If THQ has their way, you'll be playing the Volition-developed Saint's Row. It's more Vice City than San Andreas, probably owing at least in part to having entered development before SA's release. Volition, of course, developed one of the better console third-person shooters in The Punisher, and Saint's Row uses very similar controls and an engine that also feels very similar for the shooting and on-foot portions of the game. It also incorporates Havok ragdoll physics in much the same way, along with new sets of physics specifically to reflect wrecking and exploding cars in the game's driving sequences.
Saint's Row has a certain refreshing simplicity as sandbox games go, coupled with a truly enormous city map full of cars to steal, people to harass, and random thugs to show you how much or how little they think of you. It's the genre boiled down to its essentials, given a thorough dose of hip-hop lifestyle in the music and design departments, and rendered in unusually beautiful fashion on the Xbox 360. Saint's Row lets you explore, develop your character, and complete missions without demanding that you worry about things like what you eat or how much you work out. Instead, Saint's Row focuses purely on the urban thug-life-as-power fantasy, with touches of GTA's tongue-in-cheek humor to help enliven the proceedings. Still, a lot of the game has a more straight-faced feel to it than GTA, and perhaps a more open acceptance of the "thug life" lifestyle as idealized in countless rap songs.
When you first pick up Saint's Row, it's impossible not to notice how attractive the graphics are. Once again, this is probably due to the title's gameplay resemblance to the GTA titles, which never managed more than utilitarian visuals. In contrast, Saint's Row is the sort of game where you can make out the weave of your protagonist's shirt and count the hairs in his cornrows. This is coupled with an extraordinarily large city area to explore and an extremely robust character creator that you use both for creating the main character of the single-player game and your online avatar. It's not quite at Oblivion levels of complexity, but it comes shockingly close despite being simple enough to let you create a character that feels unique in about 10 minutes. You can customize hair color, eye color, facial structure, hairstyle, skin tone, and even structural details like eye placement and ear position using very sensitive sliders. Your body customization options are more limited, but happily, you can opt to manage your character's amount of body fat in addition to muscle mass. You can only play as a male character, unfortunately, but I guess some of the mini-games would seem a bit too weird conducted by a female avatar.
The actual gameplay takes GTA's mission-oriented structure and strips away a lot of the action-movie influences to create something with less narrative but more freedom in terms of gameplay. From the start of the game in Saint's Row, your entire city is unlocked and you can go wherever you like. Early missions are simply about acquiring basics like membership in the 3rd Street Saints, a crib, some hos, and a gun for shooting people in the face with. It's wisest to stick with the early missions as a sort of tutorial, but you're also free to skip around, explore, and do whatever between missions. Controls for the game are extremely simple and thoroughly explained in the single-player mode's tutorial missions, and easy enough for any GTA veteran to figure out.
As you explore the city, you can steal cars to add to you personal collection simply by driving them to your garage, and acquire a large variety of guns by buying them or stealing them from defeated rivals. Ammunition is unfortunately limited, though, so you have to make every shot count. You also have access to a handy map of the city that lets you get driving directions to any activity or other location you need to get to at the moment, sort of an interactive Google Maps for your fictional home. Missions are primarily about increasing your main character's wealth and personal standing via interactions with other gangs and the cops, who are far from the invincible hammer of law they can feel like in GTA proper. Saint's Row police tend to come off as just another gang, if perhaps a slightly persistent one. You can evade the cops pretty easily even at low levels, and tend only to get killed if you stupidly hang around an area and let cop cars and choppers pile up on you. If you have grenades or a rocket launcher, you can easily pick them out of the sky.
The realistic graphics and emphasis on character customization go a long way toward enhancing Saint's Row's major gameplay element that GTA completely lacks: online multiplayer. Characters can use money amassed in the main game to build a customized avatar for online play that, ideally, shouldn't look like anyone else's. You primarily customize your character, aside from the usual body modification options, through their wardrobe and tattoos. Saint's Row offers perhaps the greatest in-game wardrobe ever conceived, including garish fedoras, feathered pimp hats, massive furry pimp coats, pinstripe suits, and rapper-style urban gear. Your character will be gunning down rival thugs and gangs in personal style that is nearly unprecedented in the world of sandbox games or "hip-hop lifestyle" titles.
You'll definitely be more fabulous than any FPS character ever, even though Saint's Row implements slightly urban-flavored variants of most of the classic FPS multiplayer mini-games. The most basic is a deathmatch in a crowded warehouse map, but you can also fight in team battles. Some missions are competitive in a more indirect fashion. There is, for instance, a ride-pimping mission that calls for your team to gather money, use it to bling out your car, and then safely escort it to a certain location to show it off before the rival gang can do the same. Capture the Flag fuses with escort missions to create a deeply hilarious game mode called "Protect the Pimp." This calls for one gang to escort their brightly colored pimp across the city while the other gang has to try to kill him. Finally, there is the hilariously-named Big Ass Chains, which puts us in mind of that sequence from I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, where the guy suffocates to death under the weight of his own gold chains. Basically, one character starts with a gold chain that can be sold for points. If you kill another guy, you can take his gold chain and sell them both for points. The more chains you get back to the jewelry store, the more points you can get for selling them, but if you die, you lose all of your chains.
Aside from the various competitive modes, there's also a co-op multiplayer mode. An example level paired up two characters against a horde of cops in an airport, and had some rather grueling play requirements. When either character died, they respawned at the beginning of the level and had to catch up to their partner. This meant that if any half of the team played badly, both players would begin rapidly losing ground to the cops. Overall, this particular mission was very simple and high on the mindless violence, but still quite satisfying as far as carnage goes.
Saint's Row is basically about delivering the sandbox genre with an emphasis on the two elements that type of game has consistently failed to deliver regularly, both high-quality graphics and multiplayer gameplay modes. The hip-hop trappings are a bit of a concession to a current game design fad, but there's still a solid game underneath that can appeal to anyone regardless of their taste in fashion. The next real step in the evolution of the sandbox genre has to be moving these massive interactive cities online, and with the Live-enabled multiplayer functions it includes, Saint's Row is becoming one of the first major steps in that direction. It's also, frankly, one of about the only sandbox titles a 360 owner can possibly play on their favorite next-gen system right now. The question with Saint's Row isn't whether or not it'll be successful – there's almost no way it can't be – but exactly what sort of road it's about to lead the sandbox genre down. Whatever it is, 360 gamers are likely going to be happy to follow.
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