Since a certain open-world franchise was initially released on the PlayStation 2 many years ago now, many sequels and imitations have been created to capitalize on the popularity of the genre, including the original Saints Row which came out exclusively on the Xbox 360 when the console was just starting to find its feet. While the game was a lot of fun and was certainly enjoyable to play through, many people compared it to the GTA franchise as a sort of rip-off, given that many core gameplay features were quite similar. So, some serious time has passed since then, and Volition have taken the time to carefully polish up Saints Row 2 into a gameplay experience that will silence even the most die-hard Rockstar defenders. Forgive us for using the inevitable comparison, but while GTA IV took open world games to a very dark and realistic place, Saints Row 2 is more like an amusement park filled with crazy missions, over-the-top characters and more explosions than you can poke a pimp's stick at - and it's awesome.
Saints Row 2 kicks off where the first game left off: after a yacht explosion, the main protagonist is left comatose for some time, with a badly burnt exterior which very cleverly opens the door for some very detailed character customization. There is a massive amount that can be toyed with, including the choice to make your character either male or female, along with many intricacies such as the way they walk, talk and taunt, all the way down to the style of eyebrows and facial structure. It's easily one of the most detailed character creation systems we have seen and means that nobody should have the same sort of person as their player of choice. Not to worry if you decide for a change of heart later however, as you'll be able to pop over to the plastic surgeon and modify whatever you want (for a price, of course).
Once your character is good to go, the game can truly begin - and what better way to kick off a game like this than a prison break? With some help from a fellow inmate, you'll start the game by killing off a nearby doctor and making your escape to a boat outside, obliterating police forces left and right before jumping aboard and shooting down helicopters and police boats. This all takes place within the first ten minutes of the game, by the way, and is a really good way of introducing you to the craziness that Saints Row 2 has to offer. Once you get to the main island and change out of your prison clothes, the game pretty much becomes your oyster; there are no tedious story paths that you are required to take part in to access certain aspects of the game. From the beginning, every activity and diversion is available to you, and without even taking part in the main missions, there's plenty to see and do.
Among the more basic and expected types of activities, such as races and escort missions, are some more 'diverse' goals like Septic Avenger, allowing you the opportunity to literally spray crap all over the city, and our personal favourite Insurance Fraud, where you have to dive in front of oncoming traffic to rack up the medical bills as much as you can. One of the other new additions that had us laughing was an activity where you must protect a celebrity by grabbing rowdy members of the crowd and dealing with them by doing such humorous things as throwing them into the blades of a helicopter and carving them up with construction equipment. Nice. As well as being a whole lot of fun, these activities all earn you cash and respect, which is required to access more of the story missions later on in the game. As cool as these activities are, the missions are where you're going to spend most of your time, and there are a whole lot of them to keep you occupied.
Since you entered your coma, things have changed in Stilwater: the Saints are practically non-existent, and in the narrative it's going to be your job to get the gang back together, rebuild, and take back what is rightfully yours. There are three gangs that will become your main opposition throughout the course of the game, and taking them down is crucial to the Saints becoming the dominant gang in Stilwater. Story lines based on The Sons of Samedi, The Brotherhood and The Ronin are all handled personally by one of the main characters in your gang, so throughout each path you'll have somebody by your side giving you information on what to do next and how to best take advantage of each situation. The missions are quite varied, offering many different styles of play that are mixed in with the Strongholds that require you to simply kill a whole bunch of people.
The actual narrative itself is also very well crafted, with some quite frankly hilarious writing that's pulled off very successfully by the game's large cast of voice talent. Eliza Dushku, Jamie Pressly, Daniel Dae Kim and Neil Patrick Harris are all excellent, and that's just naming a few. The cast all come together to make the characters believable and entertaining, to the extent that you will really care and take it personally when something bad happens to a fellow gang-member. There are also some very cool cut-scenes that help progress the story, with some well choreographed fight scenes and other surprises that make every moment of the story a pleasure to watch and experience. As well as the top-notch voice acting, there is a good selection of tracks on the radio that come together to make one of the more recognizable soundtracks available. You can even customize the radio to play only the songs you like, which is appreciated. All explosions and gun-fire also have the appropriate pop to them, and many of the asides from citizens walking by are funny, and keep the city of Stilwater feeling alive.
What stops Saints Row 2 from being completely immersive is that the production values aren't always up to par with the competition. The game looks good - at times very good - but often there are graphical glitches such as clipping and a sometimes questionable draw-distance. There is a lot of detail in some areas of the game, while others are lacking in distinguishable features, but overall these slight flaws are not enough to completely detract from the very enjoyable gameplay experience. The AI in the game can also feel a bit sporadic. While generally speaking, your supporting gang members are helpful in fighting off enemy gangs, often times the intelligence of the enemy gangs themselves are strange, sometimes grabbing hostages and being defensive, and other times not even reacting after you've shot their fellow gang-member in the face with a shotgun. The game is difficult when it's throwing a ridiculously large amount of enemies in your path, but that's more quantity over quality in terms of your foes being a serious challenge.
Surprisingly, we've made it all the way through this review without yet mentioning the most exciting and easily the best new feature the game has to offer: the entire game can be played cooperatively online or via system link. As always, everything is more fun with a friend, and Saints Row 2 is truly no exception. Every mission is also made more difficult for a party of two, so it actually offers a very different tactical experience when playing with a buddy. There is of course the return of competitive multiplayer as well for up to twelve players online, including everything from your basic death matches (complete with weapon modifiers and several different maps to choose from) to some more unique activities such as Destruction Derby and Insurance Fraud, which are an insane amount of fun with a crowd of crazy online folks.
While it certainly may have its flaws, Saints Row 2 is outright the most entertaining open-world experience available. No game offers this amount of crazy fun, and no rivalling experience could pull it off with the sense of humour and exaggerated style that's on show here. There is still so much more to the game that we could not put in this review, because quite frankly, that would spoil it. There are so many exciting and hilarious discoveries to be made in the city of Stilwater, and with an interesting narrative thrown into the mix for good measure, it's easy to overlook the problems and just enjoy the core gameplay that Volition have put their heart and soul into creating. Consider the fact that the entire experience can be played with your best buddy online, and it's all just the delicious icing on the gangster-filled exploding cake. Open world action fans need not think twice: BUY THIS GAME.