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, and the technical problems will haunt your every turn, but the unrepentant joy of terrorizing this humble metropolis makes Saints Row 2 a viable palate-cleanser for anyone willing to embrace the role of immoral dirtbag.
Unleashing unprovoked havoc on the streets of Stilwater can be as much fun on the PC as it was on consoles, but while the core elements have made the transition intact, the visuals have taken a serious hit. On a PC that exceeds the recommended requirements, Saints Row 2 has a choppy frame rate and jarring pop-in that make driving around this busy metropolis a pain. The forgiving driving physics make it possible to get from one point to another without too many of crashes, but vehicles and even buildings pop in and out of view with regularity, and any element that requires precise maneuvering will torment all but the most patient players. Firefights are particularly agonizing--trying to mow down a target from afar, even a stationary one, is a matter of luck more than dexterity. If you're running a machine that far exceeds the recommended specs, you'll experience a sometimes choppy but ultimately playable thrill ride through this open world, but anyone with a more modest configuration should proceed with caution.
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. The Brotherhood missions in particular are 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 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 that 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 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.
The controls that were so smooth in the console iterations feel uneven on the PC. You'll have no problem running around the city using either a controller or a keyboard and mouse combination, but the subtle combat maneuvers that were possible in the console versions have been hampered here because of the inconsistent frame rate. Before, it was possible to target specific parts of your enemies' bodies with ease, letting you cripple your opposition with a happy smile on your face. But long-range fighting is now a painstaking affair, forcing you to make the fights much more intimate. Because the aiming is unreliable and there's no lock-on ability or cover mechanic, fights generally devolve into running up to enemies and seizing them for temporary cover or to quickly dispose of them. It is still extremely fun to grab enemies and hurl them 20 feet in the air, but the other aspects of combat are too inconsistent to be rewarding.
The main reason the missions are still fun 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.
Aside from the main missions, there are a bevy of side quests to take part in. These are much more original than the standard missions, so it's easy to get distracted by these for a while and forget about the story. These activities are where Saints Row 2 completely ignores reality and lets you have some ridiculous fun. Trail Blazer is probably the most chaotic. Here, you'll ride an ATV wearing a flaming, fireproof suit. You get a time bonus for lighting cars and people on fire, so you just set out to cause as much destruction as possible. There's little challenge here (who would oppose a man wearing a flame-drenched suit?), but lighting the world on fire is utterly satisfying. There are a few other tasks that aren’t as fun, but overall, the minigames in Saints Row 2 are excellent and imaginative additions that go a long way toward extending your gameplay.
The best diversion is the terrifying zombie uprising. You can access this on the big-screen TV in any of your cribs, and it provides some of the most exciting moments in Saints Row 2. As opposed to an emulation of a 2D arcade game from years past, this is a 3D adventure to save your soul from bloodsucking zombies. It takes place in the dilapidated hotel that serves as your headquarters, and you have to mow down wave after wave of these undead creatures. With a limited amount of ammunition and melee weapons that break after a few hits, you'll have to constantly run around to evade the threat of these relentless demons. The slow-moving zombies may not seem too scary at first, but as more fill the screen, this becomes an intense and oftentimes exhilarating experience. Being surrounded by a group of zombies as you try to push them away to resurrect your fallen pals is an awesome divergence from the typical inner-city mayhem.
If killing zombies alone sounds too frightening, you can play through Saints Row 2 with a friend. The co-op is extremely well implemented here. You can hop in or out at any time, and there aren't even any chains tethering you to each other. The entire city is open to your crime-wave whims. You can partake in missions and minigames together, or, if you're not feeling very cooperative, one person can tackle missions while the other drives aimlessly around town buying gas stations. There is a little bit of lag and some problems with cars and pedestrians popping in directly in front of you, but the experience of teaming up with a friend makes these slight hiccups easy to ignore. Just make sure you have an understanding with your cooperative pal; one person's violent actions will set cops loose on both players, so it's easy to ruin your buddy's fun if you set the police on him while he's peacefully trying to spray-paint walls. Regardless of your friend's penchant for attracting unwanted attention, it's preferable to the atrocious friendly AI you have to put up with. These morons get stuck on doors and benches, can't figure out how to get in your car, and lag far behind you in firefights. Teaming up with a friend makes the already great campaign even better.
Competitive multiplayer isn't quite as engaging as the cooperative portions, but it does provide some excitement in brief bursts. The main mode here is Strong Arm, a team-based affair that tests people in a variety of events. You'll randomly be assigned to many of the activities found in the Campaign mode, and you have a few minutes to best the other team before you move on to another event. The racing and capture-the-flag variants are fairly standard, but there are unique events that add some life to these matches. Insurance Fraud is quite chaotic. Here, each team tries to get into the most horrific car accident. The best way to play defense is to simply shoot them dead, so it's a matter of quickly getting hit by cars before you're unceremoniously dispatched by your competitors. Strong Arm also uses the spray-paint mechanic in a novel way. If you successfully tag a wall while everyone else is worried about killing one another, you grant bonuses to your team, such as more health or causing smoke to pour out of your enemies, making them easier to see. The only other mode is Deathmatch, which is just too hectic to offer long-term appeal.
It's a shame the PC port is so poor, because the core of Saints Row 2 is still a blast. The great cooperative integration, unique activities, and super-cool zombie-slaying mode are just as creative and silly as they were in the console iterations, but everything is hampered by severe technical problems. If you have plenty of patience and a powerful gaming rig, you'll happily create havoc in Saints Row 2 for a long time. But for everyone else, this lazy port should be avoided.