Version tested: Xbox 360
Despite the predictably provocative strap line, we're not going to bang on too much about the ridiculous number of similarities between Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto (and it is astonishing). Rather than get steamed up at the death of creativity and end up ranting incredulously "and they even stole this bit!", we're in the 'talent borrows, genius steals' camp today. We're also interested in how we managed to glean so much enjoyment from such dead-eyed creative bankruptcy. In some senses it's a terrible game that you want to take an AK47 to, yet there you are, 25 hours into it, 3AM in the morning, still enjoying it.
Whether you're sick to death of the glorification of gangster theme, bored of GTA-style games or you just plain hate what the game stands for, the thing that it's hard to escape how well-crafted it is. And how enjoyable it is. It's like a McDonald's burger; you know you shouldn't like it, but man it tastes so good. The most puzzling thing is - unlike a BigMac - it's a curiously moreish experience that keeps you coming back for more.
Saints Row is, quite simply, a 'product' in the most calculated sense. THQ and Volition sat down a couple of years back and identified not only what was so popular about GTA, but what people hated about it. So, what we've ended up with is something that's not just specifically designed to appeal to the mammoth GTA audience, but makes an effort to fix all manner of irritations that have bugged fans for years. It effortlessly ticks all the right boxes. It's playable, fun, and forgiving, yet also remembers to be challenging, diverse, absorbing and epic. It's also very very slick, and polished to the nth degree. The hardest thing about the game is getting over your own dogged preconceptions and slightly irrational prejudices.
I fought the law, and I won
As is now 'the law' for games of this ilk, you start off as a bit of a nobody, joining the ranks of a no-mark gang in a typically beaten down US city. And as is now seemingly the law for videogames in general, you get to tweak a set of sliders and design your own 'homie' using a flexible character creation tool until you're happy with the results. Somewhat inappropriately, we chose to throw a skinny ginger white boy with a pimp tash into the downtrodden urban neighbourhood of the 3rd Street Saints. Fortunately, they didn't seem to mind the look we gave 'Ben', and soon enough you're sent off on a bunch of errands that act as a fairly seamless tutorial to how the game's divides your time between ploughing through story missions and various activities.
The first thing you come to realise is that you need to gain a certain amount of 'respect' (kill me now) before you're deemed worthy of being able to tackle the story missions on offer. Doing so requires a concerted effort to engage with all manner of peripheral activities dotted around the game map, including drug trafficking, destruction derby, race, escorting, hitman, snatch, mayhem, hostage, insurance fraud, among others.
Some are more instantly engaging than others - insurance fraud, for example, is a wonderful addition, in that it tasks you to rack up a certain amount of insurance claims within a strict time limit. You can try throwing yourself under a speeding car, or crash a vehicle so hard that you get catapulted through the windscreen. It's brilliant fun. Mayhem is another obvious highlight, whereby (rather like Rampage in GTA) you get to cause as much death and destruction within a time limit. Elsewhere, other activities task you with escorting unfortunate prostitutes away from evil pimps, or protecting a drug runner while he's on his round. Each start off being relatively simple affairs, but soon ramp up the difficulty as you complete each level and end up being devilishly challenging and quite addictive. Far from being the type of throwaway optional extras, their mandatory presence is something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it's good to see the mini games not thrown in purely to pad the whole thing out, but on the other it can feel tiresome to have your progress into the main story part of the game effectively barred. As such, you regularly find yourself spending a solid half an hour meandering around trying to eke out more respect from mini games in order to make any progress whatsoever - whether you want to or not. You do have the option of gaining respect in other ways (such as taking hostages from vehicles (with at least one non-driving passenger) and driving them around for a minute or so until they cough up the dosh), but there's a building sense of impatience that the game is artificially holding you back from making progress - and it does so in a cheap manner that could so easily been avoided. It does force you to see more of what the game has to offer, and it does make the whole experience more varied, but there are times when you could do without half a dozen levels of Escort just so you can start a bloomin' mission.
Crow sits on a blood tree
When you do get a chance to power ahead and tackle the four main story arcs, the missions are largely drawn from the standard combat and driving pot pourri - with a lavishly detailed and well-animated cut scene introduction setting the scene for your criminal antics, complete with your mute lead character nodding his way through proceedings while the gang lords take centre stage. But as hard as Volition tries, it never quite manages to engage the viewer with consistently sharp writing and memorable one-liners, despite some decent voice actors that mostly manage to deliver without making us cringe to death. Much of the time the dialogue wafts over your head as yet another scene of expletive laden macho posturing plays out with tenuous irony; you'll be too busy marvelling at the incredible crow's feet around the characters eyes, or watching the lip syncing to really zone in on why it is you've got to go and kill another 30 badly dressed young men holding their guns at the wrong angle.
But what really holds the whole of Saints Row together is how rock solid the driving and shooting really are, along with some vital design decisions that make us want to kiss Volition for sparing us the kind of frustration that Rockstar seems to take sick delight in.
On the driving side, Saints Row slightly underplays the spongy handling of GTA, but instantly it just feels 'right' in that you can still take corners like a maniac and speed around the city without fear of wiping out every ten seconds. In addition, the range of vehicles in the game is diverse enough to make your choice an important one. Picking up a beaten up old banger versus a plush sporty number often makes the difference between success and failure - especially when it comes to finding one that can take the kind of punishment meted out by Stillwater's determined law enforcement patrols. Is it better than GTA? Hmm, probably not, but it's a close run thing. Being able to shoot while driving is useful, but the control mapping could be a little more helpful. One absolutely fantastic touch we should mention about the cars, though, is the way you can hear the bass throb of whatever's playing on its sound system as you get near to it. Step inside and the whole thing becomes clear. Cool.