At first glance, it's almost as if Saints Row 2 developer Volition is going head to head with Rockstar. You simply can't shake the unnerving impression that you're watching some kind of Grand Theft Auto spin-off, albeit one that someone has applied a layer of Tarantino-style black humour over the top of. And then set fire to it.

The original Saints Row was received with open arms by a gaming community eager to fight their way through anyone other than Rockstar's view of what a sandbox game should entail. Those willing to invest in the story of the 3rd Street Saints from Stilwater were greeted with not only many of the attributes of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but a bunch of new features including extensive character customisation and plenty of side-quests to keep the interest levels up. Little wonder it sold over two million copies - not bad for a game only released on the Xbox 360.

Roll forward two years and Saints Row 2 is nearly ready for release. Set fifteen years after the events of the first, Saints Row 2 will find your character alive yet incarcerated in a prison hospital after the near-fatal boat explosion at the close of the first game. With a bit of help from another inmate, you eventually escape the confines of the prison and head straight back to Stilwater to resume your gangland tendencies and revive a broken and splintered 3rd Street Saints fraternity who have all but drifted out of the scene.

It's difficult to ascertain which of New Zealand's conservative groups will complain the loudest at the release of Saints Row 2 - on the one hand you have a fairly damning indictment on the pointlessness of parole for seasoned criminals, but on the other you're playing a game that makes it fun to commit crime. I suspect that as with Grand Theft Auto IV, several people will voice some fairly uninformed opinions, and the rest of the country won't care.

The code we played with at THQ's headquarters in Auckland was really designed to showcase the multitude of character customization options available in Saints Row 2. This is ably demonstrated by the E3 trailer you can watch below:


As with the first Saints Row, this really pushes the game down another path, a path which is tangential to that of the elephant-in-the-room: GTA. By allowing the player to set their own parameters by which they wish to be viewed, you empower them with more of a voice in the world, rather than following pre-set scripts created by the studio directors. Put simply, choosing your character's appearance is like a game in itself, and one you'll happily spend hours with. Every possible tweak you can think of can be applied, starting obviously with sex, and moving on to your ethnicity, figure, height and weight. It's far from finished there however - there are about a dozen different ways you can change your nose alone, from the distance apart your nostrils are down to the angle of the tip. Eyebrows a bit close together? No problem, move them apart and make them a bit bushier. Body too toned? Change your age to 99 and watch the skin droop.

After you've taken a few hours to recreate your friends' ugly mugs from scratch, and you've finished emailing them a copy together with some witty one-liners, you can then move on to select the type of gait you want your character to have. This isn't restricted by sex - you can for example make an enormous muscle-bound thug of a character and give him a delicate feminine walk guaranteed to scare even the most hardened gang associate half to death. It's entirely up to you.

Likewise you can select from a number of offensive gestures and taunts you can give other competitors in multiplayer mode - from the traditional one-finger salute to various other sexually explicit actions that the reader is encouraged to refrain from imagining too vividly.

Once you enter the game, there's further work to be done on your "crib". This is your gang's headquarters, and as with any organised crime facility the more ostentatious the better. You can select the size of your TV (52-inch plasma - check), provide facilities for light entertainment (pool table - check) and encourage the fairer sex to drop by (stripper pole - check). These items come out of your starting funds, and it would appear that the better the items are, the more likely you are to attract better friends.

After lounging about in our crib for a while, we hit the outdoors for a spot of violence and mayhem. The only mission included with the code we were provided was entitled "Sons of Samedi". Those of you versed in Haitian folklore will recognise the reference - the Samedi gang are in fact vicious voodoo thugs who pride themselves in pushing drugs and generally lowering property values throughout Stilwater.

Although this build was at a very basic level graphically, we could see the targeting system in action when using the rocket launcher. You can lock on to a target (such as a car, or person) and fire the weapon at any sort of crazy angle. Provided there is a clear path between the end of your launcher and the target the rocket will home in, causing a spectacular explosion. Of particular note were the unfortunate Samedi who couldn't escape in time, and ran burning from the wreck.

Saints Row 2 also appears to have the edge in weapon variety. Not only can you choose from a wide range of conventional rifles, machine guns and pistols, but you get "sticky bombs" as well. These can be deployed on to almost any surface (people included) and triggered remotely at a later time. It's hilarious, in a cruel sort of way, to watch a hapless gang member running around trying to get rid of the sticky bomb from his back before you detonate it, vaporising him in a shower of blood and gore.

Saints Row 2 is due for release in October for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. You can catch up with the development to date by viewing two trailers released so far concerning activities and the storyline, and you can download the trailer on customisation embedded in this article here. It may not have the production budget of Grand Theft Auto IV, but looks to have the potential to keep you entertained for just that little bit longer.