The first thing to do when you start Saints Row 2 is to personalise your character. There's the usual plethora of face and body types to choose from, as well voice, attitude and posture.
For the more sexually adventurous among you, if you choose a male character, you're not just limited to male appearances or posture. So it's perfectly possible, if that's your bag, to create a male cross-dressing character that minces around like a catwalk model. I'm not entirely sure how such a character would be accepted in the real gangsta world, but in Stillwater, nobody bats a proverbial eyelid.
This extensive design process is explained away by the fact that your character was caught in an explosion at the end of the last game, and has undergone extensive plastic surgery in the intervening time period.
Armed with your possibly cross-dressing character, it's time to head out into Stillwater to make your presence felt. If you played the original Saints Row, the first thing you'll notice is that Stillwater has changed. As well as being bigger than before, it's also undergone some major redevelopment, courtesy of the shady Ultor Corporation.
The whole city is available to explore right from the outset, and some missions will find you going from one side of the city right across to the other in order to complete your goal. This does mean that certain vehicles, which other games use as rewards, such as boats and aircraft are available at any time.
Talking of missions, each of the main story-arc missions is only available once you've filled up your respect bar. In a change from the original Saints Row, you don't just need to do activities to fill up your respect bar – you can now gain respect by driving like a lunatic or killing rival gang members.
The respect bar is a way of stopping you blasting through the main story arc too quickly, but it's a clumsy way of doing it. On the plus side though, the variety of activities available to help fill your meter is wide ranging – from the usual drug running or pimping missions, to the slightly more "zany" missions such as Septic Avenger, where your aim is to spray selected buildings in, erm, excrement, or Trail Blazer where you ride a flaming quad bike in a race to create as much flamy havoc as possible.
Once you've gathered your lieutenants about you, it's time to start reclaiming the city for the Saints. There are three rival gangs to defeat, and each gang forms its own independent story arc. The Ronin are Japanese sword-wielding Yakuza types; the Sons of Samedi are Voodoo-worshipping Yardie-alikes; and The Brotherhood, the thugs of the underworld.
Each arc is made of several multi-part missions, and also involves one of your lieutenants in some way. Thankfully, there are checkpoint saves within each mission, so should you come a cropper part way through a mission, you won't have to start right back at the beginning.
To be honest, the controls are a bit of a mixed bunch. Combat controls are easy to master, and although there is no auto-aim, it's still fairly easy to shoot targets. Weapon selection is easy too, and you're not forced to scroll through all your weapons to find the one you want.
On the other hand, and somewhat curiously, vehicles are controlled with the face buttons rather than the triggers. This means that you are either going flat out, or you're not. No in between. There is the option of cruise control, which keeps your car at a certain speed, and this helps greatly with in-car combat, but it's a clumsy way of controlling the speed of vehicles.
Vehicle controls are not the only problem with Saints Row 2. There is a disconcerting amount of object pop-up in front of you, and cars have a disconcerting habit of disappearing when they're just a hundred yards away. This is annoying when you're trying to complete the Chop Shop activities and are looking for a specific car – it appears on your radar, only to disappear moments later even though you're right behind it.