Recently, I completed the single-player story mode in Saints Row 2 and I have to say, while many criticized the marketing by THQ comparing it to Grand Theft Auto IV, I had a lot more fun with this game than I have with any GTA game I've played before. In fairness, I haven't played the latest iteration in that series, but if it's very similar to the others, and I can't believe it isn't, then I'll stand by my statement. Of course, the Saints Row series, like several other games, is a knock-off of GTA, but it's one of the more well-done ones.
I have noted previously that True Crime: Streets of L.A. was another entry in this sub-genre that was pretty underrated and I believe this title fell victim to one of the more common pitfalls in PC gaming, the unfinished (or early, or beta) release syndrome. While receiving generally good scores with the console releases last October (81, 82 on Metacritic), the title took a hit with the PC port released in January (72), with opinions ranging from "brilliant, personalised playground of fun" (PC Format, it's British) to "broken, technical mess on the PC" (Teletext GameCentral). Most of the criticism stemmed from glacial framerates experienced by reviewers using the pre-release or release code. There were also a few bugs with missions and diversions, but the universally-discussed issue was with weird speed-up/slowdown issues that tend to be experienced when playing games that were poorly optimized for the platform in question. This is a shame (and fingers should be pointed directly at THQ and not Volition, as it's a notorious trend for publishers to push games out of the door in this condition) because people who pass it up because of this are missing out on a really fun game. Two patches were released in January and February which appear to have addressed all of the concerns of reviewers regarding performance issues and I experienced only one crash-to-desktop during my entire time playing (my system is an AMD Phenom X4 2.5 Ghz with 6Gb of system RAM and a 512Mb nVidia 9800 GT graphics card).
In Saints Row 2, you play the leader of the 3rd Street Saints in the fictional city of Stilwater. As you play through the story mode, you'll have to defeat three rival gangs (the Brotherhood, the Sons of Samedi, and the Ronin) who are vying for control of the city, in addition to the private army of the Ultor Corporation, which is seeking to raze your neighborhood (and kill everyone in it) to convert it to an upscale area. How you achieve this goal will vary. In order to advance the story, you must complete story missions or stronghold missions but the only way you can play these missions is to earn enough respect. Respect is gained through stunt-driving or killing rival gang members, but mostly through performing activities. These activities range from my personal favorite, Septic Avenger, where you are hired by shady characters to drive down real-estate values in certain areas by taking a septage hauler's vehicle and spraying people, buildings, landmarks, et cetera, with septage to more mundane items like the Demolition Derby (what it sounds like) and Hitman (also, what it sounds like--hunt down targets on a list and kill them) activities. Each activity has a level and as you complete up to six levels in a given instance, you earn money and respect. Money can be spent on anything from real estate to CDs (which play in the in-game radios) to tattoos and piercings.
The main difference for me between this game and its Rockstar brethren is that it's not as hard or unforgiving. The vehicle physics is loose and the damage models are very lenient. In similar games, I always reached a mission that I couldn't complete even after playing it over and over ad nauseum. It's at this point that I would generally give up and uninstall it. In GTA: Vice City, it was the mission where you and Lance have to guard a drug deal and when it goes sour, chase down an antagonist on a motor scooter. In GTA: San Andreas, it was the mission where you and your homies break into an Army base to steal equipment. I don't even remember which mission I got stuck on in GTA III. Here I played the game all the way through and only dropped from Normal difficulty to Easy for one mission.
Sure, the story isn't groundbreaking and you won't remember many of the characters' names for years after you delete it from your hard drive, but it's very entertaining. As others have pointed out, one of the key features of this series is the customization options. You can tweak a few things regarding your crew, your cribs, your tags, and your vehicles, but you can create virtually any sort of protagonist you want. He or she can be any of five major ethnicities and can have virtually any kind of physical appearance that you can imagine. You can customize his or her clothing from socks and underwear to overcoats and hats. You can customize his or her catchphrases, walk, and gestures, as well as jewelry, tattoos, piercings. My main character was a leaning-toward-middle-aged, Hispanic guy with a short haircut, sideburns, and a goatee. He wore a grey overcoat ("pimp coat" in game lingo) with red trim, a gold band on his right hand, leather armband, jeans, athletic shoes, briefs, and a T-shirt with a stylized T-rex skull that read "Let's have a bite at the Natural History Museum!" He sported a grey wool ivy cap and sunglasses with thin translucent orange lenses.
Character models look good and, unless it's done on purpose (which it occasionally is), no one's chewing too much scenery. There are a number of different (non-licensed) vehicles in the game and thanks to the Havok middleware, they feel similar to their real-world counterparts. Like the GTA series, the radio stations in the various vehicles play a number of licensed tunes in several genres from hip-hop to classical to metal to pop. There aren't as many songs in this game as in your typical GTA installment and there aren't as many witty DJs or clever commercials, but they are present. (I can't tell if the guy saying that Europe's "The Final Countdown" is the greatest song ever is being serious or not--but he's so wrong.)
For the record, because this is an M-rated game, there is a LOT of cursing, a few references to sex, a lot of references to drugs [dealing and use], and a LOT of violence. If you didn't know this already, you're probably reading the wrong review.
Because this is a console port, you do have to deal with a checkpoint system and a no in-game save limitation, but this is only occasionally frustrating (usually on those missions where it's not immediately clear how you're supposed to achieve a certain objective--in which case, it pays to find a walkthrough). The mouse-and-keyboard default controls are pretty easy to pick up and I didn't try playing with a gamepad. At the end of the day, I can say without reservations that this is the most fun and least frustrating game of its kind that I've played. Maybe GTAIV is a better game; when I find it in a bargain bin in a year or two, I may try to find out. I doubt it though.