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What I've Been Playing: Saints Row 2

I've been meaning to do a writeup on the Saints Row series, but... well, let's say I've been busy playing Saints Row. (Steam says I've clocked 60 hours in SR2, another 26 in SR3, and 8 in SR4.) Let's start with Saints Row 2.

First up, let's take care of the bear in the room - the PC port of Saints Row 2 is *terrible*. Like, truly and actively bad. Cars are undrivable with mouse and keyboard, and aren't really drivable with a gamepad either. Oh, and you'll have to manually configure all the buttons for the gamepad because the game doesn't care enough to do that. And even when you do that, the prompts may or may not match anyway. If you haven't played it, do yourself a favor and get The Gentlemen of the Row mod package (and the Powertools that are also there) before you even bother playing it. Even if you leave most of the mods turned off, the bug fixes are worth it. It takes a bit of tweaking to get the speed right (and I personally didn't bother doing the tests - I just played with it until it felt right).

Anyway. On to the game itself.

What I like about Saints Row 2 is that it feels like a Crapsack World, which is important, because your character in this game is not a nice person, and the plot has you doing terrible things. Let's start at the beginning - you wake up in prison, after spending a few years in a coma. You shoot your way out of prison, go straight to the strip club, where you find out that your bud is about to be executed. You drive down to the courthouse, kill everyone, and rescue your bud. This is basically the prologue, folks, and you'll have killed dozens of cops before you even get to the sandbox.

But it's OK, because this is a world where everything and everybody sucks. And that's not just the other gangs that want to kill you - the radio ads are from terrible people. Even the stray comments from passerbys. It's all designed to make you feel.. not good, but for a game about Saints there sure aren't any angels to be found. You're doing terrible things to terrible people for other terrible people, and that gives you-the-player permission to enjoy being terrible. (Which is kinda key in this sort of game.)

The main plot itself revolves around you retaking the city of Stilwater, and SR2 has a gating system set up. It costs respect to play the plot missions, which means you need to earn it first by doing activities around town. Activities also give you cash, which will let you buy new cribs and clothes and cars, all of which give you Style, and Style grants a multiplier to respect. To recap - get Style, to give you a bonus to Respect, to get you back to the plot. It actually works pretty well in practice - cribs are important home bases around town (granting access to money and vehicles and such), so buying them isn't really a burden. At the same time, you earn money by completing missions (which conquers the neighborhood, giving you daily cash) and buying stores around town (which gives you a discount shopping, plus a daily payout).

(Quick aside about stores - the names are goofy, but the game lives it's jokes. You have Apollos, where the clerk says "enjoy your coffee; so say we all". There are several different clothing stores, and each one carries a different line of outfits. (And the character customization is completely over the top; unfortunately they dialed that back in later games. Plus, the Gentlemen mod added a bunch of extra logos, so I spent most of the game rocking a leather jacket with a Psi Corps logo on the back. It's the small things, y'know?). OK, aside over.)

The activities range all over the place, from "protect the guy delivering drugs" to "lower property values by spraying shit out of a septic truck" to "find this guy and kill him". Each event has six levels, and you get a bonus after completing the third and sixth. The good news is that you don't need to do all of them to get enough respect to finish the game (and again, since the controls are so flaky, some of the events are damned near impossible.)

The main plot revolves around the three gangs that have taken over your town while you were napping. You can do them in parallel or one at a time. The gangs are pretty stereotypical, but the plots are surprisingly deep. You have the "Asian gang" The Ronin, which involves a son who continually fails to impress his father, destroying his gang in the process. The "rastafarian gang", the Sons of Samedi, is fairly straightforward plotwise, but has some interesting character moments between the General and his chief lieutenant.

The third gang, the Brotherhood (a.k.a. "the tattoo gang"), has both the most interesting and arguably the darkest plot arc. While the other gangs are pretty straight into "screw the Saints, let's kill em all", The Brotherhood's leader Maero (voiced by the instantly recognizable Michael Dorn) offers you a cut of the business out of respect. Unfortunately, the cut is only 20%, which offends us. What follows is us being a total dick - we beat up one of their guys so we can blow up the gang's trucks, then slip nuclear waste into the tattoo artist's ink supplies to scar Maero's face. They then retaliate by kidnapping one of our guys and killing him by dragging him behind a truck around town. So we kidnap his girlfriend, lock her in the trunk of a car at the monster truck rally so Maero kills her with his truck. And so it goes, until we finally kill him in a showdown.

What struck me about that plotline is that it's the one where we make it personal first. (The Ronin kill one of our folks, and the Sons really treat the whole war as just business). We're the unreasonable ones in that fight, and it's also the one that goes the darkest. It's an interesting choice, especially since it's not optional - you have to play through that plot. (Unlike the activities, where you can choose to skip the stuff that offends your sensibilities - I skipped most of the prostitution-related events, personally).

Once you've cleared out the gangs, you then deal with Ultor, the megacorp that's been pulling the strings behind the scenes. That end of it is pretty anticlimatic, to be honest - but that could be because at that point you're packing heavy weapons, have access to assault helicopters, and the fact that I finally got the controls to work properly didn't hurt either.

Either way, at the end of the game you've taken over the local Ultor operations, plus control of the city, and fly away to do whatever you want... until next game.