Anybody out there like Grand Theft Auto? It's understandable if a few of you didn't quite dig it and decided not to buy it, but frankly, Rockstar was too busy selling millions of copies of their sandbox action/adventure game and rolling around in the subsequent mountains of money the series made to really care. It was only a matter of time before developers began to dissect and study GTA in order to replicate its critical and commercial success, and replicate they did. Most of the clones turned out to be small, mutated freaks that were a joke compared to their forebear (True Crime, I'm looking at you). Well, Volition did their homework with Saints Row, copying Grand Theft Auto in so many ways it has to be a crime in itself, but it also fine-tunes the formula in a few ways that are going to make you never want to go back to GTA unless Rockstar follows in Volition's footsteps for a change.
After beginning a new game, the first order of business is creating your character. The character creation tools at your disposal are borderline Oblivion in the sense that you're able to adjust the most minute details of your avatar's body to your liking (not so much in the sense that you can be an orc or lizard man). After that, the story of your silent protagonist begins. The gist of it is that there are four gangs fighting for control of the city of Stilwater: Los Carnales, the West Side Rollerz, the Vice Kings, and the 3rd Street Saints. After being caught in the crossfire of three of the gangs while walking the streets of Stilwater one night, Julius and Troy from the Saints save you and invite you to join them in helping clean up Stilwater. What follows are a few introductory missions to help you get squared away with Saints Row's controls and objectives. After that, it's all up to you to decide how you want to proceed.
The flow of Saints Row is this: Earn respect by performing various "activities" or by wasting rival gang members. Your respect meter is located beneath your health and stamina meters, and when it's full, it's time to tackle one of the game's story missions. Each one will have you working with one of the lieutenants of the 3rd Street Saints to take down a specific rival gang. Mission objectives are pretty diverse, ranging from masquerading as a rival gang leader's limo driver in order to find the location of a captured Saint and free him, to killing all of the red dots on your radar. Now is as good of a time as any to mention one of the features of Saints Row that improves on GTA: the waypoint marker. The waypoint marker is a dotted line shows you the fastest way to get to your next objective on the mini-map. If you miss the street it tells you to turn on, the marker is dynamic and will change your route based on your current position. No more constantly pausing and checking your map to make sure you're on the right track, which will save you as much as it did me.
Successfully completing a mission will earn you a piece of that gang's turf, which will add to the total amount of money you can collect in a day. That's not to say that that gang is going to be entirely thrilled with you taking over their turf, so expect turf wars to spring up fairly often. When a turf war begins, a Saint will call you on a cell phone and let you know that a particular part of Stilwater is under attack and they need your help to hold their ground. Upon arriving in the contested area, your map will display the location of a certain number of rival gang lieutenants that need to be taken care of before you can quell this little rebellion. They're not the only rival gang members that need whacking, though; turf wars are extremely chaotic, with dozens of Saints running around and fighting their own battles with as many other gang members. If you don't play it smart, you are extremely vulnerable to having an entire van of well-armed, disaffected youth riding up behind you and showing you how highly you're thought of in their circle.
But why, oh why do those wide-eyed Westside Rollerz want to put you six feet under so very, very badly? It's Saints Row's notoriety system, and it essentially functions like the stars in Grand Theft Auto. Of course, instead of just having the police crawling all over you, it dictates the behavior of the other gangs towards you, too. As far as what will fire up the gangs, wasting any of them will get the job done. As for the cops, do something, you know, criminal: plow through pedestrians in a pick-up truck, assault innocent bystanders, etc. Luckily, Forgive and Forget drive-thru confessionals are there to wipe away any notoriety you might have accumulated, for a fee, of course. You also have the option of going with Image by Design, a chain of plastic surgery clinics. Besides wiping your notoriety clean, Image by Design will let you change any part of your character, or just scrap the whole thing and go with a brand new look.
Remember those "activities" that I mentioned earlier? It's high time I went a little more in-depth with them. Activities are side missions that will raise your respect meter the fastest. There's a wide range of them for you to partake in, so I'll just mention some of my favorites. First off is insurance fraud, which has you throwing yourself in front of fast-moving traffic to try and get a lawsuit out of it. By pulling the left and right triggers together, you'll cause your character to take a fake dive, during which he'll be invulnerable to damage as he careens through the air after being smashed by a delivery truck. This activity really shows off the Havok physic engine. There are many others, such as mayhem, the chop shop, destruction derby, hitman, escort, and snatch. No matter what your play style is, there'll be something to suit your needs.
One of the greatest triumphs of Saints Row is actually its controls. Thanks to free-look aiming, the on-foot segments feel more like a third-person shooter than anything in GTA ever did, which really adds to the fun factor, as it is so much easier to manage all of the enemies that can come at you at once with free-look than having to lock on to them. Pressing the B button brings up the radial weapon select menu, allowing you to jump right to the weapon you need without having to cycle through everything. Since each weapon type (fist, melee, pistol, SMG, shotgun, rifle, rockets, and thrown) occupies its own specific direction on the analog stick, it won't be long before you go to the weapon naturally, without even thinking about it. Finally, putting the sprint button on the right bumper feels like a more natural choice than the face button.
Driving in Stilwater is great. The cars all have different handling and acceleration, as they should. The biggest difference is that you can still fire your pistol, SMG, or rifle while driving a car and can do so with the targeting reticule, so, if you can manage it, it allows for more accuracy then your typical drive-by. Remember how when you got in to jack a car from the driver's side in GTA and the passenger sometimes wouldn't get out and would scream their lungs out until you slowed down and they could get out? Well, I clearly do, and luckily, you can reap some benefit from it now, thanks to the hostage mini-game. Anytime you get into a car and there's at least one person still in it, you can activate the hostage mini-game where you have to both evade the increasingly dedicated police and keep up a high enough speed so your hostage doesn't bail. Do this for long enough, and your captive will fork over some cash in exchange for their release, a neat little idea that doesn't go unnoticed.
Graphically, the game looks great. Thanks to the X360's horsepower, Stilwater feels like a real city. Its inhabitants are diverse in their appearance, from the heavy-set meter maids to the hunched-over old men with walkers who dare to step onto the streets. Cars glisten in the sunlight, assuming that they're not rusted over pieces of scrap or pick-up trucks caked in mud. The tiniest dents and dings show up on the bodies of all of the cars, so it goes without saying that when they inevitably blow up, it looks real pretty. Honestly, I spent a lot of time just blowing up cars for the sake of seeing the flames. Some games tout their realistic water, but Saints Row has some of the best explosions and fire I've yet to see.
While the characters in Saints Row have a bit of a cartoonish look about them (including some rather annoying light bloom), their vocabulary is anything but. Just like the game it emulates, Saints Row wears its M rating as a badge of honor, with no subject too taboo. It helps, then, that they have good voice actors behind them: Michael Clarke Duncan, Keith David, Michael Rapaport, and Daniel Dae Kim, to name a few. The game is also chock-full of music to suit any taste. Rap? Got it. Rock? Got it. Classical? You bet. There's nothing so gangsta that it couldn't be made more so than by doing it with "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker playing in the background.
Saints Row has an online multiplayer mode that's fairly unremarkable, despite some interesting game modes. For instance, one mode has a team escorting a pimp (who's unarmed but has a deadly slap attack) to safety while the opposing team attempts to kill him. Another involves trying to upgrade your cars before the other team, and there are also deathmatch and team-deathmatch modes. I played both before and after the patch, so I can say that the patch does address many of the issues, but I'm not reviewing the patch, I'm reviewing the multiplayer portion of the game that shipped, which was pretty laggy, and despite its shooter-like controls, not all that great.
Saints Row borrows from the GTA series to a fault, but luckily, it seems to be the first game to do that right. As long as you go into the game expecting Grand Theft Auto 3.5, you'll really enjoy it. At the very least, it's the best-looking and -playing open-world game this side of Oblivion on the X360 right now, so how can you go wrong, really?
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