With the release of Grand Theft Auto IV now less than two months away you could be forgiven for forgetting all about Saints Row 2. After all, Volition's upcoming sequel to the other open-world crime-themed action game doesn't even have a tentative release date yet. We're told that it'll be arriving this year, though, and we recently had an opportunity to check out an early version that already incorporates plenty of new features.
Set a few years after the events of Saints Row, the sequel will see you reprising the role of a Saints gang member who, in the years since the first game, has risen to power and become the leader of the gang. With that said, the first game forced you to play as a male character, but that's not the case in Saints Row 2. We spent some time with the new character customization system during our meeting, and it's clearly something that Volition has spent a lot of time improving. You can not only play as a male or a female but, since those options appear at either end of a sliding scale, you can choose to play as someone whose appearance isn't obviously either of the two. Other sliding scales you can play around with will affect fitness level and age. You'll also be able to determine your character's ethnicity and modify his or her facial features.
Character customization in Saints Row 2 won't end there, though. After settling on a look for your gang leader, you'll want to figure out how he or she moves. You might choose a guy who walks like a gorilla, a ballerina, or any of the numerous options in between. You'll also need to choose a voice, favorite taunt and compliment actions, and fighting style. Available taunts--which are presumably intended for use primarily in multiplayer games--will include such classics as the middle finger, the tea bag, and the wanker. Compliments will include a salute, thumbs-up, riverdance (don't ask), and many more. The number of fighting-style options available to you will increase as you defeat gangs in the story mode and add their moves to your arsenal.
The story mode will pit you against three rival gangs, all of whom are hoping to fill the power vacuum resulting from the Saints' fall from grace. It's a similar setup to that in the first game, but there appear to be plenty of changes and improvements planned for Saints Row 2 that'll make it a worthy sequel. For starters, the city of Stillwater is now considerably larger and barely recognizable as the same location from the first game. This, we're told, is the result of urban renewal efforts on behalf of a large corporation. All of the existing neighborhoods have been given a face-lift, and all-new neighborhoods have been created as a result of the city's expansion to the west. You'll be able to visit the interiors of well over 100 of Stillwater's buildings this time around, including no fewer than nine gang cribs that you can make your own as you progress through the game.
If you've played Saints Row, you might remember that cribs were primarily places that you could save your game, change your clothes, and store your car collections. In Saints Row 2 you'll still be able to do all of those things, and lots more besides. We were shown one of the new cribs during our meeting, a two-story building that looked pretty run-down. It looked so nasty, in fact, that we were surprised to see several gang members hanging out there in the hope that they'd be chosen for an upcoming mission. Fortunately, as you accumulate money you'll have the option to spend it on upgrading the place. The crib customization options don't appear to be nearly as numerous as those for your character, but they're a welcome addition nonetheless. Options for the crib that we visited during our demo included upgrades for the table, the bed, the home theater, and the stripper pole, as well as "cheap," "classy," and "ultra modern" decor. Spending money on your crib will increase the amount of respect that you earn for completing missions and other objectives, and it'll also make your fellow gang members more effective when they're fighting alongside you. Other features promised for cribs include different radio stations to listen to, a more intelligent wardrobe system that lets you group individual items of clothing into outfits, and garages that can store motorcycles as well as cars. (Your Jet Skis, boats, helicopters, and planes will need to be kept elsewhere.)
Once our guided tour of the crib was over we were treated to a look at one of the early stronghold missions from Saints Row 2, in which you'll be tasked with taking out a base of operations belonging to the drug-running Sons of Samedi gang. The stronghold was a well-guarded trailer park that looked quite different from any location in the first game, and we were pleased to see that you'll have plenty of new moves and weapons in your arsenal when you're taking on enemies on foot. The new over-the-shoulder view for precision aiming will undoubtedly prove useful, as will the option to take other characters hostage and use them as a human shield. Gang members and cops will purportedly react differently to you depending on who your shield is, and the Sons of Samedi certainly seemed a little reluctant to fire at one of their own on this occasion. Your enemies will have the ability to hide behind human shields as well. The only new weapon that we got to see during our demo was a satchel charge, which sticks to anything it's thrown at and can then be detonated manually. The resulting explosions were pretty huge, and the potential for creative uses of the charges (you can turn a car or even an enemy into a moving bomb, for example) have us crossing our fingers that they'll be included in the competitive multiplayer arsenal.
Volition and THQ aren't really talking about the multiplayer features of Saints Row 2 yet, except to say that they've learned a lot from the first game and won't be making any of the same mistakes again. What they did tell us about, though, is the option to play through the entire story mode cooperatively with a friend. That's an exciting prospect, to say the least, especially when you consider some of the other activities and "diversions" that you can earn respect and money from in Stillwater. Saints Row 2 will purportedly introduce a number of all-new activities in addition to "the good ones" from the first game. The insurance fraud game in which you attempt to cause as much damage to property and to yourself isn't going away, of course, and promises to be a whole lot of fun with two players working together. Incidentally, all of the activity missions will be optional, since their function is to provide comic relief from the main story, which deals with revenge and is apparently much darker than the first game's.
Based on what we saw during our meeting, Saints Row 2 is shaping up to be a strong sequel to 2006's Saints Row. We look forward to bringing you more information on the game's multiplayer content and other features as soon as it becomes available.