When the Saints...
When you think of a developer like Volition you don't think GTA-inspired gang games at all, you think of Freespace, Freespace 2, Summoner and it's sequel along with the game Red Faction, at least I do. Volition has however pulled a nice bag of tricks out of their hat with Saints Row - the gang game that succeeds in many places but doesn't quite have the edge that the GTA series has.
Your character (after you build them in the custom character creator) is out on the mean streets of Stillwater. It's a place ripe for the pickings of the many gangs that vie for control. You are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; you're almost history until you're saved by the 3rd Street Saints, another gang, one that's committed to cleaning up the Row. After this brutal cut-scene you're taken to the game proper and right from the get go the story grabs you and drags you in.
Saints Row is instantly familiar to anyone that's played a GTA style game. It isn't fair to say the game is a rip-off of Rockstar's baby, but it is fair to say that certain things have been inspired by the much maligned gang game. Your character can be controlled on foot or he can borrow any vehicle that's driving around or just lying there for the taking.
The controls have several schemes for on foot and in car. There are no motor bikes or planes in this game, Volition wanted to keep things on the ground for their first game (I expect they'll be a sequel) this time around. The control system is intuitive and easy to learn, you can perform a crouch with a quick click of the left stick and gun combat (a problem with a lot of these games) is not complicated, everything works smoothly in that department.
The only minor niggle I have is the radial button menu that pops up when you hold down the default B button, this allows you to change your weapon, but it's fairly clunky for first time players - once you get used to it you'll be laughing, but until then you could find yourself switching to the wrong weapon in a tense fire-fight.
What is refreshing is that the city is completely open right from the start, you can interact with the main storyline at any time by doing any of the main missions or you can just go off and explore the map looking for various activities and hidden CD's.
There are numerous activities to do in Stillwater. The first time you engage in one you're treated to a cut-scene that outlines what the person or group wants you to do, these are often humorous but lack the sparkle of GTA's dialogue. They seem to rely on bawdy humour to get them through; this is alright if you like that kind of approach.
Activities range from simple Snatch missions for a local pimp or two, where you have to drive against a time limit to get a number of hookers back to a drop off point. The hookers are often protected by gang members and pimps, these are obstacles to be wiped out or avoided as they will shoot to kill the moment you try and steal their hookers.
There are Drug Trafficking missions where you ride shotgun for a driver and protect them as they make a number of rounds, against a variety of AI gangs, police, FBI and so on.
Chop Shop missions, Hitman missions and even a Destruction Derby to participate in. One of the more inventive types of missions requires you to commit acts of Insurance Fraud, either by diving in front of cars or ramming them with your own. You have a set score zone and have to get the right amount of money to win the mission.
There's no shortage of activities to have fun with in Stillwater, and during the story of the game these build Respect and give you extra funds.
Talking of Respect, that's a commodity you need a lot of in Saints Row. Each time you do a mission or a storyline mission, you earn cash and respect, Respect allows you to unlock more story missions and other side missions. Respect drops each time you participate in a key event or mission, so you're paying for the mission with Respect basically.
As you do certain story missions you start to take over Stillwater, you gain gang territory that has to be defended in a Pushback. These can be hellishly hard or ridiculously easy depending on your approach and tactics. As long as the territory is not contested you gain money at your crib. To push back a contested territory you can drive there and start shooting, cap all the gang lieutenants and you'll win it back.
The crib (you eventually get one) is a place where you can store weapons, change clothes and pick up your money. It also comes with a 160 car garage where you can store vehicles. A nice touch is that if you do blow up one of your many stored cars, you can get it rebuilt for a fee in the garage. You'll also gain more cribs as you progress through certain aspects of the game's main story.
If you have enough money and desire a collection of cool looking vehicles, then there's Rim Jobs car mechanic - they'll repair your car, they'll even pimp your car if you have the cash. The car modding side of the game is fun and adds a unique visual look to each vehicle you buy, borrow, steal or unlock from certain activities.
Saints Row has a lot to do and allows you complete freedom of the city in which to do it, you can drive around looking for activities and shops get new clothes and weapons from the many stores around and generally spend as much time as you want in between story missions.
Your character eventually gains enough pull to command other Homies, you can have up to 3 of these and they'll generally try and help you out as much as they can. They can often be more of a hindrance than a help, but they're useful when you're in a big fire-fight and they're armed with some machine guns or heavy weapons. If they get taken out you can revive them (within 30 seconds) with a quick tap of the Y button over their downed bodies.
If you shoot at a car or person, they'll follow suit, this can lead to some interesting moments when the police or a rival gang turn up and fire on you. Every allied character in the vicinity (especially in your territory) turns up the heat on the aggressor.
If you're in trouble and being tailed by an enemy car, the best thing you can do is head right into an area controlled by the Saints and let them do the negotiation for you.
You gain notoriety based on what you do regarding the other gangs, for example if you keep on upsetting the Vice Kings, then your meter will rise and you'll get more and more Vice Kings turn up to try and take you down. This builds quite a bit of Rep however and is useful for getting weapons, vehicles and cash.
The same happens for the police, if you keep on causing trouble, robbing shops and so on - you'll get more police until they trigger a full scale manhunt.
Get smoked and die, you'll appear at the hospital and you'll be charged some amount of your money, you get to keep your weapons though - the same goes with the police, if you're arrested, you're released with a full compliment of weapons from the nearest police station.
Some of the special missions in Saints Row can only be triggered by experimenting with the game, such as the hold up. Point a gun at the shopkeeper and they'll raise their hands or panic, keep the gun on them and they'll walk you to the safe, crack it open and let you take their cash.
If they feel too threatened they'll curl up into a ball on the floor, or try and hit the panic button - then you'll be faced with a bungled robbery.
At night you can kick in a shop's door and try to rob the safe yourself, it's based on the motion of the analogue stick and button presses, time it right and you'll be able to crack the safe and get away with several boxes. Load them into the boot of your car and race to a Pawn shop. Take too long and you'll have the cops on your tail, from a few cars to the whole force.
There are also hostage missions; try to get in a car with enough passengers, drive off fast enough and you'll be able to take them hostage. The police will hunt you down and the longer you drive, the more money you can extort.
So with all these side activities and the main story missions, you'll find there's a lot to do in Saints Row and the game is easy enough and fun to play. Each activity is broken up into 8 levels of difficulty and these are sometimes locked depending on your Respect.
You can save at any time from the menu, or in your crib or save points dotted around the map.
Talking of the map, the map is an excellent feature and is highly informative. It links well with the mini-map and there's a guide line that shows up to give you a good idea where you're going to the next objective or marker you've added. The main game screen also displays a marker to let you know you're going in the right direction; however it will often set up some odd routes for you to follow, so at times you'll be relying on your knowledge of the city.
There are 7 unlockable Homies in the game, some of them are obviously earned from successful side mission and activity completion, others are found by exploration and taking a note of the phone numbers scrawled in various places around Stillwater.
Saints Row has a phone book that stores your successfully dialled numbers; you can get these from a variety of sources including listening to adverts on the radio. Once you dial a number you'll get an amusing message or unlock some kind of bonus. For example, dial 911 and you'll get an Ambulance that will allow you to heal.
You can heal in game with food bought from Freckle Bitches or use the above mentioned Ambulance call. Health will recover over time however as long as you don't take further damage.
Saints Row has a number of machine gun and pistol weapons, as well as the obligatory Rocket Launcher that deals a devastating amount of damage to anyone and everything. These can be purchased for hideous amounts of cash from any Friendly Fire store or stolen from dead gang members.
With tight gameplay the game should have a top notch graphics engine and it does, well, it does up until a point. It suffers sadly from a bad case of pop up and teleporting cars. It's quite jarring to see a whole section of the freeway just vanish into thin air under you, or drive past a car parked down the street, come back a few moments later to pick it up, only to find it's gone completely.
There are times that the cars will port in directly in front of you, appearing from nowhere just like a cheap magic show. The pop up of buildings varies, sometimes there's nothing and other times whole sections of the skyline can appear suddenly in your view.
On the whole however the graphics for Saints Row are good quality, they're bright and colourful with some nice effects and dynamic lighting (day and night, weather, headlights and so on), they're just let down by those annoying pop up and graphical glitches that should certainly have been fixed in the retail game.
Of course since there's very little loading, Saints Row is doing an awful lot of streaming when rendering up this huge city - still it is a next gen game on a next gen console, we'd have expected a little better in that regard.
Animations and AI
The characters are all well animated, running, walking, shooting and various mannerisms are depicted with a flawless sense of style. The driving animations are great, the character moves in and out of the vehicle based on the type it is and also how they
The joy of playing the game for me is just sitting back sometimes and watching the world roll on by, they all have their own animated AI lives and some hilarious situations can happen when someone decides to take the law into their own hands after an off colour comment from one of the residents.
A beautiful example of this would be when I was set upon by a crazy old bag lady, out walking by my first crib; she decided that I needed to die for some reason and she shot over the road to get at me. A purple Saint's car drove past and the moment she punched me - every Saint in the Row went into alert.
She gave me some dialogue about being a defenceless woman that was going to kick my ass. I didn't want to hurt her, so I kept blocking. A cop car turned up, the cop got out and went for me, and meanwhile the Saints were homing in on the bag lady.
The cop gets there first and hits me with his nightstick, but then he hits the old lady by accident and she forgets all about me. The bag lady's wrath transfers wholesale onto the cop and she beats him senseless. Another cop car pulls up and before anyone can react, bag lady goes on a kicking spree, she runs up to the cop car and pulls the officer out.
People panic and there's complete pandemonium as the street goes mad, people run off and leap walls and fences to get away. Bag lady gets hit by a Saint and the rest of the gang now want her blood. But bag lady isn't going down without a fight. She gets run over by a pickup and finally we think it's all over, no, bag lady is still alive and goes after the driver.
In the end to stop the chaos I had to put a bullet in bag lady's skull, it was the only thing I could do.
The AI in Saints Row ties in with the animation in a perfect way, but it also seems to tie into the various systems such as the audio. I have witnessed the AI go after other AI when they don't like a piece of dialogue or even drag someone out of their car when they drive past with loud music on.
Gang member AI is a bit ropey, both in terms of enemy and support, they'll often charge in to impossible situations and get themselves knocked out - this forces you to waste time in reviving them or just forging on ahead without Homies. The enemies will try and use cover and flanking moves, but most often or not they'll race on in as well.
When they're driving and you're in the passenger seat riding shotgun, they'll often crash when they take a wrong turn or another car rams into them from the neutral AI. You could of course put this down to panic both from the driver and the AI that's turned out suddenly into a full of drive by fire-fight.
This works for and against the game, the AI often happens to panic when things go wrong. People become aggressive or totally freak out, they'll attempt to escape from the dangerous situation or find cover. This can be useful when you're causing the chaos, but when you're trying to escape the chaos, it can be a pain as every car comes tearing around the corner in a blind panic trying to get away.
It doesn't bother me of course because it leads to some cool AI moments. If you toss a pipe bomb or grenade, AI will go for dives, cover or attempt to run away. Each character attempts to get away in a slightly different way, some will even trip up and scramble back to their feet.
Car handling is tied in to this; it's a bit different if you're used to GTA and the cars do handle differently, the faster cars have a good sense of speed. They also blow up nicely and react to damage with an increasingly worse handling and so on. Damage doesn't just cause mechanical defects, panels fall off and the car gets battered, eventually smoke pours out of it and it sets on fire. After that there's a huge bang and bits of vehicle will sail off in all directions, if you or anyone gets struck by the falling bits of vehicle it will cause damage.
The ragdoll physics add a great sense of over the top Hollywood style action to the game and the explosions are some of the best explosions in a vehicular gang game yet. It's quite satisfying on some level to see the bodies of enemy gang members flying up into the air and soaring across the street as a big explosion goes off taking with it small debris and lampposts, various objects and even other vehicles.
There's a lot going on in the audio department of Saints Row and it hasn't been neglected, there are audio cues for all times of day and night, people muttering to themselves and car horns, stereos, sounds and general spot effects. The game is packed with them and they bring Stillwater to life.
There are plenty of radio stations to listen to, a thumping mix of various cool tracks from a variety of sources. You can unlock/download new tracks/content from Xbox Live although there's nothing there yet. Even radio station adverts inform you of sales where a special song is available. A custom playlist available in game lets you to listen to songs you buy from a music store or make your own music playlist from your own tracks via the dashboard.
The music itself varies from rock through to hip hop and even classical.
With a game as high profile as Saints Row, you need a high profile cast list and the voice talent for the game comes from the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan (Green Mile and Sin City), David Carradine (Kill Bill), Tia Carrere (Relic Hunters), Keith David (Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick movies) and many more. The voice work is top notch from everyone involved, and there are many funny lines of street based dialogue - when you're out and about just moving from place to place, a lot of it will be lost unless you stop and listen in to a few conversations.
I have absolutely no complaints here at all.
There's something that the GTA genre needed and that was MP. People have been crying out for that since the days of GTA 3. Saints Row attempts to fill that gap and on the whole does a pretty good job with the MP side over Xbox Live.
You can use the quick matchmaking system to get a few games, make a gang and invite your buddies to play or match up against other gangs.
There are a few coop missions where you and a buddy can team up over Live and try to escape from an airport or gang territory. You have a set number of lives, lose them all and it's game over.
Bling up your ride sees you trying to pimp a car and get it to the finish line before the other players. Kill enemies to get bling and then use that to buy a certain number of mods, get the whole set and race to the finish - be warned though, if your ride is totalled you need to start again.
These are just a few of the MP options available in Saints Row.
The MP experience itself is a bit ropey at the moment, lag is a problem and there are frequent disconnects from certain games. Volition should be working on it and if these errors are sorted it could be a solid MP game that people will come back to time and time again. I would have personally liked to see a split-screen offline option for players, as well as a cooperative MP experience for the single player game where one person plays the main character and the other could be a Homie.
Before I wind up I have to mention the game lobby, where you can set up games and matchmaking. It's not a static menu, there's actually a lobby where you can run around and shoot the other players while you're waiting for a game, this adds a nice little bit of interactivity to the game and is a lot of fun - it gets you in the mood for some MP action.
You can also earn MP cash to buy a new look for your character and that level of customisation is great.
Saints Row doesn't desperately try to be GTA or a GTA clone; it unfortunately can't escape these comparisons or accusations. It is a game that stands shoulder to shoulder with GTA and in some ways it actually does a few things better, there's a lot more thought gone into the side missions and the level of humour isn't quite a good as GTA's, but it's funny non-the-less. It's a good game and it certainly offers a lot of replay value as you try and unlock everything, pimp out your rides and play with the slightly bugged MP aspect.
Being able to customise your character right from the start with a unique look means that you feel drawn deeper into the story, since it is your character that you're playing and not the made up developers hero. Of course you can get some pretty outlandish characters for the game if you want and that's another bonus, being able to push the boundaries of the generator to create a quirky and unique persona is always good.
If you like GTA-style games and can't wait for the next, then Saints Row is a perfect game to tide you over.