Over the past five years, Rockstar North (once known as DMA) has created -- and set -- the standard for games in a genre that, for lack of a better term, are "Grand Theft Auto" or "GTA" games. Some might call the genre "urban mayhem," but whatever you call it, Grand Theft Auto III created a genre, the same way Castle Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom did with first-person shooters. Thus, at least right now, every game that competes in this genre competes directly with any one of the GTA games, all of which have raised the bar in videogame production, theme maturity and language, open-world design, and lastly, production cost (they're expensive games to make). That is, until another developer does it better than Rockstar. Volition's Saints Row is the newest contender on GTA grounds, following all three GTAs, Activision's True Crime, Sony's The Getaway, EA's The Godfather, etc., and it's both a ballsy, brave, fun game while simultaneously being guilty of the heaviest degree of copy cat-ism, me-too derivation, and just-plain over-doing it.
Saints Row, however, portrays Volition (The Punisher, Red Faction 1 & 2, Descent: Free Space) as an erudite student of the genre. This next-gen, open-world action-shooting-racing game solves numerous problems born in GTA, and the Champaign, Ill.-based studio has whittled away at the concept, forming a highly polished design that plays well, feels good, and that functions smoothly and with great ease of use. Saints Row is not only a 30-40 hour single-player game with a smart progression system, a breadth of engaging missions, and tons of car and character customization, it's the first game in this genre to successfully negotiate online and multiplayer waters, including online and SystemLink co-op functionality.
Unoriginal But Fun
I'll be totally honest up front. For the longest time, I've had serious doubts about Volition's game. It was originally slated as a launch title and was pushed back due to many obvious reasons (looked bad, played bad, wasn't done, etc.). On the surface, it smacks of being the biggest rip-off of all time. The game mimics nearly every possible thing that's done well in GTA and re-creates it with a bravado and guiltlessness that sticks in my ribs like a dull rusty knife. How can Volition do this and feel good about itself? How can they so indiscreetly copy GTA? At least True Crime and The Godfather tried different font styles, pedestrian humor, and radio station ideas. They copied ideas, not the whole damn thing. But like so many great writers (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet wasn't his original story, he just did it better than the original playwright), artists, musicians and game developers, copying an idea is one thing; copying an idea and making it better is another. Z-targeting from Zelda, soul sucking from Legacy of Kain, you name it, ideas flow freely from development studio to studio. You feel slighted when an original game like GTA is copied and pasted, but you feel better about it, and you give credit to the artist that copied it, improved upon it, and went a little further. While Volition is guilty as sin for copying Rockstar wholesale, it's also improved upon GTA in many ways, making the experience of playing a game in this genre bigger and brasher.
Despite it unoriginal premise and derivative nature, Saints Row holds up throughout because it's smartly designed, technically solid, and straight out fun, whether we're talking single-player, co-op, or multiplayer. In the single-player game, you follow the story of four gangs fighting for power in the imaginary modern day town of Stilwater, and you start as a no-name, low-level innocent whose life is saved by Julius of the 3rd Street Saints and eventually play a major role in the gang's rise to power. The Saints (a mish-mash of ethnicities) compete with Los Carnales (the Mexican gang with Columbian ties), the Vice Kings (the African-American gang with ties to the music industry and cops), and the Westside Rollerz (the suburban dudes with a thing for import cars), all visible through their consistent use of colors and a handy map that provides exquisite detail for each territory.
Just like GTA
The gameplay is just like GTA in most respects. It's open, enabling players to walk, run, swim, fight, shoot, drive, and pick missions at their will and in any order. The third-person view enable players to freely swing the camera around using the right analog stick, while moving the characters around with the left analog stick. Players can punch, kick, and block using the left triggers and bumpers, and with a gun in hand, the right trigger provides the shooting. While driving you can shoot, select weapons (as long as they don't require two hands), and recruit other Saints. You start the game by joining the Saints, and through in-game tutorials, learn how everything works each time you encounter a new interaction. The story is solid on most fronts. Even though you'll cringe here and there from the overt amount of foul language, forced humor, and shamelessness of the game's hip-hop "vibe," the narrative is slightly better than ordinary, but the characters flesh it out skillfully thanks to adept voice actors and generally smart dialog. You'll hear the F-bomb every fourth word from the main characters, the pedestrians, even on the radio -- and that gets really tiring. Thrifty use of the f-bomb is far more effective that swearing in every sentence. Still, enough twists and turns come your way to keep the narrative interesting and worthwhile.
Volition did several things very right, especially with gun controls. It worked tenaciously on nailing a good control system down, and in a sense this was easy. Instead of struggling with a lock-on aiming system, they let it go free. Aiming consists of picking a weapon holding the B button, selecting a weapon on a radial dial, and pressing the right trigger to shoot. The small circular reticule turns red when rolled over a non-gang member, i.e. pedestrians and opponent gang members. Again, there is no auto-aiming. The reticule freely moves around using a steady not-too fast, not-too slow mechanic that doesn't get in the way. It works, and it works well.
The game is built on a relatively new progression scheme, which shapes the way in which a player progresses, with Volition appearing to pick what it likes and dislikes from GTA, True Crime and The Godfather, and then making its own slight variations. Players earn a currency called "Respect," earned by beating story missions and non-story missions (called "activities"). Respect accumulates in a half-circle meter and can cue up multiple times before being "spent" to open new missions. Basically, the more fighting, busting, and killing you do (in missions) the more respect you get. Volition democratically doles these out, sprinkling them evenly across story-missions (which progress the main story) and activities, which earn respect but don't forward the story. Volition's even distribution is smart, since it gently forces players to explore and perform in a wide variety of missions, instead of just gunning through the core missions to the end as fast as possible. By beating levels, you earn both respect and money independent of one another, and if the mission is a Stronghold mission or a Story mission, you'll earn a territory. The goal of the game is to attain them all.
The core story missions dip into the story of the Saints' rise to the top and they range in style, depth, and difficulty. You'll find these familiar: fetch this item, bring it back; escort this dude, bring him back safely; blow the crap out of gang XYZ; prevent the Rollerz from jacking four cars, escort a certain gang leader to kill them all off; etc. Some are single objective missions, and as you progress, they'll grow in size and complexity, comprising multiple parts. The game reads your progress, upping the difficulty no matter which gangs you take out first. I decided to wipe out the Vice Kings first, followed by the Rollerz, and finished up with Los Carnales, but you can beat them in any order or take them all on simultaneously. The only weakness with the multi-tasting strategy is that each gang engages in Push Back missions, where they start small wars to gain back territory, and these happen randomly, so logical deduction leads one to the conclusion that fighting one gang at a time is easier than fighting three.
The side missions or activities are by no means worthless; just the opposite. Volition skipped GTA's set of taxi, cop, EMT, and fire truck missions, which never differ in difficulty, and created their own set of side missions which do. Want to start a hitman mission? You're given a list of targets in a particular territory, and you must find that person and kill them with a specific weapon. How about insurance fraud? This is easily my favorite activity. You visit a corrupt lawyer, who tells you to take as much damage by getting hit by cars as possible, thus earning cash and respect. This is essentially a Havok engine mini-game, where you hit left or right trigger and crumple to the ground in front of a car. It's ludicrously fun (and very much like Crusty Demons). You earn bonus points by getting hit and attaining as much height and distance as possible. You'll also earn bonus points by having witnesses see you getting hit, being hit by multiple cars, or by causing accidents among other cars. The mini-games take place in time limits, and they move from location to location, inviting you to find smarter places to break your bones (oh yeah, and your health instantly regenerates during fraud missions). You can jump from second story train stations, perform head-on collisions, whatever you can drum up. I once earned so many points the screen just read, "Points: LOTS" (I earned about 420 points by getting hit by a cop while in a car, smashing through the window, while his car hit multiple others while being witnessed).
There are many more "activities:" Chop Shop (return cars for modding); Snatch (escort prostitutes while they do their business in the backseat as the paparazzi and private investigators and even upset spouses chase you); drug trafficking (escort a drug dealer on multiple deals), and so on. The more organized aspect is that Volition structures each mini-mission into a level, after which you have a choice to continue on to level 2 or quit, upping the difficulty and challenge levels for more fun. Strongholds appear every once in a while, representing an opponent base, and they're buildings packed with enemies that you must slaughter to earn the stronghold and the territory. These are always challenging gun-slinging missions requiring lots of shooting and a few homies to cover your butt. By the way, the whole "homie" function is excellently crafted. Press up on the D-pad while near one and they join your party, be it on foot or in a car. They'll shoot when you shoot or when you're being shot at, and if they are taken out you can revive them within 30 seconds, another nice plus. I like having "homies."
Life in Stilwater
In the meantime, the ambient world of Stilwater lives its own life. Pedestrians, cops, and traffic all function without your help and without you being there. The 24-hour diurnal system works on its own too, as does the weather system (mist, rain, sunshine, clouds, but no snow). So, you can freely cruise the city looking for trouble to stir up, the game's main point. The cityscape consists of stores to buy things in (weapons, clothes, CDs, cars, face jobs, etc.) all of which affect gameplay. For instance, if you want to create your own playlist, you can "buy" songs by finding them hidden in the landscape (like GTA's hidden packages) or hitting up a store and purchasing them. Press Start on the controller, toggle to the right menu, create a song list or import your own song list from ripped music. Similarly, by buying snappier clothes and jewelry you earn more respect, plus if you wear the right colors (the Saints are purple), you earn bonus "color" points by completing each mission while wearing them. Customization plays a significant role in Saints Row, enabling you to cloth yourself and mod cars, and in the very beginning of the game you'll create your own player.
Unlike GTA, you aren't likely to complain about the terrible controls or blame the designers for allowing luck to have such weight in completing a mission. For the most part, Saint's Row's AI is basic and familiar to GTA, and it's neither too hard nor too easy, rather fitting into that well-honed middle ground. When it increases in difficulty, you'll basically see more aggressive behavior, more enemies with bigger guns, and increased targeting skill. The AI types rarely use cover, and only the top-end AI use multiple cover tactics. Generally, the AI stands there dumbly and shoots until their clip is out. They will use cover, but not to any serious degree. And they often come running out right at you. The game does progressively grow in difficulty, however, so that the last 20% of the game is distinctly harder than the first 20%. Same-side AI can, but doesn't usually, get stuck on objects in their path (you just need to return to them to unstick them), while one of the bigger AI annoyances is that it often stalls when entering a car. If a car is moving at 1 MPH, the AI can't get in. Escort AI often gets run over by the car by accident by running in front of it while the car is still moving, and pedestrian AI often proactively freaks out and jumps into your car before you get there. So you end up running it over anyway. Also, the last two boss levels can be super challenging in an annoying and repetitive way.
Volition does a number of other things well. Trailing an enemy is presented with a nice set of outer and inner circles, offering slightly more accurate measures for perceiving distance. As I mentioned before, the homie system is excellent, and the map is very intelligently designed. You can pull the map up with the start button and toggle through several options to display various missions, stores, strongholds, everything or nothing, and you can quickly zoom in or out. Splitting things into subjects clears up the map substantially, making it actually useful.
The online and co-op missions range in value. Volition gets a lot of credit for going online with this type of game in the first place. Of course, the real substance is the actual gameplay. There are four modes of play, Gangsta Brawl (straight up deathmatch), Big-Ass Chains (collect chains from fallen opponents and return them to a base for points), Protect tha Pimp (team-based attack and defend missions), and Blinged Out Ride (upgrade your vehicle and get to the rally point before your opponent). You'll get the basic Xbox Live setup of QuickMatch, Custom Match, and Create-A-Party, and options for ranked or player matches. You can play Team Big-Ass Chains, Team Gansta Brawl, and in Custom and Create A Match games, you can set up two-player co-op missions (which I'll explain in a second). The lobbies are interactive, silly, brawling-shooting fun where, while you wait, you can endlessly cap people for pleasure but not points. And you can, thankfully, create your own gang.
Gangsta Brawl and Big-Ass Chains are decent all-out deathmatches (DM), requiring some skill, a healthy portion of luck, and some timing. As with any DM, it helps to know the maps, especially where the weapons and drop spots reside. Protect tha Pimp has depth. This is a team game requiring strategy and tactics and with a good group of players the fun is real and substantial. One team protects the pimp, who is weaponless, while the opponents try to kill him. The protecting team must lead the pimp, who wears a really big, obvious, purple fur hat, out of the building to succeed, while offensive team must kill him before he reaches the exit. Blinged Out Ride is a complex game requiring more than just a quick trigger finger. Here, you must upgrade your vehicle three times without being blown up, and then return it to a rally point. Seems easy enough, but the opposing team is doing the same thing. Also, you must find a safe spot for the car, find the garage to upgrade it, and in between, earn enough chains (enemy deaths) to upgrade the car. This is an intense, fun, and strategic game that takes time to fully understand, but becomes incredibly fun once everyone on the teams gets it -- and it's easily the best online mode in the game. Saints Row supports up to 12 players in both System Link and Xbox Live.
While I wish I could say jump for joy about this, don't get too excited about the Co-op mode. It's not a full-feature, full-game cooperative mode like that in Doom 3. Instead, co-op can be found in Custom or Create-A-Player modes, and it consists of two types of mission-based games, Mob Rule and Turbulence. In one, you race from one end of the level to another, and in the other you attempt to carry valuable boxes to the designated point. The co-op missions are OK, but the AI is tougher than the base middle-ground AI, there are no health pick-ups, and there are only two game types. Plus, collision detection on solid objects often fails to provide ample cover. These will be fun to play for a short period of time, but they're not nearly as substantial or fun as the online Versus modes. Co-op mode is supported in System Link and Xbox Live, but is not available otherwise. You have to own two Xbox 360s, two copies of the game and subscribe to Xbox Live Gold to play it.
Sights, Sounds, and Issues
Aside from Saints Row's wholesale copying of GTA's looks (which it does well), style (average), presentation (well), humor (poorly), cars types (well) -- the list is extensive -- it also duplicates several of the same problems. On the positive side, the environments are fully fleshed out with dozens upon dozens of neighborhoods, each one offering distinct texture maps, ornamented by graffiti and bump and normal maps. The cars are totally destructible and blow up in beautiful, fiery blazes of particles, flames, and heat blurs. When you get a rocket launcher and blast a car to smithereens, man, it's like finding an oasis of ice cold beer in 100-degree weather in the desert -- totally satisfying. The game packs an enormous amount of geometry; Volition's engine uses high dynamic range lighting and makes full use of Xbox 360's shader technology, which gives everything a high-definition edge. The character design shows up best in the well-orchestrated cutscenes, where the characters show off good facial animation, motion-capture, and natural movement. The in-game characters display a good range of looks and animation too, manifesting in examples such as homies jumping into convertible cars by hopping over the door, fluid transitions from standing and running to crouching or stealthily creeping, and overall quick believable motion.
There is more than a scant amount of issues, however. Saints Row uses streaming technology, which appears to have inherent issues no matter who uses it. The box copy occasionally will crash on you. The game crashed twice on me and I could not reproduce the bug -- my car magically stopped when entering a bridge, the car disappeared, and I was left stuck in the invisible car, seated, with my hands on the invisible steering wheel and my feet on the invisible pedals. I couldn't get out, drive or even kill myself. Luckily, you can save at any point in the menu, or use the save houses to do so. The game also produces substantial fade-in, though not nearly as badly as GTA, and it regularly shows off screen and texture tearing.
Sonically, Saints Row offers a good mix of music you assuredly haven't heard before, giving the game the feel of GTA (with its top-notch soundtracks) without being like GTA. You might know Husker Du, Iggy Pop or a few others, but this collection of songs, while in a sense hustling you with a strong presentation on the surface, feels like a B list of hits rather than the blockbuster A list you've come to expect from Rockstar. I found some cool songs I'd never heard, created my own playlist, and while I didn't import my own ripped music, you can. The separation of channels is well done, offering players a sense of neighborhood ambience, traffic in surround sound, great chase scenes in full 3D sound. You will hear some funny commercials, which are set up EXACTLY like in GTA, but for every funny thing you hear from Foreign Power or from the Eurotrash fool Stefan, the clothes designer, you'll hear two others that badly miss the mark. I have to say this, though, at least Saints Row is more humorous than every other GTA rip-off, and at least they tried. Too bad most of the humor is forced, overdone, and sometimes just plain bad.
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