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.
As for the on-foot portion of the game, Saints Row gets things absolutely spot-on. The controls are just about perfect, giving you just the right amount of aiming sensitivity and making it possible to see what's going on with a precise and easy to use camera system that you control with the right stick. In this respect, Saints Row wins hands-down over the comparatively clunky GTA, and it's a testament to the intuitive feel of the controls that you don't miss the absence of a target lock-on. In addition, the weapon select process is also handled excellently, offering players the chance to call up a circular menu by holding down B, and quickly selecting with the left stick - an approach which makes it really easy to swap weapons in the heat of battle. On the other hand, Volition arguably goes too far in the other direction with its too-forgiving approach to health. By allowing the player to recharge their health by simply staying out of trouble for about 15 seconds, it's far too easy to romp through missions by backing off whenever there's a bit of trouble. It makes you lazy, and means that nothings ever that much of a challenge. Worse still, the AI gang members that you can bring along with you can be instantly and repeatedly revived if they run out of energy - so long as you get to them within 30 seconds.
Whenever you do fail a mission (for whatever reason), you get the chance to retry it rather than being dumped back where you messed up (or outside the police station/hospital). Not only does this simple process save you an enormous amount of time, but you're guaranteed to restart your failed mission with the same vehicle and weapons, rather than have to do all sorts of time-wasting preparation as is the norm in GTA. Admittedly, on the multi-part missions you still have to suffer the tedious frustration of doing the same long drive ("yes, you know I can do this bit"), and the same simple bits ("yes, you know I can shoot these guys") over and over just to get to the stupidly difficult end section ("you want me to chase after an insanely fast car that can squeeze through the tiniest gaps that you know I'll probably get snagged on. Thanks"), but we're still thankful for small mercies. On the whole, our blind rage was kept in check for most of the time, with only a few utterly ludicrous parts (delivery truck part 3 - that's all I'm saying) where we wanted to pour lemon juice into the eyes of the designers. If only so they could feel our pain.
There's also a small question mark over why Volition felt it was entirely necessary to clear each and every stronghold of each and every gang before you can unlock the final mission in each storyline. Not only is it a drag (requiring you to earn respect from numerous activities before the game deigns to let you play them), but the vast majority of the stronghold missions are the same trudge through a building filled with gun-toting, smack talking bitches(sorry). It's like those sodding warehouse missions in The Godfather - just put there to pad the game out and force you to do things that aren't especially integral to the game. But, in a mindless sense, you chip through them and feel a numb enjoyment from the comfortable familiarity. It's another of those guilty pleasures. The main problem, again, is the demented respect system that dictates the flow of your enjoyment when you should be given the freedom to play them or not.
Pimp my pride
Nevertheless, the game's exceptionally well put together. Even its approach to pimping yourself up is handled far better than any other comparative game, with the clothes, jewellery and tattoos you choose counting towards the amount of respect you earn (as part of a respect modifier applied when you succeed a mission). And as a sandbox, the diverse city of Stillwater is superb. Similar in size to Vice City, it's designed with the architectural flair of GTA III, which makes it possible to know where you are and where you're going in no time. Regardless of whether the buildings are important to the game or not, you sense that real pride has gone into creating a intricate city, with a character borne out of genuine craft rather than cut and paste haste. The graffiti designs and three dimensional façades give the place a real depth that's been lacking in other openworld games, and apart from the odd (very occasional) graphical glitch, it's a fine looking game. You might spot a touch of pop up where cars suddenly appear from nowhere, but it's nothing remotely game-breaking. The things that make up for such minor issues are the astonishing explosions, the varied weather and lighting conditions, and some of the crazy incidents you see on your travels. It's definitely a game with a real eye for detail that speaks volumes for Volitions pride in the project - but we just can't work out why the dev team allowed it to ship with such vile v-sync tearing. It's not something that normally catches our eye, but it's here in abundance, which is a great shame.
Elsewhere, the audio never even comes close to matching the peerless excellence of GTA. It tries to do exactly the same things, complete with multi genre radio stations, talks shows, crazed DJs and witty adverts, but it's rare to find yourself stopped in your tracks because of something you just had to listen to. The music selection certainly isn't bad, with a varied selection of classic rock, metal, modern alternative rock, classical and oodles of hip-hop. Far from being the rap overload it could so easily have been, it's actually very good, and goes much further than any other game that has attempted to ape GTA in the past. It was always going to be a tall order to top GTA's amazing radio stations, but Saints Row is a fine effort.
Perhaps inevitably, the online multiplayer is something of an afterthought, and at the time of writing is practically a waste of time thanks to some terrible lag issues that often make it unplayable. Using some hastily constructed arena maps that bear no resemblance to the main game, you've got a few basic deathmatch, capture the flag (chains, in this case) and escort-inspired modes (including team variants) to be getting on with, supporting up to 12 players either via system link or over Xbox Live. In addition, there's a team deathmatch variant that somehow manages to squeeze in the premise that you're pimping up your ride before your opponent, as well a few two-player co-op missions against AI. On the plus side, you can create your own gang or clan in the online world, but at this present time, it's hard to imagine why you'd want to spend too long suffering the lag problems that seem to affect every game. It's an issue the developer is well aware of, so it may well be fully fixed in due course, but be aware that players all over the world are reporting the same problems. The fact that the game's own manual skirts over the subject of online gives you a fair impression of how bolted on it was.
On reflection, Saints Row never quite measures up to its celebrated rival. Why? Well, not just because it's not as funny or as interesting, but because it lacks the true scope and ambition of, say, Vice City or San Andreas. For a start, the vehicles are focused on four wheelers, and that's that. No bikes, choppers, boats, tanks, planes, and definitely no jetpacks! By limiting the game in this way, it feels old school by design. It's 2001's GTA 3 with better visuals, essentially. And with only 36 story missions, the fun's over in about 20 hours, too. And that's taking the activities into account too. Yes, you will spend more time getting a 100 per cent rating, but maybe only in pursuit of those damned gamerpoints.
So, it may lack the scope of Rockstar's finest and has a few multiplayer issues to sort out, but Saints Row is still a decent game with a lot going for it. Sure, it's probably the most morally bankrupt game we've ever come across, but if you delight in extreme violence, language that would make Tarantino blush and a more forgiving take on the GTA theme then you've come to the right game. Throw in some excellent mini games, multiplayer diversions, a huge array of customisation options and excellent production values and Saints Row is easily a strong enough game in its own right to survive the inevitable comparisons. It seemed unlikely, but Saints Row has turned out to be a decent game, and at the very least it should help keep you going until GTA IV rolls around at the back end of next year. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.
7 / 10