Everyone wants a piece of me. Mind you, in the last couple of hours I've been doing my utmost to piss everyone off. I started the day with a daring one-man raid on a courtroom, which ended when I shot a Judge Judy-style harpy in the face with a shotgun. By mid-morning, I was spraying an entire neighbourhood with human excrement from a hijacked sewage truck in the hope of dropping the property values (and I drowned some cops in liquid faeces for good measure).
Then I went on a drive-by spree to stir things up with a rival gang, whose taste for green clothing offends my sense of fashion. By teatime I'd discovered the joys of racking up impressive or excruciating kills. And somewhere along the way I smacked tramps around with a baseball bat, and found a nice new crib for my gang (tastefully decked out as pimps and hos). It's been a busy day.
So now everyone wants a piece of me. Unfortunately, I'm probably not that hard to find. Not for me the inconspicuous Slavic looks of Niko Bellic; I'm an aging, saggy, 30-stone Asian guy (with enormous moobs) who minces through the streets with a supermodel's catwalk sashay. To top off the look, I'm also a transvestite - wearing a really dodgy wig, a short denim skirt, and about half a pound of badly applied slap. I speak with a thick cockney accent and when I defeat my foes, I celebrate by squatting over their stupid dead faces and teabagging them.
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that Saints Row 2 has really, really good character-customisation. Thanks to some well-designed and powerful tools, if you can imagine it you can probably do it - and do it quite well.
The conventional restrictions of character-customisation are lifted. Gender is no longer a selection, but a slider, allowing you to tweak a character's build to look more effeminate or more masculine (push the slider one way and you get wider shoulders, a flatter chest, narrower hips and a more pronounced crotch bulge). Facial features, skin tone and so on are equally easy to tweak for diverse effects.
The devil's in the detail. If you bulk up your character, he doesn't just get bigger - his muscle tone becomes more pronounced. Making him fatter doesn't just swell the model - fat is distributed realistically, with flesh bulging and folding as it would on a real person. The age slider is arguably the most impressive - you don't just develop wrinkles on your facial textures, skin actually sags and discolours as you age.
The effort Volition has put into the customisation is evident from the outset. There are six voices to choose from (three male, three female), each with a radically different accent, and every single one of those voices is fully voice-acted in each of the game's cut-scenes.
Character-creation sets the stage for the rest of the game. It's fun, varied and flexible, allowing you to run riot and do whatever you want. Nothing is set in stone; plastic surgeries around the city will change anything you like. Once you set your '80s action hero, ridiculously pneumatic femme fatale or fat, sweating tranny loose on the metropolis of Stilwater, you'll soon discover that the rest of the game's values are broadly the same. Run riot. Do what you like. Have fun.
The first Saints Row could be described as a somewhat shameless (albeit surprisingly well-made) GTA III rip-off. Gorged on San Andreas and with GTA IV over the horizon, plenty of people ignored it for that reason. Saints Row 2, however, veers off in a different direction to Rockstar North's latest effort. Where GTA IV was determined to be as gritty as a mouthful of gravel, casting you as a small-time immigrant who's ordered around by an assortment of bigger fish, Saints Row 2 is criminal candy-floss.
The game begins a few years after the events of the first Saints Row, with your character waking up from a coma and rapidly escaping from the high-security prison he's being held in. It's by no means essential or even important to have played the first game, since everything is explained fairly well anyway, and the massive discrepancy in your appearance is played totally for laughs; returning characters keep wondering out loud if you've done something with your hair.
Within minutes, you're back in Stilwater, starting bar brawls, stealing cars and gate-crashing the court-room, where one of your faithful lieutenants is standing trial. Right from the outset, there's no question of being anyone's minion. You're a gang boss - and okay, your gang might need to be whipped back into shape, but you used to rule this city, and that's your objective once again.
As before, the game focuses on the idea of taking over territory from rival gangs - depicted on the map as a grid of neighbourhoods, each of which is coloured in the style of the dominant gang. Much extended in this game is the concept of cribs, properties which you can buy and redecorate right from the start (money permitting), with plenty of other properties up for grabs to add to your regular income. Your gang hangs out in cribs, and as you progress you gain the ability to order them to come along with you as AI backup on your missions (or hell-raising sessions).
Almost from the outset, the whole city is your oyster. Saints Row 2 isn't mean in how it doles out fun; an entire toybox is emptied at your feet. Dozens of "activities", which earn you Respect and cash, are available early on in the game. You start with the s***-spraying one we mentioned earlier, but move on to flying assault helicopters to take out enemy vehicles, an assortment of races, drive-by shootings and stunt jumps, and, perhaps my favourite so far, Insurance Fraud. This simply involves going to a target location and performing the most impressive pratfall you can (throwing yourself off a building repeatedly is good) to rack up the insurance cash.
The game is fast, frantic and funny. Physics is tweaked to be fun, rather than realistic - cars and motorbikes (yes, it has motorbikes) travel at impressive speeds, blow up in very satisfying ways and are an arcade-style joy to handle. Your character is a criminal superman, with a recharging health bar and tons of stamina; you're far from being immortal, but there's no question that you're a videogame anti-hero, rather than a small-time thief. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit like Crackdown, then yeah, we were too. Which is a very good thing.
Volition's goal here is to let nothing get in the way of fun, and from what we've seen the developer's succeeding. It's not just a matter of making the whole world enormously over the top - although that helps. It's also a question of tweaking every part of the experience to prevent players from being frustrated by bad design. Gone, for example, are missions where you have to drive the whole way across the city only to die at your destination and restart back on the other side of the city once more. In-mission checkpoints now allow you to restart after the last objective you completed.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Saints Row 2, however - more appealing even than the dark humour, the creative swearing, the carnage and the combat, more appealing even than the ability to play as a fat tranny - will be the co-operative play. It's fully drop-in, drop-out. What that means in real terms is that you can take your single-player character, hop into someone else's game, complete some missions with them, and then hop back out to your own single-player game. The missions you completed and items you picked up in co-op stay with you - and you're not bound to that game session. You can happily go off and join someone else's session straight away if you want.
The whole game is co-op-enabled, from story missions and activities to the city itself. You don't have to stick together during co-op, either - it's entirely possible to play on opposite ends of the city, and the game will sync up perfectly when you get back together. You don't even have to be friendly - kill your co-op partner and when he's resurrected he'll have the option of turning the tables on you by launching an impromptu deathmatch.
Having been a GTA clone last time, Saints Row 2 is now shaping up to be the anti-GTA - or at least, the anti-GTA IV. This is an openworld crime game about neon lights, huge explosions, fast cars, massive body counts and crazy rival gangs like the Ronin, a Japanese band of cyber-punk samurai, and the Sons of Samedi, a voodoo obsessed Caribbean drug cartel. Our expectations weren't particularly high when we went to see it, but having played the game for several hours, those same expectations have skyrocketed. For those left cold by GTA IV, this is shaping up to be the openworld game you've been waiting for, and even for those who were charmed by Niko's Liberty City adventure, Saints Row 2 is a welcome blast of mayhem and bright lights.
Saints Row 2 is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 17th October.