Review by pjnelson
"Look out GTA!"
I love Grand Theft Auto. I really do. I put no less than 150 hours into Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and since so many hours went unsaved it's really hard to imagine just how much time was really spent in it. That alone is why I knew I'd love Saints Row and had to have it.
The comparisons to GTA are inevitable, and the fact of the matter is that Saints Row is obviously heavily inspired by Rockstar's runaway hit series. However, unlike other similar games, this one actually pulls it off nicely. In fact, they take everything that was great about GTA and made it even better.
One noteable improvement that may sound insignificant but should be strongly considered by Rockstar for inclusion in GTA4 is a feature that shows you which way to go to your objective on your map and minimap. In the GTA games, when going to a specific place I'd have to frequently pause the game, pull up the map, and study the street/road layout to plot out how to get there and make sure I haven't missed my turn. When doing missions, flashing blue dots indicate the best route to your objective, and even when not doing missions you can pick your own destinations to mark on the map and flashing green dots will show you the way. As small as this may sound, it's a huge help.
Another small improvement, but one that makes gameplay more interesting, is that your fellow gang members act as though they're your fellow gang members even when you aren't thinking about them. If you are walking down the street and attack someone with some of your fellow gang members in the area, they'll run up and join in without any input from you at all. They jump in because you're one of them and they've got your back. If you want to, however, you can stroll up (or drive up) to them and invite them to lend you a hand (or gun), and they can come in handy for extra firepower or just a distraction to draw fire away from yourself.
Gameplay is listed first for a reason: it's the most important aspect of a game. Without great gameplay, all the best graphics in the world won't make it a good game. Saints Row is, without a doubt, a good game; a great game, even. Like GTA, Saints Row is a sandbox wherein players can do whatever they want. There's a storyline with a series of primary missions, but there's also lots of side activities taking a broad range of forms from rescuing hos from pimps to racing, from insurance fraud to raining death and destruction upon an unsuspecting neighborhood. You can pimp your ride, buy songs for your in-game MP3 player at music stores, and pick up homies to help you blast on some poor fools. As if the single-player game wasn't entertaining enough with plenty to keep you busy, there's multiplayer functionality as icing on this delicious cake.
The not nearly as important as good gameplay, the first thing you notice when looking at a new game is its visuals, as that is most obvious. Saints Row is certainly a looker. My favorite visual details are explosions, complete with heat shimmer, and the destructibility of everything. From simply walking up to a road-side garbage bag and kicking it around to semi trucks flying apart in countless pieces and chunks when you just blew it apart with a rocket, there's so much destructibility and interactivity to be seen all over the place. If your car door is swinging open and you reverse along a wall, kiss your door goodbye. You can engage in a submachinegun fight and watch a rival gang's car get riddled full of holes.
The graphic department isn't without its shortcomings, but it's not hard finding something to complain about with just about any game. I've experienced brief and minor framerate issues where everything really slowed down, though this has only occurred rarely with me and it wouldn't be the first, or fiftieth, game to experience such issues. Pop-in is noticeable, but draw distances are still great. I've seen some screen tearing, but it hasn't been a major issue for me. After all gripes about graphic bugs are out of the way, it's still a nice-looking game.
Some people might complain about the musical selections in the game, but Saints Row boasts 130 songs across a number of musical genres and while they might not be from the artists people might have wanted they're still fine. Besides the music, there's a lot of voice acting in this game including a lot of celebrity talent. When you visit a train station, you can hear announcements about when the next train is arriving and that sort of thing, but you can even hear them when you're simply speeding by in a car below the overhead tracks, which is sort of neat.
Something that stood out to me, and this is one of those nifty but subtle improvements over what we saw in GTA, deals with the in-car radio. In GTA, you hear music/commercials on the radio when you're inside a vehicle, but in Saints Row you can even hear the radio when outside the car, and even from some distance away. An unimportant passing car just driving down the street can be heard coming up behind you when you hear its radio playing. Adding more realism to it, the audio sounds different based on how close you are to the car, and whether you're inside, outside, or near it with the door open. You can listen to the sound realistically change as you walk up, open the door, and climb inside. It sounds like it would in the real world.
This is perhaps the area with which I have the biggest problem. It's bad enough that I can't help but try to play it as I would a GTA game, even though it isn't GTA and it plays and controls differently. My real problem is driving, as I frequently find myself struggling against the camera, and I really wish I could go to an in-car view. Other than that, it controls really well. You have up to three attack buttons, the functionality of which vary depending on what weapon you're using. If empty-handed, the left and right triggers throw punches with the left and right fists respectively, while the left bumper kicks and you can block by pulling both triggers together. If using a handgun, the right trigger shoots while the left trigger allows you to hit someone with the gun.
Despite the imperfections, the game is generally outstanding and offers so much to do. There's plenty of activities and several main missions to busy oneself with as well as sandbox stuff like car customization and self personalization from hair doos and colors to outfits, and tattoos to bling. Throw in online multiplayer and gamers should have no problem getting their money's worth out of Saints Row, and this is one of the best things to hit the Xbox 360 next to Oblivion.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/11/06
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