Saints Row 2 contains the same slightly disquieting mix of openworld, urban violence and gang culture as its predecessor. It begins with your character waking up in prison, having been comatose since getting blown up in the last game, lending the game the perfect pretext for a darker, revenge-oriented story as you return to Stillwater to find out how and why you were betrayed. Your character is, according to the game's producer, Greg Donovan, "a very angry young man or woman who needs to rebuild the saints, find out why he was betrayed, and reclaim Stillwater for his own." And it's a game that is, apparently, "a lot darker, a little bit more sinister."
It's set ten-to-fifteen years after events depicted in the original game, except things have moved on rather quickly in your absence. "Internally we're referring to that as comic-book time because the amount of change that the city has undergone would have been impossible in 10-15 years," explains Donovan. "But we don't really care because it makes for a better game."
The story also provides a pretext for three new gangs to arrive to fill in the power vacuum, and a new emphasis, from standing on the periphery of gang politics in the last game, to being thrust right into the centre of it this time, responsible for building up your levels of respect to help you recruit the very best homies and lieutenants. So you can kill everyone in the face as you try to rise to the top. "In Saints Row your character was adopted by the Saints, you were a passive member of the gang," explains Donovan. "In Saints Row 2 you are this angry leader of the saints - you are the one that recruits new lieutenants, you are the one giving orders, you are the one in charge."
One area that's been expanded upon is the range of character customisation. While that might seem like it's a rather trivial feature in a game that features an entire city full of mayhem, the chaps at Volition were keen to talk it up, talking about all the visual improvements they've made - by adding normal maps, and "increased granularity", for example - and the fact that you can adjust your girth, masculinity, femininity, muscularity, age and voice. "Also we use a single mesh system in this game and that means every piece of clothing that you see in the world can be worn by your player character in this game, which is something that was not possible in Saints Row," continues Donovan. "And given the fact that we have over 500 individual pieces of clothing [a bit like Ellie - Ed], when you add colour to that you have near limitless combinations of what you can make your character wear."
That's a lot of customisation, but perhaps the most impressive thing is that you'll also be able to customise your character animations. "Not only are we allowing you to customise the appearance of your characters, but also the way they emote and act in the world," says Donovan as he cycles through the various walk cycles and taunts. Those taunts include all the sort of gesticulations you might expect from, say, an angry crowd of football hooligans (wanker signs, for example, or punching the air while holding your elbow - is there an official name for that?). In any other context it would be fairly offensive stuff, but in a game in which the raison d'etre seems to be to shoot everyone in the face, it all seems fairly mild.
In any case, the extensive suite of customisation options extends across the nine available cribs (compared to three in the first game), which you can build up from dilapidated lofts to pimped-out party houses in another effort to build your respect, increase your gang size, and attract all sorts of hangers-on (such as the pole-dancing girls, who have no doubt been included in a bid to reach that elusive female market).
Indeed, as in the first game, your sense of style is essential to your domination of the city, as the game's lead designer Scott Phillips explains: "As your style increases, you get more respect for doing activities, missions, that kind of stuff. Anything you do in the game gives you more respect, which means you're able to play more missions as respect is the currency used to purchase missions. So the more money you spend on style, the easier it is for you to get more respect." So that's why they're so keen to explain all the different ways you can style your car, clothes and crib.
On to the game proper, though, and a quick demo mission, cleaning out the stronghold of the new Sons of Samedi gang, demonstrates the game's broader visual aesthetic. "We made a conscious effort to make the gangs really look and function in the world very distinctly from one another," says Donovan, who describes the look of the new gangs as, "a lot more over the top, a lot more stylised".
The mission takes place in the new trailer park district - one of six new districts that have increased the size of the city by about 45 percent according to Donovan's reckoning. It provides the backdrop as Phillips shows off three new features that they hope will improve combat: fine-aim, human shields, and wieldable objects. The first of these switches to a slightly zoomed-in, over-the-shoulder view to increase accuracy with firearms (helping you kill your enemies in all sorts of new and interesting ways in a bid to increase your respect). The second allows you to grab any person in the world and use them as movable cover or just shoot them in the head. As you'd expect, holding a hostage in front of you will make the police think twice before taking aim, although enemy gang members are "a little bit more into self-preservation", according to Donovan. "A little bit more brutal." Consequently, they're a little bit more prepared to test the effectiveness of your new human shield.
And finally, you can pick up a variety of objects in the game to use as weapons, from breezeblocks to post-boxes, either throwing them, or using them to bludgeon your enemies. And as with human shields, it's a feature that your AI opponents are just as likely to use as you are. Apart from that, it seems to be morally ambivalent business as usual: there are new diversions, such as vehicle-surfing, for players to discover for themselves; there's drop-in/drop-out co-operative multiplayer; there's planes, choppers, and watercraft; a bigger-budget soundtrack; and on the PS3, some Sixaxis controls (which will, apparently, be the only difference with the 360 version).
The million-dollar question, though, is how it will fare next to GTA IV, and it's not one that Donovan shies away from. "The only thing I know about GTA is what I've read," he says. "From what I've read it seems they're going in a more realistic direction. I think for us it's almost about a hyper-realistic quality, over-the-top, all about memorable moments, very compelling gameplay, and frankly we wouldn't be releasing this year if we didn't think we could be competitive. I think co-op is a huge distinguishing factor. Unless they're really holding something - I don't think they are - I think that's a big plus for us."