Ironically enough for a game that revels in its criminal activity, Saints Row stole most of its ideas from the Grand Theft Auto series. Admittedly, if you are going to imitate a game you can do far worse than GTA. Saints Row however goes the extra mile and provides players with a very enjoyable gameplay experience that goes beyond merely cloning the most popular aspects of GTA.
The game opens with some extensive customization options where you get to create your inner gangster. You are then promptly chucked into the middle of crossfire between rival gangs. The leader of the 3rd Street Saints takes pity on you and recruits you to their cause which is where your life of crime begins. The game is set in the fictional city of Stillwater and to say that there is never a dull moment would be an understatement. You have your missions which progresses the storyline of course but what you do in-between is up to you.
The game has a range of activities to engage in such as car hijacking, robberies, assassinations, drug trafficking and even demolition racing. These activities are not really optional however as completing them earns you respect which you will need to do the story missions. Some people will see this as obtrusive and standing in the way of doing the story missions but I had so much fun with the activities that I had already amassed a great deal of respected by the time that I got around to doing the “proper” missions. The insurance fraud activity in particular was a blast and sees you hurling your gangster in front of traffic to rack up some cash. Mayhem brought back memories of the “Kill Frenzy” sections in the classic GTA games. You can also indulge in some street racing, escort duties and prostitute snatching if you wish. Each activity has nine levels of difficulty with rewards if you can beat them. While driving around the city you will also want to keep your eyes peeled for tagging locations where you can spray your gang mark as well as secrets CDs to expand your human selection. In terms of the sheer amount of things you can do, Saints Row cannot be beat.
Your character is quite nimble and can run, jump, climb and swim but most of your time will be spent behind the wheel of a vehicle. Don’t expect any motorbikes, helicopters, planes or boats however.
The car handling is quite good and doesn’t have that floaty feeling that the GTA games have. You can also aim 360 degrees while driving making those drive-by shootings much easier. Thanks to the ragdoll physics, running over pedestrians or crashing into other cars is also a lot more entertaining. The visuals in the game look good and the open world is impressive but it is not without its problems. I noticed a definite drop in frame rate when there were huge police chases happening and there are some occasional glitches as well. Cars can appear and disappear out of nowhere and sometimes textures take awhile to load leaving black holes where the road is supposed to be. This doesn’t impact the gameplay too much but it does break immersion.
A sandbox is only as good as its toys and Saints Row gives you a nice selection of guns to play with. Besides the pistols, rifles, shotguns and grenades on offer you’ll also get your hands on melee weapons like knives, baseball bats and batons. The “Hitman” activities give you specific targets to assassinate using a designated weapon so you will get the chance to use them all. Of course, getting up to no good will alert the police and the game uses a “Wanted Level” system it cribbed from GTA. With a one star level you will have a squad car after you but reach five stars and prepare yourself for the FBI and police helicopters. You gain the ability to recruit “Homies” off the street to assist you but sometimes the best tactic is just to rush to the “Forgive & Forget” drive0-through to wash away your sins (at a price of course.)
While Saints Row blatantly copies GTA I appreciate its effort to make things more enjoyable. You can save at anytime, anywhere provided that you are not on a mission. This is much better than having to drive all the way to a safe house. The mini-map is also more convenient with a GPS system that shows you exactly where to go. Your character’s health regenerates after fifteen seconds or you can speed up the process by eating food. Any “homies” that are with you can be revived if they die provide you get to them quickly enough. All of this definitely makes the game easier to play and removes a lot of tedium but it is still no walk in the park. If you fail a mission you can choose to instantly restart instead of being placed at the nearest hospital or police station but most missions start with the mandatory “2 minute drive” to the action spot. This is really tedious and waste a lot of time especially on multi-part mission. Forcing you to redo the trivial sections just so you can get back to the harder parts is really a pain. The game doesn’t have a lock-on feature for weapons either so you’ll have to aim precisely if you want to take down your targets. During chase missions where you have to drive the car and shoot other vehicles it can become very tricky.
Stillwater is divided into 36 territories and to complete the game you will have to take them all back from the gangs in charge. Your opposition is the Vice Kings, Los Carnales and Westside Rollerz. These guys won’t go down without fights so in addition to doing the story missions you also have to take over their strongholds. These stronghold takedowns can become repetitive but fortunately there are a few unique encounters as well. Once under your control you can use them to store your cars, clothes, guns and cash. Sometimes rival gangs will strike back at areas under your control, forcing you to go to the contested zone and bust some skulls to get things back under your thumb.
While the plot is rather generic, the voice actors do a great job bringing their characters to life. Expect to hear big names such as Micheal Clark Duncan, Tia Carera, Daniel Dae Kim and Mila Kunis lending their vocals to the main characters. Of course, no GTA clone would be complete without a wealth of radio stations and Saints Row has this covered as well. There is a station for virtually every genre of music from rock to rap and reggae plus a hilarious talk show one. Overall, I would say that the music selection is maybe not as mainstream as what the GTA games have to offer but it is still good. The humor falls a bit flat in place and you can expect a lot of over the top swearing but overall the audio is good. Due to the customized aspect of your characters he doesn’t have much of a personality and rarely ever speaks which makes the rare occasions where he opens his mouth even funnier.
Saints Row has a lot of great ideas and is definitely fun to play. Once you can look past some technical shortcomings you’ll find a very engrossing game with a ton of content. It might be a blatant copy of the GTA formula but when it is this much fun does it really matter? The game is exclusive to the Xbox 360 but has since spawned a few multi-platform sequels. This game is great for checking out how it all started though.
*Review originally published 2006.