When the original Saints Row came out two years ago, it served to placate fans until Grand Theft Auto made its next-generation debut. Saints Row's deviant destruction didn't push the boundaries of what to expect from a free-roaming urban assault game, but it did provide an enjoyable outlet for consequence-free chaos while never taking itself too seriously. Since then, Grand Theft Auto IV has injected a dose of maturity into its typical sandbox fare, removing many of its outlandish behaviors to create a more grounded portrayal of the gangster lifestyle. Saints Row 2 is not concerned with growing up. It is a morality-free alternative to GTAIV, an unremorseful descent into mindless mayhem. The lack of any major advancement in gameplay or storytelling may elicit a few flashes of deja vu, but the unrepentant joy of terrorizing this humble metropolis makes this a viable palate-cleanser for anyone willing to embrace the role of amoral dirtbag.
Racing in a bulldozer is always a great idea.
The story begins in a jail hospital, where you've been in a coma ever since a gigantic explosion at the end of the first Saints Row nearly ended your criminal actions permanently. After easily escaping from this lightly guarded compound, you set off to recruit more people to your gang and retake the city of Stilwater. The overarching story is derivative and not easily relatable, but there are some interesting episodes contained within. The Brotherhood missions in particular are quite dark, documenting a tale of vengeance that is sickly satisfying. After putting nuclear waste in their leader's tattoo ink, you find yourself in a constant battle of one-upmanship. Deaths are taken lightly, propelling you to even more outrageous behavior, but it fits within the context of this over-the-top gameworld. The story never reaches beyond the barbaric needs of its protagonist, but the missions do contain a few worthwhile cinematic payoffs.
While you may not be able to affect the outcome of your story, you can design your conqueror in whatever image you desire. The character creation tool is quite extensive. You can drastically change the weight and age of your character, pick from four different races, mold facial features in whatever manner you desire, and even choose if you want a male or female protagonist. With only six different voices to choose from, it can be difficult to accurately match one to whatever look you happen upon, but it's a small price to pay for the wealth of creative options. You can visit a plastic surgeon at any time to tweak your features, but the process is so in-depth, it's easier just to choose a look at the beginning and stay with it.
The missions are predominantly of the drive-and-shoot variety that has become commonplace in the genre. Though there are three different gangs opposing you, as well as various law enforcement agencies, the only difference between them are the colors they wear and the scumbags who lead them. The majority of missions boil down to raiding a building and killing everyone who moves. While these excursions are usually entertaining, taking place in a variety of locations against increasingly ridiculous odds, the repetition of the actions is undeniable. Some objectives do provide an opportunity to do something a little different, though. For instance, when asked to rob a bank, you find out your prize is not a vault of money, but an even more valuable hostage. This leads to a strong detour in both the story and gameplay, and serves to keep things fresh. And since most missions have a midway checkpoint, you'll rarely have to start at the very beginning if you make a mistake.
Ninja with guns. Finally.
Fortunately, the tight controls keep the missions thrilling, even when they exhibit the same objectives. Combat feels especially gratifying in Saints Row 2. Targeting people is quick and precise, so it's easy to hit someone in the body part of your choosing or whip around to nail an attacker who sneaked up behind you. Without a lock-on ability, the firefights are fast and frantic, relying on your quick fingers to mow down the opposition. The lack of any sort of cover mechanic is disappointing, but its absence places the emphasis on aggression. Though your melee attacks are fairly limited, you do have one extremely handy move in your repertoire. You can grab enemies and use them as a human shield if fights are getting too hectic and just toss them away when you're done. The exaggerated physics here are hilarious, letting you hurl people 20 feet in the air, watching their rag-doll bodies wildly overreact to every collision.
Another reason the missions are fun throughout is the unrestrained freedom in how you can complete them. Enemies can be killed at any time, using any weapon in your arsenal. For instance, the bosses in the game are all just normal human beings. You can choose to pepper them with your pistol if you choose, slowly witling down their life bar as you carefully dodge their attacks. Or you can just ignore typical video game logic and kill them with a few glorious shots from your rocket launcher. This freedom extends to every element in the game, letting you mow down enemies in whatever manner you see fit. Saints Row 2 fully embraces its sandbox moniker, letting you carve your own path of destruction without any arbitrary strings tying you down.