You know, Saints Row is quite a lot like another game I've played. Can't remember which one. Anyway, a number of internet-based backs were put out by the first wave of advertising for this sequel, and their owners found their fingers reaching for the Caps Lock button once it became clear THQ and Volition were suggesting Grand Theft Auto IV wasn't perfect and they could do certain parts better. Grand Theft Auto! That's the one.
But you know what? They sort of have in places. Saints Row 2 has better combat than Grand Theft Auto IV, which for many was a bit of a fudge (although we got used to it pretty quickly). It's not even as if Saints Row 2's solution is clever or original. You point the gunsight where you want to shoot with the right analogue stick and use a new Resident Evil 4 style over-the-shoulder view if you need to zoom in a bit. And that's it: no, woolly lock-on, no intemperate cover system - just point and shoot.
Apart from the over-the-shoulder bit though, that's largely how things were in the original Saints Row - and a decent control system wasn't quite enough to lend it the same endurance as its blockbusting inspiration. With none of the wit or depth of content as Grand Theft Auto, the game's capacity to entertain floundered after a few hours. Volition, though, has what it refers to as "the three Cs" to counter this problem: co-op, customisation and combat.
We weren't being show the co-op mode in the session this preview is based on, so one can only wonder what effect playing through the whole single-player mode with a friend will have on the game's appeal. "Quite a lot" seems a reasonable speculation. "A great deal" and "immensely" are plausible second guesses.
In terms of customisation there was a quick demo, but most of that aspect of the game has been covered already. It is impressive, even if Volition insisted on showing it off by creating morbidly obese women in their underwear. The options also extend to facial mannerisms, gang-related gestures and even your car and crib - going beyond even the excesses of Mass Effect and EA's sports games.
So, that's "three Cs" out of the way, but the fourth one that no one's quite so keen to discuss is content. Is there enough of it and does it offer the same variety and immersion as you-know-what? In terms of quantity there certainly doesn't seem to be a problem, with the map for the newly redesigned city of Stilwater (now one-and-a-half times the size of the original) peppered with more mission markers than you'd find bullet-holes in an Alabama road sign.
However, apparently the game is still being optimised, so we were only allowed to tour the smaller outlying islands and flit between a few specific missions on the mainland. The first of these involved escaping from prison at the beginning of the game, murdering a range of doctors and guards on the way - most of whom were women for some reason.
The developers describe the game's plot as "darker" and more "Tarantino-esque" than before, but it still lacks any of the satirical humour of Grand Theft Auto. This is a real issue in Volition's game, where the sadistic violence is never tempered by anything.
To be honest though, if you've clicked on a link that said "Saints Row 2 preview", the chances are you're not going to feel morally compromised by the game's gleeful portrayal of random violence. You're probably more interested in how visceral that portrayal actually is. Well, using the over-the-top weapons is certainly fun, from a flamethrower to a new sticky-explosive charge, but the only real tactical consideration seems to be grabbing a hostage and using them as mobile cover.
Few of the other missions on offer suggested any additional depth, with a very simple on-the-rails shoot-'em-up section on a boat and later a helicopter, as well as Grand Theft Auto-style rampage missions and races on both a jet bike and in a car. All worked fine but the former was still inferior to the twelve-year-old Wave Race 64, even with all the new wave-creating weather effects turned right up. The car-handling model is purposefully arcade-like in style, which will please those that found Grand Theft Auto's stance an awkward compromise. The presence of mid-mission checkpoints will also be welcomed by those who fretted at their absence in Rockstar's games.
According to Volition the aim was to make a more arcade-style Grand Theft Auto and while it is a relief not to get called out for a game of darts every five minutes, there appears to be very little else to see yet beyond crashing cars and standing in the middle of a crossroads with an infinite-ammo rocket launcher.
Which is just as much fun as it sounds, but does nothing to shatter the original's glass ceiling of longevity. Even after speaking with the developers, it's not clear that anything else was ever really intended, but it's a shame that the development sights haven't been calibrated as high as the marketing. Saints Row 2 does seem to do a number of things better than Grand Theft Auto, but it'll have to show a lot more to outdo it come the October release.
Saints Row 2 is due out on PS3 and 360 on 17th October.