The original Saints Row was conceived as a super-gangsta version of GTA: San Andreas, the Jolt Cola to that game's Coke if you will. Saints Row 2 was the pivot point for the series, where it started to turn away from the self-serious gangsta gangsta-ness of the original and toward the over-the-top gonzo comedy style the later installments are known for.

It still has one foot in each world at this point. Upon booting up the game you're assaulted by some pretty bad "thug lyfe" early-mid-2000s rap that really has not aged well, and though the game has a sense of humor it's largely through the lens of the sort of white frat bros who would watch the Chappelle Show and then think it was a good idea to go outside yelling "they never shoulda gave you n***** money!" Though it can be funny at times, it's all very ham-handed and on the nose to the point that it makes the GTA games look subtle and refined.

Any sense of realism has already utterly been discarded, though. The game opens with the leader of the Saints gang, a customizable character that you create entirely, awakening from a coma as a guest of the police. You were apparently rendered long-term unconscious and also arrested due to the ultimate events of the previous game ... as to what they were, I have no idea as I've never had an OG Xbox and this game doesn't fill you in.

You begin the game by breaking out of jail while mass-murdering cops, then an early mission has you rescuing a compatriot on trial by busting into the courtroom and mass-murdering cops, then there are at least several further missions where you mass-murder cops including busting into the police station to steal some data on a rival gang leader. You can say this much for the game, it's utterly unafraid to pull any punches except for showing frontal nudity and sex. Anyway, none of this murder and mayhem makes it unsafe for you to simply wander the streets of the city of Stillwater. The police will only glom onto you if you nick one of their cars or beat someone up in front of them.

In fact, your fellow gangs are a lot more dangerous than the police. One unique wrinkle here is that each gang has a "wanted" meter similar to the police, and will pursue you with increasing aggression (and firepower, and ability to mysteriously spawn in right behind you) as it goes up. After establishing a new HQ for the Saints, who have been reduced to a joke confined to one seedy neighborhood in Stillwater since their leader went to sleep, the main thrust of the game's story is gradually taking out each of these gangs.

I usually prefer to go wandering about as much of the map as is available and do a variety of side stuff before starting into the story missions in these crime sandbox games. Not only is Saints Row 2 amenable to this approach, it's actually a wise idea. The game takes the odd tack of having you earn "respect" levels through various optional activities around the map; you have to cash in one of these levels in order to start each new mission. So meandering around at the beginning lets you pile up a war chest of Respeck that you can then coast on when going through the story.

Stillwater is a nicely designed city. It's not large, roughly the size of GTA 3 or Vice City rather than anything near the sprawling terrain of San Andreas. But it's visually sound all throughout, well put together and offers a nice variety of terrain and scenery. It's also packed with little mini-games, though those are a very mixed bag thanks mostly to some sloppy play control issues.

The main issue is driving. I don't know if this was endemic to the base game that came out on consoles first or just a wrinkle of the PC port, but it's ridiculously floaty and bad. Driving fast cars makes the game feel like Crazy Taxi, but even less refined. I actually found the game much more playable when driving with a heavy-but-fairly-fast vehicle like one of the larger and nicer trucks, rather than trying to use the sports cars with their insanely sensitive handling. The waypoint indicator is basically functional, but really not great; it gets confused too much, particularly by the "spaghetti bowl" highway onramp and offramp areas. There are helicopters in the game too, and their overall control is holy-shit bad, which will become a showstopping issue later on.

Another play control issue is that while the PC game has automatic support for Xbox pads, nobody bothered to program controller button prompts for it.

Those things aside, some of the mini-games are still pretty fun. I most enjoyed the hitman missions, which have you track a target to a certain area of the map then do something particular to lure them out. Playing armed escort for drug dealers, chucking psychos off balconies as a celebrity bodyguard and spraying stuff down with sewage were all also pretty entertaining.

The story also actually winds up being surprisingly dark and dramatic, in between moments of gonzo craziness. It also surprises you with almost Metal Gear Solid-esque boss battles at times, unlike anything seen in the GTA games.

If you're streaking and you can't swim, maybe don't run down a pier

Where it all goes off the rails is when a mandatory story chokepoint forces you to do something that the sloppy elements of the gameplay are unsuited to, like forcing you to drive a long distance in two minutes or fly and land the incredibly jerky and touchy helicopters. Fortunately, there is nothing like the bullet sponge super mutants that would ruin this game's follow-up, but a number of missions here are burdened with "homies" with absolutely awful AI and pathing that you have to protect and revive. The only thing that keeps all the sloppy elements of the game manageable is that you're basically Iron Man and are almost impossible to kill unless several enemies with high-powered weapons are right up next to you.

I can see why this game is beloved and has a great reputation (mostly unfortunate soundtrack aside), but I'm guessing most of that was built on the console versions and not this PC port. So maybe try one of those instead, or at the very least install the "Gentlemen of the Row" mod linked below which apparently fixes at least some of the game's issues.


* Gentlemen of the Row mod collection


* Gameplay Video