Freedom! That's pretty much impossible for something set in C++ with strict rules on what the player can and can't do, but there's always the illusion of freedom. The Grand Theft Auto games once pushed for it, letting players find their own fun in the "sandbox." Somehow, that idea went astray in the more structued GTA4, but here's the Saints to pick up the slack.
In Saints Row 2, you can create insane abominations with the almost intimidating character creator, or you can just push "random" and accept what you get. There are sliders after sliders for body type, facial structure, hair, attitude, etc. Not only can you make females for the first time, but you can mix and match between genders to create gals with multi-colored hair, beards, and very deep voices. There will also be plenty of outfits to complete your look when you roam the streets, from pimp wear to hot dog costumes. Once you establish your gang, you can choose what colors they fly and what cars they drive. Whatever choice the developers could give the player, they have.
Now that you're ready to play, a friend can hop online and dive right into your game. Don't worry about the difficulty. It scales up automatically. He's not just in for the ride either. On his screen, the story is told from his character's perspective, and any missions he helps you with will be considered completed in his game, even if he hasn't reached the point to unlock them. Though if he'd rather dick around while you're working an assassination, that's okay too. There's no limit to where the players are in the world of Saints Row 2, though there will be the option to join up at the start of a mission if you want to keep it real.
Stillwater has gotten a facelift while the main character has been put back together. The Saints have been scattered to the winds, and your old buddy Julius has made the Row into his own commercial empire. So the slums have gone upscale and everything you had ever known has been changed, but there are just enough vestiges of the old city to bring a pang of nostalgia to fans of the original - though you might still not recognize it with the vast improvement to the visuals, including higher-poly models, detailed textures, and a completely revamped lighting engine. Screens and even movies just don't do this game justice. It's a generation ahead of the first.
Human shields, dual wielding, martial arts moves ... the combat has been expanded, including new weapons like the flame thrower and shock paddles. A slew of new sub-missions have been added, raising the bar to mayhem right up to dumping raw sewage on the streets to devalue property. The returning ones have received their share of tweaks, allowing you to toss your real-life buddy around for an insurance scam. There are even new vehicles like motorcycles and jetskis, with base jumping and carjacking to occupy your down time. Stillwater has grown to accommodate all these new activities from reclamation land and a large number of new interiors, including an underground mall to stake your claim on.
Saints Row 2 is all about chaos. It's giving the player an intimidating list of options and customizations with just enough direction to keep him from becoming overwhelmed. No one is going to claim its story is Oscar worthy, but don't count it out of tossing some grins and a few surprises your way. The gameplay is still the meat, and Volition has stuffed this multilayered burrito until it's bursting at the seams.