It's been two years since the streets of Stilwater ran red with blood. Developer Volition has ramped up the violence and gang warfare in a sequel, which not only surpasses the original, but also sets a new sandbox standard. Let me make it quite clear that the game I hold in direct contention with Saints Row 2 is the mighty Grand Theft Auto IV, and though many see the former as the imitator, all one need do is spend some time with the 3rd Street Saints to see that sometimes, a copy can be not only as good but better than its source material. I know that far too many people jumped aboard the GTA IV bandwagon, hyping it to insane proportions and dolling out perfect rating after perfect rating, and while that's to be expected, it's a shame that such attention isn't given to a clearly superior product such as Saints Row 2.
The first thing players are going to notice is that while the story isn't as awesome as GTA IV in scope or narrative, it's much more serious than the original Saint's. Coming out of a five-year coma, the main character has to contend with three new gangs – the Ronin, the Brotherhood, and the Sons of Samedi – who have taken over Stilwater. Moreover, a greedy corporation called Ultor has transformed the Row into a modern metropolis that's the envy of the rest of the city. Think Robocop's New Detroit and you'll have an idea of what's going down. Of course, much bloodshed ensues as the nameless player conquers each gang, and eventually Ultor itself, to regain Stilwater.
The sheer depth of the game makes it the benchmark for the genre...
The cut scenes before and after each mission are much improved over the first game, with several scenes being worth rewatching (the battle against the Brotherhood's leader Maero instantly comes to mind). The use of strong – and I mean VERY strong – language and drugs has been ramped up to the point of being almost casual. For example, Saints Lieutenant Shaundi loves to smoke Loa Dust, the drug of choice in Stilwater, and rarely is she found throughout the game without a bong in hand. Moreover, her promiscuity is not only the subject of conversation; it's vital to the plot. Talk about getting personally involved in your work!
The original 2006 game already improved on Rockstar's magnum opus with much-needed additions such as waypoints, car customization, and the use of up to three gang members at any time. The sequel maintains everything from the first, but it also adds an insane amount of customization that leaves other sandbox romps looking decidedly last gen. Not only can you now customize your clothes and cars, but you can now make everything from your multiple cribs to your actual character as different as you like. Want a Jacuzzi and a stripper pole in your penthouse, or are you more the grand piano and wide screen TV type? Why not have both? Give your gang members a high class hangout or literally pimp it out, complete with strippers and 40 oz. beer for everyone. (About the beer – it seems that EVERYONE in Stilwater only drinks the big bottles. You see them all over the place, day or night!)
The lengths to which Volition has pushed the customization makes me quake in anticipation for the third game, should the trend continue. You can change your gang's looks (‘80s, pimp, SWAT, etc.) taunts, melee styles – just about all you can think of. Defeat a gang, and you get control of all its vehicles, which can be taken to Rim Jobs and fully altered. Personally, I prefer an Avalanche with reinforced body, bumper, and hood. It controls like a dream and seats four, which is great for letting three homies tag along on missions, and adding some tire-slicing kneecappers makes it the perfect getaway car.
If players should ever tire of altering their gangs and conquering the city, the charming activities from the first Row return, and they've brought some friends. In addition to such classics as Insurance Fraud and Snatch, we can now protect our homies from the air in Heli-Assault and protect a VIP from hungry fans in Crowd Control. It's more likely than ever that players will find themselves forgetting the main story entirely as they tackle each of the different activities available.
There are also a few other things to do, called diversions, such as driving stunts and making special shots during missions. These, like activities, garner achievements, and between the two, there is now a staggering amount of things to do in Stilwater beyond the main game. Some diversions, such as the sex game “Ho'ing,” weren't all that fun, but combining the driving and jumps stunts make for some great times, especially with a beefed-up car. Racing, tagging, and CD hunting aside, I found most of my time spent early on playing Zombie Uprising, a six-level mini game that can be accessed at the TV of any of the eleven available cribs. Jacking cars, whacking gang members, AND killing zombies? Does this game make a sandwich too? Furthermore, all activities and diversions are well suited for co-op play, so bring a friend!
Volition obviously thought that all this goodness was too much for a single player to deal with, so it included full online co-op for the entire campaign. The traditional multi-player death match modes are still available, but being able to just jump into a friend's game on the fly is just priceless. Together, the two gang bangers can complete the story mode or just complete activities and diversions. Any event completed by one is also credited to the other, and there's even an achievement to encourage this. I didn't have any trouble with lag when I played, but the other player being able to pause the game did annoy me.