There's undoubtedly something of a dilemma when first playing Volition's Saint's Row. It's too easy to yell "It's a GTA clone!" and be done with it - you want to rise above that. But, erk, Saint's Row is so similar to Rockstar's series in so many ways that it's beyond impossible to ignore. The look, the map design, the animations... the gameplay, all walk that incredibly tenuous and crumbling pathway along the cliff edge of Inspiration above the fetid waters of Copying.
There are, however, two decent arguments in its favour:
1) If you make something very similar to something very good, you make something that could possibly be very good.
2) And if you do it on next-gen tech, and add in the multiplayer that was so sorely missed in San Andreas, you justify a fair amount of attention.
So let's give that multiplayer some attention. Revealed to us only last week, we had the opportunity to sit down and experience all four multiplayer modes in a competitive environment: we were playing against people from other magazines and websites! Ick!
Saint's Row is set in the city of Stilwater, loosely based on Illinois (Go Sox!), in a world of gangs and pimps and hos. Its single-player game (recently explored by Kristan) sees you progress from low-level gang dogsbody to ultimate kingpin, as you take over the city section by section, pitting gang against gang in an almighty battle for territorial bling. This is a big, living city, and unlike the hollow lies of recent freeform city-based games (look at the floor, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland), there are genuinely no load times as you explore. This is next-gen put to good use, with all the futuristic lighting you'd expect for a game with day/night cycles, all the Havok 3 physics you could ask for, and player customisability beyond our expectations. But more importantly, since it's a 360-only release, it's Xbox Live put to good use as well.
Played in smaller sections of the city, the multiplayer games are a pleasant surprise. While we're still a bit worried that the single-player game might not be distinct enough from the source of its stem cells (we believe they only needed to take two of them to create it), we are relieved to report that the multiplayer is far from the tacked-on afterthoughts that plague modern gaming. Not only are all four modes rather fun to play, they're all embedded in the context of the game, inventively expanding upon the central themes in a way that could only be realised via group play.
Further attracting our attention to the multiplayer potential is the character creator. More elaborate even than Oblivion's face-contorting, and with costume options matching City of Heroes' in terms of range (if not nearly in style), there's no doubt that you'll be able to generate a character remarkably unique to you. My baseball cap and jacket wearing average Jo (with receding hair, most peculiar nose, and a worrying overbite) competed against the likes of a foppish, big-headed weirdo suited all in white, with a floppy white hat, and a balding, hugely overweight middle-aged man, wearing only red spotty boxershorts, his hairy belly flopping over - ew. This individuality is then further embellished by the game's system of rewarding victory. Rather than a high score table, Saint's Row presents winners with 'bling' - new items and accessories for their character unavailable to life's losers. The idea is, as time progresses, the very best players will look the very best, earning respect via their personal pimpage. An excellent idea. It's like having a giant purple sword in WoW, but without the nerdy shame (or deeply disturbing double-entendre).
Wanna be in my gang?
There are four modes in which your avatar can bust caps (or something): Gansta Brawl, Big Ass Chains, Protect the Pimp, and best of all, Blinged Out Ride. And pleasingly, there's a holding area between them all where players hang out while the game prepares itself, allowing you to shoot your buddies for fun - far better than a loading screen.
Gansta Brawl is perhaps the most obvious of modes. Up to twelve players enter a sectioned-off region of the city and then kill each other a bunch. Deathmatch. The level we were in played like an arena - a dirty wasteground with half-finished building projects, and best of all, little battery-driven vehicles to hop in. As you'd expect, there are weapons hidden all over to improve upon the starting pistol, allowing a well-executed third-person free-for-all. Necessary, but not nearly as interesting as the rest of the modes.
Big Ass Chains represents the first step up in inventive play. It's Capture The Flag if flags are chains and there's loads of them everywhere. Still you versus everyone, the aim is to return as many of the gold chains, scattered about the streets and houses, to a roaming base (located on the map), while preventing your opponents from doing the same. Kill them and all the chains they're carrying fall to the ground. Pick them all up and you're very vulnerable to attack from everyone else. It's an interesting balance of tactics, risking gathering more gold over finding your drop-off point, and the back-and-forth nature of garnering the dropped chains of fallen opponents means things remain frantic and engrossing. Lots of shouting, "OH YOU BASTARD!" is to be expected for those playing via the system link.
The other two modes are team-based (or perhaps more properly, gang-based). Again, remembering that simplicity in action multiplayer is vital, both modes introduce more complicated tactics while maintaining instant nature of non-stop action.
Protect the Pimp splits those playing into two gangs, and a member of one team is randomly assigned as the Pimp, the rest charged with escorting him to the level's exit. The other team has to prevent the Pimp from escaping the level by killing him and his cohorts. The Pimp is very vulnerable, but not helpless - he is armed with the Cane, a one-hit-kills melee weapon for last-ditch desperate survival. Or twatting players who can't aim. Clearly this is a mode that will become increasingly interesting as players learn the layout of the buildings in which the levels are set, and develop tactics for escape or the prevention of it.
Finally, and definitely most entertaining, is Blinged Out Ride. (Look, you're doing very well coping with all this "bling" nonsense - bear with it). Once again players are split into two teams, charged with stealing a car and upgrading it a number of times. In order to do this, money must be earned to pay for the car-pimping. Nicely, this is executed by applying elements of other multiplayer modes - killing other players or blowing up their cars to steal their cash, or collecting gold chains and returning them to base. Once you have enough cash you can drive your car to an upgrade shop and have it souped up to the next level. Reach level 4, and drop it off at your final base to win.
But, of course, there's the slight hindrance of the other team attempting to do exactly the same thing, and preventing you from succeeding by the rather effective means of blowing your car up. So blow theirs up first, silly. The volume of team-based tactics to apply here are extremely enticing, and our amateur attempts revealed a lot of potential. Four members of your team can get in a car at any time, and then you can go off to perform a drive-by execution of the rival gang members. Or perhaps you'd rather hide your car in a garage and sneak around gathering cash, avoiding the enemy's bullets? Or how about creating a motorcade to protect your main machine from the other gang's fire? Or... See, there's potential here.
It's a tribute?
How much hindrance Saint's Row will face for its unsubtle and uncanny similarities to GTA remains to be seen. While the developers are keen to explain that their game takes the focus away from a single, linear plot (check out our forthcoming interview with the game's lead designer for more details), and instead focuses on elaborating upon the freeform elements of its inspiring source, it's hard not to feel an extreme sense of deja vu. However, there's no doubt that the multiplayer is original to the genre. And better, rather than simply relying on that, Volition have ensured it's inventive and imaginative multiplayer with a decent long-term potential. We'll have the definitive answer to these pondering thoughts closer to the game's release.
Saint's Row is due September 1st, but we'll be back long before then with an interview with lead designer Chris Stockman. And probably cappin' yo bitch ass if we see you in the street.