The game starts off with scant instructions, “Stop the zombie assault by wiping out the remaining zombies”. A quick look around reveals you’re standing with three other survivors and some weapons; guns, crowbars, baseball bats and the like. Play seems simple enough, you just have to walk over the weapons to pick them up, then it’s off into battle side-by-side with the other survivors.
The initial levels start off relatively easily, but it’s not long before you’re completely surrounded by zombies all trying to take a bite out of you, and the game descends into button bashing as the action gets ever more frantic. If you’ve been clever and conserved your ammunition you can run away and pick them off from afar before returning to the heat of zombie battle.
Sound OK, but not really Saints Row-ish? Well, this is ‘Zombie Uprising’, the videogame your character gets to play on their game console as an in-game mini game: It’s a blast, and is built using the same game engine as the main Saints Row game - this is just one of the many gems that reveal themselves to you when playing this sequel.
Saints Row 2′s real story begins with you waking up from a coma in a prison hospital, with a doctor unravelling your bandages. Here you get the chance to customise your character by choosing sex, race, weight, and voice - the options are quite extensive. If you want to be black, white, hispanic, male, female, fat, thin, athletic, obese, almost anything seems possible. You are able to access this character customisation tool later in the game, just by visiting a plastic surgeon.
Once customised it’s time to break out of the prison in what is essentially a tutorial, and after a few kills you’re soon on a speedboat shooting down the chasing helicopters, before making it to the mainland. Your first task is to get out of the prison clothes and find a clothes shop where you get chance to customise all your clothes - again the options are extensive – and it’s your choice whether you play it straight, or go for a fat old bald transvestite who runs around in nothing but women’s underwear. Customisation is a part of the game, but if you don’t fancy digging too deep, it’s possible to whiz through the options using the time-saving X button.
Once you’re clothed, the whole of Stillwater is open to you and you really can go anywhere and do anything. There is an enormous sense of being immersed in the city, the time of the day changes along with the weather, and there are some nice touches like passers-by putting up umbrellas if it starts raining. You can choose to get straight on with the campaign, just bum around causing mayhem, or even make a beeline for the airport where you can hijack a plane and terrorise Stillwater from above: This game has it all right from the start.
Once the first mission is out of the way you gain a house – or crib - and of course this can be customised, but it’s also a place to stash your weapons, clothing, money and vehicles. It won’t be long before you witness a gunfight between gang members and the police, and in true ‘sandbox’ style you can choose whether to join in, or just stand by and watch, collecting weapons and amunition from those who are killed.
Stillwater is an absolute blast, the fun factor has been turned up to 11 on everything. A quick press of the L1 button will grab anyone standing nearby, and they can then be used as a human shield. When you’re done you can choose to execute them or launch them into the air in whichever direction you wish.
The game is constantly revealing new things: with your guns drawn, holding your cross-hairs over anyone starts a mugging and they throw their money on the ground; if you’re in a shop it starts a hold-up where you get the contents of the safe; when hijacking a car with a passenger in, it’s possible to start a kidnapping and reap the benefits of any ransom paid.
It’s only possible to start each main campaign mission once your ‘Respect Meter’ is full, which can be achieved by doing any one of a number of activities or diversions. From driving a sewage truck spraying effluent on the new part of town, to hunting out a ‘fight club’, to taking part in a full Destruction Derby, or just the standard killing of rival gang members, new things seem to be revealed during every play of the game.
The combat system is simple and tight, and the lack of lock-on means you’re not incorrectly focusing on a harmless pedestrian whilst being shot or Tasered. Likewise selecting weapons is a doddle, and switching between pepper spray, guns and crowbar etc. in the heat of battle is easy.
As good fun as playing on your own is, the icing on the cake is the Co-Op mode, where it’s possible to drop into anyone’s single player campaign or have them drop in to yours. Just beware if they have cheats enabled as it will affect your save game and with this in mind it may be best to restrict playing Co-Op with people from your friends list. To compensate for having two people the bad guys can take considerably more damage before kicking the bucket. The Co-Op mode is that good, that once you’ve played it you may never go back to playing on your own again, and this will surely set the standard for future ‘sandbox’ games.
Whilst great fun, the game is not without its drawbacks. On the whole the visuals are great, with good animation of characters and pedestrians, some good detail on textures and impressive draw distances, but there are times when there are glitches and pop-up. Sometimes things are washed out, and if it wasn’t for the enormous scale of the game I’d even say a little last-gen. To help solve some issues it’s worth dipping into the options menu and activating the V-Sync: The frame-rate drops to 30fps from 60fps, but I experienced far fewer glitches.
The AI has supposedly improved from the last game, but there are occasions where a ’homie’ gets trapped by a park bench, car door or similar obstacle and this can become frustrating if you’re surrounded by a rival gang and taking damage.
SR2 has its flaws and plenty of them, and whilst it’s possible for the game to descend into little more than driving and shooting, the sheer amount fun to be had and the fact the game just wears its heart on its sleeve makes it impossible not to have a great time in Stillwater. The game may lack that Hollywood shine and polish, but this is only Violation’s second outing: Imagine what will be possible by the time they get to number IV, after all any game which features guns, gangs, hookers AND zombies is great in my book.