Saints Row

It is hard to ignore the influence Grand Theft Auto III had left on the gaming world and it is even harder to ignore the games that blatantly rip off the open-world, do-anything-and-go-anywhere universe Rockstar North’s series has created. You feel its presence in games like True Crime, see its obvious influence on The Godfather: The Game and roll your eyes at games that have failed to go beyond what the GTA series has introduced and evolved with its sequels. THQ’s Saint’s Row is but the first GTA-inspired game on the Xbox 360 and while it makes no excuses for “borrowing” elements from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the game manages to be one highly entertaining, malt liquored-flavor romp in a playground worth your time and money.

Your new stomping grounds this time is a city called Stilwater where rival gangs fight to take control of the city and where crime reigns supreme. You start the game by creating your avatar, a young blood that can be Caucasian, Latino, Asian or African-American (the game uses a slimmed down version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour’s Game Face) who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a gang shootout. Just when you’re about to receive a bullet to the head, you are saved by Julius Little, the leader of the 3rd Street Saints. Soon you are invited to join the gang and it is here where you, a nobody, rises up in rank to become the feared gangster rival gangs will come to know. Oh and there’s much more to the story than just being a top member of your new gang, the story progresses through a variety of missions and things get a bit more interesting later.

The city of Stilwater is open to you from the very beginning and the game doesn’t really push you into starting a story-related mission. In fact, once the opening cinematic if finished, you’re free to jack a car and drive anywhere on the massive map without experiencing a single load time. There are several sections of the city that range from Chinatown to the Red Light District where pimps walk the streets and sirens can be heard in the distance. You’ll find that Stilwater possesses a number of shops from a secondhand clothing store, liquor stores, a music shop (to buy tunes you can play in your car), a gun store as well as a burger joint. Yet if you want to progress or open new areas, you have to complete missions and there are plenty of those in this game.

As far as the missions are concerned, the game handles them much like the Grand Theft Auto series. You not only complete tasks for Julius Little but also other high-ranking members of the 3rd Street Saints as well. The missions have you destroying a rival gang’s drug labs to reclaiming a neighborhood taken over by Stilwater’s main gangs like the Vice Kings, Los Carnales and the West Side Rollerz. Successfully completing a mission means your gang now controls that specific area and that means you will have to defend it from gang attack often. Hey, that sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it? There are more familiar things in the game as well such as street races, a demolition derby you can participate in and there are also missions that have you transporting prostitutes to their destination. You can even go to a mod shop and modify your car or go into a store to buy new clothes. Complete missions and you’ll earn respect points that will allow you to recruit homies both male and female (you’ll know them by their purple shirts) to use on missions or rampages.

What little elements of originality Saint’s Row does possess are actually excellent. For instance, you can collect a big payoff by completing the insurance fraud missions that have you diving in front of a car. The better the car or, better yet, if you jump in front of a police car with witnesses watching, you’ll make tons of dough. There are escort missions that play to specific locations as well as unique hitman missions. The most entertaining of the side missions happens to be Mayhem, a mode that has you attempting to cause as much damage to property and people before the time runs out and that includes running over mailboxes, ramming into other cars and kicking people on the sidewalk. You can also walk into a store, point your gun at the proprietor and have him or her take you to their vault. If a stickup isn’t your kind of thing, you can always jack an expensive car with a passenger and drive around until the “hostage” forks over all his or her money.

Driving is actually handled fairly well in the game and while there are times when you will have to wrestle with the camera, the joy of head-on collisions is just priceless. Borrowing from True Crime: New York City, you can collide with a car head-on and watch as the passenger of the other car is ejected through the windshield only to land on the hood of your vehicle like a rag doll. Your recruited homies can take shotgun, firing from the window and even you can fire your gun at enemies. Each vehicle drives different whether you’re behind the wheel of a classic muscle car or a slow SUV. Much like the GTA series, your vehicle can catch on fire but with the only difference is that when it does explode, the chunks that rain down can actually hurt or kill you. Sorry but there are no motorcycles in the game so bike fans are out of luck here.

On foot, your character is actually a pretty tough fighter that can hold his own without weapons. When you are armed, aiming is handled beautifully so you will be glad for the healthy arsenal list that includes sub machine guns, shotguns, knives and different pistols. You won’t learn new moves but completing certain tasks will eventually lead to great extras such as the respawning of favorite weapons in your crib. Jacking cars is also easy so you can always make quick getaways when you need to get out of a location in a hurry. Thankfully, your homies aren’t dumb and can really hold their own in a fight without mindlessly being stuck behind a wall and you can easily revive them if they go down by pouring a 40 on them. Thanks to a GPS-like tracking system, it’s also impossible to get lost since the dots that point the way to your destination can rectify itself if you happen to make a wrong turn.

Ultimately, copying the best aspects of San Andreas as well as a few other GTA imitators pay off well for Saint’s Row. With all the story missions and variety of side missions, there is a lot going for the game despite the fact that Stilwater lacks some fun little distractions like the ability to enter a store to play a video game or walk into a bar for a game of pool. There is no jumping off a skyscraper with a parachute or taking a girl out on a date. Still, even with the lack of these little minor details, Saint’s Row is such a blast to play that you will be ignoring its few weak spots.

What will have you deeply enthralled as well is the fact that up to 12 players can play seven different multiplayer games through Xbox Live or by using a System Link connection. Imagine joining up with a group in a number of multiplayer maps for a game like Gangsta Brawl, Mob Rule, Turbulence or Big Ass Chains. The wealth of creativity that goes in making your own customized multiplayer co-op game makes multiplayer such a joy while, for the most part, Blinged Out Ride is the created game most gamers will be playing. Here you can lead a gang or join a gang into modifying a cool ride and taking it from one point to the next before your opponent does. Here is the catch: Your opponent can try to wreck your ride by shooting at it and thus you are forced to go back to make repairs. Thankfully, you can do the same to your opponent. If it sounds fun that’s because it is and much props should go to the team for even making the lobby screen fun as well.

On the visual front, Saint’s Row is a mighty good-looking game that’s not quite next-generation but not bad at all either. Just the lighting effects alone are a nice touch and the way cars explode in a fiery mess with car parts raining down on the street puts DRIV3R to shame. The Havok effects are put to good use in this game and the way a fallen enemy goes limp just doesn’t fail to put a smile on my face. The character models look good both in the cutscenes and during the action and the vehicles look even better. The city of Stilwater is a seedy place and that looks alive. Overall, this game is easy on the eyes but it could have done without the annoying pop-ins (cars and people appearing out of nowhere is so PS2).

The game’s tongue-in-cheek dialogue isn’t bad considering the fact that it’s being spoken by some good actors like Michael Clarke Duncan (of “The Green Mile“) as well as a supporting cast that includes Tia Carrere, Mila Kunis (of “That 70s Show“), Freddy Rodriguez and Clancy Brown. Much like the GTA games there are radio stations aplenty (everything from classical to hip-hop and alternative rock) with commercials as well as a talk show as well but somehow they miss the mark in the comedy department. What we hear is funny but not witty and the overuse of bad language is like a preppy kid trying desperately to fit in with the “street” kids. The sound effects are actually Ok and certain sounds actually drive home the feeling that you’re in a bad part of the neighborhood (ambulance and police sirens sounds as well as distant firearms fire) or an industrial part (tapping of hammers and the sounds of drills). You’ll know the A-Train is coming because you’ll actually hear the operator announcing the next destination.

The result is a game that is not very original at all but at least what is here is good and thus making this a fun game to play. Saint’s Row just doesn’t borrow a few GTA elements here and there, it actually steals them and makes it their own but luckily we end up benefiting from this. A few problems aside, the fun missions, cool massive city and a great multiplayer mode just make this a worthwhile game you will want to buy for your Xbox 360.

Review Scoring Details for Saints Row

Gameplay: 8.5
As far as Grand Theft Auto imitators are concerned, Saint’s Row does a good job of making both on-foot activities and driving action as smooth and as fun as possible. It’s actually an enjoyable experience giving somebody a beating or getting into a gunfight and the first time you collide with another car in your “borrowed” ride and watching the passenger fly out the windshield is pure gaming gold. The variety of missions varies from great to funny to tedious.

Graphics: 8.2
There is a lot here that does not scream next-generation and there are things that made good use of the Xbox 360 graphical capabilities. The car models look amazing as do most of the character models that crumple like rag dolls when they’re killed or injured. Fire and explosions will not fail to impress but the pop-in and the occasional framerate stutter just have no place here.

Sound: 8.5
The decent voice acting from the likes of Hollywood talents like Michael Rapaport, David Carradine and Michael Clarke Duncan is a highlight as is the collection of tunes from recognizable music talents like Fall Out Boy as well as some head-scratching tunes from bands like Ratt (yeah, the heavy metal band). The rest of the sound is composed of so-so radio talk shows, sometimes-funny commercials, and pedestrian dialogue. The sound effects aren’t bad either.

Difficulty: Medium
Many of the missions have multiple objectives to complete and some you’ll wish had checkpoints but there is nothing here that will have you yanking out hair from your head. The various side missions start easy enough and get harder the higher the level you reach.

Concept: 8.5
There is nothing original about Saint’s Row except for the fact that you can create your own character and there’s a solid online multiplayer mode. The game literally steals many elements from San Andreas including turf wars, hidden packages (that come in the form of CDs) and upgrading your stolen rides. You can even recruit homies and go on wild rampages. The original stuff, like the insurance fraud missions, will make you wish there were more like them scattered throughout the game.

Multiplayer: 8.9
The game’s multiplayer is the reason you will still be hanging out in the city of Stilwater. Up to 12 players can hit the streets in a variety of multiplayer modes you can play on Xbox Live or through a System Link setup. The modes, like Blinged Out Ride and Protect Tha Pimp are not amazing but they are original and fun enough to have you playing them often.

Overall: 8.7
Aping all of the things we love about the Grand Theft Auto series, Saint’s Row is an Xbox 360 game that is definitely not very original but is still one hell of a fun ride. While you can point out a number of elements taken from San Andreas, the game does try to bring its own sense of style plus a robust online multiplayer to make this a Grade A gangsta-themed imitator with a lot going for it. If you can only buy one 360 action title this summer, make it Saint’s Row.
16.10.06 17:20
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