Few video game franchises have been as emulated (and at times downright ripped off) as The Grand Theft Auto series. Much like the Coca Cola recipe and Jimmy Hoffa’s grave, the secret to the success to the “open-ended crime spree experience” game genre inspires (and often times eludes) copycats who churn out watered-down clones of Tommy Vercetti. Saints Row, on the surface, looks to be a dollar store knockoff of Rockstar’s mega hit, but a little investigation (and actually playing it) reveals subtle differences that mark Saints Row’s turf in the video game industry, though it’s unsafe to say how secure the footing is.
Saints Row begins as any crime-infused video game should…by playing dress-up. Yes, while other games start off with the anti-hero breaking from prison or being framed for a murder, Saints Row lets you customize your gangster to make him “yours”. While this may seem arbitrary (as it is in every other video game), your character’s external appearance will weigh into the game play experience. This, coupled with the endless combination options you have with your character, personalize the gaming in a way that GTA hadn’t before (I found it hard to relate to Vercetti’s fashion sense, personally).
The game starts with your fashionable protagonist caught in the crossfire of a vicious gang war (much like GTA San Andreas, sans the ten-speed chase). Julius, voiced by the multi-talented Keith David, asks you to join the 3rd Street Saints, and with that, you begun to lay a can of whoop-ass on the other three games in a surprisingly well-written story of drugs, hookers, and humorless gang violence.
While most games make little effort to separate the various enemies you’ll encounter (ohhhh, these guys have RED hats!), the enemy gangs you will encounter have their own personality. Instead of facing one giant conglomerate of uniformly idiotic enemies, you will have to outsmart and outgun three separate entities.
In any order you wish. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Much like GTA, Saints Row has a system of ensuring that you have a method to your madness. Known in the game as “respect”, SR demands that you fulfill certain in-game requirements before you jump to a different story arc. Annoying and seemingly pointless at first, the “respect” mode allows you to explore all of the minigames in the game, including a mode where you must fake a car accident, and you’re run-of-the-mill “kill everyone in the world” mode. The respect mode helps you plod steadily through the story mode, making sure that you’re erratic leaping from subplot to subplot doesn’t alienate you from the plot (which is surprisingly interesting).
Much like the story, the game play itself is solid, especially the driving. It’s driving and gun-handling can be equivocated to GTA’s (minus the occasional “oops, I tried to shoot the cop but accidentally shot the old lady” moments). However, as easy it is to run people over or gun them down in cold blood, some gamers might find the overwhelming simplicity to it may dampen the fun of the violence (just like the lack of response to running someone over in broad daylight takes the fun out of it). The wide variety of cars you’ll find in the game all handle very well, especially with sharp turns and other things you do when you suddenly realize you’re driving on the wrong side of the road. Much like GTA, Saints Row offers an array of realistic, visually and aurally satisfying weapons. You will inevitably pick a favorite amongst them, but it will really behoove you to try them all for yourself.
The realist appearance and feel of the cars seems a little pointless, given the “lawlessness” of the environments. Much like GTA, there are no traffic laws. Driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding, running red lights…nothing seems to get the cops very interested in your activities. But shoot one of them, and they get all uptight. In fact, the police add an interesting element to streetfights; it’s possible to have your gang, an enemy gang, and the police duking it out in brouhaha. Enemy gangs, much like in Road Rash (bet you thought I was going to make a GTA reference, huh?), will exact revenge on you for agitating their friends. This makes for a lot more killing, which in reality is why you bought the game.
Gang fights are improved with the “homies” that you will often command. Unlike the “bodyguards” of Dynasty Warrior games, these gangsta sidekicks will open fire in every direction the moment trouble starts brewing. When doing drive-bys, you can designate one of your boys to either do the driving or do the shooting (as doing both is a real pain). It’s nice to know you have thugs you can count on.
The bullet magnets that accompany you on your quest isn’t the only thing the game provides you. Unlike other “crime spree” games, the map is more interactive; instead of just showing you where to go, it provides an actual path for you to follow. This is a vast improvement from GTA, where many an aspiring Taxi driver or Vigilante lost money trying to navigate the city. Saints Row also features the “save anywhere” feature, a convenience often reserved only for RPG fanatics. And unlike previous games where your “hideout” consisted of a two-car garage and lots of unused space, Saints Row lets you pack dozens of weapons and vehicles into your casa. This not only makes the game user-friendly, but now you won’t have to start EVERY game with the “all weapons” cheat (you GTAers know who you are).
If that isn’t enough, the game has several Deus Ex Machinas to keep you and your hoodlums alive. Like in Halo 2, your character will regain his life simply by not being shot at for long periods of time. You can keep food with you to replenish your health and in the rare instance one of your computer-controlled friends dies, you can just poor some elixir on him (in Saints Row this is a forty oz beer). On the one hand, this makes your computer allies practically Superman. On the other hand…sometimes you’re just not going to want to spring for that forty oz.
You however, will be no Superman. One of the many glitches of the game is the occasional moment when you will drop dead for no reason (the game isn’t really all that good at giving you feedback on the damage you’re taking). In multiplayer mode, lag is a real problem, as is the general lack of replay value in the multiplayer mode. Ahhhh, the multiplayer mode. A collection of gametypes blatantly stolen from other video games. Along with your standard “objective” games that are repackaged to look ghetto, Saints Row has the “team deathmatch” mode, and a clan system in which you and a gang of your friends can take on other gangs online in various deathmatches. While this seems like a good idea “on paper”, most players online are playing Halo 2 anyway.
Slick and realistically detailed, the city of Stilwater is awfully pretty for being so crime-infested. While the character models aren’t (and in this genre, never will be) anything to write home about, the cars, the weapons, and the city itself are a sight to behold. Take some time out of your regular “run over everyone on a busy sidewalk” routine and take in probably one of the more original aspects of the game.
Well-performed, if not cliched voice acting from the likes of David Carradine and Michael Duncan Clarke helps elevate the validity of the story. Many of the little gags in the game revolve around sound; calling the various cell phone numbers advertised in the city offers some amusement, and doing a thorough search of the city will uncover hidden CD tracks.
Sadly, Saints Row will be subject to the “overdose”. You will play this game without regard of time or other commitments (who needs to shower?) for days on end. And then, for little to no reason, you will take it out of the Xbox 360 and put in another game. This is the fate of all “crime spree” games. At first you’re enraptured by the open-ended gameplay and thrilling storyline. Then you realize you smell like a dead raccoon and have a hankering for Bust-A-Move. Live it up while you can.
An attempt to “Pimp My GTA” that has mixed results. On the one hand, it’s a fresh adaptation on the genre GTA had pioneered so many years ago. It’s innovative, inspired, and easy to lose yourself in. On the other hand, you will spend the entire game (much like I spent the entire review) comparing this game to other games in the genre.