July 09, 2007
When thinking of open-world urban 'sandbox' games, Volition isn't the first name you think of. With a history dating back to Descent, and having done solid FPSs Red Faction & Red Faction 2, Saints Row may not have been what most people expected out of Volition. But then again, Saints Row itself is all about defying expectations. Since the first time the game was shown to the public, you can bet someone, somewhere was calling it a GTA clone; but while they tread a lot of the same territory, Saints Row isn't just a cheap knock off. Other games have tried to topple GTA off as the urban sandbox game de-jour and failed miserably. Saints Row is not those games.
The game features a surprisingly robust character creation that lets you toy with everything from how fat or thin your character is to the size of his ear lobes. Quite and advancement over CJ and his haircuts, eh? It's great fun to toy around with and makes for great fun when your running around the streets of Stilwater with a guy that looks like a dead ringer for Marty Feldman. The game even lets you select your characters race to fit any stereotype you can dream up, and they actually all look pretty accurate. Your choices are Black, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. American Indians am cry.
The plot line to Saints Row is basic enough. You are a normal guy taking a stroll through the 'hood when a mini-gang war breaks out in front of you. You save an innocent persons life and are rewarded with a gun stuck in your face. But just when it looks like things are over before they've begun, Julius Little, leader of the 3rd Street Saints steps in and saves your ass. Now your rolling with the 3rd Street Saints, kid! Wait, wait, wait, you didn't think it was going to be that easy do you? Nice try. First you'll have to prove yourself as you take on a couple other Saints with nothing but your Dukes to save you in the nice tutorial introduction to the games' hand to hand combat. Don't expect a whole lot of depth here; you've got your basic options of block, punch and kick, but they'll serve you well in your travels throughout Stilwater.
Now that you're a Saint, you are charged with taking out the three major gang factions in the city, namely the Westside Rollerz, Los Carnales, and the Vice Kings, in an effort to quell violence in the city using, you guessed it, violence! How's that for a paradox? Regardless of how worthy of eye-rolling the plot is, you'll soon forget you gave a damn once you climb into the world and start wrecking your own brand of havoc. As with any open-world game worth it's salt, there is a healthy number of story-based missions and tons of side missions to keep you occupied, but it's still fun to go around just blowing stuff up every now and then, as you will. You further the plot of the game by gaining respect which you get for completing missions of any ilk. Complete enough missions in a given territory and you can challenge the gang controlling the area for supremacy. Beat them down and the area is yours with a nice little boost in respect. Get enough respect and you can unlock more missions in the main game story. The respect system also allows you to roll with your 'homies'. Max out your respect and you can control the respect of up to three homies at a given time. This will come in handy for some of the later side missions in the game where you'll need the extra firepower. Going through the main story, a lot of the missions are hit and miss. Some are great fun, while others get tedious and at points even frustrating. At certain points in the game you'll have to roll with the other big dogs of the Saints and unfortunately they aren't all that smart, particularly when it comes to driving. You'll be wishing you could just ditch them and take on the rival gangs on your own after the third of fourth time their ridiculous driving AI gets you killed through no fault of your own. These scripted missions are the real thorn in the side of Saints Row and in some cases, the game would have been better off without them.
Saints Row does have some hold overs from the GTA series though. Volition tried a little too hard to mimic a lot of the tongue in cheek humor of San Andreas and the previous GTA games when it comes to the names of some of the shops throughout the city and the talk radio programs in the game. Some are pretty clever and humorous such a Rim Jobs, the place to go if you want to trick out your ride. Others like Freckle Bitches feel a little forced, as do some of the radio programs, most of which were written by and voiced by real-life radio personality David Lawrence. While some are chuckle worthy, as a whole they don't hold a candle to the biting humor of the talk shows of GTA and Lazlow Jones.
The whole side mission thing was pioneered by GTA3, the granddaddy of the urban sandbox genre, and so it would be rude of Saints Row to just completely ignore some of the better side missions from it, such as perennial favorites like the the chop shop missions. But rather than just rehash the tried and true, Saints Row also adds a couple new and brilliant side mission types. Easily the best of the bunch are the 'Insurance Fraud' missions in which you'll purposefully get hit by cars or anything else you can sue the gullible saps of Stilwater for. This is where the game's use of the Havok physics engine gets to flaunt its stuff as you try ever-increasingly ridiculous and orchestrated falls and crashes to gain more money. Not to mention it's hilarious to watch your character get shot, arms and legs flailing, through the windshield of his car and 20 feet into the air only to land in the path of the next motorist who sends him flying again. Other new side missions include hitman missions in which you'll get a small dossier on each target of where to find them and, at your leisure, it's up to you to rub them out. This would be another grand slam for Saints Row except for the small fact that targets are rarely, if ever, where they are supposed to when they are supposed to be there. While an icon will show up when you are in the vicinity of the target on your mini-map, this isn't much consolation when the target is literally on the other side of the city from where they are supposed to be. More often than not, you'll end up driving up and down every street in an area of the city, hoping the cross-hair icon will pop up on your mini-map.
Saints Row doesn't just build on the canon of other urban sandbox games in respect to the gameplay, but also with the technical stuff. First of all, the map system in Saints Row is a massive improvement over other games. Rather than just give you a marker to drive toward on your map, the game will actually show you the quickest route there, street by street. Miss a turn? No problem, the map automatically updates and course corrects to give you the next best option. It's a little thing, but it makes navigating the urban jungle much easier, although on occasion, the map will get a little confused and give you a bad route. The controls are very natural and perfectly facilitate your rise to the top of Stilwater. Unlike most sandbox games, Saints Row features absolutely no auto-aiming feature and is all the better for it as the controls are tight enough you don't really need them. That said, the game does have it's problems. There are quite a number of glitches in the game and some of them are in-your face obvious. The most common bug seems to be having your car just randomly disappear while driving, especially if you are on the highway. In fact driving on the highway in general is a risky venture a lot of the time. I've run into multiple invisible walls and a few times clipped right through the map and apparently I'm not the only one. While funny, it's kind of sad when a game has a musical dedicated to the abundant number of bugs in the game.
In another chapter of "What does Saints Row have that GTA doesn't?" we come to online multiplayer. Saints Row features four multiplayer modes, two of which come in team and free-for-all flavors. Gangsta Brawl is standard deathmatch and can be played with a team or without, as can Big Ass Chains, which is akin to basically CTF with multiple flags. Protect the Pimp is a rudimentary 'protect the VIP' team game type and finally Blinged Out Ride which is a variation of Big Ass Chains in which teams collect chains to afford upgrades for their team ride. First team to fully upgrade the ride wins. Saints Row features a decent lobby system so that friends can play together and take on other groups in both ranked and unranked games. This is in stark contrast to most multiplayer games to date for the Xbox 360, but is a welcomed addition. Allowing friends to stay in a lobby together and not have to constantly search for each other is a great feature that more multiplayer games should have. Come on guys, Halo was doing this how man years ago? Unfortunately online multiplayer for Saints Row has been plagued by some of the worse lag to date for an Xbox 360 game. A recent patch has helped alleviate some of the problems, though it does persist even now. The game also features two very limited co-op modes in which players can join forces to make their escape from the airport while slaughtering any law enforcement agent that get in their way, or a mode in which you must deliver 2 packages while fighting off enemy gang members that will swarm you and your partner. Both modes are timed and honestly, both are pretty dull. You might play it a couple times, but any more than that it gets old pretty quickly as there is only one map per each co-op mode.
Well, at least the game looks great. From the detail of the characters to the crispness of all the environmental graphics, to the soft shadows, Saints Row looks gorgeous. The fire and water effects especially look amazing. You'll find yourself blowing up cars just to watch the pretty flames. Coupled with the Havok physics engine mentioned earlier, you've got a game that looks great whether your strolling down the street or blowing up cars and watching the driver's body fly through the air. Everything about this game looks fantastic and it's going to be interesting if GTA4 will be able to top it. Unfortunately, the game does suffer some pretty significant v-sync tears. Apparently to achieve a steady 30 frames per second, which the game does achieve for the most part, v-sync had to go. What does that mean? Well, when v-sync is not enabled a phenomenon called 'tearing' can occur, in which it looks like someone literally tore the image on the screen in half and didn't realign the pieces properly. Luckily most people won't notice this much if at all during game play but during in game cut scenes it becomes more obvious. In another auto-update, Volition gave the player the option to turn on v-sync during the entire game, or just during cut-scenes. Turning on v-sync in game results in significantly lower frames-per-second, while doing so in cut-scenes doesn't impact gameplay at all but makes the cut-scenes look a little better.
The sound in Saints Row is pretty standard fare but the number of radio stations in the game is impressive. You've got the token stations, as well as some odd new additions like the classical music station, no doubt because all those songs are public domain by now. The game also lets your character carry an MP3 player to facilitate the play of our own music but it is such a pain to deal with after a while, you'll just want to use the music playback through the dashboard option. Sound effects are good and Volition lined up a pretty stellar voice cast for the game as well, who do a top notch job.
The game has pretty standard achievements for the most part. One achievement for taking out each gang, and a bonus for taking them all out and beating the story missions, as well as achievements for completing each all of the side missions for each category such as insurance fraud, hitman missions, and destruction missions. A good 25% of the games achievements are unlockable only through online play, most of which are achieved by earning a certain TruSkill ranking. This can either be a blessing or a curse depending on the gamer, but it certainly doesn't help to have unbearable lag issues. All in all, the achievements are pretty standard fare though they do encourage completing all side missions which will lengthen the game, which is a good thing. There are also a couple achievements for finding items hidden around the world including hidden CDs and tagging locations. Unfortunately quite a number of the tagging locations feature a bug where the button combo you need to press never shows up - a pretty significant bug to overlook - making the achievement that much more frustrating to get.
While not going directly head to head with GTA4, Saints Row does an admirable job of taking the urban sandbox genre and actually building onto it, rather than just rehashing everything Rockstar North does. It improves upon and does some things GTA just hasn't done and while that may be short lived, with a sequel rumored to be coming out in 2008 along with GTA4, Volition has a shot of overthrowing the king of the urban sandbox games. Even if it never does, it's a solid start to a series that fans of the genre should not overlook.
A superb voice cast and a bevy of music stations make sure that your ears will enjoy themselves. Decent sound effects for weapons and unique sounds for the cars add to the experience.
Saints Row is a great looking game. The water and fire effects in the game are some of the best looking on the system to date and the environments look crisp and detailed. Lack of loading screens while driving and a decent draw distance make for a smooth experience, although the occasional pop-in brings the score down some.
Great controls and a map system you only wish GTA had, but a number of egregious bugs really hurt the experience. A little more tweaking and this game would have been a lot better.
A solid HUD and great menus system are easy to navigate and the world map is great, allowing you to set your own way points, but the mp3 player is more trouble than it's worth, especially when you can do it through the dashboard anyway.
Run of the mill stuff for the most part, though they are fun to earn. A couple of the more difficult online achievements are made even more difficult because of lag problems. Point values for the achievements are pretty much in line with their difficulty level though.
A solid story line that offers a good 30 hours of gameplay and a number or side missions to extend the experience, plus online multiplayer and some limited co-op options and you've got a game you can keep coming back to. Plus blowing crap up never gets old. Between the story missions, side missions and the multiplayer (more on that later), the game has some great lasting appeal. Single player took me about 60 hours to knock out and that is pretty much grinding through the missions nonstop.