Review by Tenshi No Shi
"Volition makes a drive-by hit on Rockstar"
It was inevitable that someone would make a Grand Theft Auto-clone that actually fully copied nearly every aspect of Rockstar's grand opus in such a manner that you'd almost think you were playing the latest installment. Sure, some games have aped the open-ended environments (Mercenaries, Ultimate Spider-man, etc.) while others attempted to capture its raw grittiness (Streets of L.A.), but until Saint's Row, none of these games created such a complete carbon copy that you'd half- expect to see the infamous "R*" logo when you pop in the game. So this begs the question- With the Grand Theft Auto series virtually dominating the North American market, do we need more of the same?
Having just witnessed multiple gang- related homicides would be enough to shake the very core of even the most strong-willed person, but when the victor of said bloodbath suddenly aims his gun your way, your resolve completely shatters as your life flashes before your eyes. Fortunately, you've got a Saint looking after you. Saved by Julius and his lieutenant Troy a split-second before the trigger that would be your death is squeezed, you've just been recruited in to the Saints; a petty gang with high ideologies to clean up the neighborhood from the lawless that threaten to run the city headlong in to the gaping maw of Hades. You must essentially complete a series of missions that earn the Saints respect, money, power and territory. Each of these main missions builds on the overall story that, I might add, is actually pretty well thought out and is compelling enough to keep you playing.
Though Saint's Row only seems roughly twice as large as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which puts it at about a fourth the size of San Andreas), it easily bests any of Rockstar's graphical efforts in this genre to date. Not only are the characters and buildings much more detailed (and a great deal more varied), but little touches like thrown-away sofas, busted televisions, dented garbage cans, rusted out husks of cars and bags of garbage add a touch of realism missing from the sometimes static environments found in other sandbox games. Draw distance is excellent- even when at high speeds there is very little pop-up or slowdown as the game loads textures. But probably the most noteworthy bit of eye candy is the special effects. Sure you're going to notice the incredible explosion animation almost immediately, but it's the mutli-layered shadows affected by different levels of lighting sources that really impressed me. Especially when I watch the moon trek across the sky, its light obscured behind buildings that cast long shadows, growing and shifting as the lunar satellite made its orbit. Maybe I'm just easily amused, but that kind of detail really excites the hell out of me.
Audio-wise, Saint's Row sounds just like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas- You've got the same kind of sound effects (though perhaps there are a bit more of them in this game), nearly identical voice-acting (even a few celebrities lend their voices to key characters) and a soundtrack that you'd swear was lifted straight from Grand Theft Auto (complete with believable radio stations). Actually, San Andreas does have a slight edge in that, at least by my own personal taste, the licensed music is much better. One cool thing that Saint's Row has going for it is that by collecting CDs hidden throughout the city, you can create a custom soundtrack that is comprised of entirely original songs created just for this game. It may not seem like much, but it's nice to see your efforts rewarded with something other than a few extra weapons back at your hideout.
Now we examine the part of the game that really sets Saint's Row apart from the Grand Theft Auto series- The controls. Now, for the most part, I have almost no issues with the way Rockstar has thus far handled things; Even Liberty City Stories had an intuitive control scheme given the limitations of the PSP. But once you play Saint's Row, you wonder why Volition managed to nail it so perfectly on their first try while Rockstar remains content with their previous efforts. Maybe it because I like the almost FPS-like precision in which you use both triggers for attacks while both analog sticks control movement and camera (which allows you to run forward and fire behind for some quick getaways). Or perhaps it's the way that these very same controls carry over to vehicle handling so you can actually use a weapon with some accuracy while driving (instead of having to steer the car to line up a shot). Hell, it could even been the very simple weapon/item "wheel" you can pull up to quick select your arsenal. All I know is I love the way Saint's Row handles, and I hope that if anything is copied back over in to Grand Theft Auto 4 it's this even if as an alternate, selectable scheme).
Here, in the core design of the game, I finally find some fault with Saint's Row. Okay, so I understand that Rockstar has had a great deal longer to perfect the Grand Theft Auto games than an other company, so I don't hold the smaller map or more fleshed out storyline and associated missions against Volition. Let's face it, Saint's Row is a great first attempt that I really hope evolves in to a long- running series that rivals Grand Theft Auto. But I do have complaint with how they artificially lengthened the game. Let me explain- In order to do the main, story- based missions you have to build respect before you are allowed to take one of these missions. Fair enough. However, building respect essentially forces you to partake in one of a dozen other activities (that have multiple levels and the game is kind enough to track for you) scattered throughout the game, including Mayhem, Insurance Fraud, Snatch, Escort, Hitman and Drug Trafficking (along with several more) in order to build your respect. Buying clothes and getting tattoos will add modifiers to the amount of respect you get, but it's not enough to offset the frustration I felt when I really got in to one of the stories only to have to build more respect just to see what happens next. It's not enough to ruin the game (and certainly with all this, plus other activities like Robbery and Pushback you won't likely get bored), but it certainly dampened my spirit a bit.
I already mentioned collecting the CDs earlier as one of the bonuses in the game, but there are also gang tags scattered throughout the city that you can cover with your own graffiti that will score you a little something extra. The interesting thing about the tag system in this game (as opposed to a similar feature in San Andreas) is that you enter a sort of button pushing/analog twirling event similar to Jet Set Radio. Another nice feature of the game is that completing the myriad of side missions doesn't just earn you respect, it also gives you cool unlockables. For example, complete all the Hitman missions and you'll earn a set of special weapons that will give you a huge edge in the rest of the game. Another reward involves hitting all the tags of the three rival gangs that then earns you unlimited stamina for those long-distant marathons you may unexpectedly find yourself running. With almost as many secrets as there are missions themselves, the completists out there will have no difficulty in finding a plethora of things to cross off their Saint's Row "To Do" list.
I don't think I need to tell you that if Grand Theft Auto is your thing, then Saint's Row is your next fix. With elements borrowed from all aspects of Rockstar's seminal series, along with a healthy injection of fresh (or at least highly refined) ideas, Volition has produced a legitimate next-gen hit.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/07/09
Game Release: Saints Row (US, 08/29/06)
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