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Saint’s Row Review

Developer: Volition Publisher: THQ
Release Date: August 29, 2006 Also On: None

Grand Theft Auto, like it or not, should be credited as one of the most important video games in the last decade. It created a genre, reinvented several others, and for better and worse put video games out in front of a bigger audience than ever before. Not the first developer to attempt to imitate this formula, the Champaign, Illinois-based Volition has created Saint’s Row, another game with high hopes of giving Rockstar’s bad-mouthed baby a run for its money. It does this better than any game before it and ends up as one of the best titles on the Xbox 360.

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So many sandbox games have been done before and one might wonder just what Saint’s Row does to be unique. What’s new here that wasn’t in Grand Theft Auto, True Crime, Driver or The Godfather? Well, fundamentally, nothing. You’ve driven cars, done drive-bys, taken out gangs, run over pedestrians, and rode shotgun–why do it all again in a $60 Xbox 360 game? Well, despite the fact that Saint’s Row takes you down several familiar roads, it does everything Grand Theft Auto and its imitators did, but a lot better.

Saint’s Row throws you into a city called Stilwater. In the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re the sole survivor of a brutal gang scuffle. You’re rescued by Julius, the leader of the Saints, a lesser-known gang in Stilwater. With nothing else to do, you embark on a bloody journey with the Saints to claim Stilwater as their own. It’s an all-out territory war between the business-savvy Vice Kings, the gearhead Westside Rollerz, and the drug-dealing Carnales.

Saint’s Row has a story that’s worth listening to. The different lieutenants of the Saints are all colorful characters indeed, and their enemies for each gang are equally interesting. The story isn’t an all-out win for anyone, with tragic losses, betrayals, and more for each warring faction. An interesting choice was to keep the main character silent except for a few interesting times throughout the violent campaign–and when the man finally talks, it’s always something that’ll catch you off-guard. I especially enjoyed his quip during the final Vice Kings mission.

Before I get to the open-world things you can find in Saint’s Row, I’ll explain the mission structure. Unlike other games, where completing story-based missions allows you to continue onto more missions, Saint’s Row forces you to earn respect points. These points are a reward earned by “spreading the word” and causing havoc throughout Stilwater in the name of the Saints. This is done by taking part in various Activities, like playing the pimp in “Snatch,” the chauffeur in “Escort,” shooting everything in sight in “Mayhem,” or slowly taking out targets in “Hitman.” Once enough respect points are earned, the player can continue through the story. Not only does this system nudge the player to explore Stilwater and play the game at a less-focused, slower pace, it allows the player to see all of the different gameplay concepts found in the game.

As I mentioned, Saint’s Row is a story about a territory war, so a large percentage of your time will be devoted to earning 36 different sectors in Stilwater and defending them from the three opposing gangs. These territories are unlocked naturally throughout each gang’s storyline, so you’ll take over the west side of Stilwater before you’re done with the Rollerz, win the south while fighting the Carnales, and raise your flags in the downtown area during your conquest against the Vice Kings. After winning territories, you’ll occasionally have to defend them against the old owners. This is done in a way that seems random, so sometimes you’ll be cruising along and receive an in-game message that your territory is being attacked. It’s not mandatory to fight back for the territory, but it helps greatly when you have to drive through that territory and you don’t have to worry about being shot at.

On top of the game’s 36 story-based missions and the 36 territories, there are Stronghold missions that also help in the territory take-over. When you’ve earned additional respect points, you’ll sometimes be able to take over an enemy Stronghold. Stronghold missions, alongside the Activities, are my favorite part of Saint’s Row. These are generally all-out assaults on an enemy base that is filled to the brim with angry defenders armed with bigger guns. There are some Stronghold missions that play things differently. For example, while taking over one Carnales Stronghold, you’ll do a little demolition by planting bombs throughout a factory. Sadly, Stronghold missions don’t come around as often as I’d have hoped–I would have loved to see a Stronghold in every single sector of the city.

I can’t go much longer without crediting Volition for giving Saint’s Row a typical first-person shooter control scheme. Unlike the abysmal “lock-on and shoot” style of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row plays very smoothly in every way. Running around and aiming your weapons are both controlled by the analog sticks, and there isn’t even a lock-on button to be found. If you’re a fan of first-person shooters (if you’ve got an Xbox 360, you probably are), you’ll feel right at home with this style. Fortunately, shooting isn’t the only thing that’s really easy to do. The cars in Saint’s Row all feel very stable and controllable, which I strongly prefer to the buck-wild vehicles found in Grand Theft Auto. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving an old beater, a high-end sports car, or a delivery truck, the controls never become a frustrating issue. That’s more than Grand Theft Auto could ever claim.

There are some gameplay touches that fans of this genre should be very happy with. Volition made this a peoples’ game by toning down the backtracking and retracing of the steps–if you’re taken out in a mission, you have the option to restart the mission from its beginning with everything you had prior to the mission. This is a simple and small touch, but it’s one that I’m personally very fond of when I think back to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and I remember driving for several combined hours to retry missions at their starting point. Also, throughout the game, there are a ton of save points. Capturing an enemy stronghold or crib will spawn another save point location, so by the end of the game, there will be more than two dozen save points across the city. Add the ability to save anywhere on the fly, and you’ve got a very easily accessible game.

Saint’s Row runs on all four cylinders in terms of presentation. The visuals are fantastic, spare for a few genre-familiar problems (pop-up, bad draw distance, etc.). The overall look of the game is very bright and colorful, giving a rather comical appearance to a very brutal game. There are so many little touches that make this game look smooth. For example, your characters will hop into the seats of a convertible rather than open the doors to slowly get in. The particle effects and physics engine are definitely the highlights, though. After blowing up cars, you’re treated to some of the best explosions ever seen in video games. Don’t gawk too long, though, because the debris will eventually come crashing down, crush your body, and then burn it to a crisp if you manage to survive!

The sound is fantastic in every way. The radio stations don’t rival those of Grand Theft Auto but they’re still entertaining. The sound effects are great as well. But what has to be credited the most is the dialogue. Saint’s Row features the most ridiculous but excellent dialogue I’ve seen from a game like this. There are a few too many f- and n-bombs for my taste, but in the actual story scenes, the dialogue is believable and well-done. Some of the other dialogue is so raunchy that you’ll definitely want to keep any kids away. During some of the Escort Activity missions, I heard the most perverse sexual things I think I’ve ever heard in my life. Still, this is a game you’ll want to listen to–keep that Xbox 360 Soundtrack turned off!

The raunchy dialogue is accompanied by a generally sick sense of humor that mimics that of Rockstar very well. Volition pokes fun at several different things in this game, and you’ll catch a lot of them in no time. For example, a restaurant called “Freckle Bitch’s” is a “grown-up, mature” version of the late Dave Thomas’s Midwest-based food chain, Wendy’s. The commercials heard in the game are pretty ridiculous as well. Friendly Fire, Stilwater’s firearm store, is a complete rip-off of Ammu-Nation, Grand Theft Auto’s equivalent. The commercials make this especially noticeable.

Saint’s Row’s online gameplay is something that has never been attempted before in the sandbox genre. Online, you can choose from several gameplay modes–Gangsta Brawl, Big Ass Chains, Protect tha Pimp, and more. The online gameplay modes are all a lot of fun when the connection isn’t awful, but in my experience, the connection was almost always awful, so I didn’t have the most fun on Xbox Live with this game. There was severe lag, a ton of disconnecting, and a lot of quitters. Also, I felt like the characters died and ran out of stamina far too quickly. Rather than being a fast-paced game where players were free to run around, the lack of stamina made everything a much slower affair. Still, there’s a lot of potential whenever the servers are more stable. The Gang setup (basically the exact same concept as Halo 2’s clans) is great, and the lobbies are fun, letting you cap and chat with your buddies while waiting on the game to load.

Overall, Saint’s Row isn’t without its problems–frustrating missions, choppy online play, and a few graphical glitches show that Saint’s Row is human. Add those to the familiar ground tread in the game’s storyline, and the lack of some of GTA’s newer features, and you’ve got a game that is a few years behind the competition. But does that mean that Saint’s Row is bad? No! Far from it! Saint’s Row is a fantastic game that had me glued to my seat. I was so glued, in fact, that I played it for more than ten hours after putting it into my Xbox 360 for the first time, completing more than 30% of the game in a single sitting. Then the next day came and went. And the next day. And the next day. Saint’s Row’s got the great graphics, excellent presentation, control style, online gameplay, and entertainment value to make it more than worthy of your $60.

Graphics: 9
Sound: 10
Gameplay: 9
Creativity: 5.5
Replay Value/Game Length: 9.5
Final: 9
Written by Cliff Review Guide