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.