Xbox 360 Review - Saints Row
Developer Volition Inc. • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360
Version Reviewed UK PAL • UK Release September 1st 2006
Saints Row is a game which has garnered much of its media attention from being audaciously similar to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. Consequently, many have been quick to dismiss the title as a poor imitation of the franchise that it pays homage to, but those willing to spend some time roaming the mean streets of Stilwater will discover a very good game; one which not only accomplishes the GTA formula with aplomb, but also improves upon it.
Saints Row has a similar gangland influenced narrative to that of the Grand Theft Auto Games particular San Andreas; in the game’s opening cutscene, your character is caught in the middle of conflict between the Westside Rollerz, Los Carnales and Vice Kings, three rival gangs in the fictional American city of Stilwater. Luckily, the Third Street Saints, another Stilwater gang, show up and altruistically rescue you, seconds before you’re about to be executed. It’s not long before you’re recruited to join the Saints, with the remit of aiding them in reclaiming their neighbourhood and the rest of the city from the other gangs. From the game’s initial cutscenes, it appears that this overarching narrative will be largely forgettable; a mishmash of clumsy ‘urban’ stereotypes with uninspired macho dialogue. However, early on this soon gives way to genuine intrigue, which is helped in no small part to some great voice acting from a cast which includes David Carradine, Keith David, Tia Carrera and Daniel Dae Kim, amongst others. With the narrative and supporting characters established, you’re soon thrown into a city of pushers, pimps and gangbangers which you are freely to explore, whilst also shooting and driving through various missions and objectives that you proceed through in a semi-linear fashion.
No matter how expansive games in this genre become, they are all fundamentally about the same thing; shooting. Shooting people, shooting vehicles, shooting carelessly placed flammable barrels, and so forth. As you might expect, Saints Row is no different, and includes a substantial repertoire of firearms with which to wreak havoc. There are no huge surprises here; you can expect to find the usual array of pistols, semi-automatic rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and grenades, each of which is very well realised. Rather than the ‘weaker’ guns that you receive earlier in the game (such as the Vice-9 pistol) becoming obsolete when more powerful weapons come to hand later on, there’s definitely a sense that each weapon is suited to a particular situation, ensuring that your entire cache remains useful for the duration of the game.
Instead of the generous weapon target-locking system seen in the Grand Theft Auto games and other titles in the genre, Volition has chosen to incorporate a braver, more first-person inspired method of aiming into Saints Row where the player simply controls a crosshair in the centre of the screen with the right thumbstick, squeezing off rounds from their chosen firearm with the right trigger. This really gives the player a great sense of control, and makes the games’ run-and-gun action immensely satisfying, and the game’s use of real-time physics contributes significantly to this; letting off a shotgun in someone’s back, and seeing them react to the angle of your shot is one of the many sadistic pleasures that can be gained from the game’s various weapons.
The manual aiming system also permits players to shoot whilst driving; a feat which is asked of the player on several occasions throughout the various storyline missions. However, this act is significantly difficult, not least because the aiming reticule shares the same control as the camera, often obscuring your view of the road ahead when lining up the perfect shot. If you’re anything like me, trying to not wrap your car around a lamppost whilst shooting out an enemy car’s tyres will usually leave you feeling like you need an extra hand.
Unfortunately, cars are about the only method of transport in the game; there are the occasional variations on this such as golf carts and construction machines, but don’t expect to be piloting planes, speedboats, or even driving motorcycles. This often makes the driving portion of missions fairly repetitive. Despite this, the cars that are featured a massively varied in terms of size, speed and handling, ranging from sports cars to articulated trucks. There is, of course, the option to augment your vehicle at modification shops, with enhancements such as nitrous boosts and hydraulics. To further enhance the driving experience, Volition has introduced a navigation system which has been integrated into the game’s minimap, as a remedy to the vague objective indicators that have appeared in other games. When the player is given a new waypoint, it is not only marked on the map, but the most efficient route to it is plotted out with dotted guidelines. The route dynamically adjusts itself relative to the player’s position in the game world, so you’ll never find yourself stuck on the highway, heading away from your objective again.
As I mentioned earlier, the Saints must battle against three other gangs to reclaim their turf. As you might expect, each of these gangs has a separate narrative to play through, though it is quite possible to dart from one set of missions to another. As you would expect from a game which shares many similarities with the Grand Theft Auto games, the format of these missions probably requires little introduction; drive here, shoot this, and so forth. With that said, the structure of the various missions is actually quite different from that of other games in the genre; rather than non-story missions being auxiliary to the game as a means of unlocking secrets or earning kudos from your friends, they’re actually essential to the progression of the game. Each of the missions in the three main storylines requires you to have a certain amount of Respect, which can be earned by completing the various non-story missions that are littered throughout Stilwater. Whilst this is an interesting mechanic, it sometimes kills the momentum of the narrative, especially in the later stages of the various storylines.
Thankfully, most of these missions are lot of fun, and don’t give you a sense of burning resentment every time you play them. In addition to the usual assortment of hitman, neighbourhood reclamation, racing, pimping and robbery activities, there are a number of new missions that explore other facets of gameplay. For example, the Drug Trafficking activity lets you ride shotgun with a dealer as he makes his neighbourhood rounds, and protect him and his clients from the police and other gangs. This allows the player to concentrate wholly on the act of shooting whilst the AI takes care of the driving, which often leads to some exciting and cinematic chases. Playing to the strengths of the game’s ragdoll character physics, Volition have also included an Insurance Fraud game, where the objective is to throw your character into the midst of oncoming traffic, incurring cash bonuses for hitting certain types of vehicle. The Stronghold activities see you (and a handful of your gang buddies) infiltrating enemy hideouts on foot, and dispatching a requisite number of rival gang members whilst completing other objectives, such as destroying drug caches. These are often the most enjoyable missions in the game, and focus on simple run-and-gun gameplay often serves as a good method of blowing off steam after enduring one of the game’s more frustrating storyline objectives.
And by this token, it’s the new elements that Saints Row brings to the table are often the most endearing; those that take the player beyond the simple feelings of playing a GTA clone. Although some of these elements take a while to materialise, some are obvious upon starting a new game. One of the first things new players will encounter is the incredibly deep character creation system that Volition has engineered, which grants access to several hundred individual options with which to sculpt the visage of your Marcel Marceauesque protagonist. Despite all of these options, editing your character’s physique is fairly limited; muscle and fat can be altered via two independent sliders, but the height is locked. With that said, it’s very easy to overlook, given the complexity of the head and facial customization. It’s also greatly satisfying to see your avatar not only running around within the game world, but also appearing in all of the cut-scenes and interacting with other characters.
The appearance of your criminal avatar can be further modified after this initial creation process; as well as the usual tattoos and haircuts that can be bought from in-game shops, it’s also possible to visit the plastic surgeon to re-edit your character’s look. Of course, you can also purchase clothes which, on top of allowing you to make your character as goofy or cool as you please, also have modifiers which augment the amount of respect that is received upon completing a mission or objective; flying the Saints gang colours (purple) or wearing more expensive items generally has a more profound effect upon this. There are several other shops in the game, where players are able to purchase various items such as weapons, food and vehicle upgrades. Whilst weapons and food are instrumental in your progression, the ability to buy drugs and alcohol seems less necessary. However, downing a beer during a fire fight slows the action right down, allowing you to react quickly to enemy gunfire. Similarly, cosmetically pimping your ride has no discernable effect on gameplay whatsoever, but the act of adding rims, spoilers and a pearlescent paintjob to your newly acquired sports car seems essential, given the setting of the game. The existence of these stores adds significantly to the player’s immersion, not only because of their diversity, but also because of the manner in which the player can seamlessly move between them and the game world. It’s also refreshing that each individual shop has a unique layout, which means that should you choose to hold up its proprietor (yet another minigame), your trip to the safe will be different every time.
Several elements that contribute to Saints Row’s success are those that benefit from the next-gen horsepower granted by the Xbox 360, the graphics certainly being one of the more noteworthy examples. The game’s presentation is very impressive across the board, from the highly detailed character models to the fire and water shaders that add a good deal of believability to your destruction. Dynamic lighting and shadows add significantly to the atmosphere, whereas weather system and accelerated day cycle contribute to the game world’s immersive quality and sense of drama, especially when the stormy, brooding skies of Stilwater’s night shift to the warm hues of morning over the course of a single mission. I should also mention that Saints Row has some of the best explosions I’ve ever seen in a videogame, and trying to create the most ridiculously overblown Michael Bay pyrotechnics is almost a game in itself; tossing a grenade beneath a moving car will typically send the flaming wreck spinning ten metres into the air and spewing out its mechanical guts, before the torched husk slams back down onto the middle of a road, and, if you’re lucky, another vehicle or pedestrian. However, even the 360 has trouble keeping up with the action, and the framerate occasionally takes a hit when there’s quite a lot going on, though this isn’t enough to kill the gameplay for any significant amount of time.
The game’s visual style is perhaps indistinct, although it seems that realism was definitely the goal. Initially, the aesthetic and layout of Stilwater seems somewhat generic, but once you’ve spent some time exploring its many districts, suburbs and barrios (its size lays somewhere between Vice City and San Andreas) it becomes much easier to recognise where you are by particular landmarks, and see that there’s actually quite a lot of character in the city. By this token, the city represents a playground of destruction that you’ll want to revisit and explore long after the main storylines have been completed.
As is often the case in video games, audio is initially overlooked in favour of bigger, shiner features. When you become conscious of the audio in Saints Row, it becomes easy to appreciate how it perfectly compliments the rest of the game. Bullets ring out across the urban battlefield, adding gravitas to the various firearms, and the muffled audio of recently abandoned car’s stereos adds an ambient soundtrack to your rampage. Like the Grand Theft Auto games, Saints Row features several different radio stations, featuring humorous talk shows, licensed music spanning several genres, and the kind of advertisements and DJ banter that you might expect from the genre. The licensed music is incredibly varied, including alternative, rock, classical, and easy listening stations. Most of the music is contemporary (and therefore lacking the novelty value of older tracks; not necessarily a bad thing), although classic songs like Round And Round by Ratt and anything on the easy listening station perfectly set the tone for the kind of comic violence that you frequently find yourself indulging in.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning, almost as a footnote, that Saints Row features a fairly extensive multiplayer mode for Xbox Live and System Link, including variations on deathmatch and capture the flag, as well as specially designed cooperative missions. I have to admit that I haven’t tried the multiplayer content myself, but from what I hear, it’s fun, if not slightly buggy at present. Xbox Live has a great infrastructure in place for hassle-free multiplayer gaming, but I think that Saints Row would have benefited from a multiplayer mode for two or more players on one console; perhaps something akin to the cooperative segment of San Andreas, which was ridiculously fun, despite movement being limited to a small area around both players.
Good games certainly don’t have to be original to be good, and Saints Row is certainly a testament to this philosophy. Where lesser titles such as Activision’s True Crime give the impression that the GTA formula has been mimicked in an effort to carjack the success of its blood-drenched lineage, spending just ten minutes on the mean streets of Stilwater gives good indication that Volition are interested in pushing the genre forwards, if not in storytelling and thematic originality, then certainly in terms of gameplay mechanics and appearance.
I would dearly love to see a sequel to Saints Row, although I’m curious as to how it would be received in a post-GTA 4 market. Still, given that Rockstar’s next-gen effort isn’t due on shelves for twelve months at the very least, I think it’s fair to say that Saints Row will have few problems securing itself a place in the black, destructive hearts of gamers looking to flex their gangland muscle.