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Saints Row 2
Score: 92%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Volition
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Free-Roaming/ Action/ Shooter

Graphics & Sound:
Those who only own a Playstation 3 are unfortunate to have missed out on Saints Row, which is (or was, until now) possibly the best open-world action game that does not bear the words "grand," "theft," and "auto" in its title. With the release of Saints Row 2, PS3 owners can finally take a trip to the not-so-peaceful city of Stilwater. To those who have played the original: you know exactly what you're getting into, but expect the new experience to be even more explosive. To the diehard Sony loyalists out there: now is your chance to go nuts in one of the most chaotic and hysterically violent virtual cities ever brought to life by a videogame development team.

Saints Row 2 is not a terribly attractive game, especially when compared to other open-world titles such as Far Cry 2 and, yes, Grand Theft Auto IV. Stilwater is a big city that has an awful lot of stuff to look at, including the stable of vehicles you'll come to be acquainted with, and the city, as a whole, looks fine. If there's one aspect of the visual design that stands above the rest, it's the explosions. Throwing satchel charges on destructible objects looks just like it should: awesome. On the other side, the framerate takes more than a few hits a little too often, and the draw distance is not very impressive. This becomes most apparent when you are tearing down the streets of Stilwater at a breakneck pace; buildings, cars, and pedestrians spontaneously pop into existence. This is a problem, especially if you're trying to stay out of trouble with the law. During my time with Saints Row 2, I ran into some animation bugs that resulted in my character getting hopelessly stuck in the geometry of a brick wall. These visual problems don't ruin the game, but they are noticeable enough to the point where they detract from the experience.

Where the visuals fail, the sound usually succeeds. Guns sound like they should, and car accidents sound as nasty as they look. Cutscenes feature full voice acting, and while many of the lines are absolutely ridiculous, the delivery is solid across the board. This is made even more impressive by the fact that the game's character customization system allows for different voices. Yes, the part of the main character was recorded several times using different voices, all to make sure that your character truly feels like your own creation. There is also a considerable amount of celebrity voicework in the game, from Neil Patrick Harris to Jaime Pressly to the ever-reliable Keith David.

When it comes to strong language, Saints Row 2's script is absolutely vile. The game's M rating is richly deserved, and not only on the basis of its violent gameplay; over the course of the campaign, a staggering number of four-letter words fly from the mouths of just about everyone in Stilwater. To parents who are squeamish about such content: consider yourselves warned.

As in most other open-world games such as GTA IV and Fallout 3, you have the option to listen to the radio as you travel between objectives. There's a good number of radio stations, and they all get the job done, but the number of tracks feels a little on the scant side.

Saints Row 2 opens five years after the abrupt and shocking ending of the original. The main character awakens from a five-year coma to find himself in a prison hospital. The context used for the impressive character creation system is clever; apparently, much of what made the player character unique (including what literally made him a man) is floating in the river, and he needs to be rebuilt (they have the technology). Once you build your character, you break out of jail only to find that Stilwater has undergone a drastic change since that fateful night the yacht you were on was blown to kingdom come. Apparently, an earthquake left the city in ruins, and it has been rebuilt from the ground up with help from the seedy Ultor Corporation (a clever reference to another well-known Volition franchise). Just because Stilwater has been rebuilt doesn't exactly mean that the metropolis is thriving, however; three new gangs (the Sons of Samedi, the Brotherhood, and the Ronin) have risen to power. The 3rd Street Saints have fallen apart, and it's up to you to reassemble the gang and take back Stilwater. The narrative is possibly where Saints Row 2 differs the most from GTA IV; while Rockstar's latest game dealt with corruption, redemption, and the dark side of human nature, Saints Row 2 is gleefully unapologetic in its depravity. The plot is sometimes silly and cliched - it almost feels kind of campy at times. However, the story succeeds in serving as a legitimate backdrop for all of the on-screen insanity.

The core gameplay of the franchise remains largely unchanged from the first installment, and that is by no means a bad thing. For the "uncanonized," Saints Row 2 is an open-world action game that relies heavily on run-and-gun action, as opposed to the far less Rambo-esque pop-and-stop tactics of Grand Theft Auto IV. Factor all that in with some carjacking and high-speed police chases, and you've got a pretty good idea of what Saints Row 2 is all about. Once you've recruited the initial ragtag bunch of miscreants that eventually become the new 3rd Street Saints, you can take on each of the three gangs at your leisure.

Before you take on a mission, you need to fill up your Respect Bar, and the only way to gain respect is by partaking in one of many activities that are littered all around the Stilwater map. When I played the original Saints Row, this was a complaint of mine, as some of the activities felt like time-consuming distractions from the narrative. Saints Row 2 may retain the same activities from the first Saints Row, but the six new activities are wacky and funny enough to forgive the distraction. To illustrate just how insane some of these activities are, I'll provide two examples. The "Septic Avenger" activity has your character riding around in a wastewater management vehicle. Your task? Spray gallons upon gallons of filth all over the neighborhood (including pedestrians, vehicles, and houses) in an effort to devalue the property of those who deserve it. Another excellent diversion is the "Crowd Control" activity, in which your character is hired as a bodyguard for a celebrity. As your charge walks around an area mingling with the public, several random jerks will try to beat the celebrity to death (there's no explanation for this, which makes it even funnier). It's your duty to kick their asses, and the game lets you get creative with these kills. For example, if the celebrity is walking around the Stilwater equivalent of Chinatown, you can throw a thug either headfirst into a gong or next to a golden dragon head that breathes fire. These context-sensitive areas vary with regards to the area of the activity, and they never get old.

The multiplayer component in Saints Row 2 is vastly improved over its predecessor, allowing drop-in/drop-out cooperative play. The system that manages this mode is built into the game's pause Menu, and it is easy to hop in (and out) of a friend's online campaign. Other than the increased difficulty, there aren't too many hiccups in the cooperative experience that don't involve the quality of your own internet connection. In addition to the cooperative campaign, Saints Row 2 offers competitive multiplayer, and it's a blast. The main attraction is a mode called Strongarm, in which two teams are confined to a neighborhood in Stilwater. Each team must earn enough money to buy out the neighborhood, and the computer sets up a series of activities that the teams must compete in. They are all activities from the single player campaign, and including them in competitive multiplayer was a great move. The game also offers a deathmatch mode (Gangsta Brawl and the team variant of said brawl), but when measured up to the outstanding Strongarm, it falls short. My biggest complaint with the online play is that you'll have to create an entirely new character for multiplayer.

Saints Row 2 has its fair share of tough missions, but none of them are unforgivingly so. You'll get smoked every now and then, but the challenge isn't frustrating to the point where you will want to stop playing. That being said, the difficulty is definitely ramped up in cooperative play, resulting in more resilient enemies and slightly altered mission objectives. For example, there's an early mission that involves wheeling an injured Saint out of the hospital while fending off enemies. In the cooperative mode, one of the players must take the gurney down to the parking lot while the other is tasked with running to the hospital roof to jack the hospital chopper. These scenarios are very interesting, but they don't always work as well as they really should. In co-op, you will usually need your partner to survive; when you are forced to split up, the game gets really tough.

Saints Row 2's length depends entirely on what kind of gamer you are. If you want to blaze through the campaign while only doing enough missions on the side to keep your respect bar full, you'll get a good 15 hours out of the experience. However, if you're a total sucker for squeezing every last drop of entertainment out of your purchase, Saints Row 2 will keep you happy for a long time.

Game Mechanics:
Saints Row 2's control scheme allows for a faster, more freeform experience than most other open-world action games. There is no targeting system used in gunplay. Everything counts on how dextrous you are with the analog sticks. The camera usually does a fine job of keeping up with what you're doing, and you will rarely be confused. One of the improvements Saints Row 2 offers over its predecessor is the inclusion of fatalities. For example, if you've got a katana and you score a chain of hits on an enemy, a truly disturbing (but nonetheless awesome) animation plays out in which your character impales the enemy's head through the jaw.

As you progress through the campaign and gain clout for the 3rd Street Saints, you unlock the ability to recruit a number of "homies" to aid you in your sick, twisted endeavors. This is a really good idea, but it has been done before, and done better. The artificial intelligence is rather dimwitted, and having an ally who helps you in a firefight by not doing anything isn't much fun. When the faults are brought to light on the side of the enemies, however, this usually results in really funny unscripted moments (three words: pimp versus cop).

I was fortunate enough to play both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Saints Row 2, and the only differences between the two have to do with the overall polish. Graphically, the Xbox 360 version has a slight upper hand - there's a considerably lower number of jaggies, the screen-tearing is less frequent, and the load times are shorter (even taking into consideration the PS3's hard drive installation). In addition, there is unfortunately no trophy support for the PlayStation 3 release. It really seems as if the developers could have borrowed from the Xbox 360's Achievement list, but for whatever reason, they decided against it. On the other hand, PlayStation Network is and always has been a free service, countering Microsoft's not-so-free online service. If you own both systems, I recommend going with the Xbox 360 version. However, no matter which console you choose to play it on, Saints Row 2 is a quality action title.

I remember the days when so many urban-themed games were slapped together haphazardly and phoned in. I'm really glad to see that the majority of these games have bottlenecked out to the point where we are left with the gems of the genre. If you've gotten your fill of Liberty City, I highly recommend relocating to Stilwater. Saints Row 2 is a diamond in the rough that has its share of blemishes - but in the end, it's still a diamond.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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