It's not easy for a company to make an open-world game that stands totally separate form the titan that is Grand Theft Auto. THQ went the opposite direction of other companies and decided to make their first entry into the free-roaming gangster genre what was essentially a re-skinned GTA.

Luckily for the publisher no one had seen GTA on next-gen systems so Saints Row was their only option for a high-def world of free-roaming destruction. Now it's the year 2008, gamers everywhere are gearing up for Grand Theft Auto IV and yet the people at THQ don't seem worried.

In fact, they seem downright confident that Saints Row 2 will be able to woo gamers away from Rockstar's latest. Just last week we got a look at a very early build and while we weren't allowed to delve deep into what the city of Stillwater holds this time around, we can say that the building blocks are once again in place for a rousing open-world thugfest.

As those who played through the first Saints Row know by now, your nameless character was taken out at the end of the storyline thanks to a well-timed boat bomb (like a car bomb, but on a boat). Somehow your kingpin survived the explosion, but not without serious cosmetic damage.

Thus the fact that you begin the new storyline by reshaping your character's physique at a doctor's office in the big house is a bit more fitting. You'll later find out that it was actually the higher ups of your own gang who set you up to buy the farm, now it's up to you to rebuild the gang, exact some sweet revenge, and rid Stillwater of the new competing gangs.

Gone are the days of Los Carnales, the Vice Kings, and the Westside Rollerz and they've been replaced by three entirely new gangs. They have new personalities, new lieutenants commanding the peons to and fro, and new Hollywood voice talent to bring it all to life. Not only that, but the city of Stillwater has gone through a sort of time warp and has experienced 25-30 years worth of structural and cosmetic changes in the short time since the first game so things should feel totally different from the first go-round. Not only that, the Ultor Corporation (mentioned lightly in Saints Row) has taken over the city in order to "fix its problems."

You can bet that it'll factor into the storyline in one way or another, but THQ is mum for the moment. The single gang that we were shown during our demo was known as Sons of Samedi. We weren't given much background information beyond the mission objective which was to blow up a certain number of trailers that were being used to run drugs.

While the option of chucking explosives into the trailers and blowing them up the old fashioned way was certainly readily available, the developer from Volition who was manning the demo had other things in mind. Since cars can be used to kill enemies in the game, why not go a different route and give them the ability to be converted into makeshift bombs?

Well, thanks to the new satchel charge weapon, you can. Simply hop out of your ride, set a charge (or five) on the hood, get it going in the proper direction, ditch the whip and watch it careen into the side of the trailer as you press the detonate button. Fireworks abound! The more traditional gunplay is handled with a Gears of War style over-the-shoulder camera angle (toggled by a click of the right stick) which should please the many who despised the aiming in the first Saints.

The rest of our time in the Sons of Samedi mission was spent perusing the surrounding environment. It was a desert setting that didn't exactly fit with the metropolitan motif of the first game. The Volition representative used a debug (only accessible in early versions) cheat to hop to the location without actually driving there, so we don't know where it is in relation to the rest of the city. Still, the land was populated with mobile homes, traffic routes that featured random events like car crashes and people yelling at one another, and some hilariously inappropriate dialogue from spectating pedestrians.

While the mission looked fun and had the potential for plenty of mayhem, the real star of our demo was the aforementioned customization options that begin Saints Row 2. Everyone expects to be able to change your face, the length of your brow and the contours of your character's mouth, but Volition is taking things a few steps further.

Now you'll be able to change their taunt, compliment, walk and combat styles. Taunt options include things like The Dumper, Dog Pissing, Ride the Donkey, The Wanker, and Tea Bag. We'll let your imagination run wild at those possibilities. The different walks range from Pimp Walk to Crazy Walk which makes your character look like a meth head for lack of a better term. Compliments can be as simple as a salute or as complicated as a full-blown riverdance.

Those, along with a combat style, come together to create the personality of your gangster which will apparently change the way that characters in the world react to your actions. Also, unlike in the first Saints, your character will actually have plenty of dialogue (there are over 60,000 lines of dialogue throughout Saints 2) to push the plot along. Hooray for no longer being a mute!

Not only can you change the outward appearance and demeanor of your crusading hoodlum but you can also change the aesthetics of your home base - known as a crib for those living the thug life. You can upgrade your pad with things like a stripper pole, nicer electronics, and other trinkets that will help to impress your low life friends.

The rest of what we saw from Saints Row 2 felt very familiar. You can still load up your car with three other gang members to help you during some of the missions, but this time you'll have the option of more than a simple four-door auto. Jet skis, boats, planes, helicopters, and motorcycles will all be available at one point or another.

The GPS system that was in the first returns again but this time it will reprogram itself with a new route should you stumble across a shortcut. Activities are also back with new additions to go along with the classic Insurance Fraud and Helicopter Assault but we weren't given examples. The respect system is also returning but has been tweaked a bit to change the way points are divvied up.

Saints Row 2 is poised to be the quintessential sequel with bigger sights and sounds and more things to do with your time. The multiplayer, which includes a full fledged co-op mode, is said to be totally revamped from the first Saints but no details were given beyond that.

With more Hollywood talent, new locations, a few returning characters, new vehicles and a revamped customization system that allows for some truly ridiculous persona options, it looks like Saints Row 2 will be one to watch for when it releases later this year. Whether that means that people will forget about GTA IV to travel to Stillwater, well, that's another matter entirely.

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