In April 2008, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto IV. This was the GTA series’ first foray into HD, and it’s no surprise that the highly anticipated open world crime drama was a massive hit with critics and the public alike. However, not all the fans of the GTA series were as impressed with the game as the critics – there were many who thought developer Rockstar North had abandoned what made Vice City and San Andreas so fun to play. GTA IV was a much darker and more realistic game than its predecessors, and while it was exquisitely well-made it did feel as if a lot of the fun from the previous games was missing. You also constantly had to deal with your idiot cousin calling you and telling you to take him bowling.
Meanwhile, Volition Inc. had been quietly working on their Saints Row sequel. The first Saints Row had been a fairly big hit for THQ, so it was obvious that Saints Row 2 would see the light of day at some point. The first trailers were released shortly after the release of GTA IV, showcasing a game that looked very different from Rockstar’s epic. It was clear that Saints Row 2 couldn’t go blow-to-blow with the GTA juggernaut and win; simply copying Rockstar’s formula and improving the core gameplay wouldn’t be enough this time around. Instead, Volition chose to go for a more over-the-top, humorous approach with their sequel.
When I saw the trailers, I wasn’t sure what to think. I had enjoyed Saints Row a great deal, but now GTA IV was out and it seemed like Saints Row wouldn’t be necessary any more. I was quite apprehensive since they seemed to be going in this overly wacky direction with sewage-spraying minigames and other ridiculous nonsense, and I just wanted to see the continuation of the plot that ended in a massive cliffhanger in the previous game. Fortunately, things turned out rather well.
Saints Row 2 opens with the protagonist (known as “The Boss” in this game) waking up from a coma after several years in a prison hospital. Turns out the Boss wasn’t killed in the yacht explosion at the end of Saints Row after all, he (or she) managed to jump off at the last moment but was badly injured and taken to prison. The customization has undergone an absolutely massive overhaul, and you can now adjust pretty much everything you can think of.
Not only can you choose your character’s gender (via a slider) and appearance, you can also select their voice and personality. The Playa in the original game barely talked and just did his job, but this time the Boss takes an active role in the cutscenes and drives the plot forward, revealing that they might be just a tiny bit of a murderous psychopath (which is something I like to attribute to the last game’s ending; you’d be pissed too if someone blew you up). Even though your character’s look and personality may have completely changed between the two games, SR2 treats it as if nothing is different, with characters immediately recognizing you and maybe asking if you did something with your hair.
The Boss busts out of prison with the help of fellow inmate Carlos and finds out the 3rd Street Saints fell apart after the events of the first game. With no one to lead them, the Saints collapsed and left a power vacuum that was filled by three new gangs and the shady Ultor Corporation. Ultor has expanded and renovated the city of Stilwater to such a degree that it’s barely recognizable as the city from the previous game, which makes the environment in Saints Row 2 feel fresh and familiar at the same time. It is now one of the most interesting locales in any open world game, with a ton of hidden content scattered around for you to find.
The Boss decides it is time to get the Saints rolling again, and the first order of business is to rescue her old buddy Johnny Gat (once again voiced by the excellent Daniel Dae Kim) from death row, as it turns out there’s no statute of limitations for murder (“Why the fuck not?” asks Johnny). Once Gat is free to rampage around the city once more, it’s time to find a new hideout for the gang and hire some new blood in order to take the fight to the three gangs currently running the city. Since all the old Saints members aside from Gat are either dead or otherwise no longer around, the Boss recruits three new lieutenants to find information on the rival gangs.
The gangs in SR2 are a lot more colorful than the somewhat generic ones in the previous game. First off, we have The Brotherhood, a bunch of heavily tattooed guys who enjoy loud music and big trucks (their most commonly used vehicle is aptly named “Compensator”) and whose leader, Maero (voiced by Michael Dorn), is an extremely imposing individual. He tries to strike a business deal with the Boss, but that goes to hell when he only offers her 20 percent. The resulting bad blood between the Boss and Maero eventually escalates into full blown Tarantino-esque revenge drama, and as such the Brotherhood storyline is the most gritty and striking in any of the Saints Row games.
Your contact for the Brotherhood missions is Carlos, the kid who helped the Boss break out of prison earlier. He’s more than a little out of his depth as a lieutenant despite trying hard, but the Boss has taken a liking to the guy and assures him that she’ll make a banger out of him yet. If you’ve played the later games in the Saints Row series, you may have noticed Carlos is no longer around, and there’s a good reason for that.
The Sons of Samedi, led by a fellow known as the General, are slightly more boring than the Brotherhood, controlling the drug trade in Stilwater with their Loa Dust. The Saints decide to get in on the action and start manufacturing their own Loa Dust with the help of drug dealers Laura and Tobias (who were mission-giver NPCs in the Drug Trafficking activity in Saints Row and seem to have gotten married in the years since). The Boss has to contend with getting kidnapped and drugged by the General, saving Saints lieutenant/hippie stoner chick Shaundi from getting killed by her ex who happens to be working with the Samedi, as well as fighting a creepy voodoo guy who apparently can’t die and is voiced by Phil LaMarr.
Finally, there are the Ronin. The Ronin are technically a Japanese gang, but most of their members seem to be American and they generally come across as a bunch of dumbass kids playing around with katanas and motorbikes like they’re in some sort of a terrible Japanese anime. Their leader, Shogo Akuji, is a useless moron who spends more time on his hair than running his gang, but things start to get real when the big boss Akuji Sr. decides he’s had enough of his son’s bullshit and comes to Stilwater to handle things himself. In his attempts to earn the respect of his father, Shogo only manages to make himself look worse and, as if that wasn’t enough, he also pisses off Johnny Gat. Your main contact for the Ronin missions is actually supposed to be new lieutenant Pierce, but Johnny is more prominent in the storyline and has some of his finest moments here.
The writing and cutscene direction in general has improved drastically from the original Saints Row, and you really end up liking these main characters even though they’re all a bunch of criminals who do horrible things. Even though I initially had some concerns about the more humorous tone this game seemed to be taking, the actual main story itself is definitely an action packed crime drama first and foremost, and a surprisingly effective one at that. The humor is there mostly to serve as relief between intense missions or instigated by the player (by wearing silly outfits in serious cutscenes and such), practically all of the silly wacky bullshit that was showed off in the trailers is confined to the side activities.
The overall structure of the game is basically identical to Saints Row in that you still do activities to build up your respect meter in order to play story missions, although this time you can also get small amounts of respect by doing random fun stuff like driving dangerously in traffic and tossing people into telephone poles. The activities are a lot more worthwhile this time around, because all of them unlock various rewards for completing them. These unlocks range from the fairly pointless (discounts on customization items) to the somewhat useful (gang and police notoriety decrease faster) and the insanely useful (vehicle delivery anywhere in the city, less damage from bullets, guns with infinite ammo, better health regen, infinite sprint) and it’s really worth it to take a look at the activities to see what you can get. You may want to get gold stars from the base diving minigame as soon as possible, because fall damage is probably the most reliable way to get yourself killed in this game.
The activities themselves are mostly fun, although Heli Assault is a massive slog of an escort mission with terrible helicopter controls and Trailblazing (riding around the city on a flaming ATV and blowing things up, which sounds fun on paper) has awful controls as well. Most of the original activities are back (Insurance Fraud is the highlight again, especially since they’ve completely overhauled the mechanics and disregarded the laws of physics), but the single best activity in the entire game is FUZZ. FUZZ is a parody of COPS where you disguise yourself as a police officer and stop increasingly ludicrous crimes around town while the camera is rolling. Naturally, flamethrowers and RPGs are involved. FUZZ was unfortunately a scripting nightmare for the developers, and thus it doesn’t show up in the later Saints Row games.
Another highlight that also only appears in this game is Crowd Control, where the Boss gets hired to work security for celebrities and gets to protect various starlets from overzealous fans by using the new throw move (itself one of the most fun additions to the game, you can spend a worrying amount of time just throwing people around). Toss those creeps into environmental hotspots such as jet engines, and earn big points!
The core gameplay of SR2 is quite similar to the original Saints Row, although certain improvements have been made to the combat and driving. You can now zoom in with every weapon for better aim, and there is a new melee system, but other than that the combat is mostly intact. Driving, while mostly identical to SR1 as well, has been improved with the introduction of cruise control, so now you can shoot while driving without having to actually pay attention to where you’re going. The cars still feel a bit too floaty for their own good and the driving isn’t particularly great, but at least there is now a wider variety of vehicles to choose from.
Bikes, boats and aircraft are finally introduced, and every land-based vehicle can be customized. If you’ve always wanted a bulldozer or APC with purple candy paint, nitrous, and gold spinners, now’s your chance! Or if you just want to make your crummy old El Camino look incredibly stylish and badass, that can also be done.
You also have a much greater number of clothing items available for your Boss, and the game doesn’t care one bit what you dress them in. Want to wear a nice suit and look professional? Sure. Want to look like a gangsta or a hobo? Can do. Cosplay as Vampira? Hell yeah. Be a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania or wear a hot dog mascot suit? Go right ahead! Want to break free from the constricting social concept of wearing pants, or fully embrace nature and run around completely naked (albeit strategically pixelated)? You can do that too, and there’s even a streaking minigame you can try out if that’s your thing!
Your outfit (or lack thereof) will show up in all the cutscenes too, which may or may not ruin the dramatic effect of certain scenes. You can also add a variety of logos on clothing, as well as choose different materials and wear styles for your clothes, so the possibilities are just about endless. You can even store multiple different outfits in your wardrobe, so you can change styles without having to re-equip everything. No other open world game even comes close to the level of customization seen in Saints Row 2, not even the later games in the SR series (more on that once we get to the next game).
Like in the previous game, your main goal is still to paint the map of Stilwater purple and take over the entire city. This time you’re not just taking over neighborhoods by doing gang missions and strongholds, but you can also buy various properties around town. Buying businesses gives you discounts on items and some bonus income, and if you take over an entire chain of stores you can see the face of your Boss on billboards around Stilwater.
You also have a variety of safehouses to spend your money on, ranging from old run-down apartments to expensive penthouses, and the style of all your cribs can be customized. There’s really only two styles of customization for the cribs (classy and “pimp”) and some more options would have been nice, but you can at least mix and match if for some reason you don’t want all the stripper poles and would rather have a pool table (if you’re unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community) or grand piano or something.
Cribs serve mainly as places to change clothes, get money from your safe, switch your weapon loadout, and replay missions (or play a zombie videogame), they’re not necessary for saving the game. Just like in Saints Row, you can save anywhere, and the game autosaves after every mission or a level of an activity you complete. The missions finally have checkpoints as well, although unfortunately those don’t save if the game happens to crash during a mission. If you’re a purist, you can choose to start a mission over when you fail – while I really don’t know why you wouldn’t choose the checkpoint every time, it’s nice that the game gives you the choice.
Much like Saints Row, SR2 also has a few competitive multiplayer modes. Much like Saints Row, no one gives a crap about the competitive multiplayer. In fact, I keep forgetting this game even has any multiplayer options other than the storyline co-op. That’s right, the entire game can be played in online co-op from start to finish. I haven’t spent that much time in co-op because I prefer single player games in general, but I have spent enough time on it to tell you that it works very well (on the PC at least). Double the Bosses, double the mayhem, ten times the fun. Unfortunately, the servers that ran SR2 multiplayer and co-op on PC and PS3 are now dead as of Gamespy’s closing, but there are ways around that on PC at least.
While the original was a Xbox 360 exclusive, Saints Row 2 was released on the PS3 and PC as well, so a look at the different versions is in order. The PS3 version is mostly identical to the 360 version in that both of them look kind of ugly and low-res and have absolutely horrible frame rates regularly dipping below 20 fps, as well as really awful “HDR” (not to be confused with true HDR) lighting that can’t be turned off and makes the game look overly washed out. The game is so fun that the technical problems don’t drag it down as much as they potentially could, but those who can’t play anything under 60 frames per second and without 8x multisample anti-aliasing may be in for a rough time indeed.
The PC version, outsourced by THQ to the hobo living in the dumpster behind the office (actually to CD Projekt — yes, that CD Projekt of GOG.com and The Witcher fame, but this was apparently the work of their now-defunct Chinese branch or something along those lines) without consulting Volition until it was quite far along, has the potential to be the best version by far, the only minor problem is that it’s completely broken out of the box and you WILL need to do a lot of tinkering to get it to work properly. The Gentlemen of the Row super mod is practically essential for the PC version, and if you’re on Windows 7 you also need Saints Row 2 Powertools to make your game not run like a Benny Hill chase scene. Windows 8 and 10 run the game at the proper speed, which for me justified the Windows 10 upgrade all on its own.
Furthermore, if your computer is fast enough to run SR2 at more than, say, 30 fps, which no computer in the world was when this port was released, you’ll probably run into terrible performance issues and random slowdown and have to use an external program to lock the frame rate at 30 (or buy the GOG.com version, which does that automatically). Doing this should also fix another issue where your cutscenes would be out of sync and occasionally break completely. The PC version also doesn’t have DLC, but that isn’t really an issue. In any event, Volition would create the PC versions of the later Saints Row games in-house to prevent any future porting disasters.
Speaking of DLC, there were two mission packs released for the console versions. The first of them, Ultor Exposed, centered on Tera Patrick – here portraying an Ultor microbiologist trying to, uh, expose the horrible experiments Ultor has been doing, and being awful at voice acting – as one of THQ’s cringeworthy attempts to use porn stars to market the Saints Row series and was mostly forgettable. The second one, Corporate Warfare, was also nothing special but at least it continued the SR2 storyline. It was also the last time we’d see former Saints lieutenant and current Ultor bigwig Dex, as he wouldn’t make any more appearances in the series – aside from the cancelled Saints Row: Money Shot spinoff game in which he gets shot and killed. (This is not canon in the SR storyline, but Volition just hasn’t brought him back because they don’t seem to think his story is worth continuing. Well, he does at least get a cameo in Gat out of Hell…) Aside from some extra vehicles and new customization stuff, the DLC isn’t really worth it in my opinion.
I very nearly forgot to mention one of the best things about this game, and that is the radio selection. Saints Row 2 introduces The Mix, an 80s station that plays all the cheesy hits you know and love (including Take On Me, Down Under, and The Final Countdown!), and as an amazing little detail your Boss will sing along to some of the songs. The voice actors weren’t given the lyrics so they had to sing the songs from memory, which led to some absolutely magical performances. Later Saints Row games have featured singalongs as well, but those are 100% scripted scenes and lack the spontaneity seen here. If for some reason The Mix starts to get boring, there’s a decent selection of other genres as well, and some choice classical pieces (Nothing says mass murder like the Adagio sostenuto movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata).
Some of the stations also change as you progress in the game, as alt-rock station Generation X becomes Ultor FM after a certain point (but seems to keep the playlist intact) and EZZZY 105 (the best station in the game other than the Mix – it plays the most ridiculous easy listening stuff imaginable) becomes The World FM that plays – wait for it – world music. It’s still not the kind of selection Vice City and San Andreas boasted, but it’s not as low-budget as the radio in the original Saints Row either. You can also buy songs at record stores and add them to your own mixtape. Custom soundtracks aren’t supported, unfortunately
That, in far too many words, is Saints Row 2. I could wax lyrical about this game for hours, but this review is long enough already and I’ll just conclude by saying that this is the best game in the Saints Row series and one of the best open world games of all time. There’s just so much to do, so much customization, so much mayhem, the writing is good, the missions are mostly good, the characters are memorable, the city is memorable, the humor is excellent, aside from the technical problems and some crappy side activities I don’t really have anything to complain about.
Well, all right, I will complain anyway. The fact is that these days, Saints Row 2 has aged a bit and it hasn’t been entirely graceful either, so the game will feel very rough around the edges if you haven’t played it in a while or never experienced it when it was new. While I do still absolutely love this game and stand by everything I’ve said about it, I usually fire up Saints Row: The Third if I need a quick Saints Row fix.