Gang violence, brutality, police beat-downs, over the top humour and more await you when you boot up Saints Row 2. The original was labelled as a GTA clone and largely forgotten by most gamers/gaming press because it was buggy, glitchy and had some serious issues that marred the game in terms of graphics, playability and design. Yet it had a stalwart fan following that kept the torch alight in the hope that Volition would see fit to continue the story from the obvious sequel ending. Finally with the advent of the Xbox 360 and the current generation of consoles (Next Gen was about 2 years ago now), that dream for Saints Row fans has finally been realised.

Enter Saints Row 2, a game that picks right up where Saints Row left off. I'm not going to say much on the story, except that it's tongue in cheek, brutally violent and targeted at a mature audience. This isn't a game for kids moms and dads, so if you let little Johnny play it, then you only have yourself to blame. Likewise, crusading Jack Thompson wannabees and irate parents, police and so on, it's time to stop blaming the video game industry for your lack of responsibility regarding minors and these kinds of games.

I'd hope the adults (that this game is focussed towards) would have the damn decency to restrict a minor playing it. I hear time and time again that GTA IV and games like it desensitise kids to violence, wrong, it's not movies or games that do that. It's the news that shows uncensored footage from wars and murders, at least most gamers I've met have the understanding that it all goes on in a make-believe world and they're not going to go out, jack a car and drive around the streets beating up police officers.

That rant aside, this is supposed to be about the game. So here we go, there's a lot that's changed between Saints Row and Saints Row 2. The second game is bigger, better and sharper in many ways compared to the previous outing. Volition has listened to the feedback from their fans, they've adjusted things, they've paid close attention to the problems that the first game had and they've come out on top. This is a big game and it will take a while to get %100 completion, it's packed with activities and diversions as well as some solid (checkpoint style) missions for the gangs. There are three new gangs, The Brotherhood, the Ronin and the Sons of Samedi.

The game presents a darker view of the gang related scene and does indeed have some brutal cut-scenes. That aside, caveat from above as well, this outing has a lot of fun packed into the release. The diversions and activities range from being able to car surf, basejump, barnstorm; collect cars in the chop shop to engaging in destruction derby, a fight club and many more. There are almost too many to list, alongside the old favourites such as insurance fraud and so on.

Saints Row 2 offers complete character customization, with a huge array of options, facial modifiers, body modifiers, style, personality and numerous other things to tweak and change. You can alter any of these from the in-game plastic surgeon as well if you're not happy with how you look. This extends to the multiplayer component of the game as well; you can tweak your character in and out of the various gametype sessions and buy things from the mp shops. In single player, Volition has packed a bigger Stillwater with even more shops for you to spend your ill-gotten gains on.

The customization doesn't end there; you can own cribs and a gang hideout in the sp story. You can change the look of the crib; you can alter certain aspects of it and also modify the overall style. You might want that stripper pole or a big plasma TV, if you have the cash, you can get the upgrades. Some of these items are functional as well, the TV allows you to replay the cinematics and even play a video game. This game is the best game-within-a-game yet, I won't say what it is but it is extremely fun and frenetic.

In your hide out, you can customize your gang. You can change their style, your gang tag and the sign (their physical taunt etc) and the vehicles the gang uses. There are several unlockable styles and vehicles to gain throughout the game for the gang and missions. The customization doesn't end there. You can customize vehicles: motor-bikes, cars in the various mechanic shops in the city and this is far deeper than Saints Row with more options and content. The excellent in-game garages are back and they allow you to store vehicles you borrow or earn throughout the expansive single-player story. Don't worry about wrecking something as well; if you pay a small amount you can recover that vehicle at any of your garages or mechanic shops.

The turf mechanic is back and better than ever in SR2, there are numerous hoods to own and once you do, you'll get a cash payout per day. You can own shops; you can own property and these will also give you a small cash payout as well. If a hood comes under attack you need to go and clear it out, if you don't, you'll end up with a hood that doesn't generate cash until you go there are sort the problem out. You earn hoods by playing missions or doing Strongholds (which are mini-stories in their own right with their own unique theme) - this gives you respect, which you can use to play more missions. Respect is generated from actions in the game world, gang kills, beatdowns and driving like a lunatic doing stunts and jumps. In fact, virtually everything you do earns respect.

Owning property and better clothes gives you a style rank, which can be upgraded to give you a bonus on earned respect. It's an elegant system that works extremely well and provides a reason to always own the best of everything. There is no doubt about it that just from a pure gameplay point of view, Stillwater is a bigger city with tons to do, so much to explore and so many hidden goodies to unlock. It would take a big review to tag it all, and I have a feeling I've not really scratched the surface. I've played a chunk of the story and I've hammered out some of the multiplayer, including co-operative gameplay and adversarial/team based.

Talking of co-operative play and moving nicely into this part of the review. If you've read my previous reviews you'll notice that I love co-op, in all shapes and forms. SR2 delivers a huge chunk of co-op goodness that allows two players to tackle the story, the in-game activities and diversions or just rip off their clothes and streak a bunch of people on the boardwalk armed with a katana each. (Yes, we tried that one Ed)

You can play the multiplayer modes in System Link or across Xbox Live and the experience has only a slight lag now and then over Live. It's also fantastic fun and you can save at any time, so can your friend, so things you earn in co-op gaming can be transferred to the single player and it's a great way to build up cash. Of course Volition have made sure that the enemies are ramped up for co-op, there are more of them, more challenge and the health bars are bigger for your characters.

It's all nicely balanced so far.

I could go on about the co-op for quite a while, but we're far from done yet.

The controls for the game are simple enough and they're responsive, the car handling is a little on the arcade style and you might prefer the GTA IV car physics in the long run. SR2 has cruise control however and it is quite useful for when you need to aim and shoot at a vehicle in front of you whilst maintaining a constant speed. There are planes, watercraft and helicopters as well, so you're not spoilt for choice. A welcome addition to the game is an improved gun combat, hand to hand system with combos and the ability to take human shields to either execute or to throw in amusing ways.

Saints Row 2 has managed to push the bar for fun open-ended sandbox worlds in terms of graphical frame-rate, there is some pop-in (it's to be expected) however it's hardly noticeable even at speed. The graphics are good, they're not cutting-edge but they are functional and superbly animated (we'll come to that later on as well) especially in the cut-scenes. The day/night cycle, weather and atmospheric effects are top notch and Stillwater has been brought to life with an incredible level of detail. You can see the city is a labour of love from every trash infested back alley to the pristine towers that are now in Saints Row itself. It's obvious that the designers have taken there time here.

There are some expansive interiors and the load times for these are almost negligible, the whole thing is seamless and looking out of the windows of a crib onto Stillwater as it transitions from day to night is simply breathtaking at times, especially if a thunderstorm is raging on outside. Moving on to the animations in the game, they are the key to bringing the city to life and there are a massive amount of spot (or Ambient) animations in SR2. Every non player character (NPC) has various action nodes that litter the city, around 20,000 are hand-placed by the developers and they include things like fishing at a boardwalk, smoking a cigarette and drinking a 40oz at the corner of a street to name only a few.

Your player character has also been keyed into these, try leaving them on a dance floor for an extended period of time. Or outside a shop, you'll find the system will pick a nearby Action Node and you can watch your avatar performing the same action. It's almost a mini-game in itself as you experiment to see how many ambient actions you can find. There are other animations keyed to objects, stripper poles, bar stools and many more. Then there are the character interactions, the npc's move around Stillwater and do their own thing. Simply put, the animations might not be Euphoria but they are still proof that traditional animation methods when synched to a designer's code are not to be sneezed at.

The AI has a few issues now and then with pathing, mostly in terms of getting stuck behind something or being knocked down into an inaccessible area when they are struck by a fast moving vehicle. This again is negligible since it happens in many games, including the current sandbox king GTA IV. Overall, AI will use relatively sneaky tactics, react to hostage situations (Police and gang members) differently and use a variety of moves in combat from gun attacks, sword, knife attacks and taking human shields when they can.

It's just fun to start a small fight off and watch what the overall reaction is.

There are numerous hand to hand combos that your player can perform, on the left and right triggers, with context sensitive actions tied in. These are also available to the gang member's npcs and police. It is quite amusing to watch a cop take a ganger hostage and then hurl him at into the path of a speeding car for instance. Or a cop putting the boot into a male ganger's groin and seeing the guy curl up in pain before the cop puts a beatdown onto him with a nightstick.

The sound design in the game is excellent, with numerous spot effects for road workers, streetwalkers, ambient sounds, nightclubs and more. Then there's the soundtrack, a vibrant mix of different genres from the in-game radios and other sources, 80's tracks on The Mix can be enjoyed if you're a fan of Ah-Ha and Duran Duran, Tears for Fears and many more. The dialogue is performed with style by veteran voice actors, like likes of Michael Dorn (Worf from Star Trek, or I am Weasel) combine with the talent from the original game, Troy is back, Gat is back, and a few other names I won't go into since it's a heavy spoiler. There's also a slew of amusing comments heard on the street and in cars as they whip past, if you stop and listen to Stillwater you can hear a lot.

The city changes too from day and night, growing darker and more forbidding in the night time hours in terms of audio. There's an eerie emptiness about it that really gets to you if you're on foot in some of the areas, then there are other areas populated by pimps and ho's that are very much alive with bawdy dialogue. It is these touches that propel the game into the Editor's Choice here at games xtreme and it deserves the score purely from these aspects alone.

Then of course there's the multiplayer, adversarial and team based game-types are available and there are variants of the various activities that take place on the maps. You can get pretty overwhelmed at first with the sheer choice, from stealing ho's from other gang members, to riding around and just smokin' rival crews. It builds in a way on GTA IV and the original SR multiplayer and then adds a whole lot more. I could do a massive review on just the mp component of this game. It's more than I have actually got time allocated for. Suffice it to say that it's worth hitting up the tutorial in the game and learning about these modes before you jump in.

The sense of humour from the sp game goes into the mp and also more importantly, the sense of fun. There's no way to describe this apart from the fact that it's a veritable blast to play from start to end, howling with laughter as a rival ganger unleashes a rocket into your car and catapults you into the air only to die as the wreckage of the vehicle lands on his head. Or running up to someone with the mighty pimp slap and giving them a welcome tickle!

You can't go far wrong for both sp and mp here.

SR2 is a massive game, its massive fun and more importantly it has reams of staying power. With unlockables galore, collectible cd-tracks for your own music player in game and secrets to find, the game really has no end in terms of replay-ability. I can't see myself turning my back on this title at all. It just goes to show that sequels can be better than the original and SR2 is no exception. Ignore the moral majority and if you qualify for the age rating, get yourself down to Stillwater for some serious mayhem.