It’s quite an accomplishment to go from “cute little GTA 3 clone” to “distinct open-world game that gamers are excited about,” but that’s exactly what THQ’s Saints Row 2 has achieved. Before the original game’s launch, Saints Row was viewed as little more than a “me too” title, an open-world gangster game unabashedly trying to capitalize on Rockstar’s success with the Grand Theft Auto series. But as gamers actually played Saints Row, as they really got into its optional activities and gameplay, the game developed its own following, one that’s looking just as forward to Saints Row 2 as Rockstar’s fans are to GTA IV.
Suffice it to say, THQ and Volition are doing everything they can to avoid disappointing their upstart fans. Saints Row 2 of course promises more of the same gangster gameplay, but the developers are adding enough new content that fans will find plenty of freshness wrapped in the Xbox 360 and PS3 box. From co-op multiplayer (which we gave its own preview) to side activities and deep customization, Saints Row 2 is the total open-world package.
Ironically, Saints Row 2 doesn’t pick up where the first one left off. The game begins 15 years after the end of the original Saints Row, with the protagonist being released from the state prison’s infirmary. Following his release from prison, our anti-hero hits the road both to find out what happened to his beloved Saints and to seek revenge against the person or people who put him in the hospital.
Aside from this timeline change, players will be able to immediately tell they’re playing a sequel by the sheer amount of customization afforded to them from the very beginning. The character customization options are actually more robust than the oft-publicized options in an EA Sports game, as players can choose their gender, body type, weight, muscularity, facial features and hairstyles, then move onto their clothing and accessories, and then determine their animations for friendly greetings, rude taunts and idle time. So what did we do with our hands-on create-a-player session? Create a 300-pound Asian man with no hair, pink halter top, blue jeans and a taunt expression that made him squat over his foes and fake having a bowel movement in their mouth.
We just love acting mature.
The customization options extend to the crib, as players can spend their cash on a variety of different stripper poles, beds, paintings, pool tables, sofas and even different types of houses (ranging from shacks to downright mansions). Aside from the sheer entertainment value of all this, the more luxurious players make their crib, the more they will earn respect bonuses from NPCs. Vehicles can also be upgraded, but much like Microsoft’s Crackdown, the upgrades aren’t tied to specific vehicles, but to the player himself (or herself). Cars can be upgraded with nitrous, hydraulics, more-power engines that lead to higher speeds, and even spikes that shoot out like a James Bond car. As for upgrades to the helicopter, motorcycles and boats, THQ was keeping those upgrades under wraps.
Players are also able to improve their abilities, from strength to shooting accuracy, but Saints Row 2 has a sort of shooting-accuracy “modifier” built into it due to the addition of an over-the-shoulder aiming mode. Called “fine aim” mode, this mechanic makes Saints Row 2 feel much more familiar to shooter fans without losing its open-world gameplay mechanics. The human shield option has a similar effect, as it lets players and all other NPCs (except for cops) grab another character and use him or her for a shield. This is often a feature in third-person shooters, not open-world games, but Saints Row 2 uses it in a very balanced way.
The mini-games in Saints Row 2 have also seen some updates. The oh-so-popular insurance fraud mini-game is still intact in this sequel, but now players can commit it anywhere in the city. Certain areas lead to bigger bonuses, but players are technically able to throw themselves under the bus in any location. Volition expects this mode to be just as popular as it was in the first game, so they’ve even added an adrenaline meter that, the more times you’re hit by a car, the farther you can launch yourself through the air. Just imagine the defrauding potential with a maxed-out meter.
THQ is introducing a variety of new activities including a helicopter assault mission, but the one that most intrigues us is a mini-game called “Fuzz.” In Fuzz, players impersonate a police officer and defeat “criminals” who are doing any number of undesirable activities. However, cash isn’t awarded just by completing activities; that would be far too boring. Instead, players hit the big bucks based on their creativity in stopping perps. For instance, one set of criminals you’ll need to stop includes a pesky set of folks who keep having sex in their car. Rather than knocking on the windshield, which would achieve the desired effect but not earn many points, players might want to consider driving a car into the back of the rockin’ roadster, or maybe shooting out a tire. Better yet, maybe you’ll want to beat on the hood with an inflatable love doll.
That’s right, an inflatable love doll. Saints Row 2 includes a host of secret locations, one of which is a hidden cemetery sex cave. In one corner of this cave lies an inflated doll, complete with open mouth, that players can drag out of the cave and use like a weapon. Not only is it absolutely hilarious to whack civilians and cops with an inflatable doll, but if players beat down enough rival gang members with it, they’ll actually earn extra respect. Hey, nobody ever said the game was rated M for Mature in the “refined” sense….
Saints Row 2 strikes an odd balance between never taking itself too seriously and taking itself seriously enough that series fans won’t feel let down. This year’s open-world slate is extremely competitive, with GTA IV releasing April 29, but THQ is taking all the right steps to help its own game stand out. With the features outlined above, hop-in/hop-out online co-op and a variety of competitive multiplayer modes (THQ isn’t yet providing details), Saints Row 2 should be a solid addition to the open-world library when it hits stores on August 26. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have to get back to coming up with some crazy in-game characters.
— Jonas Allen