Version tested: PlayStation 3
If you want to talk about Saints Row 2 (right place to be, innit), you've got two different approaches open to you. You could talk, in technical terms and a tone reminiscent of a slightly disappointed maths teacher, about how the graphics aren't terribly impressive. It's got a huge city for you to explore, but compared with the deftly filtered visual richness of something like Grand Theft Auto IV (a comparison that's going to be hauled out a lot, I'm afraid), it looks dated.
You'd probably go on to mention, with faintly pursed lips, that the animation messes up regularly - with characters "popping" out of cars when the doors don't have space to open, for instance. Or you might complain that enemy AI and other road users are fairly simple and dim, or that the radio stations are understocked to the extent that the '80s station seems to play The Final Countdown at least three times an hour. If you want to nit-pick Saints Row 2, you won't have a hard time doing so. It's even got a little bit of screen-tearing and the occasional frame-rate drop.
If you look past that, though, you've got approach number two: it's the first sandbox game since Vice City where 3am comes and goes, and for me, Saints Row 2 is a diamond, no matter how roughly hewn. For all the visible seams, I'm happier talking about fun stuff, like the time I hijacked a car with a passenger still inside, and found myself playing a hidden mini-game where I had to evade the police without letting him escape, until he was so terrified that he offered to pay a ransom. Or the time I walked into a stadium to discover a fully functional Destruction Derby, complete with customisable scrapyard vehicles.
It's a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. It's a blatant rip-off of GTA's central idea, but the idea has been ripped off by people who understand that what made GTA fantastic wasn't just stealing cars and thumping people, but humour and character. Saints Row 2 is full of memorable gang bosses and underlings, teeming with sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek or simply puerile comments and references.
Moreover, it's hosted a city rich with activity. Every street is full of shops to be explored, activities to take part in, missions to be defeated and enemy strongholds to conquer. From the first moment you set foot in Stilwater (after breaking out of the prison you've languished in since the first game), your map throbs with dozens of icons, each of which can be explored to turn up something new. Even if you're not right next to a mission or activity icon (missions advance the storyline, activities simply earn you money and "respect", which unlocks additional missions), the game rarely leaves you with nothing to do for long, and of course you can always embark on the standard GTA-style crime spree - shoot things until the cops (and rival gangs) turn up, escalating to the point where SWAT vans block off the roads and helicopters circle overhead.
There's extra structure on offer here, though. Hijack a taxi and you get a Crazy Taxi-style game - pick up passengers, deliver them on time, and drive according to their desires to receive a bonus. A tow-truck allows you to repossess cars from (usually violent) owners to earn money. As mentioned, stealing a car with a passenger in it and putting your foot down enables a ransom mini-game. Several days since we began, we're not convinced we've turned up all the distractions on offer, with so many incidental features - like your character singing along to the songs on the radio if you leave it on long enough. Tunelessly and out of time, we might add, but that just makes it even better.
While Saints Row 2 makes no bones about its GTA inspiration, one crucial difference is the concept of territory, with the city of Stilwater divided up into 45 discrete neighbourhoods, which are controlled by an assortment of rival gangs. As you progress through the missions, some of those neighbourhoods come under your control. Others you'll have to take over by assaulting enemy strongholds.
Controlling neighbourhoods is crucial, because each neighbourhood pays a certain amount of money per day, which can be picked up from the safe in any of your, er, cribs. Your neighbourhoods are also full of your gang members, and as you progress, you'll unlock the ability to recruit them. Your homies follow you around, shoot your enemies and aggro the opposition to give you a bit of room, and they're key to succeeding at the game's tougher moments.
The whole territorial control concept works well. Watching your influence spread over Stilwater is great fun - and you can also take advantage by buying up businesses in the areas you've grabbed, increasing your revenue stream and earning a handy discount in the process. When you've managed to get into lots of trouble with a rival gang, it's also handy to drive into one of your own areas and watch as your gang members pile into your pursuers.
Saints Row 2's other major diversion from the GTA formula is style. Customisation is absolutely key, from the incredibly comprehensive character-creation pages (we've already waxed eloquent about the ability to make a grossly obese, elderly transvestite as your main character, should you so desire - but you can also make just about anyone else you want, as hideous or as handsome as you wish) through to the vast selection of clothes on offer in Stilwater's different stores. Even your cribs can be heavily upgraded and restyled as befits your standing as one of the city's top crime bosses.
Cars, too, can be modified to a huge extent. Each one you hijack can be brought to a garage and, for a price, you can fit a wide range of body mods, engine and chassis upgrades, new paint and weapons. All of these modifications - clothes, cars or cribs - contribute to your style rating, and the higher your style rating goes, the more respect you earn for each activity you undertake, so the game's various ratings and currencies feed off one another helpfully, and Saints Row 2's style elements are as deep or as shallow as you like. If you want to spend ages finding and customising a smart pinstripe suit and a white fedora hat with a black band (which I did, and I'm not ashamed), there's a small bonus in it for you. If, on the other hand, you just want to shoot goons in the face, well, the bonus is no great loss. Style is well catered for, but the developers clearly feel that style is its own reward.
Also rewarding is multiplayer, where the key mode is unquestionably co-op - a well-considered drop-in/drop-out system that means that you can join another player's game, do a few missions, and then hop back into your own, retaining any items or progress you made. There's no split-screen, sadly, but for households with more than one console, or for friends online, this has immense potential. Deathmatch-style multiplayer and a more complex, group-based competitive mode are also included, but Saints Row 2 doesn't lend itself to precision shooting, and while this is fine in single-player it's makes for random and frantic deathmatch.
Still, in single-player and in co-op, Saints Row 2 is one of the most ridiculous and enjoyable games of the year. Some will dismiss it as GTA's "gangsta" offshoot, but they're missing the point; with its immense scope, fun physics and focus on entertainment over realism or grit, Saints Row is what GTA would have become if Rockstar North had followed Vice City to its pimpin' conclusion. It may not have the graphical fidelity or the polish of its high-budget counterpart, and will be beaten up for that, but it compensates more than adequately by answering the crucial question - "is it fun?" - with an exuberant, sweary, two-fingered affirmative.
9 / 10