Yes I know, SR2 came out in October. I'm lazy though, and I can't get F.E.A.R. 2 until I return SR2 (or buy it, because I've got a discount deal on Gamefly and quite a bit of gameplay left).
I can't claim this to be a completely objective review, since I have yet to actually finish it, but my conscience is hurting after taking off last week, so I'll just do the best I can.
On first impression, Saints Row 2 is Grand Theft Auto 3.5. After three or four days of gameplay, I feel pretty much the same way. However, while that fact has remained the same, my overall opinion of the game has improved with time. If any of you follow game news and reviews, you'll probably have some idea that SR2 is a bad game, mostly because it has “bad graphics.” Of course most real gamers will have some perspective, and recognize that these “bad graphics” are flabbergasting by the standards of two years ago. Of course they aren't up to GTA4's standards, but I've come to realize that that isn't necessarily a fault. GTA4 suffers from a severe case of “graphical modernization,” as demonstrated by the fact that the game is dark and gritty to the point of being unintelligible. SR2 strikes a nice balance of color while still being realistic. Some of you will be perplexed by that statement, but look at it this way: The world is not entirely made of mud. The sun shines, buildings and water reflect that light, grass is green. Darkness does not necessarily go hand in hand with a lack of clarity. I'm currently sitting in a relatively dark basement, and can still see clearly into the completely dark pool room some distance away. Sure the nights are still dark, but you don't get the same problem with GTA4 where you leave a dark building and the bright sunlight causes your screen to... get darker.
You will also likely have heard that SR2 is chock-full of bugs. Honestly, I never had a problem. Compared to Web of Shadows, the game ran like a dream. Like GTA4, it had the same AI path finding glitch where, upon receiving the order to enter a vehicle, your character decides that an obstacle is in the way of the door, runs around to the other side of the vehicle, and then decides that the other door would have been a better choice after all. Frankly, it happened less often than in GTA4.
My main problem with the game is the control scheme. Being used to GTA4, it took me some time to get used to especially the driving controls. SR2 doesn't do as well with what I suppose I'll call simulated realism as GTA4. I say this because obviously the driving and collisions in GTA4 weren't realistic, but they felt very close, putting aside the fact that you could slide at fifty miles an hour into a telephone pole and emerge unscathed. I at first was irritated by the driving system in SR2, but I've since gotten used to it and realized that, while simpler, it can be just as effective. Furthermore, each vehicle has a more individual feel than in GTA4. There is a much wider gap between the good cars and the bad ones, and you'll find that you'll soon start choosing which vehicles to jack based on something more substantial than the paint job.
On a related note, the customization is in all ways an improvement over GTA4, and not only because of the fact that there was none in the latter. Of course there is in the beginning a character customization screen, allowing you to choose from different skin colors, genders, body types, weights, voices, movement styles, combat styles, insults and compliments. Once in game, you can further customize your character and add to your “style value” by buying clothes, jewelry and tattoos. Also, there are a number of cribs to purchase. Some are just for vehicles, such as docks and one airport hanger. Other cribs can be customized with beds, bigger TVs, and decorations. All of these things add to your style value, which gives you a respect bonus upon completing activities.
I realize that this is in a rather illogical order, but it fits together in my head, so I'll continue.
The aforementioned respect system is used to unlock missions. Each time you want to play a campaign mission or a stronghold (side missions used to kick gangs out of certain areas), you have to spend one respect bar. The respect bar is filled by performing stunts in driving and combat (two wheels, near miss, gang kill, slice n dice, etc.) which are ranked based on the duration of the stunt with one to three stars in either bronze, silver or gold. For instance, spending some time driving in the left lane will give you a bronze star in the opposing lane stunt, and staying there longer will add another star, and then a third, and then one silver star. Similarly, killing an enemy while holding a human shield will give you a bronze star in shield kill, and each subsequent kill within the time frame will add another. More stars means more respect.
The better way to gain respect is through activities, however, and this is where SR2 shows its true stripes. What really makes it an improvement over GTA4 is that it doesn't try to take itself seriously. This manifests itself in a more interesting plot, more colorful characters (both literally and figuratively) and most importantly, truly absurd activities. These include Septic Avenger, which calls for the character to devalue property by spraying sewage on houses, Insurance Fraud, which involves getting into violent car accidents to collect health insurance, and Fuzz, a parody of the show Cops, in which the player disguises him or herself as a cop and commits random acts of police brutality to be caught on film. These activities each have six levels, with each subsequent level granting more cash and respect, sometimes up to two or three full bars. At present, I believe I have nine bars, but I recently had thirteen.
I'll wrap up the review now, as I fear it's become too verbose. I will add that my sole real complaint about the game is a lack of split screen cooperative play. Sandbox games would always be vastly improved through a coop mode, including Assassin's Creed, GTA4 and SR2. It seems foolish to me that Volition would decide how I play my coop, since of the best friends of mine that play video games (pretty much the people on anyButton), only two of them have 360s, and neither of them have Gold XBL accounts. Games are often improved by adding a social component, and that's always better done in person than online. Setting this complaint aside, I have ultimately decided that I agree with Yahtzee's assessment. SR2 is so far a more enjoyable experience than GTA4, and it seems that it will have more replay value once I finish it. I may very well buy it.
One last thought: Why isn't there an apostrophe in in the title?
Okay here's the last one: If you're one of those people who reads a page and skips over all of the hyperlinks, make an exception and check out Yahtzee Croshaw's Zero Punctuation. Seriously, he's a critical genius, and my personal idol when it comes to reviews.