I guess they call this deja-vu; a few years ago, Sony’s Playstation 2 needed a bit of a kick up the backside going into Christmas. Sure, the launch titles were a blast, but we’d all played them to death on our new sleek machines and craved something new and amazing, something daring, something that pushed the boundaries of gaming so that we forgot all about the Dreamcast. And then Grand Theft Auto 3 came along and wiped the floor with us all. Never before had we roamed a city in full 3-D, with breathtaking graphics, inter-locked and entwined within a world that didn’t seem to give a damn whether you existed or not. Not since Driver had screaming round city blocks been so much fun, and not since the original GTA title did we have so much media attention. It was awesome.
Fast forward a few years then, towards the end of that generation of gaming and we have the Xbox 360, sequel to the console that pretty much broke the mould in terms of online gaming and bought us the offline spectacular, Halo, and then the online behemoth Halo 2. We’re getting towards Christmas and we’ve played Oblivion to death. We need something new, something daring, something to push the boundaries of gaming so that we forget about all that time wasted in Halo 2’s matchmaking screen. Something like Saints Row.
Pretty much like Rockstar’s gem, you start off as a nobody kicking cans and keeping out of peoples business until one fateful day you just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a coincidence. Forget breaking free from jail vans; this time things are very gritty and down to earth. Some punks spray across another gang’s tag, and get caught in the process. Amidst the ensuing violence another gang appears in a drive-by shooting. The tables keep turning as one by one the members is shot down in the blood bath, until the only survivor turns his attentions to you. He’s keen to cover his tracks, so he points his gun in your face, mutters some words of sheer discontent and then BANG…he hits the floor. What the hell happened? What did I do? Who shot him? What was all this about? Who knows, but welcome to Saints Row, muther fo’.
The Saints, led by Julius (a Samuel L Jackson wannabe, let me tell you), are sick of all the wars between rival gangs and aim to set themselves up in the town, based from a ruined church. You might be fooled into thinking these guys and girls are some sort of freedom fighters, until your enrolment consists of either beating or getting beaten. Despite the crosses and robes donned by higher ranking members of The Saints, there’s little to distance them from the other low-down scum of the city; they’re still dealing in ho’s, dishing out drive-bys and indulging in the odd drug run here and there. Having been caught up in some action, Julius sees something in you (ok, so now he wants to be Morpheus from The Matrix…) and puts you on your feet by giving you some odd jobs here and there to get a foot on the ladder.
Forget about hopping from character to character, a la GTA however; in Saints Row you find that your progression is mainly down to your own dealings within the boundaries of Stilwater, no doubt down to the nifty respect meter. Beating missions doesn’t mean you’ll automatically go further along the conveyer belt of crime; you have to prove that you’re up for new tasks by how much carnage you cause. Shooting rival gang members, taking hostages, killing cops, drug trafficking and all things ‘gangsta’ boost your reputation in the town, and the higher you go the more the missions from gangs become exhilarating and more than just transporting hookers from point A to point B.
It’s a fantastic concept kept fresh by numerous activities. Of course, you have the freedom to just roam around bringing the city to its knees, but the ring leaders don’t take much notice of the news. They prefer to take recommendations from the various people who’ll give you odd jobs around the city, that become harder and more complex the further up the ladder you go. My personal favourite has to be Insurance Fraud; you go to an area and dive about, perhaps in front of cars, or off buildings, so that a bent lawyer can fill in compensation forms and sue the living daylights out of those responsible. As you progress, you have to find more creative ways of nearly killing yourself, like jumping in front of trucks from behind bus shelters and the like. There’s so much more to do as well, like illegal street races, stealing cars for export, causing complete carnage to impress some shady dude in a strip club and taking on hitman contracts.
So we’ve established that there’s a lot to do in Saints Row, so much so that at the beginning it’s hard to know what to do; should I get a good vantage point and rid an area of gang members, or get monged on drugs and booze, or lead the entire police force on a chase through the back streets? There’s so much choice, yet only one illegal activity to indulge in at a time.
With so much to do, it’s a good job that Stilwater has a decent transport system. Just $25 gets you a train ride along the elevated line, or you can always club someone to death and take their car, pimp it out and burn nitros as you bound across from one district to another. Each vehicle has its own distinct personality, with the wonderful Vegas muscle car being a breeze to flick through alleyways whilst the corvette mock-up is the ideal choice for fast and speedy getaways. There’s mail and courier vans to grab, complete with their own wreckless and impatient driver, nifty pick up trucks and huge rigs with car transporter trailers and storage units. Depending on your accuracy with a sniper rifle, a police helicopter can also be yours, provided you can behead a good thousand or so police officers on the way (no, that’s not a joke), and there’s also boats locked away too.
With all this action, it’s good to see that Saints Row has been blessed with perhaps the best graphics seen so far on the Xbox 360. Run over a fire hydrant and water that actually looks like H2O will spray into the air; pump the clip from an Uzi into a car and see the body work ripple and dent; hit a car head on and see both vehicles’ rear ends lift into the air, engines buckle and steam pour out. To put it simply, all the minor details are here. The city looks stunning, with skyscrapers jutting out over the skyline, down to the nitty gritty residential streets with boarded up houses. At night time, you can see the glow from living room windows, street lamps are home to many a moth and the headlights from a getaway car will shine on the derelict brickwork of dock buildings. Even more spectacular is when it rains, and boy does it rain sometimes. It’ll get so heavy in parts that you’ll actually have to slow down if you’re to see where you’re going, such is the mist and fog that comes down. Sliding a car round a corner becomes that little more tricky in a pursuit, and if you’re hurtling down the highway in an 18 wheeler, be prepared to shunt a few cars into the stratosphere.
Ambient sound makes Saints Row feel alive, with fantastic effects such as tire squeals, roars of engines, birds singing and gun shots ringing through the streets. So why, oh why, did the music have to be so average? There are some barely recognisable bands on the playlist and on the rock station there’s someone trying to be the Sex Pistols. The music isn’t something you’ll pick up as you go along – we’re still singing Hall and Oates tracks around the office here from Vice City – so it becomes a chore of flicking through the radio stations to pick something more bearable than the last, than trying to find an old favourite. Still, it’s nice to see that despite the gangsta setting, not all the songs are trashy rap and hip hop.
For me, what makes Saints Row such a blast is the nifty little bits the team have put in that you otherwise wouldn’t care less about; rob a shop for example and the longer you take to leg it out the door with the cash, the more time the police have to surround the building with officers bearing shotguns. Suddenly that quick getaway turns into a shoot out and a race to the pawn shop to trade in the goods. Gangs still go about their daily business as you shoot around town; time and time again I’ve slid around a corner only to crash head on into a getaway car being chased by the cops. You’ll even encounter police shoot outs that have absolutely nothing to do with you. Gang members will routinely back you up in encounters with rivals and the law; countless times I’ve been caught on the hop by a gang on 3 or 4 gun totters, only for some hawk-eyed Saints members to sprint down the road the beat the crap out of them.
Despite these cool touches, the AI still has moments of sheer stupidity. Standing there with a rocket launcher, police cars still race up to me and stop about 10 feet away, ducking behind their doors as they try and shoot me. Common sense would tell them to sit back a bit and gang up on me, but instead it’s as if it’s every man for himself instead of the law enforcers working as a team. It’s quite cool to see them taking cover, but often enough they’ll run out into the open and make themselves targets for my brand new shotgun I bought from the shop over the road. They’re not the only ones too; gang members do exactly the same.
Also, there are quite a few glitches in the game. If you see a car you like glide past, the minute the vehicle escapes from view it can be gone. It seems to be 50/50 if a vehicle stays or not. Sitting on the highway waiting to car jack someone and all you need do is look in the other direction for a sheer nano second, then turn round again and suddenly it’s rush hour. Look around again and chances are it’ll be light traffic again. That’s simply not good enough for next gen gaming, as from high vantage points only the first hundred feet on the city is visible and the rest is a blurry, poorly detailed murky world. It’s a bit off-putting, it has to be said. And despite Stilwater being a sparse, open and living city, the fact that you can save anywhere, anytime, makes gameplay a lot less tense and scary than if you had to make your way to cribs to save your progress.
The online mode is a tad disappointing. Lag seems to be a big issue, as does the small size of maps. We’re hoping that an update and perhaps some downloadable larger maps will bump up the value a bit, especially as we were expecting the entire city to be made playable to roam around.
Saints Row was never going to have that ‘wow’ factor of GTA 3 – there simply can’t be a leap in technology for the foreseeable future – but it does right a lot of wrongs simply by applying more detail. The respect system is far more refreshing and urges you to explore more than in GTA. You feel as if you really have to put in the graft if you’re to progress in the murky underworld of street gangs than just sit back completing mission after mission and occasionally going off to discover new parts. You’re encouraged to make your own name than just hitting the right set of buttons to please a higher figure.
The niggles are a bit of a set-back – online play could almost be labelled a farce – and there are times when you just need to put down the controller and walk away after some dodgy AI calls. But no game is without its faults, and having to follow in the footsteps of Rockstar’s established giant, Saints Row could certainly have made far bigger and a greater number of glaring errors. Better than Grand Theft Auto? From what I’ve experienced, both games focus on entirely different concepts of crime, so much so it’s almost a treat to flick backwards and forwards between each series. GTA is far more high flying, with huge drug raids and mafia troubles and I found Saints Row to be more down to earth, focusing on petty crimes and taking over gang turf. Perhaps I’m just avoiding answering the question – there’s no denying that these are two incredibly similar games – but I’m far more happy owning two games that show the contrasting lives of crime than one title in a genre in which no-one is bold enough to try something a little different. You have to give Volition credit for that.