Review by Gruel

"Wreaking havoc in Stillwater is still as much fun as it was two years prior"

The sequel to the first sandbox game on the current generation of consoles has arrived with THQ's Saints Row 2. Developer Volition surprised everyone back in 2006 with how well they replicated the Grand Theft Auto formula, and was the first team to deliver a shockingly good GTA clone. Volition does not do anything to reinvent the wheel with the follow-up, opting to deliver more off the wall action and side missions that made Saints Row such a hit.

Were you pissed that the silent hero was blown up to bits at the end of Saints Row? Never fear, because now he emerges from his coma, several years later to find out that his home turf in the town of Stillwater has gone to hell. The Saints have been dismantled, and now it is up to you to bring the Saints back together and retake Stillwater from the new gangs that have emerged since your demise. Unfortunately, Saints Row 2 does not recognize saves from its predecessor so you have to recreate your character from scratch, which is not as bad as it sounds because Volition has the same robust character creation tools for players to trick out their ultimate gangsta.

Like Saints Row, the sequel has three key gangs that have their own stake of territory of Stillwater. Each gang has their unique story arc that takes about three to four hours to complete. All told, it should take around 12-13 hours if you stick mostly to the campaigns. Another gameplay element Saints Row 2 borrows from its predecessor is making players earn a set amount of “Respect Points” in order to play missions by completing mini-game “Activities.” A lot of these mini-games are carried over from before like self explanatory races, demolition derbies and chop shop Activities. Many new ones are introduced too such as Helicopter Assault that tasks players to create as much carnage with a military chopper as possible and Crowd Control where players must annihilate crazed fans from mobbing celebrities. It is worth your while completing the Activities because players are rewarded with bonus weapons, costumes and in some cases infinite ammo for specific guns. Compared to GTAIV, the Activities in Saints Row 2 are far more enjoyable and interactive then hanging out with buddies in GTAIV. I appreciate what Rockstar was going for and trying something different, but the Activities in Saints Row 2 simply outshine them in every way.

Volition did a fine job smartly implementing Respect Points, as players do not have to do many Activities in order to play a mission, usually just one or two, but many of these Activities are so addicting and brief that I constantly found myself losing track of time knocking out entire sets of Activities. Not every Activity is a winner, but there is an unbelievable plethora of them available that there is bound to be at least something for everyone. Also notable is that Respect Points are additionally earned through high-risk driving. Imagine Burnout Paradise where Boost was rewarded by nailing jumps and driving in oncoming traffic, the same system is also in place in Saints Row 2, but players are rewarded with said Respect Points instead of Boost.

Not much has changed to the overall control scheme. Players can now execute melee combos and grab human shields for slightly new twists on combat. By clicking in a thumbstick, players can go into a more accurate viewpoint for weapon aiming with the tradeoff of a slower moving character. The manual aiming in Saints Row 2 works quite well, and unlike other sandbox games I do not find myself rushing to see if there is a auto-targeting feature because of how fluid and natural it seems. After playing GTAIV, it feels good to go back to a sandbox game that does not require incredible precision driving and I do not have to worry about ramming into a wall whenever coming across any turn at high-speed. One of the qualms I had with the original game was that territorial gang wars occurred far too frequently and were too much of a chore because of the way they broke up the flow of gameplay almost in the same way as receiving phone calls from friends in GTAIV wanting to hang out. I would have rather wanted territory wars removed, but I will gladly take that they now happen at greatly reduced intervals.

The vehicle and weaponry selection is vast (boats and motorcycles now are controllable!). Players can still stash an endless amount of vehicles in their “Cribs” scattered throughout Stillwater. There are different classes of rifles, automatic weapons, pistols, etc. and like GTA players can only have one weapon of each class immediately accessible, but can instantly swap them out conveniently at their Crib. Money is not hard to come by in Stillwater; players familiar with Fable II's property system will appreciate a similar system in store here as the more properties players own in Stillwater yields higher accrued daily income.

The biggest addition to Saints Row 2 is online co-op for the entire campaign, and another welcomed surprise is how smooth and lag free it runs online. After seeing online co-op be omitted from so many sandbox games this generation (Crackdown being the only exception), it is incredibly shocking to see Volition managed to flawlessly pull this off. Players load up their campaign, and invite a friend to join. Players get to import their characters from their own campaign, and also have access to their entire garage. Some of the highlights of co-op are just showing off weapons and vehicles you unlocked to your buddies to marvel and envy over. Saints Row had a strong competitive online multiplayer component, and that still remains in the sequel. Player can create lobbies and go into a matchmaking-esque process for the usual variety of deathmatch modes. A unique new addition to multiplayer is Strong Arm mode where teams of players compete in a set amount of Activity mini-games in a row, with each Activity having a time limit. The team that wins the most Activities is the victor.

Remember the graphics of Saints Row? Not a lot has changed since, as Saints Row 2 is still running on the same engine. That is not to say it is a bad thing however because the game still looks fine. Compared to GTAIV's gritty look, the city of Stillwater looks more alive and happening than urban environments in Liberty City. The city streams on the fly and there is never a load time present when traveling through Stillwater, the only drawback to this is occasionally I spotted some nasty pop-in and there were at least a few times where insane glitches would happen where my character would get stuck running in place against an invisible wall. Aurally, Volition did another excellent job in all departments. The voice acting is superb and does not feel phoned in or forced, this is further justified by the fact that the hero now talks this time and does a damn good job of coming off in charge and making his/her presence known. Like any sandbox game nowadays, Saints Row 2 is supported with a mammoth soundtrack, with tracks spanning many genres heard on multiple radio stations.

Saints Row 2 played it safe and delivered more of the same greatness that made the original stand out as the ultimate GTA-clone. The city of Stillwater is still as much fun to wreak havoc in as it was two years prior. Online co-op is alone is a reason alone to invest in the sequel as playing through with a friend resulted in a far more satisfying experience. I know I made a lot of GTAIV comparisons throughout the review, and I just want to clarify that saying whether Saints Row 2 or GTAIV is superior over the other is unfair. GTAIV evolved into a more mature style sandbox game compared to its prior entries in the series. Both Saints Row 2 and GTA IV are still great games in their own right. With that said, if you were a fan of the original Saints Row and/or loved GTAIV but were like me and still wish the game retained a little bit more of the craziness it was known for in its PS2 days then by all means rush out and buy Saints Row 2.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/14/09

Game Release: Saints Row 2 (US, 10/14/08)

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