Like a lengthy game of tennis or "The Mummy and Daddy Dance", gang warfare is something that's a lot more fun when you do it with someone else. To be honest, if you try to do it by yourself then it's not really gang warfare at all; it's just some crazy Billy No Mates, running around the streets shooting innocent civilians. And Fonzie says that's the kind of murder that's just not cool.
What we're trying to say, albeit in a rather perverse way, is that Saints Row 2 is going to have a really snazzy multiplayer system. If you've read the hands-on preview that we published earlier this month, then you'll know all about the expanded range of Activities and Diversions that will be available in single-player and co-op play - allowing you to do everything from impersonating police officers to spraying the town of Stillwater with liquid sewage. Well, the good news is that Volition has also been working to diversify Saints Row 2's true multiplayer mode - and from we've played so far, it's shaping up rather nicely.
The first neat touch is that the gangster action will actually kick off even before you've entered a proper match. While you're waiting to join a game, players will be allowed to run around a variety of small lobby levels, blasting seven shades out of each other - one that we saw was based around the Saints HQ, while another appeared to be modelled on a college basketball court. There's no real scoring or penalty for death in these stages, just an open opportunity to cause some carnage while you bide your time. Once you enter a 'proper' match, you'll be taken to one of seven maps based upon districts from the full-sized city of Stillwater. Here you'll be able to engage in traditional bouts of both gang-based and free-for-all deathmatch, along with Volition's ace in the hole: a brand new mode they're calling 'Strongarm'.
In essence, Strongarm takes the manic multi-activity flavour of SR2's subgames and squeezes them into a multiplayer mould. The basic concept is that two rival gangs will compete in an effort to raise a set amount of cash. Gangsters can gather money for their team by blowing away the enemy and committing other crimes, but the primary way to earn dollars is to take part in activities. After a brief hiatus at the start of a match, a message will announce the first of four mini-games - all of them adapted from the main game's Activities and Diversions. The team that emerges victorious from each round will have a hefty wad of cash added to their total, with overall victory going to either the gang that reaches the target score first, or the one with the highest bankroll after all four activities have been played.
What this structure ultimately creates is a fifteen-minute burst of constantly-shifting action gameplay. One minute you're all racing to complete circuits of the map; the next you're fighting to keep possession of a hapless prostitute - like Capture the Flag, but with gonorrhoea. Many of the mini-games take on new dimensions when played in this way. Take the Insurance Fraud diversion as an example: in the single-player game, your aim is to cause as much harm to yourself as possible by diving headlong into traffic, off the edge of buildings, or generally anywhere you might get badly hurt. In Strongarm you'll be getting up to the same Jackass-style tomfoolery - but you'll have the option of taking on a more co-operative role. Rather than doing the leaping, you could be the one to run over your mates - but while you do this, you'll have to be careful to avoid running over members of the opposition. It's a deathmatch-style game where you actually don't want to hurt your enemies; it sounds odd, but it's refreshingly different from the norm.
During each match, on-screen indicators give a visual representation of how both teams are doing on the current activity. If your gang is lagging far behind, it might make more sense to abandon the challenge and go elsewhere - because Volition has kindly included a means to give your side an advantage. Dotted around each map are four tagging spots. If you head to one of these and spray your gang's insignia, you'll gain access to one of eleven bonuses: these range from straightforward boosts like increased accuracy or unlimited sprint for your team, through to more complicated perks like a mysterious black cloud that makes its hard for your opponents to see their screens. There's even a really nasty reward that causes the cops to attack your rivals, giving you ample time to seize the advantage.
The changing structure of Strongarm is designed to offer a kind of Fruit & Fibre style mix of competitive gaming, but Volition says that the final build will also offer further variety through the inclusion of 12 variants on the standard template. Wetworks mode, for example, will focus entirely on hitman missions, while another option will populate the map with super-powerful vehicles. Further longevity should be added by the inclusion of a achievement system that rewards players for playing the game in a certain way. Killing a certain number of enemies in a row will win you a specific badge, a symbol which will then be visible to other SR2 players. In this way, the deadliest gangsters will be able to back up their bold claims with hard, digital proof.
The simplified aim-and-shoot controls and arcade-like vehicle handling make Saints Row 2 a natural fit for multiplayer gaming. In any GTA-style game it's natural for the single-player mode to take precedence, but it's clear that Volition is putting some serious effort into its online modes too. We certainly had a lot of fun with the bouts we tried out; whether or not the game will gather a sizeable multiplayer following remains to be seen, but if the final game satisfies the growing crowds of expectant gangster-wannabes, we wouldn't be at all surprised. One thing is for certain: come October 17, Niko Bellic is going to have some serious competition.
Saints Row 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 17.