By Marc Bernardin
October 21, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

THQ; Xbox 360, PS3, Mature

Let’s get this out of the way: Saints Row 2 is no Grand Theft Auto IV. Yes, both are third-person action games with an urban setting that follow a low-level hood as he rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld. And both allow you to carjack passersby and drive through a collection of cityscapes, or nab a helicopter and go on aerial missions, or even pilot watercraft to tour the coastline. Such similarity only invites comparison, and Saints Row 2 is, by almost any measure, the lesser game. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun.

You begin the game in a prison infirmary, your face swathed in bandages — and that leads directly to the one significant difference between SR2 and GTA IV: character customization. Male or female, young or old, fat or thin, black or white (or Hispanic or Asian); every look is on the table and will persist for the entire game — unless you visit a plastic surgeon for an extreme makeover. After settling on a look — and busting out of prison while getting a handy plot-driven tutorial — you’re back on the streets of Stilwater with nothing to do but return your crew, the 3rd Street Saints, to their former glory.

It seems there are three other gangs that have taken over your turf: the Brotherhood, the Ronin, and the Sons of Samedi (with the Ultor Corporation hovering over them all). Missions follow the standard-for-this-kind-of-game format — the overwhelming majority involve driving to a gang-affiliated location, shooting a whole mess of people, pressing the ”Y” button to achieve the mission’s goal, and shooting a whole other mess of people, all while staying alive. And, if you’re anything like me, that makes for a fine night at the console.

Still, as you capture more neighborhoods — thereby ensuring a large, steady income — the game can get a little repetitious. Yes, GTA might have had its less-than-thrilling moments, but at least you could hop in a car and take in the sights of Manhat—, excuse me, Liberty City. No such joys to be had here. SR2 exists in a sort of generic urban blight (and you’ll never find yourself wondering at the man-hours of coding that it took to create). Also: the driving mechanics are even looser than in GTA, which takes much of the joy out of joyriding. (And speaking of joylessness, you can pimp out your crib to include stripper poles — and strippers — but you can’t get a lap dance. What the hell?)

Does this title provide you with as good an open-sandbox experience as Grand Theft Auto IV? No. But finishing second place to a strong contender for game of the year is nothing to be ashamed of — especially when it gives you such a larcenous good time.

· Player and gang customization
· The wanton, pulpy violence

· Slightly repetitive gameplay
· Driving controls are mushy and imprecise