Saints Row never held much interest for me. It's a gangster shoot-em-up with all the makings for chaotic online modes and not much in the way of a single-player story I could get excited about.
So why, then, do I suddenly love Saints Row 2? Drop-in, drop-out co-op. I sincerely believe that this can make any game -- no matter how horrible -- fun.
Luckily, Saints Row 2 isn't horrible. Set aside the part where it's a gangster shoot-em-up; that either is your thing or it isn't. Focus on the fact that the game has all the fundamentals every action game needs: fine-tuned controls, solid graphics, a decent combat system, and a map that actually tells you where you are and where you need to be. Tack onto that the detailed customisation and a pretty jumpin' soundtrack, and it's easy to see Saints Row 2 has put in the effort to be something besides a Grand Theft Auto "me too" game.
I jumped into a system linked 360 co-op game with Randy Nelson of Joystiq - two great gaming blogs, together at last. We were both given the chance to construct our characters (he made a very butch version of himself, I made a bearded Dr. Girlfriend gone very much to seed) and then the game dropped us in the single-player storyline. Everything from single-player carries over into online multiplayer and co-op. The customisation, the cutscenes, the frame rate - everything. Moreover, in co-op, you're not tethered to the player hosting the game - so you can go anywhere and do pretty much anything the same as you would if you were playing alone.
This makes co-op both easier and harder. On the upside, you've got someone with you to help out in massive brawls - and they can revive you by pouring a 40 over your corpse, should you get gunned down. They can also range farther and wider, collecting cash and scouting out places to rob while another player completes objectives. This carries over in team multiplayer modes; especially the much-vaunted "Strong Arm" mode, which I'll get to in a sec.
The downside of co-op is: you've got to keep track of who's doing what, who's protecting the VIP in this mission, who's driving...
Oh my God, did you just shoot the store clerk while I was buying clothes? Now we've got the cops after us again and I'm not wearing any pants! (This is what I did to Randy after about an hour of trying to outrun the cops in a tow truck - he spent the rest of the game running around in a basketball jersey and tighty whities.)
Really - I dig the customisation in Saints Row 2. You might remember me going on about the fat avatars in Aion: Tower of Eternity; if not, let me just say I salute any game that can make a person really look fat instead of a bigger version of skinny. Saints Row 2 lets you run the gamut all the way from emaciated to morbidly obese. I also heart games that understand how women are built; maybe it was just my ignorance, but it seemed like the only feature on my Dr. Girlfriend's body I couldn't control the size or colour of with a slide was her bust. If I made her fat, her tits became huge and saggy. If I chose the emaciated body model, there weren't much way of tits at all on her. This, to me, is a mark of good game design. 'Cuz let me tell you fellas, your girl starts losing weight and the boobs are the first thing to go...
But I digress. I did that a lot in co-op. Randy would kick open a door and run toward the gate to perform the prison break objective and I would get sidetracked by something sparkly (usually a Taser wielded by a prison guard). Or he'd get in the police car to drive off and I'd run ahead, shooting wildly at helicopters.
This of course resulted in us failing the prison break mission, like, 10 times. Even when Randy could prevail upon me to follow him instead of running off in the wrong direction, we kept getting our escort killed, or exploding our escape car as we crashed into shit. Rather, *I* crashed into shit - or some strange bug got my character stuck against the side of the car and Randy crashed into me. And then, periodically, Randy would get dragged out of the car by a cop for a beatdown, and then I'd get in the car, run the cop (and Randy) over and then explode, presumably from crashing into something I didn't see. That or Randy's avatar was made of napalm.
But strangely, we didn't seem to mind the multiple failures. And that could have been the booze served at the event or the swanky setting - but I really think that the experience of trying to cooperate with someone in the same room as you is pretty hilarious, what with all the yelling and the swearing.
Which is why Saints Row 2 is a good game to play with your girlfriend: it's a game you can share.
Now - about the Strong Arm online mode... This is the culmination of Volition's lofty ideal of having a multiplayer mode that encompassed all types of multiplayer modes. They wanted to take "protect the VIP," treasure-hunting, point-capturing (and so on) and roll it into one giant mode that focused on teamwork as well as being a badass motherfucker in your own right. To that end, you're put on a team of 4 versus another team of 4 and sent into a city filled with neighborhoods ripe for the conquering. You start off quickly with an activity - say, capturing points on the map by tagging them with your gang logo. Once an activity is completed, you earn money. You earn more money the more activities you complete, and you can also earn cash by killing your opponents on the rival team. As you gain more money, more activities become available and your team will be participating in everything from drag racing to target practice. And don't forget to defend your tagged spots - that's an ongoing activity, as far as I can tell.
Strong Arm is part of a series of updates the dev team made to the online modes offered in the original Saints Row. Other improvements include a lobby that's easier to get to (you can move around in it and stuff - apparently, if someone talks smack to you in the lobby, you can go up to them and shoot them); a 12 rank progression system (everyone starts off at New Jack); and a Badge system that works similarly to Team Fortress 2 (you shoot people in the head a lot and you get the "Brain Surgeon" badge).
The bottom line is: Saints Row 2 is a bigger, louder, more in-depth Saints Row. The new online modes are icing on the cake for fans of the first game; and the co-op is the gateway for non-believers to discover the joy of running over hookers with cars.