get to a little later). Leveling up your respect is a major part of the game, yet somehow that completely slipped my mind. I also forgot that in a lot of ways the game controlled like a Gears of War-style action game, where you have a crosshair and you control the aim at all times. Maybe I'm just used to games like Crackdown and Grand Theft Auto IV, but for the first little while I was expecting to be able to auto aim.
As negative as I am making this sound, I can't deny that Saints Row 2 is a fun game. The missions are short and entertaining, and in some ways offer objectives that you didn't get from Rockstar Games' most recent Grand Theft Auto outing. For instance, Saints Row 2 is overflowing with exciting on-rail segments, which involve you as a passenger in some sort of vehicle (car, boat, helicopter, etc.) shooting at whoever and whatever gets close to you. These missions were always some of my favorite, yet for whatever reason GTA IV decided against throwing them in. Thankfully that's not the case with Saints Row 2, so fans of Vice City and San Andreas will no doubt get a kick out of the over-the-top missions found in this title.
The one thing I keep hearing about Saints Row 2 is that it puts the "fun" back in the sandbox style. I'm sure there are a number of people who were disappointed with the more realistic tone of GTA IV, especially when it came to taking out some of the new over-the-top aspects (parachuting from the tops of buildings, jetpacks, etc.). These people will no doubt find that Saints Row 2 is a welcome addition, since this game is not realistic at all (not even a little). This is a game that doesn't even attempt to offer complex emotions or deeper meaning, it's just an excuse to drive fast and blow stuff up.
This over-the-top approach is no more evident than when you try one of the game's multiple activities. Much like the first game, Saints Row 2 features all sorts of crazy mini-games when you're not killing cops and trying to take over the city. In total there are more than a dozen, including some of the best mini-games from the first game (insurance fraud, drug dealing, races, and so on). On top of the familiar modes, you also have a few new mini-games that prove to be just as much fun ... if not more fun.
One of my personal favorite modes is Heli Assault, a mode where you take to the air and protect a car from oncoming enemy cars and other helicopters. Another mode is Fight Club, which allows you to test your metal against up to six computer-controlled characters in a small ring. There's also FUZZ, which is a parody of the long-running show COPS, where you dress up like a cop and kill protesters, arsonists and other unruly characters. In other mini-game you play a septic truck who is earning money for every house, cop and car you douse in ... well, you know what. Perhaps the most exciting mini-game is something called Trail Blazer, which has you on an flaming ATV driving around setting people and cars on fire to earn extra time. Not all of these modes are as solid as they should be, but there are a few that I could play over and over again. Sadly there are only twelve levels per activity, which is a shame because I found that the game left me wanting more.The one thing that surprised me about Saints Row 2 was the story. The first game may have had a lot of faults, but there were a few shocking twists found that made the entire experience worth playing through. Unfortunately that's not the case with this game, the whole story feels like it's on autopilot the whole time, never doing anything you didn't see coming a mile away. Worse yet, the way the game wraps up is beyond unsatisfying, especially for people who remember the first game's explosive ending. None of the gangs are all that interesting and there doesn't seem to be a cohesive narrative that makes me want to care. Worse yet, your character never really changes or learns anything, they just stay the same throughout the entire game.
Even more disappointing than the story are the graphics. While the first game may not have been the best looking title on the Xbox 360, it got a pass because it was early into the life cycle and one of the few games trying to pull off the open-world gameplay. Saints Row 2, on the other hand, comes almost three full years after the Xbox 360's launch, so there's no excuse for the inconsistent presentation. It's not that the city looks bad; it's just that the visuals haven't changed much since the first game. The character models are a mess, especially when you're watching the various cinema scenes. The frame rate tends to dip, even when there isn't a lot going on. And even the most visually impressive effects look like things we saw two years ago. If you're somebody who is going from Grand Theft Auto IV to Saints Row 2, prepare to be gobsmacked by what you're looking at. The graphics get the job done, but not much more.
Thankfully there's a huge soundtrack full of familiar bands. I'm talking about bands like Wolfmother, Avenged Sevenfold, My Chemical Romance, Panic at the Disco, Paramore, Hot Hot Heat, Deftones, Duran Duran, A-Ha, Hall & Oates and many more. In total there are 11 different radio stations each with around a dozen songs. Oddly enough, as many good songs as there are, I found that they were so spread out that I had to listen to a lot of crap before getting to the good stuff. In my opinion the only consistent radio station was The Mix 107.77, which is all 1980s music all the time. Obviously musical tastes change, so it's up to you to find the radio station you like the most. Thankfully you can add in your own tunes when you get bored of listening to what Saints Row 2 has to offer.
While it was easy to call the first Saints Row a GTA rip-off, it did have one thing going for it that nobody else was doing at the time. I am of course talking about online gameplay, which was brand new to the sandbox sub-genre when Saints Row was introduced. As expected Saints Row 2 also features online play, only this time around they've made it a little more accessible and much more entertaining. You can still play most of the online modes found in the first game (death match, team death match, etc.), but now there's a brand new mode called Strong Hold.
In this mode you play a four-on-four game where you are tasked with performing different activities for money. For example, you'll be asked to steal a bunch of objects before time runs out. Or you'll be asked to race to a certain spot on the map before the other team gets there. Or you'll have to rack up the most points in a competitive game of insurance fraud (where you throw yourself in front of cars for money). After only a couple of minutes the objective changes and you're off doing some other activity. The object here is to earn the most amount of money for your team, the team with the most money at the end wins. There's no doubt that this is an interesting concept, however I'm not sure how long I would want to do these random events. There were a few activities that I found to be absolutely boring, while others were so exciting that I wouldn't have minded playing a full game of just that mode. Also, these events are limited to a small portion of the map, so you shouldn't expect the full city to be open to you when playing online. It's not without a few problems, but this is definitely a unique and exciting way to play online.
Saints Row 2 is not a bad game; it's a solid action game with quite a bit of gameplay. I do have some serious issues with some of the design decisions, but they aren't bad enough to warrant a bad grade. Still, it's hard to go back to this style of sandbox game now that there are other, better GTA-style games on the Xbox 360 (including a Grand Theft Auto game that came out a short six months ago). Fans of the original will have a good time peddling around Stilwater, but I suspect many will be disappointed that Volition Inc. didn't take the next step and give us a real revolution in the genre. There's still fun to be had here, I just wish there was more originality this time around.