While copying Grand Theft Auto seems like an obvious thing to do, no one has really done so with enough conviction in their game to produce something that is anything more than a cash-in. It's all too easy to label Saints Row as the latest game to shamelessly crib from Rockstar's design docs, but to write-off Volition's debut next-gen title like this would be more than a little foolish. We've got more than a year to wait before a true GTA game hits next-gen systems, and Saints Row fills that void very well indeed.
You play as a new member of the 3rd Street Saints, one of four gangs that are fighting for territory in the fictional city of Stilwater. After a rather uneasy beginning, complete with overdone speech and character introductions that seem rather forced, things settle down into a surprisingly entertaining and well written story. The goal is to take over the city, taking control of areas that are currently run by other gangs. Each gang has its own distinct look and favoured vehicles, and the main characters are pretty believable, although a few jokes are thrown in here and there.
Core gameplay is as to be expected, with your character being free to walk, run and drive around the city as he pleases. Innocent drivers are rather unceremoniously escorted from their vehicles in typical GTA fashion, but you'll only ever be driving cars, trucks and the like - the bikes, planes and boats seen in San Andreas sadly don't make an appearance. That's not to say that the cars are dull, they're far from it, and there's a pretty large number to hijack, each with its own unique driving style.
The key to progress in Saints Row is respect. You need a full respect bar in order to tackle a new mission, and while this might seem like a system designed to extend the game's length, for the most part earning respect is a lot of fun. Your character earns respect in a number of ways, such as taking down rival gang members and tagging specific areas in enemy territory, but the easiest and most fun way to do so is to play one of the game's many mini-game-like activities.
'Activities range from the fairly simple 'Snatch' in which you need to grab hos from pimps and deliver them to a certain location, to the rather genius 'Insurance Fraud' in which you need to cause as much damage to yourself as possible.'
Activities range from the fairly simple 'Snatch' in which you need to grab hos from pimps and deliver them to a certain location, to the rather genius 'Insurance Fraud' in which you need to cause as much damage to yourself as possible. Other activities see you trafficking drugs, hijacking vehicles, and providing a dubious limousine service. In fact, it's only really the rather dull racing activities and the time hogging hitman and chop-shop that let this portion of the game down. The hitman activity is a particular chore, as you'll be scouring an area searching for a target with only his rough location given to help you out.
When you've gained enough respect to tackle a mission it'll generally have been worth it. Although the game's designers have been limited to on-foot and vehicle-based action, you get a good variety and things are always action packed. Numerous missions include in-door sections, seamlessly integrated, so there's no waiting around while the indoor environment is loaded. Unlike the GTA games, which featured targeted aiming, Saints Row uses a more traditional third-person shooter system, with aiming entirely down to the player. This is handled very well, though, and only long-time GTA fans will miss the absent lock-on targeting.
Letting down the missions somewhat are the often ill-conceived cutscenes. These are often used to link together multi-part missions or to end a mission, but at times they seem to make no sense. One particular scene sees you and your followers enter a room ready to take on the guy inside, only for the game to show a cutscene where you have no weapons and the guy you're after has a gun pointed at you. It's extremely strange and is at odds with the game's generally impressive production values.
At times you'll get a call on your mobile, asking you to help fend off an attack in one of the areas controlled by the 3rd Street Saints. In order to keep control of the area you need to kill the rival gang members, and conversely you can attempt to take control of a rival gang's zone. Of course, you'll need to have built up a full respect bar in order to do so, and come fully kitted out with plenty of weapons and ammo. With pistols, SMGs, shotguns, rifles, hand grenades, and even a rocket launcher available to buy at your local gun store, getting hold of the right tools for the job isn't hard if you've got the right money. Money is earned pretty easily, although you can always carry out a hold up if you're short on cash.