Saints Row review

Saints Row was originally planned for a launch title back in November last year, yet due to whatever reasons was inevitably delayed. Since then there has been a whole lot of talk surrounding the game especially as many could easily describe it as clone of the genre defining ultra successful Grand Theft Auto series. Now whether this is a good or bad thing is perhaps up for debate but in reality there have been several clones since Grand Theft Auto 3 of which none have managed to replicate its glory or depth. Now I have to get the GTA comparisons out of the way so looking at Saints Row and lets say Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (the most recent GTA game which appeared back in 2004 on the PS2), its clear that they are very similar in a number of ways. Yes, they are both free roaming city based games and yes they both feature a portrayal of a fantasy urban criminal lifestyle. So with this in mind it’s all so easy to draw comparisons and such like, to point out what each game does better or worse. However using this approach isn’t really fair on two counts; one GTA:San Andreas is a two year old game and two, Saints Row features on next generation hardware. With this in mind Saints Row should only be judged as a game on its own merit, until we at least have another similar game on Xbox 360 or PS3 to compare it to.

Saints Row tells the tale of wannabe street punk (your character) and the 3rd Street Saints. The Saints, as they are known in the game are part of a huge gang culture that has arisen in the fictitious mid western city of Stilwater. The city is controlled by four rival gangs The Saints, The Westside Rollers, The Vice Kings and the Los Carnales all of whom own a slice of various criminal activities such as prostitution, drugs and car theft. Stilwater is a city full of crime and as the gangs all want a bigger slice of the pie, gang wars are an everyday occurrence and a fact of life for the city’s residents. Your character becomes a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as he stumbles across a major gang fight and is almost killed. However the Saints come to your rescue and help you escape the scene which would be swarming with cops had you stayed there and from then on in your life of crime begins as you help the Saints reclaim the city of Stilwater and eliminate the rival gangs.

Saints Row is a tongue in cheek criminal simulator based on stereotypical criminal activities that fit in with the whole underground gangster lifestyle. Stilwater offers a sandbox environment where players can live out their criminal fantasies in third person action and offers a whole lot of entertainment. The onus on free roaming games is to give the player a sense of scale and freedom not offered by more constricting action games and it is this that makes them popular as players aren’t forced to do things when the game dictates. The ability to do things in ones own time is paramount to the success of free roaming games and Saints Row is no different in this respect.

Gameplay:

The first port of call is the character creation whereby you can choose a male character from four different races and then customize their appearance using simple to use sliders. Every facet of the face can be tweaked and what’s more, body mass and tone can be adjusted as well. You could spend quite some time here trying to re-create your own image into the game or simply start the game with the standard build that is available from the offset. The choice is yours although luckily should you change your mind after starting the game, the option to change your appearance is available if you visit one of the city’s plastic surgeons.

Once character creation is finished the game starts proper and here players are introduced to the whole city. From the offset players can steal a car and drive anywhere in the city with no restrictions being placed in terms of movement. However there are restrictions in terms of what you can and cannot do at this stage of the game until you undertake the first Saints mission. Once the first mission is completed players can then do whatever they please in the city. To begin with, Saints Row uses a system in which story based missions can only be attempted when the player has accumulated enough respect. Players can gain respect by completing the huge number of side activities available which come in various forms of criminal activities ranging from your character becoming a hitman, thief, mass murderer, driver, racing driver and a whole lot more to boot. By pressing START at any time players can view a map of the city which shows the locations of missions and other activities as well as areas of interest such as buildings which can be entered. The activities are specific to each gang area and are introduced by a short cut scene outlining the reason for the activity. The activities also feature a tiered difficulty and so completing one level unlocks the next until the max difficulty is reached and once this is completed a bonus is awarded. Players earn respect and money for beating activities although once the max level has been completed will only earn money.

The level of respect your character has is displayed on the screen at all times and once the required amount is reached players can then undertake the next story based mission of their choosing. Once the initial introductory Saints missions are completed the main story missions come in four groups with specific missions for each gang. The city is divided into gang territories and so completing a mission usually will acquire the territory that goes with it rewarding players with a daily income which grows as more territories are controlled. Players can choose which gang to focus on first and at any time can choose to undertake a mission related to whatever gang you fancy. So in real terms you could opt to tackle the Vice Kings first and then tackle the Los Carnales in the next mission. Alternatively you could simply put all your focus into one gang at a time to wipe them out quicker and control all their turf.

Money is important in the game in the sense that you start out as a lowlife street thug with nothing. However as you complete side activities and story missions your funds begin to grow. Money can be used to purchase weapons and vehicles which are needed throughout the game and more importantly money can be used to buy clothing and other “bling” related items. Whilst the clothing is rather cosmetic some items do offer modifiers which boost the amounts of respect gained from completing tasks and activities. Naturally the better clothes, weapons and vehicles cost quite a lot and considering the amount of money gained from completing tasks is quite low in comparison, it will take quite some time to be able to afford some of the better stuff available.

The missions themselves put the player in all manner of circumstances and introduce the player to all the main characters in the story. The missions involve lots of driving, lots of killing and more importantly a lot of variation on those themes. During missions players will come face to face with all sorts of criminals and police out to kill or arrest you. It’s a war and more often than not unscripted events will happen on the fly to keep you on your toes at all times on the mean streets.

During a shootout of which there will be many throughout your criminal career, players can select weapons from their inventory by holding the B button and then moving the thumb stick to highlight the desired weapon. This method allows you to quickly see what weapons you have, although is a little tricky considering you become vulnerable whilst you select them. The weapons come in distinct classes and range from thrown explosives to pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers and rifles. There are also a few melee weapons available and if you want to get real dirty then players are able to use fists and feet if they choose. Unfortunately you can only carry one type from the classes only at any time and so players need to keep the ones they prefer or buy new ones from the stores. Fallen enemies will also drop weapons and so players are able to pick these up as well for more ammo or to swap to a different weapon in the class.

The combat itself is very fluid and ultimately is a satisfying experience. The cross hair is displayed on the screen at all times when a weapon is wielded or selected when driving and players can aim accurately for headshots if they choose. It is a little awkward aiming whilst maintaining speed when driving, but this is something you get to learn how to deal with after extensive play. There is no targeting other than the reticule will turn red when hovering over a target and so combat feels more like a first person shooter. The weapons are all varied and offer strengths and weaknesses; the shotgun for example offers a decent kick and with the impressive use of comical rag doll effects makes blasting victims at close range extremely enjoyable although become fairly useless at longer ranges. The enemy AI during combat is also very good and it’s great to see enemies hide behind cover and crouch low to present a smaller target. During the course of the game players are able to recruit up to three “homies” to help out at any given time. By driving or walking around the city Saints gang members (indicated by their purple gang colours) can be recruited by pushing up on the D-Pad and once in your party will jump into cars with you and generally attack anyone you attack whether you are driving or walking. What is also rather neat is the fact that various gang members who roam the streets will also attack anyone you attack as well, making for some serious street shootouts against cops and other rival gang members. This level of unscripted events is great and offers a compelling experience especially as a quiet street can be turned into a raging war zone in a matter of seconds.

There’s so much to see and do in Stilwater and I guess sometimes it’s just nice to relax and take it all in. Saints Row allows you to do this and admire what goes on around you both in car or on foot; however should you leave your character simply standing on a street corner for any length of time and you could find yourself caught up in some sort of fracas with pedestrians fighting each other or gang members suddenly laying the smackdown on over zealous cops. The city has its own day and night cycle as well as dynamic weather and so it is great to see the difference in the city during nightfall or during a particular heavy downpour of rain. Saints Row is a crime game and so all activities are based around this. As far as I can tell there are no activities or missions that offer you to be the good guy, bar starting the game and going around killing and robbing all gang members that you see being the only exception and even this isn’t really recognised by the game and offers you limited cash rewards from fallen victims. Potentially you could play the game for hours doing this to earn yourself money to buy better clothes and a car or alternatively you could simply play as public enemy number one and attack or rob anyone (including stores) for cash.

Being a member of the Saints does have its rewards and so makes joining them imperative to your success. For example once you are a member of the Saints you can use their safe houses as a base where you are able to stock up on ammo, save game and grab some supplies as well as access your wardrobe and garage. The garage is an important feature as it allows you to store cars that you have stolen and also acts as a base if you leave them out in the field. Cars that are owned are returned back to your garage if left or destroyed in the field. What is more, players can modify the cars at a tuning garage and obviously this costs money and so having the garage allows you to keep your unique creations. The modifications are very limited and don’t affect a vehicles performance, however they do add a unique personal touch to the vehicles and for a game of this scale is quite an impressive feature. There are some really nice looking cars in the game which all handle differently and with your own paint jobs being applied or bumpers, hoods, rims and spoilers can turn ordinary looking cars into mind blowing beasts or pimp-mobiles. There’s certainly an impressive sense of speed whilst driving the more exotic cars and with the arcade handling makes driving feel very fluid as you’re not always battling against huge traffic jams when in a hurry. In fact it’s quite easy to control the gas and drive around Stilwater like a madman without damaging your ride by driving skilfully.

Graphics:

Saints Row features no loading when driving around the city and this in itself is due to the game streaming the data off the disk. The only loading is prior to and after the games cut-scenes and even then the loading times are quite minimal. I found that the streaming off the disk can create its own problems and noticed that performance seemed to be affected by how well the disc was being read. I also noticed that things like the frame-rate stuttering or becoming inconsistent when driving was also directly related to the disk reading especially when the in game music was also running at the same time. I personally think that gamers are going to get varying experiences based on the ability of their specific Xbox 360 console. If you have a dirty lens for example then I’m pretty sure you are going to experience more performance issues than those with new consoles or clean lenses.

For a game of this size Saints Row does an admirable job of keeping issues that plague these sorts of games at bay. Although there are obviously going to be occasions where problems will be noticed. Things like the aforementioned frame rate dipping during intense fighting or AI getting stuck behind objects as well as objects disappearing occur at times. However for the most part, during my marathon play time with the game I only experienced minor issues and ones that didn’t really detract from the playing experience too much. I did however experience 2 lock ups during my 30 hour play and these were during some of the more intense moments and could be related more to my Xbox than the actual game. One other glaring problem which doesn’t detract from the game are screen tearing issues during the cut scenes. These create lines across the screen and are noticeable but don’t detract from the actual gameplay especially considering you only watch cut scenes once.

Well that seems like a whole lot of negatives and to be honest I wouldn’t be credible if I ignored them in this review. On a plus point Saints Row’s graphics are rather good and feature a whole heap of effects. The real time shadows on most objects are amazing and after a little messing around really show that they add an extra layer of polish to the game. Try getting a pedestrian in a car’s headlights at night and see the elongated shadow dance across a nearby fence or wall.

The city itself is also realised very well with each neighbourhood housing a different selection of buildings and inhabitants with areas such as the projects looking decidedly gloomy compared to the rich suburbs. It’s nice to see that the house interior lighting switches on at night time creating a more believable experience. The character models are also quite detailed and if you grab a sniper rifle which allows you to view the character and environments in a first person viewpoint really shows off the level of detail. What is nice is the fact that there are loads of variations of pedestrians and whist you are going to see repeated models there are certainly enough variants to create the illusion that most people are different. The vehicles as mentioned earlier are very nice looking too and with the ability to mod them means that there are plenty of variations to see whilst cruising or walking the streets.

Another great feature of Saints Row is the use of physics which means that objects can be moved or shot or blown up (although not destroyed in some cases). I think the most impressive use of physics is during an explosion of a vehicle which sends individual pieces of the car flying through the air. The pieces are also solid and if they hit your character can knock you out or send you flying. The use of rag doll physics on the characters add a level of comical violence to proceedings and whilst blood is keep to a minimum it is nice to see bodies flying through the air after a nasty grenade is thrown in a crowded strip club for example.

Audio:

Saints Row features an impressive level of aural impact; for starters there is a lot of adult language such as swearing which certainly earns its 18 certificate. Pedestrians and gang members comment on your character with more favourable lines being uttered the more successful you are. Pedestrians will also comment about each other as well and it’s here where some sexual phrases are uttered. It is good that the pedestrians have plenty to say and although you will hear repeated voices and phrases there are enough of them to not get tiring or become stale. The voice acting is provided by a number of well known actors and actresses and their performances are on the whole worth every penny as they bring the leading characters to life very well.

Saints Row features an impressive number of licensed and specific tracks created for the game which can be heard in vehicles over the many radio stations on offer or purchased at one of the many record stores. Purchased tracks can then be used on your characters own player during the game which allows you to create play lists of favourite tunes. The genres available are easy listening, hip hop, rock, metal, classical and electronic.

Other sound effects are spot on whether it be car impacts to explosions or the general ambient sounds of the city. There’s nothing really to fault here other than perhaps the music can affect the streaming of data off the disc (well it did in my experience at times).

Longevity:

Saints Row’s story missions can be completed in a reasonable amount of time, I’d estimate around 15-20 hours for most people; however the side activities and general goofing around could increase that by a whole lot more especially as the distractions are worth it and offer reasonable rewards. That said players can create multiple characters if they choose and can do things differently on subsequent plays if they desire. The achievements are all very varied and encourage you to explore the entire city and do everything it has to offer if you are one of those people who just have to get all 1000 points. This task will take a huge number of hours and for some people could take them months to find everything in the game. Such is the nature of Saints Row means that potentially the game has limitless replay value.

Saints Row also offers online or system link play where players can partake in a couple of co-op missions for two players or get competitive with some versus modes with up to 12 players. The versus modes offer small sections of the city or areas to do battle and are quite fun indeed and even offer some tactical edge in team modes such as Protect The Pimp, Big Ass Chains and Blinged Out Ride. Saints Row features a matchmaking and party system akin to Halo 2 and what is more, gamers can create their own gangs and pit themselves against other online gangs for gaming supremacy. What is neat is that players create an online character using the same tools from the single player. Any money earned online can be used to buy addition clothing for your online character and so offers an even greater incentive for winning matches especially as successful players are going to look more pimp than those who lose a lot.

The multiplayer portion of the game is very fun indeed and although not quite as polished as the single player and only offering few maps still remains a welcome addition to the game. It certainly adds more appeal and ultimately is a fun and rewarding experience. If Volition also stick to their word and release more maps then the online component will improve further.

Overall:

Saints Row offers bedroom gangsters the opportunity to live out their crime filled fantasies and does it with style and class. There’s so much to like about the game that it’s easy to overlook the problems that it has. One major gripe I have with the game is the fact that your mute character (although he has one line for each gang that is wiped out) doesn’t get any personal opportunities to develop or kick back outside of running around the streets. It seems that everyone else is getting laid except you and whilst you are this successful gangster you have no one to share it with as such. I would have liked to have seen more here for players such as being able to bring women back to the crib for a party or other activities even if it was only a cut-scene ending with a black screen and sounds!

It’s obvious that Saints Row could improve on what is already there by adding more depth to the character but I guess we’ll have to wait for a sequel; however the ending will no doubt bring shock to whoever plays the game and leave them with many questions. Overall Saints Row is a cracking game and at the end of the day is extremely fun and rewarding which is what counts. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, what with all the sexual orientated gags and the stereotypical look at gangster life. The only thing missing from this game is your character getting a record contract at the end to become a Hip Hop artist! Well, ok that might be taking things too far but I guess your character is certainly qualified to comment. If you love free roaming games that offer hours of entertainment then Saints Row is most certainly the game for you. I recommend a purchase over a rental as it offers plenty more hours of play than most games. I can see myself continually playing from time to time to progress further in completing all activities in Stilwater to become the ultimate “blinged” out gangster!

9/10

Written by: Robert Cram

Robert Cram has hundreds of video game reviews and thousands of articles under his belt. He aims to remain objective and fair in his analysis. With years of experience, feels his gaming opinions are valid and worth sharing. Agreement is entirely optional.