If “Grand Theft Auto IV” is the drama queen of open-world gaming, “Saints Row 2” is the class clown — the Farrelly Brothers to “GTA’s” Tarantino — with any trace of gravitas scrupulously shot off. Blithely chaotic and exuberantly sadistic, developer Volition’s gang-banging spree supposes players have the attention span of a Chihuahua, distracting with zany tasks that fire like a tennis ball machine on Ritalin. Factor in the new cooperative play mode, and publisher THQ has a shrewdly crafted jack-of-all-trades that should surpass the original’s two million copies sold if it doesn’t get lost in the autumn game deluge.
“Saints Row 2” features a fully traversable, scrubbed and disinfected update of the original game’s Stillwater, a gangland Chicago/Detroit analogue carved into 40-some districts. Waking from a coma induced by the original game’s ending, the nondescript protagonist, who’s extremely customizable right down to his or her gender, breaks out of an island prison and motorboats back to Stillwater, where former gang mates in the 3rd Street Saints have all but vanished.
Getting the gang back together is just a line on the dossier for this amoral showboater. More fun ensues as players explore a city that’s better looking and more lifelike than the original, trying out familiar stuff like racing and escort missions and eventually fight-clubbing in underground arenas or devaluing property by spraying it with sewage.
Missions cue throughout the effortlessly navigable map and tend to involve shootouts against three cosmetically distinctive, albeit tactically interchangeable gangs who’ll get easily annoyed if their turf is invaded or members harassed. “Saints Row 2” scales its challenge a bit one-dimensionally, simply throwing more goons at flash points or clapping on restrictions like timer countdowns, though the story culminates in a satisfying free-for-all with the city’s smarmy corporate overlord.
In many ways, the game is a direct rebuke to “GTA IV’s” deliberately drawn — and more adult — narrative. “Forget that pretentious crap,” “Saints Row 2” says to the teenage boy in all of us. “Let’s blow some shit up!”
It takes only moments, for instance, to shift from buying guns and grenades to running down criminals in police cruisers and hurling crates of fireworks at pursuers from the backs of trucks. Optional activities and shops crowd the map from the start and come with such a wide palette of flavors that boredom seldom sets in. Vehicles take forever to damage and all corner like they’ve never heard of inertia, illustrating the game’s obsession with solid control over realism.
“Saints Row 2’s” production values seem a hair lower than “GTA IV’s” in terms of Stillwater’s visual depth and density, but they more than compensate with a witty script and solid voice work by Daniel Dae Kim, Eliza Dushku, Keith David and Neil Patrick Harris. There are also a solid list of radio stations for use while driving and a compelling new feature that allows players to kit out their playlists by purchasing tracks at music stores around the city.
The sequel’s biggest improvement over the original is the integration of online co-op gameplay, which happens naturally and dynamically, as other players wink in and out of single-player campaigns.
Flitting around Stillwater murdering rival pimps while poaching their ho’s or imitating the fuzz for a reality TV show with a cameraman in tow is even more fitting with a friend playing shotgun. Online multiplayer isn’t as well integrated, however, with only two tacked modes, neither very original, in which 12 players can compete over dollars and body counts.