Review by Gruel
I don't want to be an almost was!
Ever since Grand Theft Auto III defined the genre of games we know today as sandbox games, there has been many imitators trying to duplicate its success. Some of them were not all that bad like Scarface and Simpsons: Hit and Run, while others like True Crime: New York and Driv3r would best remain forgotten. Finally, a game has arrived that I can finally say is right up there in terms of quality with GTA. This game, Saints Row is the first sandbox title on next-gen consoles. Now while it doesnt go out of its way to make any drastic changes for the genre, it does succeed in delivering a GTA-caliber experience on a next-gen platform.
Saints Row takes place in the fictional town of Stillwater. In range of scale and size of the town I would say it is somewhere between the GTAIII and Vice City. Upon starting the game, you create your character with a pretty in-depth creation editor and the story starts off with your would-be gangsta strolling down the streets and stumbling into a gang war. 3rd Street Saints leader Julius saves you from your demise, and recruits you into the 3rd Street Saints. The Saints are at war with three other gangs in Stillwater. The Westside Rollerz are a bunch of tuner freaks who value their rides the most. The Los Carnales run the foreign drug trafficking scene, and the main rival gang is the Vice Kings who have deep pockets and alliances with Stillwaters mayor and police force.
As you can tell, this is a very thug/gang oriented sandbox game like San Andreas, and thankfully publisher THQ got some good writers as there isnt overly excessive use of Ebonics and swearing just for the hell of it. I enjoyed not ending up lost in a sea of slang and gang-speak like I initially feared when starting the game. Other than a few corny terms that creep their way in, like the Wendys-inspired restaurant called Freckle *****es, the story has a very cinematic and natural feel like you would see off television. All three gangs have their own story arc, and all three surprised me at how entertaining they were and it never felt like the story was dragging for one bit.
Like I stated above, Saints Row doesnt try to separate itself from the rest of pack as it plays extremely similar to GTA. The main difference is the complete lack of auto-targeting. At first I was shocked that developer Volition didnt include it, but within a few hours I actually preferred that there was no auto-targeting, especially after remembering how GTA never got it right before. While cruising around town you can recruit up to three gang members to tear up the streets of Stillwater with you, which helps out a lot in knocking out missions. There is a decent variety of vehicles, and like GTA you can store them in your own personal garage. I was disappointed that there were no motorcycles or boats to take command of. However, I am delighted that your character can actually swim! The weaponry is the standard fare that consists of pistols, sub-machine guns, high-powered rifles, and rocket launchers. My personal favorite weapon in the game is the shotgun you later unlock that is designed after a pimps cane.
One of the many reasons that made GTA successful was its abundance of mini-games. Saints Row has a ton of them that they like to call activities, and works in a clever way making you experiment with them where you have to complete one or two of them to earn enough respect points before attempting the primary missions in the game. I loved the self-explanatory races and Demolition Derby activities. Snatch is another interesting activity where you have to rescue stolen hoes and deliver them back to their original owner. The Insurance Fraud activity stands out a lot as you have to take dives in front of oncoming traffic in order to rake in on the insurance dollars. Some of the activities arent as fun, like the hitman activity where I spent what seemed like forever searching an area of town trying to find and kill one of the hundreds of civilians walking the streets. Overall though, the activities serve their purpose well as being fun little diversions from the main quest.
Saints Row tried to do one thing different than other games of its genre by trying to include a robust online component. There are a few separate co-op levels that can be played with a friend. The main focus of online though is versus play with a few game modes available that support up 12 players. I do like the variety of versus modes, aside from the standard deathmatch there are also modes that require you to protect the main pimp on your team, pimp out a vehicle before your opponent, and see who can gather the most chains. A Halo 2-esque matchmaking system is used to set up all the matches. While this all sounds well and good, the online versus modes suffer greatly from lag! Almost every match I played online that had more than four or five players had frequent bouts of lag. Later updates to the game reduced the rates of lag slightly so now things are tolerable with up to around six players online, but overall Volition dropped the ball on what could have been one of the premier Xbox Live titles of the year.
Volition did redeem themselves though on the graphics. This is definitely a few steps up from the visuals in GTA, thought still a couple steps shy from being an all-out masterpiece. I dont need to go into that much detail about them, just imagine GTA with a few layers of polish with everything generally looking a lot more clean and crisp, especially in high-definition. Not all things are perfect as there is a little bit too much pop-up than I would have liked, though I assume this is due to the convenient lack of loading times where it seems like the city of Stillwater is being streamed on the fly. This also led to some awkward graphical glitches I ran into on several instances where I saw my vehicle I was driving in literally disappear yet my character could still magically drive this invisible vehicle.
I have to give some props to THQ for signing on so many bands to appear in the soundtrack of over 200 songs. The many radio stations you can listen to offer a huge variety of tunes in genres like rock, classical, rave, hip-hop, and rap. THQ also went out of their way to get some noticeable names for the voice acting like Mila Kunis and Tia Carrere. Keith David stands out the most as he does one hell of a job voicing Saints leader Julius. Yes, the voice acting is shockingly good, and it only helps to accentuate the also surprisingly good storyline.
Overall, Saints Row surprised me and from what I am gathering from the online community, nearly everyone else at how good it replicated GTA. No other game has gotten the GTA formula down so well before. While the online play may only walk off with a thank you for participating ribbon, the main single player experience is one that should be enjoyed by all and has a lot to offer to keep you playing for well over 30 hours.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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