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TVG takes a trip back to Stilwater and discovers that everything's new and improved...
- Entertaining split between story and side missions.
- Two-player online co-op.
- Tonnes of variety.
- Occasionally still a little glitchy.
- Combat could be further improved.
- No Blinged Out Ride.
Set five years after the cliffhanger conclusion of the original Saints Row, THQ and Volition return with a sequel timed sufficiently after a certain other sandbox title set out its depiction of where the genre should be heading.
Waking up unexpectedly from a coma, Saints Row 2 begins with a bang and refuses to let up as you embark on a mission to get revenge and put the Saints back on the Stillwater map. Even fans of the original will need to scrutinise the area in some detail however, as Stillwater has changed quite a bit in those five years. A sinister mega-corporation named Ultor (Red Faction fans might recognise the name) has invaded Stillwater, erecting lavish skyscrapers and flattening the ground that the Saints used to own. Obviously the Saints aren't too happy about this and so embark on a mission of revenge and redemption.
Having the main character awake from a five-year coma is a handy method to address the multitude of individual characters that fans of the original would have created and also to introduce the new customisation options. To describe Saint's Row 2's character customisation as exhaustive would be a gross understatement. With the added development time the choice of having a female character has been included, along with plenty of additional aspects to tweak and tune, which lends itself to plenty of comical situations that suit the context of the game. Case in point: our slightly confused, body building, buck-toothed, cross-dressing protagonist walking around in a highly effeminate manner. There's probably a little too much for most in this area and the setup with individual sliders can be a little convoluted, but at least it's an option that's there for those who enjoy it and blissfully ignored by those without the patience and perseverance.
Having destroyed the three gangs that featured in the original, Stillwater's streets are now patrolled by three new gangs that form the majority of the initial story based missions. In keeping with the exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek style that provides the basis for Saints Row, these gangs are completely over-the-top, from samurai-wielding Ronin gangsters to the voodoo styled Sons of Samedi. Working the same as before, it's not entirely unlike the gang system in GTA2: complete missions against them to develop the storyline whilst engaging in acts to raise your notoriety.
Responding to criticisms over the original's rigid Respect meter, Volition has implemented a number of changes and improvements that result in a much more fluid and less aggravating experience. The basic concept still works in much the same manner: Respect is earned by completing the various Activities dotted around the map and killing rival gang members. Once the Respect bar is full, you're free to undertake a Story mission, which are some of the most entertaining, creative, and action-packed we've ever seen.
For the sequel, Volition has managed to bridge the gap between completing missions and just doing your own thing perfectly. Diversions now reward you for a wide variety of actions from powerslides and near misses in a car, to collecting CDs and streaking in public, which in turn reward you with Respect points. This means you no longer have to adhere to the strict Activity/Mission structure that thwarted the original design, and actually ties everything together better than we've seen with most attempts in the sandbox genre. This is really where Saints Row 2's qualities emerge. Although Rockstar seem content to push the genre closer to Hollywood, Saints Row 2 is most certainly a videogame and as such there's more "gamey" content here to enjoy. If you found the side-missions away from GTA4's admittedly stunning main storyline slightly monotonous, then Saints Row 2 is probably the perfect tonic. The action is over the top, the characters are larger than life, and more importantly the game is packed full of fun.
Most of the Activities from the original Saints Row make a return, so you can expect to be getting your hands dirty with insurance fraud, drug trafficking, and pimping prostitutes (to mention but a few). But not only that, Saints Row 2 raises the bar even further with a handful of new types that include spraying targeted buildings with $hit in Septic Avenger, dressing up like a cop and dealing out some brutality whilst a camera crew follows in Fuzz, and engaging in illegal bare-knuckle brawling in Fight Club. There's even a zombie survive-as-long-as-you-can mini-game, played through the TV's located at each crib you own. Volition has refined the overall Activities, reducing the number of levels to each Activity from eight to six, with rewards and perks coming after you've completed levels 3 and 6 respectively. As a result, the Activities feel less of a chore than they did in the original Saints Row, making the experience infinitely more entertaining and enjoyable.
A rewritten game engine has also allowed Volition to include many of the things that were missing in the original, which means you can get your hands on all manner of different vehicles including bikes, boats, helicopters, and even planes. Yes, Saints Row 2 has it all and then even more - but we won't spoil any surprises.
Aside from the numerous improvements, there are still some areas we'd like to see further developed should Volition plan a further return to Stillwater. Despite the addition of an over-the-shoulder camera for precise aiming, we still find combat a little cheap and whilst we're not advocating an auto-target setup ala GTA, we'd like to see it move beyond the slightly dated feel. Equally, although Volition has worked tirelessly to ensure Saints Row 2 features less glitches than the bug-infested original, there's still the occasional iffy moment. The rewritten engine ensures the horribly noticeable building pop-ups from the original are long gone and we've got to say that the game world now looks much more convincing. However, you'll still find NPCs behaving oddly and vehicles strangely disappearing completely once they've left your view. It just highlights how difficult the job of creating a believable living, breathing city actually is.
If Saints Row 2 needed even more firepower, that comes in the shape of online co-op. Working similarly to Microsoft's Crackdown, co-op works brilliantly in Saint's Row 2, allowing players to drop in and out seamlessly and without any restrictions. Undertaking missions and activities is balanced by an increase to the health meters of opponents and NPCs, and ensures Saints Row 2 adheres to the age-old adage: two players means twice the fun.
Slightly disappointing, however, is the reduction in the number of multiplayer modes. We lost quite a few hours on Blinged Out Ride in the original, and were surprised to see it missing in the sequel. Instead, we have a slimmed down multiplayer offering which includes the standard Gangsta Brawl, Team Gangsta Brawl and Strong Arm. The first two are basic forms of deathmatch, whilst the latter pits two different teams against one another to complete a variety of different objectives. It's frantic, packs plenty of fun, and most certainly suits Saints Row. Volition has cut the fat and concentrated on the co-op, which provides significantly more substance but we're left hoping that Blinged Out Ride at least makes a return in the form of DLC later down the road.
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