Review by KingCarmello

"Some Unfriendly Competition Has Arrived In San Andreas"

You know, even if this game was a total failure, I'd have to give THQ some credit. It takes some serious guts to go head-to-head with the most popular video game franchise in the world. Sure there have been GTA clones in the past but no one has dared go directly for Rockstar's throat with another crime sim. Deep down they had to feel like one of the countless mustached white guys that for some reason stepped in the ring with Mike Tyson in the 80s.

It takes incredible confidence to even ATTEMPT such a thing. A lot of people want to bash THQ for "ripping off" the Grand Theft Auto series. Those people seem to be forgetting the incredible risk the company was taking by deciding to go head-to-head with the Godfather of Free Roam games. Rockstar may not have created the Free-Roam genre(as some people falsely believe) but they sure did perfect it.

Competition is never a bad thing in the video game world. Just ask any NFL football fan that owns an X-Box 360. Grand Theft Auto has finally received some true competition and Rockstar sure does have some things to think about as they work on Grand Theft Auto 4.

GAMEPLAY - 10/10
The most important aspect of a video game and the department where Saint's Row sees the most improvement over the Grand Theft Auto series. The very first thing you'll notice when you play Saint's Row will be the aiming system. After about 5 seconds you will be asking yourself why Rockstar never thought of this aiming system. It won't take long to get used to - you've used it in almost every first or third person action/adventure title you've played in the past 4+ years. The Left Analog Stick moves your character, the Right stick moves the crosshairs, just like a console First Person Shooter. When you first experience this change it will be a gamer's version of what alcoholics call a "moment of clarity." After a few minutes, GTA's aiming system(all 3 versions) will seem downright archaic. Go ahead and TRY to play GTA again after an extended period with Saint's Row.

Volition's decision to use the same controls when you are inside a vehicle are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it is no doubt superior to GTA's left or right only shooting from a vehicle, however it is a bit unruly. Since you have to hold A to keep the car moving and you have to aim with the Right Analog stick you will often find yourself trying to juggle the controller and coming up with all kinds of funky ways to hold it. In the end while it makes driving more complicated the ability to shoot in a full 360 degrees from inside a vehicle is something you will never want to give away. Besides, it's not like GTA's drive-by controls were a strong point in the series.

A seemingly small but really BIG improvement is seen in the garage system. It's really quite ingenious and makes it a LOT easier to justify spending thousands of dollars on car mods. It's simple - once you put a car in your garage that car is there until you decide to delete it from your garage. If you take it out and leave it somewhere then the next time you go to your garage it will be there waiting for you, in the exact same condition it was in when you left it. If you accidentally blow it up then you just have to pay $500 to get an exact copy of it(including any custom mods). This means when you pull out your custom Lambo that you pumped a ridiculous amount of money into and flip the damn thing before you even hit your corner you don't have to scream. Just go back to your garage, pay $500, and voila you have a brand new one. The only downside to this is that you can't use your garage for free repairs, cars stay in whatever condition they're in when you put them in the garage. If you want it repaired you'll have to take it to a near-by Rim Jobs.

Another improvement THQ has made over GTA is in the side missions. While there aren't nearly as many as Grand Theft Auto boasts, the ones that are there REALLY fit the whole crime genre - oh and being incredibly fun helps as well. A perfect example would be the Insurance Fraud missions. Trust me you wouldn't BELIEVE how much fun you can have trying to cause yourself intense bodily harm in a video game. Whether you're railing-shooting your way through some Drug Trafficking missions or going crazy in the demolition derby (Destruction Derby fans rejoice!!!!) there are hours and hours of fun to be had without ever even touching the main story missions.

Speaking of the main missions in the game, for those of you wondering just how Saint's Row works. THQ basically took what many believed to be the best part about GTA: San Andreas - the Gang Wars - and made a video game out of it. You are the newest member of the 3rd Street Saints and you must help their rise to the top by conquering the various gang territories spread around the city while also defending your own territories from attacks. There are 3 other gangs fighting for power in Stillwater and you must eliminate them from the picture. You do this by completing various storyline missions and also tackling gang strongholds. The missions are pretty straightforward things, the type of stuff you'd expect to find in a game like this - Go here, Kill Everyone, Mission Complete with the occasional Go Here, Steal X, Return To Base mission thrown in. There is some variation in the missions but you won't find anything groundbreaking here.

STORY - 7/10
One place where Saint's Row is lacking a bit is in the Story. As I said before, you're the new muscle in town and you're going to help the Saints take over. That's about it. There are some interesting cinematics and a couple minor plot twists but it's very straight forward for the most part. It also lacks that almost divine sense of dark humor that everyone loves in GTA. There are a few very funny moments but this game won't leave you in stitches as often as Grand Theft Auto games do. The characters just don't have the same charm that Rockstar gets into their characters. The dialogue isn't as clever and the jokes aren't quite as in-tune with pop culture. THQ replaced all of that with enough profanity to make Tony Montana cringe. Now I'm as against censorship as anyone and don't mind lots of profanity but Saint's Row really is over the top with the profanity. After a while it just seems almost a little childish.

I don't want to spend much time on the story because it's really not very important in this genre in my opinion. Saint's Row is pretty average in this area it just lacks the wit and charm of the GTA games.

I almost gave a 7/10 here but decided that would be a bit too harsh. First, the graphics are absolutely gorgeous. The vehicle models, in particular, are fantastic. HOWEVER. I would trade all those pretty, shiny surfaces and textures back in a heartbeat if it meant they could reduce the pop-in. Saint's Row is still plagued by the same insane level of pop-in that has haunted this genre since GTA3. In fact in many ways it almost seems worse. Still, if pop-in was a big issue for me I wouldn't be a fan of Free-Roam games. I had hoped it would go away with Next Gen but that's just not the case. There's still pop-in, the things just look a lot prettier when they suddenly appear out of the blue when you're ten feet away.

Sound is a half and half thing - the voice acting is EXCELLENT and boasts quite a few recognizable names in the line-up such as Michael Clarke Duncan, Tia Carrerre, and Mila Kunis. One thing I really liked is that THQ didn't just go after as many big names as they could find. They went after big names that had EXPERIENCE doing voiceover work either in animated movies(like MCD) or on television(like Mila Kunis) The results are fantastic and as good as any voice work I've heard in video games yet. The dialogue is cheesy and cliche but you can't blame the voice talent for bad writing.

The other half is the music which again seems to be cut in half - Hip-Hop fans should be pleased. There are three Hip-Hop stations with a nice mix of mainstream, underground, and classic Hip-Hop featuring everyone from Lloyd Banks to Wu-Tang Clan to Masta Ace to Black Sheep. The rock stations are a different story all together, if you like 80s Hair Metal you'll be happy to know there's a station with nothing but. If you like any other form of rock music you'll probably be let down. You can tell THQ was more worried about pleasing Hip-Hop fans than rock fans. I guess it makes sense seeing as this is a gang about the whole "gangsta" lifestyle that most Hip-Hop is about.

The replay value is nearly endless here, partly because of the Free-Roam nature of the game, partly because the various side missions NEVER get old, and partly because of the INSANE level of customization of both your character as well as your cars.

First let's talk about the cars. For my fellow custom car fanatics you'll be happy to know that Saint's Row boasts car customization features that rival even Need For Speed Underground. In fact there are MORE different color paints than NFS:U. There are 5 different TYPES of paint and 10+ different colors for each type. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are more colors than different cars in the game so you could literally paint every car you own a different color.

There is also a tremendous amount of customization for your character. You can't pig out to get fat or pump iron for 5 days straight to look like a body builder but there when you start a new game there is a face and body morphing system similar to the ones in Oblivion and other games. It's very deep and you can really make your character look like anyone. Mine is a near-perfect representation of the King of New York, Frank White. Inside the game you can change your haircut or buy various different types of clothing, tattoos, and jewelry. These things aren't just there to look good, they actually boost the amount of respect you earn by doing missions. It pays to look good when you're mowing down line after line of enemy gangsters.

OVERALL - 9/10
You can, and I'm sure many will, debate endlessly whether or not this game is better than GTA:SA. While it's certainly not as HUGE as San Andreas was, what it does it does very well. The aiming system alone is a monumental improvement over the Grand Theft Auto series. You can expect to see THAT in GTA4. THQ was the first company to step up and provide DIRECT competition for the Grand Theft Auto series and they've done an amazing job with their first attempt. This game should be considered a MUST buy for any fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. Don't let the word "clone" scare you away from this fantastic game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/06/06

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