Saints Row is hardly the first game to attempt to capitalize on the success of the Grand Theft Auto series. In the past few years we have seen True Crime, NARC, The Getaway, Driv3r, and even The Simpsons: Hit & Run. For the most part, these open-ended games pale in comparison to what Rockstar is doing and are usually not worth spending the time to talk about them. But Saints Row is a different story, it manages to get all of the elements right and is the best game of its type on the Xbox 360.
If you've played any of the Grand Theft Auto games then Saints Row is going to be familiar territory. It tells a story of man who is nearly killed in a gang shoot out that works his way up to becoming one of the most important players in the city. This time around the city is Stilwater, a fictional metropolis full of crime, deviance, crooked cops and great radio stations. You can carjack any vehicle in the game, kill innocents with dozens of weapons and play quite a few interesting side missions, all while doing your part to get the city under your gang's control.
You start off the game by choosing what you want your character to look like. You can choose his ethnicity (Caucasian, African American, Asian or Hispanic), his hair, body type and a whole bunch of other crazy options, ultimately crafting him into a character you can be proud of. You will also be able to buy what seems to be thousands of clothing items, jewelry, tattoos and more. The customizability in the game is impressive and can really give the protagonist some personality.
It won't take long for your character to get in the middle of a whole lot of action. You team up with the 3rd Street Saints, a rag tag group of criminals headed by Julius (played by Halo 2's own Keith David). Three other gangs are giving the 3rd Street Saints trouble, so it's your job to do whatever it takes to extinguish their presence in Stilwater. The three gangs (the Vice Kings, Westside Rollerz and Los Carnales) each have their own story arcs and a cool cast of characters. As you shoot your way through the game's missions you will start to see how this all ties together, creating a fascinating story from beginning to end.
Part of what makes Saints Row's story so convincing is the high quality voice work done by popular Hollywood actors. Along the way you will run into characters voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile), Mila Kunis ("That 70s Show"), David Carradine (Kill Bill vol. 2), Michael Rapaport (The Mighty Aphrodite), Tia Carrere (Wayne's World), Freddy Rodriguez ("Six Feet Under"), and Daniel Dae Kim ("Lost"). Although there are a few dopey lines, the writing in Satins Row is actually pretty sharp, and the characters are all a lot of fun to watch.
Besides doing the story missions, a big chunk of your time in Saints Row will be spent trying to capture all 36 districts for the 3rd Street Saints. While some of these districts will flip as you progress through the story, a lot of them require you to actually start a gang fight in that district which will involve a whole lot of killing. You can access the map of Stilwater at any time to see what locations you already control and figure out what you want to do next. This map will also show you where your next story mission is and where all the activities are located.
One thing that sets Saints Row apart from the rest of the Grand Theft Auto wannabes is that it actually forces you to play the side quests. When you complete a side quest (or activity, as they are called here) you will get respect points. Get enough respect points and your meter will fill up and allow you to continue your quest to take over Stilwater. Forcing us to perform these short (and often very simple) is kind of a pain, but it shouldn't get in your way of having a good time. There's a nice variety of activities to do in the city limits of Stilwater, including a few mini games that are new to the genre.
While the game has a few activities you will no doubt recognize from the Grand Theft Auto games (such as tracking down cars and returning them to a chop shop), the developers have gone out of their way to give us some cool variations on the theme. One of the most interesting mini games is Insurance Fraud, where you do everything you can to purposely get hit by cars to rack up money from the driver. The more times you get hit the more money you will get, which actually requires you to device some pretty interesting strategies for deliberately getting into an accident.
There are also activities where you have to protect a drug dealer as they drive around town delivering their product, race other vehicles and even one that involves you getting stuck in the middle of a demolition derby. Perhaps the hardest activity has you acting as a hired hitman going around and trying to kill a specific person with a specific weapon. This is especially difficult because you don't know where they are and when they will be walking (or driving) around town. This requires a lot of patience and several hours of your time.
While Saints Row is a next generation game, it ends up feeling more like Grand Theft Auto III than any of the more recent entries in the series. For one thing, your character barely says anything at all (I counted about three lines of dialog throughout the entire game), he just shakes his head and does what he is told. You are also limited in what kind of vehicles you can drive, as there are no motorcycles, boats, helicopters or airplanes. You are also stuck in a big city with no hope of escaping. One of the best things about San Andreas was the world outside of the three major cities, the forests and deserts and mountains. In Saints Row you won't see anything like that; it's pretty much all pavements, buildings and bridges. That's not to say that Stilwater is boring, but it's nowhere near as interesting as Vice City or San Andreas.
The game's story missions will also feel familiar to anybody who has played a Grand Theft Auto game. There are plenty of missions that have you driving people around, a few where you have to shoot up an entire building, and some that require you to use stealth in order to gain the upper hand. That's not to say that these missions are boring, because they aren't, there are a lot of missions that will have you on the edge of your seat. But at the same time you can't help but feel like you've been here before.
Believe it or not, the game is actually extremely easy to play through. For the most part you will always have enough ammo to get the job done, and even if you don't you can pick up weapons dropped by your fallen enemies. You also won't need to worry about your health very often, if you get shot all you need to do is hang back and wait for your life bar to fill itself up again. If you are impatient then you can chow down on some fast food, which, despite all evidence to the contrary, actually gives you life in this game. And if you need them, you can recruit up to three extra gang members to help you get through a mission. These extra gang members are especially helpful when you're trying to shoot through a lot of enemies, something that ends up happening more frequently towards the end of the game. Don't worry too much about these helpers dying, if they do pass away all you need to do is run up to them and pour a 40 oz beer on them and they will be magically resurrected.
What makes Saints Row so good is how well everything works in the game. There are a lot of little things that don't seem very important, but when you put them all together they end up making all the difference between this and all the lesser Grand Theft Auto clones. For example, when you are being chased it's to your benefit to kill the driver so that the vehicle is dead in the water. You will also find that the driving mechanics in the game are top notch; you will rarely get into trouble because of a car's bad handling. And instead of dealing with an auto aim system, you will actually control the aiming much like you would in a first-person shooter. This holds true for the driving sequences, where you can aim in every direction regardless of what is going on. The action in Saints Row is very well done and even outdoes the mighty Grand Theft Auto in a few instances.
Beyond the interesting aiming system, Saints Row does offer a few small innovations that I hope to see in all future games in the genre. One of the coolest aspects of the game doesn't affect the game play at all; it's the ability to hear what other cars are listening to when you are on foot. It adds a lot of atmosphere to hear a car drive up and have slightly muffled music playing from inside another person's vehicle. Speaking of vehicles, the garage at your hide out can now hold more than one vehicle at a time. In fact, every time you put a vehicle into your garage it is stored for the rest of the game; you can access it at any time, which is actually a pretty good idea as far as I'm concerned.
I also appreciate that the game gives you a GPS device that points out where you need to go in any given situation. This keeps you from having to constantly pause the game and look at the map to figure out which road you'll need to turn on, this is the type of innovation that I would like to see in future Grand Theft Auto games. Granted these things don't do much to change the game play, but it's nice to see the developers trying a few new things as they shamelessly mimic one of the best selling video game franchises of all time.
Speaking of audio, Saints Row comes with a whole lot of cool radio stations. There are twelve different stations to choose from, including a rock station, a hip hop channel, a station that plays nothing but classical music and of course a Fox News-like talk radio channel called WMD KBOOM FM. As you can imagine the radio stations have a lot of licensed music, including tracks from Afghan Whigs, Ratt, Local H, Motion City Soundtrack, Tupac Shakur, Jet, Fall Out Boy, Great White De La Soul, Jane's Addiction, Three 6 Mafia, Iggy Pop and even Alex Empire (of cult favorite Atari Teenage Riot). The tracks are a bit more obscure than what we got in recent Grand Theft Auto games, but you shouldn't hold that against this fantastic soundtrack.
And the fantastic presentation doesn't stop there; the graphics are just as good as the soundtrack. While this isn't the best looking game on the Xbox 360, it is a major step up from what we've already seen in the genre. The lighting effects are fantastic and the character designs are all pretty solid, with only a few pieces of clothing that look bad. As day turns into night you can see the shadows changing in real time, which is just one of the cool effects in the game. And for the most part you will not run into any slow downs.
You will have to deal with some ugly glitches, though. Like all games of its type, Saints Row has a few graphical problems that range from simply annoying to downright frustrating. You've seen most of these glitches before, including roads (and textures) that will disappear for no reason and characters that get stuck in the backgrounds. I never ran into a glitch that I couldn't overcome, but it's unfortunate to see that these kinds of problems haven't been ironed out in the past five years.
But Saints Row is more than just a solid action game; it also offers you some multiplayer options that helps set it apart from the rest of the crowd. The game supports both Xbox Live online play and system link, giving players a chance to bring twelve people into a room and fighting it out. While there are a number of different modes, most of them are pretty similar to what you get in your typical first-person shooter. You will get both deathmatch and team deathmatch, both of which involve you running around a closed in location and trying to kill as many people as you possibly can. Another mode is Big Ass Chains, where you kill people to steal their chains and then drop them off on the map. Another mode has you escorting a pimp to safety, this involves one team helping the pimp and the other team doing everything they can to take him out. These modes are all fun, but I had the best time with the co-op mode that has you teaming up with another friend to take out dozens of computer-controlled enemies. Unfortunately there are only two co-op levels to play through, which gives off the impression that this mode was more of an afterthought than anything.
There are a few problems that need to be ironed out with the online mode, though. For one thing the lag is outrageous. Nearly every game I played (regardless of the size) was riddled with lag, resulting in you shooting at people that aren't there and you dying for absolutely no reason. You can get most of these modes in other games without dealing with the terrible lag, so I found myself wondering why I was even bothering playing Saints Row online. Another problem I had was that there weren't enough levels to run around in online, you get a few arenas that are actually pretty boring. It's worth noting that the graphics seem to take a hit when you go online, a lot of the background textures look a lot worse online than they do when you're playing the single player campaign. I'm sure there is fun to be had in the online Saints Row, but I came away feeling like it was just tacked on at the last second and not something they put enough time into.
While it's hard to call Saints Row original, this is the best Grand Theft Auto-type game I've played in a long time. It has great controls, a cool story and enough extra stuff to keep you busy for a good twenty to thirty hours. If this is the start of a franchise then THQ has a good foundation to work from. Unfortunately I found myself feeling like I had been here before. But with Grand Theft Auto IV a full year away, Saints Row is a solid action game that will keep you going from beginning to end.