Review by squidney2k1
"Solid GTA "Knock-Off" That Isn't a Cheap One"
Everyone knew Volition was taking the risk that all developers take when attempting to challenge the Grand Theft Auto Series' hold on the Free-Roaming "Gangsta" 3rd-Person Action genre. Many games had tried before to cash in on GTA, and very had any success at all. While the speculation about which next-gen console GTA IV would land on built up last year, Saints Row slowly picked up steam. The once "Ugly, choppy, possible 360 launch title with generic gameplay" label it held has since been removed over the development time, and the end result is a vibrant and addictive game that will more than give GTA fans something to hold them over until next fall. Despite loads of technical flaws, it overcomes a lot in a genre where GTA is the sole champion to move into the spot of No. 1 Contender.
Saints Row entails the conflict between a gang-ridden city, from the view of a nameless male character who is initiated into one of the smaller gangs of the City of Stillwater, the 3rd Street Saints. Upon joining the Saints, their charismatic leader (played by voice-acting vet Keith David) is on a mission to not only clean out the competing gangs who are destroying Saints Row (the neighborhood), but to rid the entire city of them as well. You will do battle against 3 other gangs - Los Carnales, Vice Kings, and the Rollerz - as you try to take over Stillwater and lead the Saints to sole control of all things criminal and territorial.
Essentially, you will take on the 3 other gangs in the form of 3 separate stories as you engage in acts of theft, violence, and larceny against your rivals. While it gives you loads to do throughout your 35-40 hour rampage of the city, it does create a slight narrative problem. All 3 stories surrounding each rival gang are entirely separate from each other. Not only does it mean that each gang can be taken on one at a time, but also implies that you must. Each story attempts to be as entertaining yet engaging as possible (although fans will find one gang's storyline much more entertaining than the others), but being able to juggle all 3 gangs at once not only creates a few gameplay problems, but detaches the player from the overall turf-battle experience, as you will have to recall over and over the current events ocurring with each story progression. Taking on one gang at a time is easier and simpler. It would've been more than nice to see some other forms of interaction between the other gangs (as the opening cut-scene would depict) instead of this "3rd Street Saints vs. Everyone Else" concept.
Characters are wildly creative, and wonderfully voice acted. Taking a page out of GTA's playbook, Volition went straight to Hollywood and hired some not only recognizable but talented voices that fit the bill perfectly. Every character involved in each storyline in the game has their own unique style, look, and flair. Some are instantly forgettable, but many will become instant fan favorites. While it may not exactly be of the same caliber as the GTA series, the production values of Saints Row are still very high and vast for a game of this scope.
Customization is not only wide in Saints Row, but insanely fun. The character creation seems as deep as that of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion as you can manipulate your entire character's face to look like anyone you can think of. It's also very user friendly and un-intimidating, which is a plus for casual gamers. You can customize your character right down to the very clothes they wear, hairstyles, and tattoos on their bodies. While we appreciate the attention to detail, it's not hard to wonder why Volition seemed to stop just short of the goaline. The clothing and hair options, while brilliant, are far to slim and many players will quickly be wishing for more.
Customization also continues to one of the game's many vehicles (60+) and will suck up hrs of your time as you start a collection. Vehicle can be modified with different paint schemes, rims, off-road kits, hoods, bumpers, body kits, and convertible mods depending on the make of the vehicle. Car modification is not only fun, but surprisingly addictive as you'll begin to take pride in the vehicles you acquire and spend a great deal of your hard-earned money along with it. Over 100 vehicles can be stored in your garage, which can be accessed from multiple locations. It's also a very nice touch that you will encounter all types of vehicles while roaming the streets - from the worn out beaters that would appear to barely even run, to the flashy old-school low-rider driving down the road by a pedestrian you're just itching to relieve from ownership.
One area where Saints Row takes a huge left hook is its Performance. This game will suffer from some regular periods of slowdown, pop-ins, and frequent crashes. At times, entire vehicles and roadways will disappear for a second or two. The framerate frequently dips to the sub-30 range, and can absolutely be atrocious in multiplayer. Crashing also occurs randomly, so it is important to save often and use multiple slots, which you can do at any time you're not in a mission. While the patch helps to address this issues, some problems still remain.
Despite a load of technical flaws, the graphics in this game remain impressive. With so much going on at once at times, a lot of the drops in framerate can be forgiven during the gameplay. The draw distance is impressive for buildings and distant landscapes, but I would've like to see more on-screen activity overall, as vehicles clearly pop-in and out and seem to spawn at short ranges. Cars and vehicles can vanish in an instant, leaving drivers to appear to be driving visible cars for seconds at a time.
Tearing is also a plaguing issue, and becomes an utter nuisance in multiplayer. As the performance drags, you'll see noticeable tearing along the textures ove the games environments and roadways. Combined with an online multiplayer that already suffers from perfomance issues and lag, multiplayer can become a pain for those not willing to fight through the hitches.
Environments are varied and each element stands out. From the Suburbs, to the college-like Apartments, the Factories, Racey-alleys of the Red Light District, all the way up to the High-End Retail ritzy areas near Downtown...ALL are done extremely well and boom with vibrant life and activity. The lighting is superb, especially during transitions between day and night, and the weather system is realistic and dynamic, although predictable.
Character models are stunning and very well animated. However, you can't help but notice how some characters received a lot more attention than others. While the characters of the story mode are wonderfully crafted, much can't be said for the common folk. This is a vibrant city and with so many people walking around at all times of the day, it's a shame that there are so few models and that seeing 5 or 6 of the same character at once is a regular occurrence. This becomes particularly apparent during the game's Hitman Missions where you can see the target spawning multiple times in the same small radius.
What the graphics lack in characters, they make up for in vehicles. Cars can easily become a center-point of the visual feasts. You'll see all different ranges in terms of texture quality, paint jobs, and reflections for customized vehicles. The damage and physics are amazing, to say the least. Cars accumulate damage in various degrees, and that damage is part specific. Tires become flat, paint becomes scraped, fenders dented, bumpers warped and removed, doors broken...or sometimes the part is just gone for good. Explosions and vehicle shrapnel is realistic and unpredictable due to the Havok Physics engine, and flying burning debris can actually hard characters.
If you are able to see through the abundance of technical flaws, you will find one impressive looking game for it's scale. Taking a look at Saints Row in action raises the eyes of gamers everywhere as they begin to wonder what the next installment of GTA will entail.
While the sound is absolutely solid, it won't be winning any awards. Something these games have become accustomed, and gamers look fofward, to are the Radio Stations. The soundtrack in Saints Row is wide with mixes of both Hip-Hop, R&B, Classic Rock & Punk, Metal, Alternative, Easy Listening, and Classical. Each genre is supported on it's own radio station, and some genres will have more than one. There is also the inclusion of a Talk Radio station with two hilarious individuals. While entertaining, the amount of content is short and you will soon begin to hear the same conversations.
The soundtrack is generally based of unknowns, but there are a few big name artists. This is both refreshing and disappointing. While it's good to hear some new and relatively unheard of talent not featured in the mainstream, it is after all the mainstream that most people enjoy. The soundtrack is not only short, but radio stations also seem to be prone to playing some songs a lot more than others.
Fortunately the game provides you with an in-game audio player you can play at any time except during storyline cutscenes. You cannot import tracks to into it (you'll have to settle for the Dashboard), but you can customize the player with songs purchased from the game's music store, and special unlocked tracks you won't hear on the radio.
The voice acting in Saints Row is a prime example of what more games need to do properly - hire Hollywood voice actors that actually FIT the part. You will hear plenty of familiar Hollywood celebs throughout the game such as Tia Carrera, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Rappaport, and David Carradine, although a rare choice such as Mila Kunis will be love it or hate it. Not only is character dialog filled with humor, but well executed humor. The talent chosen does a good job of not pushing lines too far and lets the punchline speak for itself. Saints Row's dialog and humor, while not the most original, can be downright laugh out loud hilarious.
Also receiving credit are the games various minor characters that you come across during side missions. These hillbillies, housewives, pimps, hookers, hippies, bums, and drug dealers are guaranteed to put some smiles on your face and laughs in your gut. Where the game does suffer is the ambient voicing. Random pedestrians not only sound far too alike, but will spout off the same (al-be-it witty) comments over and over, and at odd times, and the term "generic" just doesn't do it justice. At times, the words you'll hear come out of the mouths of your own and rival gang members will make you frown. The lack of an expanded sound track and overly stereotypical (and at times) dialog for the small roles hold this game's sound design back a step or two.
This game is filled with activities, far too many to list here. You'll come across everything from escort, retrieval ("Snatching" hookers for a pimp), and destroy missions. The game throws in a nice mix of mission variety that will keep the action flowing and never dull.
The side missions are what help try and set this game apart. Although they fail at doing it, they are still down right loads of fun to play. Generally each "Activity" has 8 different levels of difficulty, which a few exceptions. Some of the most well executed ones include Hijacking missions, where you must catch up, steal, and return safely (without blowing up) various vehicles with various degrees of protection in short amounts of time. Another fun and addictive Activity is the Injury Fraud, in which the player willing tries to throw himself in front of vehicles and cause accidents in a target zone to earn points and money - a wonderful companion to the game's physics. While these activities can be extremely entertaining, some others can be downright frustrating.
Many activities you will replay more than once, not only to gain money and Respect (your "street cred" used to unlock missions) but because they are more fun. The Hitman and Carjacking missions span the entire game and are drawn out so once they are done, that is all. However, activities like Drug Trafficking and Snatch are bound to become gamer favorites. Players are encouraged to participate in all activities as not only can you net some achievements, but some very nice unlockables as well.
Some Activities can be so random in terms of their spawns and counters that it can be enough to piss the player off and throw the controller. There's nothing more annoying that to be doing a routine escort mission - where you have to drive around while a celebrity and hooker get it on in the back seat while avoiding the chasing press - which are difficult enough, only to be caught in the middle of a gang-cop shootout and become unwillingly involved as you ram their cars...and now you have the press, police, and rivals chasing you, making it almost impossible to complete. On the higher levels of difficulties for activities, the response simply seems to be and endless onslaught of vehicles full of enemies who love to slam into you at high speeds firing sub-machine guns of which there is often no escape as your car explodes from damage. Completing lvl 8 activities often involves switching to multiple fresh new vehicles to make your escape without blowing up. Thankfully the game gives the player a break, as when each activity is complete, the notoriety is reset.
Something new Saints Row offers are "Pushbacks," where at random instances rival gangs will attempt to take back territory from you. You then must head over and end the attempt by eliminating a set number of gang leaders in the area. Your fellow Saints will help out, and this can be an exciting change of pace during gameplay as at any time an all out turf-war can break out.
Whatever you do in this game, you'll need some help. At almost every point of the game you can recruit fellow gang members to accompany you as you wander the streets, or go on your criminal runs. You can recruit up to 3 members at once as you advance in the game, including Hommies (special unlockable characters) you can call on your cell to roll with you at anytime. They can hold their own, but will die a lot and are best used to draw fire away from you. If downed, you'll have 30 sec. to revive them an unlimited number of times, which is a nice touch. Having your crew can also be an annoyance with the A.I. as sometimes they will fire upon rivals and police out of nowhere and end up getting you into a fight you didn't want. Other than serving as a real-world lesson to be careful who you hang with, it can at times make you dismiss your party and chose to go solo.
Overall, the gameplay experience is solid and vast, although not perfect. Saints Row doesn't desperatdly try to separate itself from being a GTA-clone, but rather embraces it. After all, what's wrong with using a winning formula?
In simple terms the game handles very well. The inclusion of the well-experienced Havok Physics engine ensures no problems on that end. All objects react accordingly and running over enemies and into cars results in a proper amount of damage.
The game controls like a FPS with one stick working the movement and the other the camera. There is not auto-aiming and your skills must come into play. This is the best thing Saints Row offers to the genre that GTA should definitely look at, as it makes control accurate and precise. Not before long, gamers will begin to start tagging headshots with regular ease as they take on wave and wave of enemies. Driving mechanics are simple and aiming accurately while firing is difficult as it should be.
The only area the game is lacking is the melee combat, which has slightly more emphasis than GTA, as in the early parts of the game, ammo is both expensive and rare. The FPS seem to be rendered useless as melee attacks depend on the direction your character is facing rather than in the one the camera is looking...and the player model does not swing with the camera. This can result in accidentally missing your target, or hitting an ally or someone else entirely. While playing Protect Da Pimp in multiplayer, this is an issue for the pimp, who can only slap other players.
Saints Row offers online play of up to 12 players, and you can customize your model in the same fashion as the story mode. However, clothing and tattoos for online characters must be purchased in the online menu from cash that is only accumulated from playing online games. The clothing items seem ridiculously expensive as the cash rewarded from playing (and winning games) is so small that it can take hours upon hours to finally get your character the look you want. This is a huge disappointment for players as you must play for long periods in order to have unique character, and it feels as if the game is punishing those not dedicated. You can create Online Gangs (clans), but there's nothing special about it.
The game modes are surprisingly original and in theory would be a blast. Blinged Out Ride is destined to become a team-based favorite as you must earn enough money to upgrade your teams car 4 times and show it off in a victory area to win. Each time the car is blown up, it loses a level. This is as tactical as it gets. Protect Da Pimp is your run-of-the-mill protect the leader game, except that he must either escape the game level, or the other team must all die, not just survive for a certain time period. Big Ass Chains (also team based) is a collection type match where you try and kill players for their chains, then return them to a drop-off point. Sounds fun right? Not so simple.
The ranking system in Saints Row is individually based and players earn money not only for winning, but the better they play (i.e. more kills, more money earn, streaks). This works dandy on paper, but in reality it leads to a lot of jealousy and rampant cases of team-killing by some cheap players who are trying to improve their rank and/or earn more money for clothing. This plagues the Big Ass Chains mode.
Online play overall is just sloppy. In short, lag is everywhere and I mean everywhere, there are glitches where you spawn without being able to use your weapons until you die once, cars get trapped in Blinged Out Ride, there is no spawn protection, connecting to game is a long and a pain in the ass, and the host will often time-out. What could've been a great online multiplayer experience has become a thorn in this game's side, along with a foot in it's ass with all of the technical flaws that can often ruin it from being enjoyable.
OVERALL (not an average) - 8.0-8.5 out of 10
The story is entertaining, but some aspects drag, and this title is shorter than most would like for the type of game it is, but mainly because the game is quite enjoyable and players yearn from more. Volition came flying out of the gates and overcame a few stumbles to finish second in the race, but it's still very respectable. If only there had been more customization options, more clothing, and more Activities to do, this game would have been upgraded from "very good" to "great!" status. The story has plenty of room for an engaging sequel, but the keyword for Volition/THQ to remember here is "more." More cars, more clothes, more weapons, more missions/activities, and more length. People like what this game is doing, and they simply want more of it.
Pull that off along with overcoming all of the technical flaws holding this game back, particularly in the multiplayer, and you've got one helluva title. There is grand potential for a franchise here that is in the position to challenge the almighty Grand Theft Auo series, and fans of GTA will be right at home with Saints Row until it arrives. It's hard to pass this one up, as Saints Row is a blast that never gets tired.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/10/06
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