Lately, everyone keeps saying that I look different. Maybe it's that new jacket I bought, or the fact that I've started taking regular exercise. Or perhaps it's all those trips I keep making to the plastic surgeon. Two hours ago I was an ultra-thin old Asian man with long white hair; now I'm a pudgy white guy with a green combover, a high-pitched woman's voice and badly-applied lipstick. Welcome to user customisation, Saints Row 2 style.
It used to be the case that Grand Theft Auto was the unrivalled king of the sandbox thug sim. Considering the poor quality of games like True Crime, 25 to Life and Crime Life: Gang Wars, you really have to applaud Volition's success in creating a genuine rival to the series with the original Saints Row. Now that rivalry is set to be fuelled with the release of a sequel which expands upon its predecessor in every possible way.
While there's no doubt that GTA IV will be regarded as the best game of 2008 by many people, some gamers have complained about the relative lack of things to do in Liberty City - especially when compared to the circus of diversions that was San Andreas. If you consider yourself to be among this disappointed group, then take heart: Saints Row 2 will offer you all the variety you need, and then some. This game features demolition derbies, helicopter rampages and underground fight clubs. There's the opportunity to gamble, the opportunity go "surfing" on car bonnets - there's even the opportunity to take off your clothes and go running around like a lunatic. There's so much to do in this game that it would be impossible to cover all the options in a single preview, but we're going to cover as much as we can.
At the end of the first Saints Row, your gang-banging rudeboy was caught in a massive explosion. The new game kicks off as you emerge from a coma five years later, beginning with a character creation screen that defines your post-surgery look. The original game was pretty generous with the options it gave you to play with, but now the flexibility has shot through the roof. While there are a number of pre-set routes you can take if you just want to dive headlong into the action, more dedicated gangstas will want to fiddle with the huge array of sliders on display. Changing these alters a real-time model of your character, making it easy to tinker in detail; the gender slider is particularly good fun to toy with, allowing you to sit and gawk as your muscle-bound hard man slowly grows a pair of tits (which are then immediately covered up with a bra). If you're feeling especially cruel, you can then make them age 20 years in three seconds - watching saggy flesh has never been so fun.
You can now customise the style of your entire gang.... although you can't make them look as freakishly ugly as your own character.
Aside from your appearance, you'll also be able to change the way your character speaks, walks and interacts with NPCs. In the spirit of fun, Volition permits you to mix male and female elements within the same character; allowing you to create some truly scary creations. If you want to play as a purple-haired supermodel with a cockney growl, you can; if you want to play as an enormously fat bald guy with orange sideburns, you can do that too. This changeability allows you to play through the storyline in a serious manner, or to turn the cut scenes into a bad acid trip - and because you can easily visit the plastic surgeon during the game, you're not forced into either one of these approaches. You can switch at any time.
Once you've picked an initial look for your murderous nutjob, your first task will be to escape from prison. No slow beginnings here - you'll be shooting cops and blowing up helicopters right from the get-go. If you're used to the combat and driving of GTA IV, the arcade-like controls of SR2 may feel a bit unusual - but the light-and-simple handling makes them very easy to pick up. Movement is mapped to the left stick, while aiming goes on your right - there's no lock-on here, just free-form shooty bang-bang. Forget about Gears-of-War-style cover mechanisms - just shoot anything that moves. Selecting a weapon is a simply a matter of holding B and selecting an item with the left stick - but in addition to your stored arsenal, you can also pick up scenery items using the A button. These range from hammers and barstools to traffic cones and garden gnomes; no matter where you are, there will always be something close by that can be used to break skulls.
Once you've escaped from captivity, the whole city of Stillwater is yours to explore. You can carry on with the plot if you like, but you'll also have the option to drive around in search of the game's many Activities and Diversions. The former are sort of mini-game submissions based around specific tasks, while the latter are the simpler things you do in your spare time, like gambling or holding up stores. We actually found a diversion by mistake when we hijacked a car and drove off with a civilian still sitting next to us in the passenger seat. In GTA, the victim would just scream for a bit and bail out when they could; here we were offered the chance to start a game called "Hostage", where you must avoid the police whilst maintaining a high speed for a set period of time. Classy!