If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rockstar North, the developer of the Grand Theft Auto series, should be very, very flattered by Saints Row. After all, developer Volition's take on an open-ended criminal action game is almost criminally similar to GTA on first impression. Like GTA, Saints Row offers much the same combination of driving and shooting action; it's set in a fictitious, modern American city; it lets you run or drive pretty much wherever you want to right from the start; it's got a ton of licensed music on the soundtrack; and it's got a sense of humor that ranges from dirty to dark. But this superficial lack of originality only hurts the game at first glance, if at all. As outstanding as the GTA games are, you'll find that Saints Row is similarly enjoyable in many important respects--and even better in a couple of key ways. That is, like GTA, Saints Row finds its own careful balance between realism and fun. It's an exciting, dynamic experience that's frequently rewarding and rarely frustrating and can keep you coming back hour after shameless hour, as you cause mayhem throughout the rather large, detailed city of Stilwater. What's more, a surprisingly entertaining storyline and a number of smartly designed gameplay features make Saints Row a memorable game in its own right.
You begin play by determining your character's appearance, and you have what seems like a limitless number of options to choose from. There are presets for different ethnicities, but you can proceed to make your character look however you want. It seems gimmicky at first, but since your physical appearance--at least your clothes--do end up having some impact on gameplay, the sheer variety during character creation is impressive. The game starts with you nearly getting caught in the cross fire of a gang war. You're saved by Julius (voiced perfectly by Keith David), the charismatic leader of a racially diverse gang called the 3rd Street Saints, one of Stilwater's four biggest criminal groups. And he invites you to join up. The game's introductory cutscene has a couple of lines of painfully bad dialogue in it, suggesting that Saints Row will go on to bombard you with horrible clichés and an appalling fake attitude. But, somehow, somewhere, the story gets really good. Maybe it's the expressive characters and the excellent voice performances by the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan, David Carradine, and others; or maybe it's the choreography of the cutscenes and the quality of the dialogue. It's probably all of these combined. Saints Row isn't always clever or funny, and in the end, the story will leave you hanging. Even so, for its occasional misses, the quality of the game's writing and storytelling turns out to be one of the highlights.
The beginning of the game sets up how the gameplay experience itself is structured. There are several different main story arcs for you to follow, involving the Saints' war against its three rivals. Each enemy gang has its own identity, preferred vehicles, and major characters, and you may attempt to take over their turf in whatever order you wish. However, you can't just jump from one story mission to another. The game makes you earn "respect" before you can take on missions, which is mostly a contrived way of forcing you to try out the many different ancillary activities available in Saints Row, rather than just blowing through the story. This structure might seem heavy handed at first, but since there are many fairly easy and entertaining ways to earn respect in the game, it turns out to be more good than bad. The search for more respect will introduce you to some of Saints Row's many amusing minigames. Though most all of them are fun, the best ones are probably "insurance fraud," in which you must deliberately throw yourself into oncoming traffic as violently and in front of as many witnesses as possible, and "mayhem," which simply tasks you with causing as much death and destruction as possible within a certain time limit.
The reason basic activities like rescuing hookers and defending drug dealers going on their equivalent of a paper route are entertaining in Saints Row is because the game has rock-solid driving and shooting controls. The game's action is gleefully and appallingly over-the-top to the point of being silly, though the liberal use of profanity and adult content in the script earns this game its M rating with honors. The dozens of different cars in the game not only look great but also have distinctly different handling characteristics, yet they're all quite easy to steer through tight turns and oncoming traffic and so forth. What's more, the game is filled with truly spectacular explosions and a good selection of guns. Also, you'll frequently get to fight alongside up to three computer-controlled "homies," who'll do a thoroughly competent job of following you around and helping you kill whoever's shooting at you.
With the exception of a few fairly tough story missions and higher-level side missions, the game is very forgiving. Your character's health automatically regenerates if you avoid taking damage for a while, and you can suffer a lot of punishment before you die anyway. Also, you can carry health-restoring food items around with you, but even if you do get smoked during a mission, you're then conveniently prompted to start it over from the beginning, instantly. The alternative, when you die, is a quick trip back to a hospital, from which you can easily carry on. The game is awfully nice when your friends die, too. If you have allied gang members following you around and one of them gets knocked out, you've got 30 seconds in which you can instantly "revive" the guy (by pouring a 40 oz. beer on him, which may or may not be dumb). While this sure beats having to restart a mission because a computer-controlled character got himself killed, the system is really too generous since it effectively makes your allies invincible.
Saints Row offers some other conveniences that are on the verge of being innovations, most notably in its map system. Your onscreen minimap doesn't just point you in the general direction of where you need to go (if you have a mission objective); it shows you an optimal path to get there. This makes navigating Stilwater's streets, especially during high-speed chases, much simpler than in similar games, where finding your way around a city can be as tough as evading the authorities. Also, the game's main map can be instantly brought up at any time at the touch of the start button, and you can always set a waypoint from wherever you are to wherever you want to go. Saints Row even lets you save your progress whenever you want, and your hideout can be magically used to store dozens of different vehicles and an unlimited supply of basic weapons. All of these little things add up to make Saints Row, in a couple of words, very playable. You get to spend your time in this game getting to places you want to go and undertaking action-packed missions, rather than getting stuck in trial-and-error ruts, getting lost, staring at a lot of loading screens, or feeling like you're not making progress.
Much like GTA's world, the world of Saints Row looks a lot more realistic than it really is. You can safely ignore all traffic laws, and even if you do start to commit wanton acts of unprovoked violence, there's little real consequence. This doesn't mean it isn't fun to stir up trouble, though, such as by holding up a liquor store or driving down a busy sidewalk. Getting into serious trouble takes a little work, as the cops won't come after you for speeding or running red lights or anything like that. In fact, they'll ignore you even if you jump on the hood of one of their squad cars with a shotgun in hand. It takes a fairly deliberate and violent act to draw the authorities' attention, and you also need to watch out for rival enemy gang members, who may come after you in increasing numbers should you start killing their own. This can make for some exciting pitched battles, when your gang, an enemy gang, and the cops are all having it out. If you've got some gang members with you, they'll shoot automatically while you drive around, and some sequences (predictably) put you in the gunner position while a computer-controlled character does the driving. You can even shoot and drive at the same time, though it's hard to concentrate on both steering and aiming.
The game plays up its gang-warfare angle quite a bit. Sometimes rival gangs will attack your districts, prompting you to head there and take out enemy lieutenants or else lose your grip on the territory. You'll also get to raid enemy strongholds, which take the form of action-packed on-foot shooting missions. Especially since the minimap shows you all enemies in the vicinity, it's not difficult to take on vastly superior odds, but these missions still make for a satisfying diversion from all the driving around. Some nonviolent activities are available, as well. The game tasks you with spraying over rival gangs' graffiti around the city, as well as finding hidden music CDs strewn about all corners of the map. You can shop for new clothes and jewelry, as well as customize your cars with a wide variety of accesories, a couple of which--nitrous and hydraulics--are functional, not just cosmetic. You can also use your cell phone to dial up phone numbers you'll see advertised around Stilwater, which leads to a few amusing gags.
Saints Row is most similar to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, in particular. Vice City and San Andreas each had their own distinct senses of style, their own protagonists, and their own extras that substantially added to GTA III's formula. In turn, the scope of Saints Row's content is similar to that landmark game. There are a ton of different cars you can steal and drive, but there aren't any motorcycles on the road, no boats to be driven out in the bay, and no planes to be flown. GTA-style taxi missions, police vigilante missions, and ambulance rescue missions aren't in here, and for some reason, Stilwater has no fire trucks in it (though it does have meter maids doling out parking tickets). The setting of Stilwater feels big at first, but you can drive from one end of the city to the other in just a few minutes (if you drive fast, of course). There are a decent number of cars on the road and people on the streets, but it gets nowhere near as dense as the sort of gridlock you get in real-world cities. Of course, you'll almost never encounter a locked car door, either. The city itself is similar to GTA III's Liberty City, since it seems like any major American metropolis, with all the various types of districts you'd expect and a few bridges and highways tying it all together. You even play as a silent "everyman" protagonist throughout the game, who interacts with the other characters in the story mostly by nodding in acknowledgment. And there's a great classical music station on the radio, among others.
The game's lack of originality is probably the worst thing that can be said about it, but Saints Row does have some other shortcomings. For instance, it doesn't have much in the way of mission variety. Since driving and shooting are the two main aspects of play, there are only so many different variations on these themes that the game is able to cook up, and you've probably seen most of it before in other games. Saints Row is a satisfyingly long game that'll probably take you about 20 hours to get to the end of the main storyline, but while you'll likely have many activities left to do and only around a 60 percent completion rate by that time, you won't necessarily feel compelled to keep doing the same types of missions over and over again. Thankfully, the game makes good use of unlockable achievements, which may entice you to dig deeper into the minigames and other minor tasks, as well as the multiplayer mode.
Saints Row features a complete multiplayer component for up to 12 players, playable online or via system link. There are a variety of modes of play, most of which are familiar in concept. There's "big ass chains," in which players must gun each other down and drop each others' necklaces off at certain points on the map. The more necklaces you're carrying before you drop them off, the bigger you score, forcing you to decide just how many necklaces are worth risking your neck for. There's also a round-based mode in which one team must escort a pimp to safety while the other team tries to mow him down. The pimp is unarmed, but his slap is deadlier than concentrated fire from an assault rifle. There's a pure deathmatch mode and a team-based variant, and there's also a mode in which teams must fight each other to try and upgrade their cars as quickly as possible. Finally, there are a couple of two-player cooperative missions, in which you and a friend must team up to take on lots of computer-controlled gang members. We experienced noticeable lag in larger multiplayer matches, though the co-op missions played smoothly.
The game doesn't give particularly good feedback for when you're taking fire, resulting in situations where you'll drop dead for no apparent reason. This also means the gunplay during multiplayer doesn't pack much of an impact. However, probably the biggest issue with the multiplayer part of Saints Row is that it takes the shooting and driving out of the context of an open-ended gameworld, leaving behind unremarkably straightforward action. It's possible to form a "gang" of players--like a team or a clan--and compete against other gangs online, and you can also furnish your multiplayer character with different clothing and accessories. The prematch lobby even lets you run around blasting whoever else is in the room, and there's a really great announcer, to boot. But these types of features don't make multiplayer Saints Row comparably as good as the single-player portion. You get the impression that the multiplayer portion was sort of thrown in, especially since the game's pretty-looking but not-very-useful manual barely even mentions it.
At least during the single-player portion, Saints Row features an impressive presentation that's deeply tied to what makes the game compelling--it's like a marginally slicker Grand Theft Auto, especially if you play it in HD. For a scummy-looking city, Stilwater sure is pretty, thanks partly to realistic weather and lighting effects and all the excellent-looking cars on the road. Some of the cars look like old pieces of trash on their last remaining miles, while others are high-performance roadsters, and there's seemingly everything in between. And they all blow up very nicely indeed, spraying metal and tires everywhere as the carcass of the vehicle launches into the sky--an effect that doesn't cease to be entertaining even after you've seen it hundreds of times. Unfortunately, there are noticeable and ugly graphical glitches that crop up from time to time, especially in certain areas where level geometry or textures will seem to pop in and out wildly. Also, cars can be seen materializing on the horizon, especially on the freeway, or sometimes disappearing for no obvious reason. The frame rate, while mostly stable, sometimes gets significantly slow and choppy when there's a lot going on.
The game's audio may not stand out quite as prominently as the visuals, but it's even better. The sounds of gunfire and car crashes are wincingly loud, and the game makes excellent use of surround-sound audio systems if you have one. One particularly great effect is how you can hear muffled music playing on a particular car's radio while outside. Hop in that car, and then the sound's all clear. The voice performances of the main cast are uniformly excellent, and there are a number of great radio stations featuring a terrific selection of artists, ranging from Iggy Pop to Wagner and from De La Soul to Ratt. You'll almost certainly find a couple of stations you really like, and the game even lets you create your own playlist of songs, which you can listen to anytime during gameplay--not just while in a car.
Games don't have to be different to be great. What makes Saints Row appealing straight off the bat is that, assuming you're familiar with the wildly successful GTA series, you'll know exactly what you're getting into from the moment you jack your first car in this game. And the experience must have been deliberately designed with this in mind. By playing with a few of GTA's storytelling and design conventions, and addressing a few of the gameplay issues we've come to expect as a necessary part of the GTA formula, Saints Row earns its own colors and makes for a welcome addition to just about any R-rated-movie-watching Xbox 360 owner's library.