The sandbox genre has become increasingly popular in recent years, as improving technology means developers are no longer limited when constructing huge, lifelike worlds. While GTA is undoubtedly the most famous sandbox series - and the set of games that all other sandbox titles are inevitably compared to - there are many other great examples that are well worth checking out.
With Saints Row 3 announced last week ahead of E3 2010, now is as good a time as any to pick up a cheap copy of its notoriously nuts predecessor, Saints Row 2. Comparisons with GTA IV seem to blight every review Saints Row 2 receives, as if Volition's title is nothing more than a cheap wannabe. On the surface, there may be some similarities: the anti-hero protaganist, a wanted level that increases as you commit crimes, and the resulting frantic police chases through busy city streets.
However, with GTA IV adopting a more serious, cinematic tone than previous installments, the actual gameplay is very different to Saints Row 2. If anything, Saints Row 2 is a hark back to the original GTA, when the series had a wicked, cartoony sense of humour. Remember skidding through a line of Hare Krishna as they paraded down the street? Well, Saints Row 2 will have you soaking innocent bystanders with excrement, beating up drunken tramps with a baseball bat, and ploughing through pedestrians on a flaming quadbike.
The story sees you waking from a coma in a prison hospital, with fully bandaged features. At this point you can choose your character's appearance, and the freedom on offer is impressive. Ever wanted to be a cross-dressing biker with big hips and a squeaky voice? Saints Row 2 is the answer. You can customise everything down to the obscene gestures your character wields, many of which are simply hilarious.
Following a thrilling escape, you're let loose on the brand new, expanded city of Stilwater and free to do pretty much what you like. There's a number of story missions you can complete that see you building an army of like-minded thugs and taking over the town a piece at a time, but to open these up you need to earn respect by killing rival gang members or carrying out side-missions. These are often short and simple, such as protecting a celebrity from crazy fans at a party, but they're still entertaining and well varied.
In fact, variety is one of Saints Row 2's strongest points. If you tire of the missions you can simply take a break and become a pimp for a while instead. Or a taxi driver, racer, or even a streaker. Best of all, the entire single-player campaign can be played in co-op mode with a buddy, which adds to the frantic fun. There's loads to do in Stilwater, and most of it is as bonkers as a barrel of baboons.
The ‘zany' nature of the game may be refreshing and appealing to anyone who appreciates good potty humour, but will definitely put off anyone looking for a little more substance. Saints Row 2 is great fun, but technically impressive it ain't. For instance, the rather flawed combat system, in which it's impossible to take cover or lock onto your targets. Gun battles often lack tension because of the cartoony nature of the game, and stand-offs against legions of cops really do feel like scenes out of Arnie classic Commando. This is fine if you're simply looking to blast your way through an army of dumb opponents, but enjoyability definitely wears thin after a short while.
Dumbness is an inherent problem with Saints Row 2, one that seems to plague every inhabitant of Stilwater. Often you'll stumble across an area where all of the locals are stood around, staring at walls or off into space. You can batter someone to death with a iron bar and the crowds will stand by silently, as if Paul McKenna had just passed through and melted their minds.
This inherent stupidity does occasionally prove entertaining, however. Pedestrians occasionally fight each other for no good reason, and on one occasion I stopped to watch two skinny guys go at it as a police car pulled over beside them. The cops got out and promptly tasered one of the unfortunate men, at which point the other fighter pulled out a pepper spray and gave the cops a good dose. He then wisely sprinted off as the cops opened fire, but the gunfire seemed to startle a passing driver, who proceeded to slam his car into both cops and smush them against a nearby wall. The chaos continued as I watched dumbfounded for a good few minutes, after which I'd completely forgotten what the hell I was doing in the first place.
Along with the occasional technical glitch and the wonky AI, controls are also a little off when using a mouse and keyboard. The mouse sensitivity is set way too high to begin with, although this is thankfully adjustable through the options screens, but this is definitely a game that suits a joypad. Anyone with an Xbox 360 controller should consider hooking it up to their PC (or obviously buying the Xbox version of the game instead).
Saints Row 2 may not be technically impressive and filled with little quirks, but it's also great arcadey fun and frequently entertaining. Not only does it recapture the surreal and silly tone of the original GTA, it takes the bizarreness to even more extreme heights, to the point that you suspect Saints Row 2 is actually a spoof of GTA IV. Fans of peurile humour who delight in mowing through hundreds of enemies with increasingly huge guns are well catered for, and the variety of activities in addition to a strong single-player campaign results in a huge game you'll want to play through to the end.
Be aware however that the PC version has surprisingly steep system requirements: the minimum of a top-end Pentium with 2GB memory is required for a smooth experience, with a dual-core processor and a decent graphics card recommended to run the game on full detail. If times are tough, we recommend pawning some of those gold medallions to upgrade your rig.