Saints Row 2 represents a different time, not just for Volition, but for games as a whole. Just as other open-world crime games were turning gritty and realistic, Saints Row 2 had the gall to tell a B action story set in a unique city full of color and life. Just as cheat codes and secrets were on their way out, Saints Row 2 gave us a last hurrah of esoteric treasure hunts and obtuse unlockables. The characters are fun, but not overblown. The story is hammy, but never falls into self-parody. Stilwater comes alive thanks to an array of diverse environments, characters, and a whole basket of Easter eggs. In Saints Row 2, the 3rd Street Saints were cruel, but they were never crude.
The story is simple, but it works. You’ve been in a coma for five years. Your best friend is on death row. The Saints have disbanded. A trio of new gangs have taken over your turf. But you’re going to fix all that because you’re not just a playa anymore, you’re the Boss and that means you’re a deranged psychopath with nothing to lose.
The Boss of Saints Row 2 has some of the most memorable moments in the entire franchise. When the rival gangs hit you, the Boss hit ten times harder. The writers really deserve some recognition for creating grounded, but still jaw-dropping revenge kills. Who could forget the monster truck rally, crippling Matt the guitarist, or Shogo’s Texas funeral? To this day those cutscenes are some of my favorite story moments in a video game.
While the Boss' brutality could have made Saints Row 2 unrelentingly grim, its great side characters and wacky diversions help to lighten things up. Pierce, Shaundi, and Gat are essentially one-note relief character mixed-in with villains ranging from hateable to borderline sympathetic. Their jokes still land despite this because of the wide range of interesting scenarios.
Saints Row 2 has a ridiculous amount of content. Aside from the main missions, there are a ton of activities and diversions. The side-missions are so unusual, Volition made a trailer comparing bowling in GTA IV to spraying pedestrians with raw sewage in Saints Row 2.
While the activities are fun, they can get repetitive. Septic Avenger is a great spectacle, but spraying doesn’t have the same satisfying oomph as blowing up cars and breaking necks. Likewise, higher levels of Fight Club and FUZZ prove more tedious than challenging. It’s easy to get bored with Crowd Control or Drug Trafficking when you’re fighting the same enemies, in the same locations, relying more on luck than skill.
On the other hand, the unmarked diversions never get old. Need to steal a car? You may have inadvertently started the Hostage diversion. Kill a bunch of Brotherhood boys with your homies? Why not keep the streak going with the Drive-by diversion? These little moments are a great way to keep you engaged as you move across the map while also fleshing out the city itself.
What’s great about all this side-content is that it always contributes to your arsenal. Diversions typically unlock cosmetics or vehicles while activities unlock permanent character upgrades. Effective rewards are often the difference between fun side-content and engaging side-missions. Rewards keep us engaged and demonstrate our impact on the world.
While it may get tedious, the allure of unique weapons and unlimited ammo is hard to resist. On the other hand, Saints Row has always had a love/hate relationship with its unlocks. The difficulty curve hits freefall once you earn unlimited sprint and unlimited ammo. Unfortunately, there’s no way to toggle unlocks; they’re both a blessing and a curse. If you didn't know completing activities grants permanent character unlocks, you’re stuck with them for good.
Aside from activities and diversions, Saints Row 2 has one of the best distractions in any sandbox game. The renovated Stilwater of Saints Row 2 is simply breathtaking. It’s no secret that the city’s wildly diverse design makes it feel huge. One moment you’re driving through the suburbs and suddenly you’re in Times Square. The world is packed with detail. The ancient museum, Chinatown, and the ivory towers of Saints Row all have unique props and geography to spice up the inevitable gunplay.
The art department did a fantastic job creating a city both diverse and cohesive. The transitional areas feel natural and everything has a great flow to it. Someone even added skate stoppers to the stuffy Ultor-controlled districts.
The civilians are just as impressive as the city itself. There are a ton of NPC subcultures, each with their own collection of activities. Cheerleaders and kids with varsity jackets hang around the college while yoga moms workout in the suburbs. Each subculture even has unique dialogue. In combining the world design with the character design, Volition achieved something very rare. They created a city that feel more lived in—it feels alive.
Part of that special feeling comes from Volition’s love for secrets. Easter eggs range from secretive to completely esoteric, with one secret requiring you to follow a long chain of magically appearing arrows. Secret areas full of gags desterilize the world, making it feel delightfully dirty and lived-in. Likewise, the secret phone numbers are a joy in their own right and lead to some useful pick-ups and unique homies. It’s some interesting content for the truly dedicated and something we don't often see.
Of course, one of the most memorable secrets from Saints Row 2 is the hidden quest “Revelations.” As a piece of extra, hidden content, this works on a number of levels. The Boss offhandedly mentions catching up with Troy, an ally from the first game who is now Chief of Police. When you go to the police station, you still need to find Troy’s office.
Then you discover some audio logs explaining what happened at the end of the first game. The audio leads to a phone number. Calling that number tells you to go to the Saint’s old hideout. Showing up starts a bombastic quest with tense action, great character moments, and some snazzy rewards. That’s a lot of work for a first-time player, but it’s a great reward for fans of the original and those dedicated enough to follow up on throwaway dialogue.
Admittedly, that secret mission does highlight an issue of tone. The activities are straight out of Jackass, but the story is mostly grounded in Charles Bronson-style action movie parody. The Boss and their clothing are so widely customizable that some players will see a clear conflict between the b-action plot and their 400lb naked juggalo.
Saints Row 2 has the best character customization in the series. While you can’t have purple skin as in Saints Row IV, the sheer number of sliders give you an unreasonable degree of options. You can even set your walk animation, facial pose, and fighting style. Clothes were also fully customizable, with options to change every aspect of an outfit (including socks and underwear) and even add decals. Sadly, the sequels removed many of these features, with Gat out of Hell ditching customization completely.
Whiles its fanbase grew, the Saint’s Row franchise arguably lost its focus. The consistent wackiness of Saints Row 2 turned to nonsensical mayhem in Saints Row: The Third and complete self-parody in Saints Row IV. But classics never die. Saints Row 2 is just as fun today as it was 10 years ago. It's the last of an era. If you have the chance, boot it up and guide the Saints to a brighter future and a better life.