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. 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.
Outside of the missions, activities and territory takeovers, Saints Row does its best to be a really easy game to play. To start with, your health will replenish itself if you stay out of the action for a while, and you can recruit members of the Saints to join your little gang. These guys put up a surprisingly good fight, and can be conveniently revived by pouring beer on them - not a medically approved method, but it seems to work. You can also buy and carry up to four health packs (in the form of junk food), but other than a few dastardly missions and overcrowded gang wars, you won't die too often. Dying isn't all that bad either, as missions can simply be retried, although some checkpoints within the longer missions would have been a nice touch.
The most impressive inclusion, and something that GTA doesn't feature, is the map. Ok, so GTA has a map, but not like the map in Saints Row. By setting a waypoint on the map you not only get a general direction of where to go, but a dynamically changing route. This is shown on the mini-map in the corner of the screen and makes high-speed chases far more manageable than in other games. It might be a little odd that the cops, S.W.A.T, police helicopters and more seemingly forget about your sins when you cross into a blue target circle, but finding it is never an issue. You can easily find shops, activity locations, and save points, too, not that you need to find a save point as the game lets you save your progress wherever you are.
What game would be complete these days without a fully featured character creation tool, and Saints Row's lets you tweak all manner of different facial and body features. You can also buy new clothes - which actually have an impact on the game - and your cars can be 'pimped' out to look 'sweet' and perform better too. Your garage also doubles as a handy store for your better cars, and your crib holds stashes of cash and weapons. Rounding off a rather complete and lengthy 20 hours + single-player campaign are an awful lot of achievements that really make you work for the points, and like many Xbox 360 games, dish out a fair number through the online portion of the game.
Volition have included support for up to twelve players over Xbox Live or System Link, and while it feels a little tacked on, the multiplayer component can be a lot of fun. Unsurprisingly, all the game modes are distinctly gang themed, so you get modes that ask you to escort a pimp, take other players' chains, and upgrade cars as quickly as possible, all while under fire from the enemy. Of course, there's also a standard deathmatch and team deathmatch mode. Sadly, these online games are played in enclosed areas, and don't make use of the same free-roaming city seen in the single-player game. An unexpected bonus, though, comes in the form of co-op missions. Two players can get together to fend off rival gang members, and these point towards what a true online gang warfare game could deliver.
Multiplayer matches aren't without their problems, particularly in the larger games. Lag made a number of games almost unplayable, and you'll find yourself dying without much warning. Your character doesn't react in a way to suggest he's taking fire, so unless you're keeping an eye on your health bar you can find yourself running into battle when you should be holding back. If you want to get together with some mates you can form gangs and compete against other gangs, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Saints Row could have offered a better online experience. The downloadable content option on the game's menu no doubt means that new content will arrive at some point, and this may well bolster its online offering, but at the moment the multiplayer mode simply acts as an occasionally fun diversion.
Played in HD Saints Row is often a stunning looking game. The use of shadows, and lighting in general, gives the whole game a real next-gen look, and the detailed vehicle models also look great. What isn't so great is the frame rate, which bogs down an awful lot. While fans of GTA on consoles will probably feel right at home with a fluctuating frame rate, it's a little jarring on a next-gen system, especially when combined with a fairly short draw-in distance for vehicles and more than a few graphical glitches - disappearing road anyone? The character models, too, are a mixed bag. The male characters get away with a pretty blocky appearance, but the women in the game appear a little worse for wear. If there's one thing Saints Row does brilliantly, though, it's explosions. Cars literally get blown apart and come crashing back down with debris flying all over the place. One mini-game activity basically asks you to blow as much stuff up as possible, and you'll do it with a smile on your face simply because it looks great over and over again.
Based on the opening few minutes with the game you won't expect the quality of voice acting and the script to be as good as they are. The cast of voice actors do a great job, and while your character does little other than nod, the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan, David Carradine, and Keith David put in stellar performances. Audio is the expected mix of urban tunes, but you'll get several radio stations to choose from, complete with humours ads - another trademark GTA feature. If you can't find anything to your taste you can always use a custom soundtrack, but whatever you listen to, it won't drown out the booming explosions, shuddering car crashes and plenty of foul mouthed profanity. One particularly nice touch is the muffled sound of the radio from outside a car, which becomes crystal clear when you get inside.
Compared directly to the Grand Theft Auto series, and in particular to the scope of San Andreas, Saints Row comes off as second best, but it's far from a second rate product. In fact, it's one of the few next-gen games that truly warrants a next-gen price tag, with a lengthy single-player campaign and a fun online component to extend the experience. Originality is great, but with that illusive new idea becoming harder and harder to find, well made imitators (especially in a genre that rarely gets it right) can't be sniffed at. Saints Row even manages to show GTA a thing or two, and deserves a place in the collection of anyone old enough to play it.