Saints Row 2 developer Volition knows that comparisons with GTA 4 are inevitable. But they're also justified. It's more than a simple case of both games being of the sandbox genre. GTA 4 and SR2 share the pleasure of presenting the player with an urban city playground, a third-person perspective and unavoidable confrontations with criminal gangs. Volition makes a point of reminding us that there's room for more than one open world game in the homes of 18 to 35 year old Western males. The more pertinent question is: is there room for more than one open world game that also features generous dollops of violent gangsta action? Both titles have so much in common you'd imagine that they'd get on like a house on fire if they found themselves coupled on a blind date.
Alas, despite the candlelight, unashamed flirting and small talk, at some point in the evening the two love birds would inevitably discover a personality clash - one of which would centre around violence. While Rockstar has taken GTA into a more realistic direction, Volition has made SR2 even more over the top than its predecessor. Don't expect a Daily Mail "BAN THIS SICK FILTH" campaign against Volition's title though. SR2's violence is of the hyper-real variety. One second you'll be speeding through the densely populated streets of Stillwater, a city expanded and developed for the sequel, sending rival gang members spiralling off into the air like flicked peas, the next you'll be blowing up drug labs masquerading as mobile homes with a laser-guided rocket launcher and sticky explosive satchels. SR2 is more likely to make you keel over in laughter than send you running for the toilet.
This focus on memorable moments and over-the top violence is certain to set SR2 apart from GTA4. Stillwater might not look as good as Liberty City, or even be as engrossing, but it will certainly provide more laughs. Fancy grabbing someone off the street and launching them halfway across town with your bare hands? SR2 lets you do that. Fancy using someone as a human shield, forcing cops to hold their fire, then executing the poor sod just for the hell of it? SR2 lets you do that. Fancy blowing up a fence and anything unfortunate enough to be nearby with one bullet? SR2 lets you do that, too. And don't forget to wipe your arse with your unfortunate foes face, either. Where Halo 3 is almost as famous for its tea-bagging as it is for Master Chief's sci-fi heroics, SR2 will be as remembered for its "dumping" as it will be for its memorable moments. That's right. I said dumping. As in pretending to poo on your enemy's face. The fact of the matter is that both Saints Row 2 and GTA 4 feel incredibly different to play. If GTA4 is like a Scorsese flick, then SR2 is a Michael Bay movie.
The differences go on. Where GTA 4's main protagonist is, outfit apart, an unchangeable, unassuming Eastern European immigrant, SR2's main protagonist is whatever you want it to be. The customisation options available are extensive and bonkers all at the same time. Want to be an enormous Momma? Fine. SR2, unlike its predecessor, lets you play as a woman. Want a middle-aged white guy with saggy tits? That's fine too. The game's physical characteristics sliders let you mould your virtual gangster like clay. Want your G to bob along the streets of Stillwater like a 14-year-old rudeboy from Streatham? Done. The character walks are as extreme as they are varied. Want your revenge-fuelled death-bringer to send people crazy with a simple gesture of your middle finger? No problem, SR2's taunting options, many of which wouldn't be out of place on the terraces of Stamford Bridge, will affect the way the world and its inhabitants react to you. Where GTA4's Niko has a predetermined personality, background and set of philosophies, SR2 hands the reins over to you, the player.
Once you've finished shaping your character you'll be thrust, like in the first game, straight into Stillwater's deep end. This time, however, you won't simply play the part of a cog in the Saints gang machine, you'll be charged with dragging it back to its previous glory as leader. Set 15 years after Saints Row (a period Volition calls "comic book time" on account of how much the city has grown and changed), you wake up from a coma to find the Saints disbanded and Stillwater in the grip of three rival gangs. SR2 promises a grittier, slightly darker storyline than SR, which seems at odds with the focus on over the top violence and memorable moments. Part Kill Bill-esque revenge mission, part journey of discovery, SR2 charges you with finding out who put you in the coma in the first place and reclaiming Stillwater for the Saints.
As you'd expect the pimpage from the first game returns. Your crib, which begins in poverty, can be upgraded with pool tables, expensive couches and stripper poles (complete with stripper). The better blinged out your crib the more respect you'll earn from missions. And, as any SR player knows, this game is all about respect.
Volition also points towards the two-player co-op as another major point of difference. Everything you see and do in Stillwater will be drop-in drop-out playable with another player either online via Xbox LIVE or PSN, or split-screen on the same console. In one mission, which sees you flying in a helicopter, one player can control flight while the other protects a friendly speeding car on the ground with targeted missile fire. You'll be able to play missions you haven't reached with a friend who's further into the game too - the game will even remember what levels you've completed in coop and allow you to skip them when you return to solo play.
So, now that we've had a closer look at SR2 there's much to suggest it'll be worth picking up, even if you're in the middle of the 100 or so hours supposedly required to eek out everything Liberty City has to offer. Sure, going by the latest playable code GTA 4 looks better than SR2. The combat, car handling, collision detection and AI are, as of now, inferior too. But there's time to close the gap on all of these fronts. What's abundantly clear is that Volition is well on its way to providing gamers who fancy an open world gangster game that doesn't take itself too seriously, with exactly what they're looking for. On the surface it might look like GTA 4's poverty-stricken little brother, desperately trying to copy its bigger, cooler sibling, but dig a little deeper and you'll discover that SR2 has the potential to make the sandbox deathmatch of the century a tad more interesting.
Saints Row 2 is due out for Xbox 360 and PS3 in North America on August 26, with a UK release not far behind.