I love Saints Row 2. If Saints Row IV hadn’t been so good, two would stand tall as my absolute favourite. The first game plays it really safe with the story it tells and the way it presents it. The second game takes it all up a notch. Like any good sequel, the stakes, antics, and scope of the story have risen exponentially. Likewise, so has the fun I have playing it!
Saints Row 2 opens five years after the ending of the last game. Julius declared you his second in command then unceremoniously blows you up on the Mayor’s boat. Everyone but you dies, but you don’t escape unscathed. You’re in a coma for five years on the island that houses the prison. When you wake up, Julius is MIA and you’re the new boss of the 3rd Street Saints.
After a quick exposition dump of all this new information, you’re back in the character creator. Your face is wrapped in bandages and you’re in a genderless prison jumpsuit. It’s time to build your character and prepare for constant comments from people about having changed your hair!
Two very important things have been added to the character creator: voice options and gender options. Huge, okay. That’s huge. You can now be a lady AND talk! Fantastic! I love talking ladies! Not that I ever really play as one. While I’ll sometimes play as a lady boss to enjoy the adorable clothing in the stores, 95% of my playthroughs have me using the male, British voice on a pierced, tattooed, mohawked guy. Why? Reasons! Important reasons! Like… the use of British slang… and… looking at him…
Anyways, I might not play as a lady, but the option to have a female boss is still one that I hail as a wonderful thing! With the percentage of main/playable female characters in videogames less than the percentage of main/playable anthropomorphic animals, having more ladies will never be a bad thing! Plus you have no restrictions on what voice or hair or weight you put on what gender, so if you’re not happy with choosing from one of two, this opens up the character creator to make whoever you want. That’s cool beans, folks!
So after you’ve made your character, you now have to bust outta jail. Don’t ask how the boss is up and moving around like they didn’t just spend five years laying in a bed, atrophying away the muscles of their legs and developing a back full of bed sores. Thanks to… magic (I assume), you can climb right out of that bed, punch the doctor to death and then proceed to sneak out of prison in the form of a tutorial, or charge out the front door if you’ve played before and just want to get on with it. The ability to skip it is marvelous. I don’t think I’ve ever actually done it. It’s Saints Row, I know what to expect! Much like Johnny Gat, just give me a gun and I’ll figure it out as I go!
After your spectacular (or sneaky if you’re more boring or patient than myself) escape from jail, you go about putting your gang back together before you go to take out the other gangs that have risen in your absence: the Brotherhood (protection and extortion), the Sons of Samedi (drugs), and the Ronin (gambling and prostitution). Fun fact, that’s also the order in which I take the bastards out in! Why this order? I hate the Brotherhood the most, so wiping them out first is a must for nothing but spite. What they do to *spoilers* Carlos is unacceptable in my Stilwater! And the Ronin I always leave to last because *spoilers* that’s the gang that kills Aisha and in my mind, leaving those mission to last gives Johnny more time to spend with his beloved Aisha.
It makes sense! Don’t tell me it doesn’t!
After your gang is back together and you’re off on your merry way destroying the other gangs, you get to decide in what order you proceed. Want to methodically control your slaughter and destruction? I suggest completing all six levels of nine full side missions (called diversions) to earn enough respect to take you through any storyline missions without pause. Because yeah, this game’s missions run on respect like the first one. So fully complete the fight clubs, the escorting, the trafficking, the insurance fraud, maybe a little septic avenger or mayhem or chop shopping if the mood strikes you. With your respect built up, you can now slaughter your way through all eleven missions, per gang, at once! If you want to be all over the place like a maniac… well, just play the open world game as if you were a real person trying to be a city’s gang lord! If you’re looking for that authentic experience, I suppose.
SPOILER WARNING FOR MAJOR PLOT EVENTS BELOW
Saints Row 2 seems like a basic story, but the way it’s told is amazing. You will feel all the feels during this game. When Carlos is kidnapped and dragged behind a Brotherhood truck… it’s intense. You have to stop the truck before it kills him. Then when you’re able to help Carlos, you roll him over on the pavement and the look on your character’s face says it all. You try to pick him up but he’s chained to the bumper. So you try to get the bumper off but can’t. Even if you could get the chains off, Carlos was dragged behind a truck. He’s fucked. He knows it, you know it. So without saying anything, you kneel beside him, take his hand, and then shoot him yourself. Like… goddamn if you don’t feel that!
Aisha’s death is the same. The Ronin go after her because they know she’s mixed up with Johnny. She’s tied to one of her dining room chairs by Jyunichi. He promises she will live if she keeps quiet and lets them kill Johnny and your character when you arrive. Aisha doesn’t listen and warns you it’s a trap before she loses her head because of it. You don’t see much of Aisha throughout the series, but Johnny’s love for her is absolutely 100% clear. Her death becomes his bane throughout the rest of the series and it’s heartbreaking.
It’s not all doom and gloom though! There are funny bits too! One of the first cutscenes you get has Johnny in a courtroom before a judge saying that his appeal won’t work because he’s killed three hundred people. He replies to that: “With the statute of limitations I figure it’s closer to two fifty”. Gotta love that sass! In that same cutscene, a gun misfires as it falls to the floor and everyone ducks except Johnny who stays where he is. The gruff ‘whatever’ look on his face makes me laugh every damn time!
The scene where the boss is kidnapped and drugged by the Samedi is great too. Especially with the British voice. Why? Because Charles Shaughnessy does that voice. You know, Mr. Sheffield from the 90s sitcom The Nanny. Yeah, right? It’s so perfect! Watching him trip tits the whole mission, combined with such lines as “It’s a bad time to be fucked up” makes the game less dreary than it could have ended up being.
Also playing up the ridiculousness of the game as a whole are the mission wrap-ups. Each mission ends with a newspaper article with a sardonic headline. They really make me want to write for the Stilwater paper! Some of the best include:
- “Homeless Bums Now More Homeless”
- “Drug Dealing Mom Escapes Prison, Leaves Nice Note”
- “Hippies Mourn Loss of Drug Farm”
- “Slaughterhouse Becomes a Slaughterhouse”
Never a dull moment in Stilwater!
Like the first game, there are a tonne of characters. You’re still unnamed, but you can talk this time around! Which adds a wealth of personality, whichever voice you choose. Then there’s your fellow Saints. Gat returns. Shaundi, Pierce, and Carlos sign on as the newbie lieutenants. Tobias, the drug dealer you help in the first game, returns and his wife Laura is introduced. Julius makes an appearance in a secret mission and Troy is seen in cutscenes. Dex is mentioned in passing, but not seen. A running theme in this series.
Shaundi is a chill stoner girl that has an ex-boyfriend in every neighbourhood where you happen to need information. Pierce is an uptight strategist who’s jealous of the attention you give Shaundi. Carlos is the kid who helps you bust out of prison and is the green boy of the group. He meets his untimely demise halfway through the Brotherhood missions. And of course, fan favourite killing machine Gat is back! He even sustains a life threatening injury like he does in the first game! Though he is lacking the prominent frosted tips he sported in the first one. A loss for us all.
The villains of the piece are three gangs previously mentioned plus Ultor, a major corporation hoping to use gang violence to gentrify the city. The Ronin are the least interesting gang. They zip around on motorcycles with swords and are led by a brat that has daddy issues. Ultor is kind of a surprise come the end when you discover that Dane Vogel has been pulling the strings all along, but ultimately the epilogue missions where you deal with Ultor are forgettable. The Brotherhood and the Samedi present a better story.
Maero, the leader of the Brotherhood, and Mr. Sunshine, the enforcer of the Samedi, are some scary motherfuckers! Mr. Sunshine wields a machete and the power of voodoo. I’m not kidding. Voodoo is a thing here and it brings him back from the dead during the showdown you have with him. And before that, he gets one of his ears cut off and doesn’t make a peep during the process. He uses that for motivation. That’s metal as shit, dude!
Maero doesn’t have any voodoo magic on his side; he’s just a dude with huge muscles and facial tattoos hiding his fragile masculinity. The worst kind of fuckboy indeed. He’s specifically got a rivalry with your character, unlike the other gangs. The Brotherhood were a bunch of outcasts just like the Saints were when they started. While the Saints have fallen during your coma, the Brotherhood risen. Maero offers a consolation prize for staying out of their way, the boss refuses, and a feud begins that goes from blowing up their trucks, to putting nuclear waste in the ink that gets tattooed on Maero, to Carlos getting dragged through the streets behind a truck, to you kidnapping Maero’s girlfriend and getting him in his own monster truck to crush her. These aren’t ridiculous scenarios. The nuclear waste stretches it, but everything else with the Brotherhood feels real enough that you could believe these are gangs duking it out.
Like the game before (and every game afterwards), Saints Row 2 has some great voice acting. Eliza Dushku (Buffy) is Shaundi, Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) is Veteran Child, Brain Tee (Grimm) is Jyunichi, Michael Dorn (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is Maero, and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), and Keith David (pretty much everything, you should know who Keith David is) return as Johnny and Julius, respectively. And not only are there great actors for each character, but they’re all ethnically correct to their characters! I went over this in my last retrospective, but I’m restating it here: matching a character’s ethnicity with an actor’s ethnicity is so important and the fact that a videogame is doing it should put the rest of popular entertainment to shame!
The location of Saints Row 2 is Stilwater again, but it has been improved vastly. This is a city that’s as alive as it’s supposed to be. The neighbourhoods are varied, vast, and populated. The suburbs have two story houses and white picket fences. The downtown area has skyscrapers and neon signs. The slums are full of graffiti, gunfire, and disenfranchised masses looking for drugs and sex. Stilwater was designed to emulate cities like Detroit and Chicago and it feels like it in the sequel.
Besides the two main islands, you can explore a prison island and an island that houses a nuclear power plant. Just grab a boat and head out. You can wander through the tunnels under the nuclear reactor. Or just charge into the prison to head to the exercise yard to do the fight club diversion. Then there’s a host of secret islands far off the mainland that you can head to and explore. Some of them have ancient Greek ruins on them, dinosaur bones, or have colourful fish in the shallows. One of them has a secret shrine to Volition. One has a pirate ship that glows a ghostly blue in the night. There’s nothing useful on these islands, but they’re fun to dick around on.
There are also a number of secret but not-really-hidden areas around the game, like a statue on the river dedicated to the Mayor who was blown the fuck up in the first game and the church that was your home base in one. The map doesn’t have anything specific marked on it so it’s just a matter of exploration. Something I actually didn’t do until I read about the secret shit on the Saints Row wiki. I just didn’t think there would be secret islands filled with weird stuff hidden off the map away from shore. Silly me, right?
The fact that your character has been in a coma for five years also contributes to the setting. There are still neighbourhoods in Stilwater that are run down and filled with strip clubs and neon, but when the original set of gangs wiped each other out in the first game, a major corporation moved in and started gentrifying the city. Now the area of Saints Row is filled with pristine buildings, beautiful green spaces, and bridges. Ultor cleaned it up and put up condos. Saints Row 2 is prettier to look at. Though that’s not really the point since you’re fighting the gentrification.
The graphical upgrades between one and two are a marked improvement. This was the first game in the series to appear on the PS3 and not just the Xbox 360, so that helped it not be as bland and flat as the first one was. There are long distance details you can make out and so many little details that go missed unless you’re looking for them. Like, streets have those black veins of tar that are used to patch concrete and subway cars have graffiti on the sides. A tonne of care went into Stilwater and I wish the series would ditch the current city of Steeleport to come back.
There are still some issues with stony facial expressions and shiny, plastic looking skin. Some cutscenes will have your character looking like a Barbie doll, but other characters don’t suffer this. Probably a by-product of the customization you can do to yourself. But the cutscenes are so fucking awesome you’re doubtful to be paying that much attention.
The cutscenes in the first game were just like: ‘here we are to move the story along. The camera angle is at chest height so you can see everything that’s happening. There’s no need for art.” Cutscenes in Saints Row 2? So well-crafted. The cinematography is amazing, particularly the cutscene at the end of the mission “Thank You and Goodnight” where you crash a Feed Dogs concert to interrogate Maero’s tattoo artist. And when Aisha is killed you see the roses that stood neck level to her on a table fall to the ground, sliced cleanly off their stems. It’s an elegant way to show death in a game where Carlos dies after being dragged behind a car.
Something I didn’t touch upon at all in the last article is the music of Saints Row. I suppose I didn’t because there is none. At least there’s no atmospheric music. The only tunes you’ll hear through the whole game comes from the radio stations. Okay, wait. That’s not true either. There are some tracks that are linked to when you’re in certain buildings (shopping is the key one that comes to mind). My point is that there’s nothing playing that sets the mood.
Your radio in Saints Row 2 has five stations returning from Saints Row and seven new. There’s Generation X (modern rock), Ultor FM (alternative), KRhyme FM (hip-hop and rap), K12 (electronic and my personal favourite), Funk (funk, duh), The Underground (pirate radio) Klassic FM (classical), 420 (reggae), Ezzzy FM (easy listening), The World (eclectic world music), The Krunch (hard rock), and The Mix (80s pop and rock).
There are also a number of commercials that play in between the songs and they’re the best! The Stilwater University ad hails it as the best school in the state to get drugs. The ad for the clothing store Nobody Loves Me promises to give misunderstood teenagers mass produced clothing to express themselves with. Rim Jobs… well, they just say rim job over and over again. But that’s funny. Because of butt related reasons! There are a lot of them too. Commercials that is, not butts. You’re unlikely to hear all the ads the game has to offer during a single play through. They’re crude, ridiculous, and tiresome come the end of the game, but hearing them for the first time will cause a giggle or two.
I’ve played the games so much that I can’t stand any of the stations anymore (aside from K12 in the third game) so I just turn the radio totally off and drive around in silence. That sounds more boring than it is. I assure you it’s preferable to catching the same two songs every time you hijack a new car. The timing will almost always work out that you’ll hear Karma Chameleon or Pretty in Pink a trillion times as you make your way across the city. There’s also the risk of crashing your car and hurling yourself out the windshield because you’re dicking around with the radio instead of paying attention to where the fuck you’re going. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience. Watch the road, kids. Ten and two.
Saints Row 2 is one of the best open world games I’ve ever played but it took me a while to realize it. I was brought into the Saints Row universe with the third game and going backwards to play the second one threw me a bit. Where were the epic scenes of jumping from a burning penthouse roof to parachute to the street below? Where were the genetically modified brutes or flying motorcycles? Where were the options to (kind of) choose your own path? (I’ll get more into that in the next retrospective).
What you get in Saints Row 2 is a game that’s more cartoonish than the first game, but has a darker tone at the same time. It’s a little clunkier around the edges with fiddly carjacking, expensive bullets, and an insurance fraud diversion that’s just a little too real to the laws of physics. And some storyline missions are just flat out devastating. Having to mercy kill a friend is a lot to take in within a videogame that also lets you drive around in a sewage truck and spray shit at things.
You can tell that Saints Row hadn’t quite figured out what it wanted to be yet and that makes the ending of this game so great. After taking out Dane Vogel and effectively placing yourself at the head of a major corporation, you fly off in a helicopter with Pierce asking, “What do we do now”. Your character’s response? “It’s our city. We do whatever the fuck we like”. It’s taken to heart for the latter half of the series and Saints Row the Third becomes a game with zombies, giant dildos on sticks, and Burt Reynolds–oh my!
Sounds like fucking fun, doesn’t it?