It's easy to label something as a Grand Theft Auto clone, and there is usually only one requirement for it; the game tries to be GTA but it sucks. A fair number have come out in recent years, but none have managed to touch the success of that particular franchise. With Saint's Row, the formula is being tested again, but there is something about the game that puts it on the same level as the heralded GTA series.
Saints Row starts pretty abruptly; you play as a new member of the 3rd Street Saints, one of four gangs that are fighting for territory in the fictional city of Stilwater. After a rather uneasy beginning, complete with overdone speech and character introductions that seem rather forced, things settle down into a surprisingly entertaining and well written story. The goal is to take over the city, taking control of areas that are currently run by other gangs. Each gang has its own distinct look and favored vehicles, and the main characters are pretty believable.
Much like Grand Theft Auto, Saint's Row has many of the same trappings: you've got your store where you can buy your different weapons, a store to change up your appearance, the ability to jack cars, rough up people on the streets, plastic surgery, etc. Though the games share many of the same elements, Saint's Row features a few new tricks, such as being able to recruit your fellow gang members to join you on a mission and the obvious one the ability to play on Xbox Live.
Saint's Row will follow you and your posse as you rise up the ranks, earning respect by doing activities across the city or taking down rival gangs. Respect is actually the name of the game, because without respect, you can't advance through the story. Told through in-game cinematics, the cutscenes feature a whole array of characters.
The missions of Saint's Row range in variety; gathering prostitutes from other pimps to bring to another one, taking out rival gang members, heading to the local hideout to take down a crime boss, smuggling drugs, robbing liquor stores, etc. Beyond the missions, since the game is built as a giant urban sandbox, you can make your own fun in the game. If you want to jump on the hood of a car and go surfing, you can do it. If you want to mug people off the street for money, you can do it. If you want to practice running from the police, you can do it. If you want to take pipe bombs and watch the lovely explosionswell you get the idea.
The most impressive inclusion, and something that GTA doesn't feature, is the map. Ok, so GTA has a map, but not like the map in Saints Row. By setting a waypoint on the map you not only get a general direction of where to go, but a dynamically changing route. This is shown on the mini-map in the corner of the screen and makes high-speed chases far more manageable than in other games. It might be a little odd that the cops, S.W.A.T, police helicopters and more seemingly forget about your sins when you cross into a blue target circle, but finding it is never an issue. You can easily find shops, activity locations, and save points, too, not that you need to find a save point as the game lets you save your progress wherever you are.
What game would be complete these days without a fully featured character creation tool, and Saints Row's lets you tweak all manner of different facial and body features. You can also buy new clothes - which actually have an impact on the game - and your cars can be 'pimped' out to look 'sweet' and perform better too. Your garage also doubles as a handy store for your better cars, and your crib holds stashes of cash and weapons. Rounding off a rather complete and lengthy 20 hours + single-player campaign are an awful lot of achievements that really make you work for the points, and like many Xbox 360 games, dish out a fair number through the online portion of the game.
Volition have included support for up to twelve players over Xbox Live or System Link, and while it feels a little tacked on, the multiplayer component can be a lot of fun. Unsurprisingly, all the game modes are distinctly gang themed, so you get modes that ask you to escort a pimp, take other players' chains, and upgrade cars as quickly as possible, all while under fire from the enemy. Of course, there's also a standard deathmatch and team deathmatch mode. Sadly, these online games are played in enclosed areas, and don't make use of the same free-roaming city seen in the single-player game. An unexpected bonus, though, comes in the form of co-op missions. Two players can get together to fend off rival gang members, and these point towards what a true online gang warfare game could deliver.
Saint's Row features some gorgeous explosive effects; go to the local gun store, load up on pipe bombs, then find the nearest car and let the good times roll, or more accurately blow up into the air and come crashing down to the street. The explosion itself is a sight to see itself, but the really nice touch is watching the car rip apart and watching debris as it flies by; if you stay too close to the carnage, there is a good chance a hunk of debris or a flying tire just might head your way and knock you down (trust meI know). When several cars explode side by side, and you slowly walk away, only to have the whole chassis fall from the sky just inches away from you, then you know you've found a pretty special game.
The world feels very alive as you watch things unfold naturally. If you aren't jacking a car, there is a good chance someone else is doing it instead. People will be buying weapons right beside you, customers will be trying to score taxis, and police will walk the beat. A lot of the realism comes from the dialogue, which is absolutely hilarious; much of it can't be said here should a younger gamer come strolling by, but rest assured if you aren't laughing out loud, then your funny bone must be broken.
Suggestions: Compared directly to the Grand Theft Auto series, and in particular to the scope of San Andreas, Saints Row comes off as second best, but it's far from a second rate product. In fact, it's one of the few next-gen games that truly warrants a next-gen price tag, with a lengthy single-player campaign and a fun online component to extend the experience. Originality is great, but with that illusive new idea becoming harder and harder to find, well made imitators (especially in a genre that rarely gets it right) can't be sniffed at. Saints Row even manages to show GTA a thing or two, and deserves a place in the collection of anyone old enough to play it.