Consider this part two in an ongoing editorial series. Part 1 was on Trying to Live in a Dead City and I promised examples of cool theoretical gameplay, largely focused on interesting virtual urban geography. I haven't forgot that, but I wanted to briefly tangent.
On something of a whim (and a Best Buy sale) I picked up a copy of Volition's Saint's Row. Saint's Row is Volition's attempt to "pimp out" the GTA formula. It doesn't add anything major, it simply is an iterational evolution of the formula. So far, however, it has been much stickier for me than any GTA game I've tried. Volition has been a company I've built a lot of respect for, largely thanks to the FreeSpace games, and Saint's Row doesn't disappoint my expectations from them.
First of all, one of the obvious changes is to the urban geography. Certainly the buildings and city "life signs" are as frozen in a mystical "single point in time" as GTA, but the game makes up for it at least a little bit by overlaying the concept of gang control. The game has 5 gangs and each has its niche within the urban geography, nicely overlayed on the game's maps. This territorial control changes hands over the course of the game through player missions and semi-random "push backs". Territory changes might not imply as much as I would hope, but it does make some types of impacts such as the probability of seeing particular cars on the road and people in particular colors on the sidewalks.
The key to Saint's Row for me, though, is the game takes itself much less seriously than GTA. It is loaded with satire and bad puns. Every character is a stereotype; "all" of the women are "hos" and "all" the guys are "stupid gang members". The story plays like a gang movie might and there is plenty of character development amongst the major story characters (many of whom have great voice acting work), but the game makes no apologies for its cookie cutter random spawns and the stereotypes they are patterned off, often turning it on its head into a source of satire and amusement. It's obvious that as close as the fictional Stilwater sometimes seems like a real East Coast city (it is located somewhere near I-95 and contains an I-365 spur), it is a self-ironic over-stereotype of a city and couldn't actually exist. (Whereas GTA's cities pretentiously pretend to be real cities, but lack any sort of physical connection to the actual country other than through looking glass replicas of facets of major American cities.)
A quick example of the sometimes subtle self-referential humor of the product is the "nameless main character" (the italicized "he" in my roommate and my design analysis discussions). The game provides a good amount of customization ability, and the main character is whatever you "make him". My roommate's guy is very different, with a different approach to the city, than my own guy. To keep from breaking the illusion of "that's my avatar" the game refrains from giving him much in the way of a voice or too much time on screen performing scripted actions. This leads to something of a cool, quiet, dangerous feel to the character. It also provides fodder for some subtle self-referential humor. In one cut scene after being pestered by questions on a plan by another character a character nods to him and says, "Why can't you be like my man here and ask fewer questions?". Other playful oppurtunities show up for reference to this "Silent Bob" act.