By their very nature, sandbox games are open-ended experiences where the balance between story progression and time-wasting mischief is entirely up to the player. It's hard to take that formula and squeeze it into a short demo, which is why THQ recently invited us to spend an entire day with Saints Row 2. This extended play-through gave us ample time to plug away at the bandages-to-riches storyline, cause some chaos with real and improvised side missions, and take a spin through Stilwater in a co-op setting.
The first Saints Row greeted players ready to embark on their journey into gang life with one of the more elaborate character creation systems seen at the time. Saints Row 2 takes that system and beefs it up considerably, giving you the option to customize a truly ridiculous number of attributes. Using sliders adjusting everything from your overbite to your septum width, you can craft an avatar of either gender that looks anywhere between "perfectly normal" and "abomination of nature." Once your base physical attributes are set, you can set the mood of your face with a number of fixed facial expressions to make yourself look confused, joyous, or just plain evil. From there, you have three voice options for each gender (including a wonderfully out-of-place English accent for the gents) and the ability to choose your taunts and walking style.
Your character then begins the game on a prison hospital bed, awaking from a five-year coma caused by the explosion that capped off the first Saints Row. You're whisked away from these confines by a friendly prison mate only to realize that the Saints are no more. Other gangs still roam the newly expanded streets of Stilwater, but the purple-clad clan you worked so hard to build up in the first game has been more or less eradicated. Thus begins the story, with you working to build the 3rd Street Saints back to glory. And because you're ostensibly playing the same protagonist from the first game despite crafting a brand-new avatar, Volition has tossed in plenty of self-deprecating dialogue like, "You look different. Did you get a haircut?"
First on the agenda is rescuing fellow Saint Johnny Gat, who's currently on trial with over 200 counts of homicide to his name. This mission involves storming the court trial with some heavy firepower, taking out the guards, and ushering Johnny out the door. The idea of storming a particular stronghold with guns blazing becomes a familiar refrain for the first few missions of the game, as the next item on your list--securing a base of operations for your gang--involves clearing all the Sons of Samedi and gang members (and a few scattered hoboes) squatting in a local abandoned mission.
Once you've got a base, the story missions begin to offer more than just shooting scads of people. One mission requires you to recruit some fresh blood for the Saints, and you go about this by doing odd favors for some of the local talent. One girl has you proving your worth by flying off a few of the big jumps lurking all throughout Stilwater, while another would-be Saint asks you to take his tow truck and impound the car of someone who owes him some money. But these types of missions are more the exception than the rule, as most tasks require you to exercise extreme prejudice against rival gangs in your quest to take back the city.
One of the most compelling features added to Saints Row 2 is the ability to go through the entire story (and any mission in the game, really) in two-player co-op. It's a simple drop-in, drop-out affair that allows for you to set your game to be public, friends-only, or invite-only. The missions are beefed up in difficulty and enemy AI to compensate for your doubled firepower, and are triggered whenever one player chooses to begin. One odd thing about the co-op is that each player only sees his or her own character during the cutscenes rather than both of them, but as long as you're not playing on side-by-side televisions like we were, that shouldn't be a tremendous issue. And thankfully, there's no tether system to be found; you and your friend can exist on completely opposite ends of Stilwater if you so choose.
This time around, dutifully moving the story forward is a bit tougher with all the side missions, additional customization, and opportunities for mayhem vying for your attention. The side missions are broken down into two categories: Activities, which are found in the first game and help you earn some cash and gang respect, and Diversions, smaller actions that can be pulled off almost anywhere. Activities have you taking part in odd jobs for random strangers seeking a favor of you. A few examples of new activities include "FUZZ," where you pretend to be a cop and rough up petty criminals for a reality show, Septic Avenger, which sees you steal a septic truck and spray its contents on the city's major financial establishments, and "Crowd Control," where you act as a bodyguard for celebrities with rabid fans.
Whereas Activities are deliberate tasks that require you to find a mission marker and begin, Diversions pop up over the course of normal play. If you jack a car with someone in the passenger seat, a pop-up will invite you to part in the "Hostage" Diversion in which you attempt to keep moving through the police for a set amount of time until the hostage pays you to let him go. "Vehicle Surfing" is a Diversion in which you attempt to balance atop a speeding car, and "BASE Jumping" will prompt you with a landing target if you take up the game's offer after leaping from the top of a skyscraper. What might be our favorite, though, is the co-op-only "Cat and Mouse" Diversion, whereby one player cruises through checkpoints in a sports car while the other hunts him down in an attack helicopter.
Also competing for your attention is the ability to put your own personal touch on what you wear, what you drive, and where you live. Clothing can be customized to the same ridiculous degree as your initial character designs. You can adjust the pattern, colors, and fit on nearly every last piece of clothing, while layering several different articles on top of one another. One stripe or three on those socks? Did you want that track jacket zipped or unzipped? Hat backward or at a 5/8 turn? You get the idea.
Cars can also be tweaked to meet your discerning standards. Just bring a vehicle into your personal garage, then head to a mechanic and fiddle with new body mods, paint schemes, rims, window tints, and NOS boosts. You can even create a custom radio station available to listen to in any car you find. To do this, you go to a record shop and buy individual tracks (using in-game currency) at $20 a pop. If you're up to the task, you can pool wildly differing songs from all the game's stations into one huge pirate radio station. For example, you can borrow A-Ha's "Take On Me" from the '80s station, Minus the Bear's "Knights" from the indie station, Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" from the rap station, LCD Soundsystem's "North American Scum" from the electronic station, and Mastadon's "Colony of Birchmen" from the metal station and use them all to create one great, big radio station thoroughly customized to your liking. (And maybe even throw Europe's "The Final Countdown" in there somewhere, if that's your thing.)
Finally, because even the most violent criminal needs a home to call his own, you can also customize your crib. There's the option to simply upgrade your crib's overall theme from something cheap and run down to something much classier, or upgrade your furniture piece by piece. However, even the cheapest of entertainment centers gives you the ability to play one of Saints Row 2's hidden gems: a video game within the game called "Zombie Uprising." Rather than a retro arcade game, this is actually a fully 3D zombie game that applies the look and feel of the regular game to a darker, more zombie-filled setting. In it you need to survive wave after wave of undead with a limited number of weapons and fellow survivors. It may be a poor man's Left 4 Dead, but it's still a very cool throw-in that's indicative of just how much there is to do in Saints Row 2 if you go around looking.
Whether you're playing through the story missions in co-op or just beating up a group of pimps with a parking meter while pedestrians take cell phone pictures, it's clear there are a lot of options for absurd entertainment in Saints Row 2. When October 14 arrives, you'll be able to take part in some of that absurdity yourselves. Until then, stay tuned for more coverage.