Putting the GTA series aside, this is the by far the best open world sandbox game you can possibly get
Let's get a negative out the way straight off, shall we? The graphics aren't great, but it succeeds in a certain level of mediocrity in all areas except a few key ones that really do make for some cinematic fights. Fire's nice, explosions are really quite pretty, and cars exploding (especially anything without a roof)) give off such a satisfying pyrotechnical display of metal and ragdolls. Models are a bit simple, but the sheer variety you can put into your character (more on that later) is actually quite nice.
Compared to GTA 4? A number of critics rightfully called the graphics of GTA 4 a lesser component on the games overall presentation. Large areas, plenty of stuff going on at once which is handled well but this restricts the ability to make the game as great looking as games with smaller areas released around the same time. Similar can be said for Saints Row 2, but one thing definitely bugged me, and thus caused the score to lower. You look down a road on this game, you see three cars approaching, you look away, then turn back.
Three cars are suddenly replaced with a car and a truck.
This game loses local vehicles when offscreen. Annoying as it is, it has deeper repercussions, which entail occasional game effecting scenarios, as you could be looking for a way out in a gunfight, quickly turn around to check for a car to steal, find someone's run up to you and proceeds to unload a shotgun round into your back. You turn and shoot him, look for that car again, it's gone, you then take longer to find a way out, you get shot to death by the dearly departed guys angry friends. This won't happen frequently, but it's enough to bug you on occasion.
A huge fan of music, so I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say, there's pretty much a radiostation for all tastes, and you can set your own playlist from the soundtrack. I pretty much went through the entire game listening to a radio-station called The Mix, which is filled with 80's music....right up my alley. I was pleasantly surprised when your character will actually start singing along to certain tracks, which I thought was an awesome touch. I also found it entertaining to note that there's a particular lack of rap compared to rock, punk and various subgenres.
Voices are decent, I was glad to see numerous characters in the game reprising their roles, even for very few lines (won't go further into detail than that). There's a number of references to other games (namely the Metal Gear Solid series) and some plain funny deliveries, and I never noticed any real examples of poor lines or actors. The guns sound appropriate, although the two types of basic pistol sound a bit weak. Back on the line of music, on a late note, and falling into my love of small details, you can hear car radios outside of the cars.... love that stuff.
So you were blown to kingdom come in the first game. That would be a spoiler for the first game, only this game pretty much throws it in your face straight away on this one, so no point keeping it under cover. You wake up in prison after a lengthly coma, fresh appearance which doubles as your customisation segment, and have to escape with the help of a relative of a former 9th Street Saints gang member who heard you were in there. Apon escaping, you discover the Saints Row region has been taken over by a large corporation into a skyscraper-laden bureaucratic region, and the Saints themselves have disbanded.
Suffice to say, your first step and mission apon leaving prison is to save a former liutenant, Johnny Gat, from the electric chair and the pair of you then proceed to try and bring the Saints back together to rule the city. It's nothing special, but it's all well enough done. There are some likable characters, some nicely done scenes and it all works well. It's a limited story but it's done well enough.
GTA 4, I felt, had a more heartfelt affair, which this game certainly isn't, but it is a fun story at least.
Oh yeah. Some games are praised for doing something really well, this game is receiving praise for doing LOTS of things well. Between sidegames involving coating regions of the city in faeces to lower land value, to mauling people over litter-dropping, to throwing crazed fans of celebrities into the path of incoming trains for cash, there's a ton to do. I was half-way through the game before I actually uncovered all the unknown activity symbols on the map, and each one you uncover is a guaranteed 30 minutes of something to do. Some you might not like, true, but the sheer selection is astounding.
No frequent phonecalls here, no calls for going out drinking from friends, just you, your story missions, racing, fight club and a ton of other things that are both on and off the map. You can car-surf (something I loved doing on GTA:SA) and earn rewards for doing it, and that's just one of many things that are strictly off the map. Hell, you can dive out of a moving plane and skydive as a part time activity. The only annoyance I could find was the occasional turf war that appears on one of the areas you've taken over. All this does is stop you earning money when you enter this region, and you'll get attacked when entering it, so it's probably a good idea to deal with it by taking out the invading gangs leaders, but it's not too bad.
You're tough enough in this game to forgive the lack of an auto-aim. Some may find that annoying, but frankly, I prefer having my choice of whether I miss or not. Like many modern games, you regenerate health after a period of taking no damage, but you can still store 4 food items from various fast-food spots around the city for an instant boost. There's clothes to buy, both a gun and a melee weapon store which you can ironically buy from then rob, and if you get bored with your appearance, build or sex, all are changeable for a measly $500. Missions and activities give you respect, which you need in order to unlock further story missions.
Like before, you get a bonus to respect for your attire. It's a bit more easy going on this one in that you have a constant amount that goes up the more clothing, cars, car mods, 'bling' and the like. Makes it easier to find an activity, complete it and earn enough respect for a few more missions, which'll no doubt send you across the map to find more. It feels like an unintended system, but it works well. Only a few activities, based on off-main-landmass islands might take you to really go out of your way to find them, but there's enough around to easily complete the game without even touching those islands.
The cars run a bit more arcade-ish, a bit more San Andreas feel as compared to the route GTA 4 took, where cars had a fairly heavy feel to them, which is far more realistic than they're presented here. Planes, motorcycles, boats, and cars and trucks. There's a smattering of properties to buy to live in, and as you progress through the game, and take over sections of the city (through story missions and enemy gang strongholds), you gain the ability to buy businesses for various amounts. These give you a steady, daily income which you collect from your 'crib' (or cribs if you buy more), and you can also upgrade said cribs too.
Hand to hand has been nicely improved. You can block and punch as before, only now you get charged attacks by holding a button, special attacks by landing three consecutive strikes, and you can not only hold people as a shield, but you can execute them OR throw them into cars, into other people, and off buildings. Not to mention you unlock combat styles as you complete gang missions.
Missions where you're forced to protect or accompany allies are noticeably easier than the norm, as you can resurrect allies so long as you reach them in the time limit, and they aren't too frequent, and they share your health regeneration.
I could go on, but I'm pretty sure I've given the minimum, at least, of what you need to know to get this game for its gameplay mechanics alone.