Before we get to the big one (that's GTA IV) it's worth reminding ourselves of its main competition: namely Saints Row 2. It would be fair to say that for most people, Saints Row was a thoroughly enjoyable if limited take on the GTA template. It would also be fair to assume that while expectations for Saints Row 2 are high, nobody outside of THQ would ever think that Saints Row 2 is going to better GTA IV. And, you know what? Probably they'd be thinking right. But that doesn't mean that Saints Row 2 should be overlooked - far from it in fact. It's a brave company that goes toe-to-toe with the next greatest game on the Xbox 360, but Volition is still taking the fight to Rockstar. And from what we've seen, no one's going to be scoring an early knockout punch either.
Latter day saints
We can say this with some confidence, because Saints Row 2 plugs a massive gap in GTA IV's arsenal. A quick scan through the list of features actually shows a number of elements unique to the 'Row - customisable cribs, gestures and character appearances to name but three - but we care less about these elements than we do about a double-header of Antiques Roadshow and Heartbeat on a Sunday afternoon. No, it's the fully online co-op campaign that we're getting rather excited about.
Crackdown proved how good a freeroaming online campaign could be, so the fact that it's in Saints Row 2, but not GTA IV, is huge news. You and a friend can tackle the main story from beginning to end, which opens up a massive amount of freedom in terms of how you can approach each mission. It's a quest that's also going to take longer than you'd think too, because although you'll be returning to Stilwater there's much more to do. The city has changed quite a bit since we last saw it, even gaining a few new appendages such as the Alcatraz-inspired 'Prison Island' (still time to come up with a name, guys) - and getting there's a cinch thanks to the new jetskis, boats, planes and 'copters. Of course, it's the getting out part that'll be tricky.
Thanks to your actions in the first game the Los Carnales, Westside Rollerz, and the Vice Kings have been replaced by three new gangs, and they're all overseen by the city's shadowy owners, the Ultor Corporation - a company we just know you're going to have to fight in the end. One look at the very oppressive reign of Ultor in Red Faction is proof enough.
The new aiming system in place should please anybody frustrated by the shooting of old. Clicking the right stick brings the camera down behind the shoulder of your character, allowing you pick off enemies with ease. It also helps when using the new satchel charge. Simply hurl one onto enemies' vehicles, or even your own if you're feeling cocky (remember to hop out though), and watch the Havok physics go berserk and everything explodes.
And while everybody's busy saying how Saints Row is 'just a GTA clone', it's worth mentioning three things that the first game introduced: the phone, the mission instant restarts and the online Deathmatch (because Liberty City Stories' WiFi mode isn't really comparable) - three features that Rockstar has since used to great effect in GTA IV. Maybe, just maybe, there's something else up Volition's sleeve that'll inspire the next next GTA. We wouldn't put it past them...
It's going to be nearly impossible to market Saints Row as anything other than 'the alternative GTA IV', and if that turns out to be the case Volition will not have been given the credit it deserves. A hugely ambitious title that you should still be very excited about.