If imitation is the finest form of flattery, the boys at Rockstar must be the brightest shade of red they have ever been. Grand Theft Auto is nothing short of a mass phenomenon that you literally cannot walk down the street without finding a person that hasn’t heard about it. Whether or not you agree with the game’s popularity, no one can deny that Rockstar has the biggest cash cow ever created. Saints Row is the first; of I am sure many, copycats for the next-gen consoles. Developer Volition, mostly known for their work on the Red Faction series for PS2, has taken the basic premise of GTA and brought it into the HD era. The question on everyone’s mind though, is can it stand up to the juggernaut that Rockstar has created.
To be perfectly honest I have never been the biggest fan of GTA, in fact after the third incarnation, which was the first PS2 title for the uninformed, I really felt the series was more interested in adding new content as opposed to correcting the problems with the original formula. This is where Saints Row takes a huge leap forward in the genre. The biggest and definitely best addition is the new FPS style targeting system. You can now maneuver your in-game avatar around the world without worrying about lock-on targeting malfunctions. While it may not sound like much to long-time fans of the GTA series, you will certainly take notice of how much easier it is to execute simple tasks such as drive bys. It is amazing how one small mechanic can completely change the dynamics of a game.
The basic principle of Saints Row is just what you would expect from this sort of sandbox game. If you have never played GTA before, and if so where have you been, the premise revolves around open-ended gameplay mechanics that allow the player to basically choose their own path. Your character can walk, run, drive, and swim anywhere they want all while tackling the missions and side quests at their leisure. Feel like causing a riot? Just whip out your trusty firearm and wreak havoc among the pedestrians. While the basic layout of the game is very familiar Volition has made some great improvements that really take the genre a step further.
The biggest improvement is obviously the aiming system. Tossing aside the atrocious lock-on method used in GTA Volition has decided to adopt the scheme found in most of today’s first-person shooters. This makes missions such as taking out other gang members and simple tasks such as drive-bys much more enjoyable as well as keeping you from getting frustrated for blowing a mission because of shoddy controls. Volition has also revamped the melee controls allowing your character to punch with either fist via the left and right triggers as well as kicking on command by tapping the left bumper. This actually makes hand to hand combat a fun past time with pedestrians and it means when your bullets are depleted you are not left holding the bag.
To compliment the new fighting and shooting controls are a revamped inventory system that makes switching between weapons and items a breeze. Anyone who played Freedom Fighters will instantly recognize the item wheel. Basically you hold down a button and use the analog stick to rotate and pick whatever item or weapon you desire and let go, simple as that. That makes swapping weapons on the fly extremely easy, but it also means you can only carry so many of each type of item at a time. So you will not be the human Swiss Army Knife carrying thirty different pistols around, in fact when you want a new sidearm you will be forced to swap it with whatever one you are currently carrying.
The city of Stilwater is vast; and while not quite as large as San Andreas there are certainly plenty of areas to get lost in. This is another area where Volition has really stepped up to the plate in terms of accessibility. The in-game map is extremely details highlighting all important landmarks and even letting the player mark destination on the map and creating a GPS-type of navigation from point A to point B. This makes navigating the city much easier. You can also find all the current activities on the map along with save locations, hideouts, and story missions.
Most of the missions in Saints Row will seem very familiar to anyone who has traveled the streets of Vice City. There are two main mission types in the game; basic story progression and side activities, both of which earn respect for the player, which in turn can open up new missions to progress the story. Volition does a good job of distributing respect points to a point that forces the player to explore more than the main storyline. The best part is that the side activities are often more fun than the main quest itself. Obscure activities such as Snatch, which has you running from pimp to pimp stealing their hos to simple escort missions that require the player to avoid news vans and the paparazzi as you drive certain clients around town while they do their “business” in the back seat.
The overall agenda in Saints Row is to take over every territory in Stilwater. This will require you to take out all three opposing gangs the Vice Kings, Los Carnales, and the Rollerz. Thankfully you can choose to approach this any way you want. So it really doesn’t affect the story based on who you take out first. It is easier however to only try and take on one gang at a time seeing as how each gang will do a Push Back that will start a gang war trying to retain any territory you have taken from them. These are completely random and it is much easier to handle on as opposed to three simultaneous gangs. The more respect you earn can also garner you other abilities such as having backup for missions. In a familiar fashion to Freedom Fighters again Saints Row allows you to take homies with you on missions. The more respect you earn the more you can have in your crew. By the time all is said and done you can have an army of seven followers all willing to die for you in the streets of Stilwater.
Another great aspect that Volition has implemented is the ability to completely customize your character to your liking. From the outset of the game you are given a rather diverse set of options to mold your gangster however you see fit. Once inside the game and you join the 3rd St. Saints your primary color will be purple and you can actually head to the clothing shop and purchase new threads to deck out your character. If you choose to wear purple you will even earn respect bonus for representing your crew. As you progress through the story and earn more respect new clothes are added to the stores and the possibilities are almost endless. Needless to say Volition has done an amazing job of allowing each gamer to make Saints Row a personal and individual experience.
Probably the biggest addition to the genre that Saints Row brings though is online multi-player. Never before have we been able to take a game like this online, and no 25 To Life does not count! There are quite a few options to be found online and even some inventive modes that take a rather twisted spin on the formula. The first being a straight up deathmatch style called Gangsta Brawl. This mode is the most general and will more than likely end up being the default for most gamers. Then there is Big Ass Chains, which requires players to collect chains from fallen enemies and return them to a base for points. There are also team based events such as Protect Tha Pimp, which has players protecting one sole weaponless player from the other team whose only job is to kill him before he reaches the exit.
The last adversarial mode is called Bling Out Ride, which in my opinion is the most fun and unique online mode in the game. The premise is simple; upgrade your vehicle three times without being blown up, then return it to the rally point. The catch here is that the opposing team is doing the same thing, oh and did I mention that while all of this is going on you also have to find a spot to hide the car, locate the garage to upgrade it, and kill enough of the opposing team to earn chains to pay for the upgrade? While the idea is simple the complex mechanic makes this game really inventive and tons of fun to play, especially with people who know what they are doing.
The last online mode to speak of is co-op. Yes Volition gets points for even attempting it, but you also have to realize that it is not a full-fledged trek through the campaign. Basically there are two type of co-op that gamers can engage in, Mob Rule and Turbulence. In one you run from one end of the level to the other while the other has you transporting items without getting killed. While they are entertaining for a while, most gamers will more than likely grow tired of these missions and return to the traditional adversarial game types. All in all the addition of such a robust online mode really speaks volumes for the replayability of the game. Saints Row supports up to 12 players online, but if you want to enjoy the game with buddies you have to have Xbox Live as no system link or split screen is supported.
The sights and sounds of Saints Row are somewhat of a mixed bag. The high-definition visuals certainly look good on a good set, but they don’t come without some minor issues and weird glitches. For starters the animation is really well done considering the amount of onscreen activity; however I have had my character get locked into stiff animations when exiting cars that make him appear to simply be floating around the world. Saints Row also uses stream loading, which can cause the game to crash from time to time, but it is a truly rare occasion. There is also a substantial amount of draw-in in the world, but not nearly the amount found in previous titles of the like, but it’s still noticeable none the less.
Volition has also opted to use a version of the Havok physics engine which makes for some truly hilarious scenes of carnage. The first time you hit a car head on and watch the opposite driver come crashing through the windshield in a blaze of glory is one of those defining moments in gaming that you simply never get tired of. The rest of the game runs pretty smoothly with only minor hiccups here and there in the frame rate. The lighting and particle effects are truly marvelous and the explosions are some of the best to be seen in the genre.
On the audio side Saints Row is actually pretty top-shelf. The radio stations all contain real music, most of which is pretty obscure but there are a few tracks on there you should recognize, which gives it an almost GTA-feel. The on-air commercials are absolutely hilarious at times, especially the one for Friendly Fire, and I especially like the fact that when you exit a car you can still hear the radio just as if you would in real life. Aside from the music the voice acting is passable with some truly hilarious dialogue to match it. Seriously I cannot remember laughing so hard at some of the lines the game wants you to take seriously, and of course most of the dialogue is certainly not for the younger ears with tons of f-bombs and crude sexual lingo that makes even the most mature gamer blush from time to time.
At the end of the day Saints Row is exactly what Volition set out to do and yet another outstanding addition to the Xbox 360 library. This is the first game to actually challenge GTA for the throne among these types of games and it actually surpasses it on many levels. If Volition can add some of the newer features that GTA has spawned over its three incarnations they certainly have a hit on their hands. Add that to the fact that they already have a solid online component and you have a sure-fire hit that 360 gamers are sure to enjoy for months to come. If you are searching for something new and fun to enjoy on your Xbox 360 look no further than the streets of Stilwater; grab a copy of Saints Row today and become the virtual gangsta you were born to be!