When it comes to dynamic, open world, sandbox-style games, Grand Theft Auto is the first name that springs to most people's minds.

Mention controversy, and again, Grand Theft Auto pops to mind.

The developers at Volition wanted to change this with Saints Row 2. They proved with the original Saints Row that they could make a solid sandbox action title, and in fact made it shine in areas where Grand Theft Auto was lacking. Saints Row 2 promised to improve on all things Saints Row and provide an overall deeper experience, and so we were curious to see if it lived up to expectations.

Saints Row 2 is set in the city of Stilwater, the same city where the first game was based. It picks up where that game left off, as your character wakes up in a prison hospital from a five year coma after having been severely injured during the closing stage of Saints Row. The 3rd Street Saints (your gang) have been all but destroyed, and the Stilwater you return to has changed. Three different gangs have taken control of the city: the Brotherhood of Stilwater, the Sons of Samedi, and the Ronin. Each gang has a different style and they each control different territories. Your job will be to reclaim those territories and revive the 3rd Street Saints.

Upon firing up the game, Stilwater initially felt like a very different place, almost unrecognisable after so many years, however as we completed some missions memories started to flood back. This must be what it's like for your character, after being out of action for five years. What is for certain though, is that Stilwater is bigger and better. There are a few new areas to visit and overall the game just feels much larger than before.

The game kicks off with customising your character, and it has to be the most advanced character customisation we have seen in a game to date. You can change every bit of your appearance, from being completely emaciated to looking like a sumo wrestler. You have a range of hair styles, and you can even create a cross-dresser if you so choose to. A real highlight is that you can set the way your character walks, talks, fights, insults, and what sort of a facial expression he or she will make. As you play the game with your character, and increase your reputation, you will also gain access to gang customisation which will affect the appearance of your gang. You can have them dressing and looking like pimps, mobsters, gangsters, or even an 80's gang. You can then also choose your gang vehicles, which allows you to pick cars which suit the style you're going for. It is a pleasure to have access to so much control around the way the game simulates your gang, rather than being stuck with a predetermined outift that really may not be your idea of cool.

Not that gangs are cool, kids... gangs are bad, mmk...

A vast range of weapons and vehicles will be available to you, from chainsaws to flamethrowers, samurai swords to meat cleavers, jet-skis to UFOs, even old timers and flash sports cars. You certainly won’t become tired of the options too quickly. The combat is nicely done, although what is missing is an auto-lock aiming system, however the health system is such that the game remains manageable. And where is the cover system? Perhaps we are spoiled from Grand Theft Auto IV. However, on the plus side instead of hiding behind walls and vehicles you can now grab a human shield, which is much more satisfying. When you string together combo attacks occasionally the game will slow down for you and zoom in on one of your finishing moves. This always looks impressive, and combos will also result in you receiving more respect. The more respect you get, the more gang members you can recruit who will then follow you around on missions, and you're only really limited by the number of seats in your car.

Saints Row 2 is all about the respect. You need to gain respect from the 3rd Street Saints so as to undertake missions relating to the different gangs. Missions are divided up nicely so you can mess with whichever gang you choose and take over their territories. A successfully completed mission results in your gang taking the territory, and it adding $500 to your daily income. This can be picked up in your crib, which is also very customisable. Once you own a territory you are also free to take over any of the businesses in that territory and collect protection money from them. This is definitely going to be important, as any of the in-game businesses can be robbed by simply walking in and pointing your gun around. But don’t trigger the alarm before you get your money! It's also best not to get too comfortable in your newly claimed territory, as on occasion gangs will attack the territory, meaning you will not receive income from it until you eliminate the enemy captains of the area. This doesn’t happen often enough to distract you from your missions, but it adds to the gang-warfare feel.

Continued on next page...