Developer: Volition
Publisher: THQ
Release: August 2006
Format: XBox 360
Genre Keywords: Third Person, Shooter, Driver, Story, Freeform
Rating: Mature for (lots of) violence, (little) blood, (near) nudity, (tons of) swearing, adult situations (you name it, it's pretty much in here although mostly gang violence related).

Saints Row

Despite the fact that I always say this, I will say it again: I should be able to keep this short. Here goes. Ready?

It's just like Grand Theft Auto III, except better in all ways possible.

Now for some blather. The reason I say GTA3 and not San Andreas is that by that third chapter in Rockstar's saga the title was beginning to feel a little bloated and lacking focus. The concept of bigger = better was carried a little too far and even though as a technical accomplishment San Andreas is fantastic, as a game it leaves much more to be desired than #3. Saints Row brings it back to the basics - fast fun, lots of explosions, simple plot, tons of fun side quests - and follows up with a generous handful of improvements that any "living world, drive 'n shoot" game should heed.

Time for a list!

I still want to keep this short, so I'll just list the things I found cool, nay, awesome in the game. For the rest, assume it's just like GTA III. These items include things that are new, that are old, and that are such a ridiculously needed improvement from the GTA series (I'm ignoring the spinoffs such as The Getaway and True Crime as they are sub-mediocre and not worthy of a discerning gamer's notice) that they almost recreate the genre from scratch.

  • A persistent high-capacity garage - no longer will your lovingly modded wheels be as ephemeral as an RPG round; if your ride is destroyed, simply pay 500 bucks to have it instantly restored; if it's abandoned, it will magically show up in your garage anyway. It's hard to become fond of your ride if it explodes when looked at sideways; SR remedies that.
  • Point and shoot targeting - really, the "lock-on" system of GTA is as dated as it is painful to use. SR gives you free targeting with a gentle autoaim nudge towards the center mass of any hostile human target. It's intuitive, unobtrusive and fun.
  • Character customization - I wouldn't have believed this prior to playing, but having your own guy in the game - including cutscenes! - is strangely alluring. Sorry ladies, the voice acting wasn't done twice to account for female avatars this time. Perhaps in the sequel.
  • Straight-forward storyline - Uber-cliche and inane it may be, the "gangsta in the hood" storyline at least stays the course towards the end. Four factions, one winner takes all - in a game with 13 types of side missions to distract myself with, I prefer the storyline simple and sweet. San Andreas' forced meandering all over the map and encounters with: hippies, mafia, government conspiracy, aliens, casinos and S&M enthusiasts was a little too much variety, although I admit this point is more personal than others.
  • Working realtime GPS/navigation system - It's amazing how many more mission types are possible when navigating the city streets takes up almost zero attention. Car chases, intercepts, getaways - if you had to know in advance which streets dead-end, none of these would be possible. As it is, the navigation system lets you focus on fast, frenetic driving and shooting.
  • Side quest variety - I already mentioned a few above, but almost all of the activities are inventive and fun; there are even a few hidden ones that you can access at anytime by performing certain actions - taking hostages by jumping in a car with multiple occupants and driving away, and robbing a store by breaking in at night. Simple, but well-executed and different enough to be novel.
  • Respect system that works - This was attempted in San Andreas and worked decently, but the way the city becomes more and more populated by your own gang just feels much more pervasive in Saints Row. You can also pick up buddies to run around with you, and their AI is far improved from the "fodder" status in San Andreas. Finally, you get to carry around a cell phone from which you can call for help, healing, or even instant transport to any part of the city. That last especially is ridiculously useful.
  • Food that you can carry for healing - What a concept. Powerups that you can actually carry around with you in your (GASP!) inventory. Amazingly simple, yet so useful.
  • No loss of weapons upond death/arrest - This mechanic has been around from GTA 1, and the only reason that it stuck around to San Andreas is that it "makes sense". The problem is, it's not fun and it's 100% pure nuisance to have to rearm every time you fail a mission.

These last two bits are just a few of the many simple things that Saints Row fixes just by examining all the tired gameplay conventions from GTA games and throwing out the ones that simply aren't fun. It's as if Volition/THQ talked to lovers of GTA and specifically addressed all the things that are annoying about those games.

Now for the things that aren't so fun.

  • The cars still vanish when you turn around. This is a long running complaint about the streaming worlds of games like these, and it's unfortunately still around. If you see a ride that you want, grab it - chances are it won't be there if it turns the corner.
  • Bugs. The game has an unpleasant tendency to freeze on zone changes and sometimes on side mission starts. It doesn't happen often, but when it does chances are last saved 4 hours ago. Save often, as you can save anywhere. In addition, the pop-in while streaming a new zone can sometimes result in the disappearance of the world .... disconcerting.
  • Slowdowns and screen-tearing. The full game plays much better than the demo, but you'll still find occasions on which the game will slow to a crawl.
  • Multiplayer latency issues. This is only reported (I want to 100% the game before I jump in online), but it seems to be widespread enough to warrant writing about.

Interestingly, that's only one game issue and three technical issues - still, in this age of so-called "next gen", you'd expect a little more from a high profile title. Still, if you're a PC gamer (like me) first, you won't even notice the graphics issues or the bugs - we've had to put up with far worse.

verdict

The verdict is to pick this up immediately and play it. It's GTA all over again, done right, in next-gen. It's not gonna get much better than this - until GTA IV anyway.

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