If imitation truly is the highest form of flattery, then the hard-working souls at Rockstar Games must be blushing right to the roots of their hair. The developer, Volition, has whipped up a remarkable clone of the Grand Theft Auto series in Saints Row. Despite the fact that I gritted my teeth through another truckload of urban stereotypes and the rapid-fire dialog made up of FCC unapproved words, Saints Row surprised with fairly solid gameplay, actually making slight improvements to some of the problematic issues that cropped up in GTA.
The game begins with a pretty deep character creation system with sliding bars to control everything from the avatar's weight to the height of the eyebrows. Since this means that the player controls the look and feel of the hero, the hero remains mute during cutscenes (though some of the reaction animations are pretty funny). After putting together the bits and pieces of the character, the story begins with the standard moment of gangland violence (guys in different colors jawing at each other with a dash of a drive-by shooting) where you end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the smoke clears, the slick looking leader of the 3rd Street Saints decides to offer you a chance to choose a side in the latest gang wars. Meeting at the Saints dilapidated, former church sparks off a simple brawl where you have to fight off a small gauntlet of the 3rd Street veterans to prove yourself, and your entrance into the world of low-level street crimes and violence begins.
Now the City of Stillwater is your oyster. You can jack a car and drive around anywhere looking for story-based missions and activities to build up your rep and make some cash. When I first grabbed a car and completed an early mission, I accidentally got on the freeway. If you have ever gotten lost driving in an unfamiliar city, it was eerily similar as I seemed to miss exits and ended up being unsure of where to get off and turn around. Oddly enough, getting lost was a blessing in disguise showing off the real scale of the sandbox environment and opening up a greater number of landmarks to explore later in the game.
Once you get your bearings, you can use a handy map system from the pause screen to locate good places to check out. Activities are a must in this game, as they allow you to build up your street cred. To take on missions, you will have to have enough "reputation" points in order to buy yourself into the missions. This is a tad unfortunate since the rep system means you can't just do missions willy-nilly, requiring you to build up your points with fun activities like insurance fraud or taking out an abusive pimp to steal his girls for your own pimp ally. Other than that, the mission elements are not much different than in GTA.
What Saints Row does do differently is improve upon the gameplay mechanics that made GTA somewhat frustrating to play. When you decide to flag down a driver and steal his or her car, there's the possibility that there will be passengers remaining in the vehicle fleshing out the feel of a living, breathing world. You can then decide to take on the hostage mini-game where evading cops and preventing your captive from escaping can end up rewarding you with additional cash. The driving itself is pretty decent as well with a good sense of speed and weight where the cars seem less "floaty" than in GTA, and most importantly, the shooting is easier than in the GTA games with a targeting reticule that seems to line up with enemies, without as much spastic wrestling with your controller.
Graphically, the game is pretty sharp. The backdrop of Stillwater is a vibrant city with varied neighborhoods that seem natural to a city. You have your docks, your decaying slums rife with decrepit, two-story homes, your business districts and your more upscale areas all accessible from the previously mentioned freeway. There are a huge number of NPCs in the game, reducing the feeling of that you are surrounded by a cloning experiment gone awry, and the various important characters that inhabit the world are pretty stylized with a good display of individual characteristics and facial expressions especially in cutscenes. Your own customized character also appears as slick or as silly as you made him. Saints Row really shows off some nice, next-gen visuals, and it ends up adding to the sense of immersion.
Also building up the sense of immersion is the fantastic voice talent the developers contracted. Despite the stereotypical writing straight from a hip-hop artist's notebook, the delivery of the dialog is professional and entertaining. Familiar voices include Keith David ( There's Something About Mary, Pitch Black and the voice of the Arbiter inHalo 2 ) who plays the Saints leader, Julius. Michael Clarke Duncan, Tia Carrere, Mila Kunis and the two cast mates from the show Lost, Daniel Dae Kim and Clancy Brown round out the ensemble voice talent. The game also features a soundtrack of a who's who in hip-hop with artists like Ghostface Killah and Method Man among many other acts and styles presented on 12 stations accessible from your ride's radio. I still ended up preferring all of the crazy, hilarious commercials (and the awesome playlists) in the GTA games, but it's still not a bad mix of things. There's nothing like listening to the classical music station while rampaging downtown with the cops hot on your tail.
Overall, Saints Row really ends up being a fun, if derivative game. The game does feature multiplayer matches ranging from standard free-for-alls and team deathmatches, to interesting races and busted co-op missions. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get a match going, though it still adds to the replay value for the game, and with Xbox Live, expect more support and content in the future.
While I really enjoyed the look and feel of the graphics and controls, there is still a nagging feeling that the game is just too much of a clone. It would normally seem unfair to compare a game so much to another title, but since Saints Row unabashedly shows off its similarities, I would have to say the comparisons are merited and necessary. While Saints Row does a lot of things real well, it does not do anything really new, and though Stillwater is a cool sandbox in which to play in its own right, considering the fun I have had in Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, it ends up increasing my desire to see what a next-gen GTA can do.