Saints Row 2 Hands-On - Gang Customization and Side Missions

Can a posse of shadowy ninjas survive in the war-torn streets of Stilwater? We seek out the answer.

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The original Saints Row certainly didn't revolutionize the sandbox action genre, but in playing it safe, the game pulled off a successful imitation of the Grand Theft Auto formula while still managing to introduce a handful of novel features. Right from the get-go, players were introduced to an impressive and seemingly limitless palette of character customization options. It probably goes without saying that Volition will take that ability to obsessively mold your protagonist and carry it over to Saints Row 2, but now they've expanded the customization options to your entire gang. In addition to a few side missions, we recently took a glimpse at some of the ways you'll be able to design your ideal fraternity of criminals in Saints Row 2.

Ninjas--can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
Ninjas--can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Once you've escaped from prison and recruited a few followers, you'll be given the option to tinker with your gang's overall appearance. The most noticeable change is in the gang's style. With this option, you can choose a visual theme for the followers you see roaming the streets--both lieutenants and thugs--from a pretty hefty list. Among the wardrobes we saw were those listed as '80s, Body Guards, Pimps n' Hos, and last but certainly not least, Ninjas. If you want your gang to look stern but classy, Body Guards might be the look for you. If you want an army of underdressed ladies hanging in your crib, Pimps n' Hos would be a safe bet. But if you're anything like us, you'll immediately choose the Ninja style and never look back.

With this option selected, all the thugs that belong to your gang will resemble stealth assassins of the night. So as not to stand out from your cronies, you can go into your own wardrobe and select your own ninja garb. If you really want to get into the spirit of things, you can also change your fighting style to the Ronin technique. This will change the look of your attacks to more of a nimble martial arts technique--as opposed to the street-tough look of your default character's punches. Thus, with our ninja cycle complete, we could move onto the other gang options.

These additional options include choosing an official gang taunt, graffiti tags, and the types of vehicles you're buddies will be driving. Gang taunts range from vulgar gestures (think everyone's favorite amateurish first-person shooter celebration) to comical Irish jigs. The graffiti tags are all authentic-looking designs, courtesy of one of Volition's concept artists, who we're told has a background in the tagging arts. And finally, the vehicle options let you choose the models, designs, and features of the cars you'll undoubtedly be stealing from your own comrades whenever you need a quick lift.

Once we had our gang done up to suitably absurd levels, it was time to test out a few of the game's side missions--or activities. We went with a pair of stronghold missions: goals where you need to find a rival gang's base and cause a huge ruckus. The first mission had us taking to the air in an attempt to destroy a rival gang's drug farm. Your character sits in a helicopter with an assault rifle in hand, and your goal is to blow up every last structure in the complex from on high. Once you get that done, it ends with you running down fleeing Cadillacs filled with armed thugs doing their best to make a successful escape from your rampaging ways. When successful, you're shown a newspaper clipping (Headline: "Hippies Mourn Loss of Drug Farm") that will adorn the walls of your crib. It's a wistful token of nostalgia, as well as a functional teleport, that gives you the ability to go back and replay that mission whenever you like.

The other stronghold mission we tried involved taking on a gang of a slightly higher stature. Rather than busting up a field of hallucinogenics, this one required plowing through a warehouse, stealing a large sum of money, as well as blowing up all their trucks and airplanes. The action itself feels similar to most third-person shooters, but a variety of guns and death animations help make things interesting. Most strategy requires knowing which weapon to use and when to crouch behind cover to let your health regenerate. The tricky part was the second stage of the mission, where you exit the warehouse and find yourself on an airport tarmac. Thugs are shooting at you from all over, but with the handy aid of a satchel charge and rocket launcher, you can take them and their vehicles out with enough effort.

Weather effects significantly alter the way you drive at sea.
Weather effects significantly alter the way you drive at sea.

The demo we played was on the PlayStation 3, which gave us our first opportunity to see how the Sixaxis controls work. We tested this functionality on a racing activity, which was a time trial where you need to race through the sewers on a jet ski. The motion controls were a bit more fidgety than we would have liked, but they became easier to deal with as we progressed from the confines of the sewer to the wide-open ocean. At the very least, the Sixaxis controls are purely optional because you can turn them off whenever you like.

Minor control issues aside, Saints Row 2 is looking like a worthy follow-up to its well-received predecessor. It may not be the towering artistic achievement that Grand Theft Auto IV turned out to be, but with even more features added to a game that already boasted lots of hidden surprises, the city of Stilwater should offer plenty to see. You can expect to see the game released on October 14.

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