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Saints Row

Score: 89%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Volition
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; (2 - 12 Online)
Genre: Action/ Mission-Based Driving

Graphics & Sound:

As will likely become the case with more next-generation games, Saints Row is more impressive in motion than in still screens. Looking at screenshots, the game doesn’t look too much better than a top-level current-gen title. Watch it in motion, however, and you’ll begin to notice the subtle details that help to make the game look beyond current-gen. Fabric looks and moves like real fabric while animations have those few “tweener” frames added to give them a little extra bit of fluidity.

Rather than go for an ultra-realistic look, Saints Row aims for a style that is somewhere between Perfect Dark Zero and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. The city of Stillwater is expansive and bursting with some of the most random NPC behaviors I’ve ever encountered. Like Oblivion, if you can see something on the horizon, chances are you are able to eventually drive to it.

The added bonus of being able to create your own in-game persona by customizing nearly every aspect of your character from body build and looks, clothes and tattoos is great. The system is very flexible and has allowed players to create everything from their personal likeness to famous movie characters. Of course, you could also take my route and recreate your favorite 80’s child stars and live out their post TV lives.

A great cast of characters, including Keith David, Mila Kunis, David Carradine and Michael Rapaport help to make the audio portion of the game stand out. Even the minor characters are well rounded (at least for video game characters) and have their own personalities. The script is well written and has a number of great one-liners, the best of which are saved for your character.

Saints Row also features a number of radio stations whose play lists range from rap to rock to classic. The included songs aren’t that great nor that expansive, but get the job done. Perhaps the best of the radio stations is KBOOM, Stillwater’s conservative talk radio. The conversations and opinions shown by the hosts are laugh out loud funny and worth a listen. Another cool audio aspect are the commercials that will advertise in-game sales at stores around town and new bulletins that will update based on what you’ve been doing around the city.


Gameplay:

While some might use the word clone to describe Saints Row, it isn’t the best of descriptions since the game manages to both improve and fall short of the standard set by Grand Theft Auto.

For starters, Saints Row focuses more on the “gang” aspect rather than you being one man trying to conquer the entire city. True, San Andreas did the same thing, but Saints Row manages to do it differently and better. Whereas you spent set missions with crewmembers in San Andreas, it is possible to bring a three-man crew on nearly any mission you come across. The approach to story is also different. GTA has always leaned more towards the “drama” side of things by trying to create an authentic feeling experience. Saints Row instead leans towards a more tongue-in-cheek, action movie style. The story is sometimes silly, sometime serious, but always entertaining. This approach doesn’t mean that Saints Row is any less offensive. In fact, it seems to push the envelope just a little more to the point that is feels like it is simply going for cheap, sometimes forced, sophomoric laughs.

While you can always make your own fun by starting massive police chases or playing with the game’s physics engine, you’ll eventually have to enter more structured activities if you ever want to get anywhere. There are a variety of activities you can participate in as you tool around Stillwater. You can track down and kill marks in Hitman Activities, steal cars in Chop Shop or challenge other street racers. Then there are Saints Row’s more original offerings, like Snatch, where you steal ho's from rival pimps; Insurance Fraud, which has you earning big money through accidents; Drug Trafficking, where you protect a drug dealer making the rounds; and Mayhem, where your goal is to cause as much damage possible. And, if those still aren’t enough you can always rob stores, hijack passengers in other cars, storm a rival gang’s strongholds or hunt down Tag and hidden CD locations.

As you complete activities, you earn respect which is then “spent” on Story-based Missions. You arrive as a newcomer and manage to get yourself tangled in an impromptu gang fight where you are saved by Julius and Troy, two members of the Third Street Saints. Julius invites you to join the Saints and help retake Saints Row as well as taking down the three rival gangs, the Vice Kings, Los Carnales and the West Side Rollerz. After retaking the Row, the game splits into three separate stories chronicling the Saints' battles with the other three gangs. By completing missions, you gain control of different territories around the city that will generate money for you as well as giving you easier access to other gang members if you should need them.

Overall, the single-player experience works and has a good flow to it. There’s enough flexibility in the layout that you can do things at your own leisure, but at the same time there’s enough structure that you’re never left wandering around trying to figure out what to do next.

Thanks to a nasty bug that produces game-killing lag as well as major connection issues, the multiplayer modes aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Each of the game types build on basic gameplay types like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag while bringing in a small twist. One type, Big Ass Chains, has two gangs killing each other for chains that can be turned in for points. Another features two teams taking turns acting as either a Pimp’s protection or a group of Hitmen. The goal is to get the Pimp to the end of the map before the Hitmen can kill him. The final, and my personal favorite mode, has teams collecting money that is used to upgrade their team’s car. Once the car is blinged out, the crew must get the car to a show-off point and show it off for a set amount of time. Earning cash in multiplayer modes earns money that can be spent to upgrade your online character.

Again, the match types are fun and bring something new to the game. However, lag issues absolutely kill the fun. I was able to get into a few lag free matches, but a majority were laggy messes. Volition has promised to clear up the lag issue with an upcoming patch however.


Difficulty:

Gameplay cruises along at a decent challenge throughout the missions and activities. Some require little planning and can be completed on the first try without much effort while others will require a marginal amount of planning and will usually require you to recruit a few gang members. However, sometimes even the best planning can’t overcome the little nagging issues that can make even the easiest of missions a pain in the ass – something that Saints Row seems to excel at. These instances aren’t rampant, but will happen enough to cause you to mutter (okay… yell) more than a few four letter words. The culprit is usually an unforgiving timer, though mission placement, length and over-aggressive A.I. can also play a role. I normally don’t mind a challenge or two, but there are times where developers can go overboard and sometimes manage to cripple an otherwise enjoyable mission.

Game Mechanics:

For all the comparisons, Saints Row actually manages to do something that the GTA series has never been able to pull off – a working aiming system. Volition is a company known for its shooters and it really shows when it comes to combat. Rather than implementing an auto-aim system, Saints Row uses a traditional shooter set-up. This adds a new dimension to shootouts, making it easier to take out stationary targets as well as moving ones. The system is so tight, in fact, that it is possible to pull up alongside a vehicle and quickly kill the driver. The only area where the targeting system doesn’t work is during some driving missions where you have to both aim and shoot at an escaping target. Eventually you’ll learn a few tricks to help make this task easier, but in these instances I would have liked some sort of lock-on option (or at the very least, a different gas/brake scheme).

Saints Row includes a number of vehicles that you can steal, ranging from low-end trucks and cars to high-end sports cars. Vehicles have their own physics and feel; smaller cars are faster but harder to control, while trucks are the opposite. Though the physics add something to the game, it tends to feel awkward at times. One minute you’re cruising down an alleyway knocking down fences and the next your caught up on the corner of a speed bump.

Saints Row is all about the approach. If you come into the game with a San Andreas-sized chip on your shoulder, you’re going to be disappointed no matter what. Instead, Saints Row is better approached as its own game that is trying to build something for itself while using Grand Theft Auto as a basic blueprint. Without question, Saints Row is one of the best games currently available on the 360 and well worth your time and money.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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