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THQ and Volition provide an entertaining yet unremarkable take on the GTA clone...
In the months leading up to the release of Saint's Row, the game's developer, Volition, seemed adamant that the game shouldn't be consigned to the 'GTA Clone' category. With an open-world setting and a gangster theme running throughout focussing on the grittier, darker underbelly of the game world, the game's publisher, however, seems resigned to the fact that many will instantly apply this label; but as the first of such titles to be released on the next-generation, can Saint's Row hope to get the drop before Rockstar unleash GTA4 upon the gaming world?
Assuming the role of the unnamed "Player", Saint's Row is set in the fictional city of Stillwater - an average US city, filled with distinctly less then average citizens. Arriving on the scene during the middle of a shootout between two rival gangs, the player soon finds himself "adopted" by the 3rd Street Saints, as they attempt to take back their turf and gain control over Stillwater from the warring Los Carnales, Vice Kings and the West Side Rollerz.
With the first couple of stages designed to ease players into the game, Saint's Row should be an instantly familiar experience to the millions of gamers who've ever picked up a GTA title or the many wannabe titles that have followed suit.
The structure behind the game essentially follows three different story-arcs, each of which chronicle the on-going attempt by the 3rd Street Saints to clean up the streets and vanquish the rival Vice Kings, Los Carnales and West Side Rollerz gangs. Progress throughout the game is governed by 'Respect', which is earned by undertaking the numerous side missions on offer throughout the game or simply getting involved in good old gang warfare. One of the game's greatest qualities is the sheer number of side missions on offer and the variety to gameplay that this brings; standard "Racing", "Demolition Derby", "Mayhem" and "Drug Trafficking" join slightly more creative activities such as "Insurance Fraud", whereby players must leap in front of vehicles to attain a certain amount of damage; "Escort" missions that require driving around town avoiding the paparazzi whilst the local prostitute gets busy in the back; "Hitman" tasks that provides a list of targets around town or equally "Hijacking" certain cars from a catalogue. The list is extensive and varied, and with cut-scenes, multiple levels to each activity and a reward for their completion, there's a sense of compulsion and completion usually lacking in side missions. It's a good job as well, because the game insists heavily on taking on these challenges, locking off plot progressing missions until enough Respect has been earned. Successfully completing a mission gains control of a particular piece of territory, with the gangs contesting areas in a similarly random manner to the Los Santos fights of San Andreas. The overarching system works well, if a little on the underwhelming side, it's a slight shame that the main missions themselves are largely rudimentary affairs, often revolving around Point A to B, destroying certain objects or just waging war on as many rival gang-members as possible.
Volition have been vocal regarding the game's ability to instantly replay a failed mission without having to revisit the origins of the mission. The feature, however, seems negligible and negated by the fact that missions themselves don't have checkpoints or the ability to skip previous bits "Later in the day..." ala GTA: Vice City. It's not a massive issue, apart from certain missions, such as the one that tasks you with carrying out mundane errands on a lengthy shopping trip, only to have to start again from scratch - believe me, this mission defines frustration!
Saint's Row really comes into its own with the plethora of neat little touches that are prevalent throughout the entire game. A mobile phone allows you to enlist the support of your homies that are unlocked throughout the game and also dial the many numbers that appear throughout Stillwater, sprayed on walls, on billboard adverts and many other places. Often they're little more than an answer message trying to be funny, but occasionally this will unlock something more substantial such as the assistance of the psychotic Chicken Ned, or calling up a taxi to take you towards your destination. The touches continue throughout the game: passengers in cars will smash through the windscreens during heavy collisions; music can be heard booming out of nearby vehicles; sales at nearby stores are promoted across the radio stations and traffic cops check cars parked in the wrong places. Along with the missions and side missions Saint's Row also features a thoroughly developed theft/burglary dynamic that presents a particularly effective system governing hold-up's and robberies, with a mini-game of sorts to break into safe's and steal equipment to sell at pawn shops.
Unfortunately Saint's Row isn't without its fair share of niggles, in particular the struggles involved with a control system that doesn't feel as though it's been properly worked out. Using a free-aim technique without any lock-on features is a question of choice, but does make everybody look like headless chickens running around whilst trying to aim and shoot manually at the same time. The problem is only exaggerated when in a vehicle; trying to aim through 360 degrees whilst driving at the same time requires nothing short of an extra hand (unfortunately not supplied separately), whilst why the buttons for Nitros and the Horn weren't swapped still compounds us after many, many hours into the game. Thankfully the default control system can be changed to something a little more useful, though you have to ask why Volition didn't iron this out in the first place.
Perhaps Saint's Row biggest misgiving is its failure to really push what we expect from an open-ended, free-roaming GTA clone on the next-generation; in fact, in many ways Saint's Row is a step back from the likes of GTA: San Andreas in terms of scale and scope. The game world of Stillwater is a well designed city, but one that feels relatively miniscule in contrast to Rockstar's previous titles - a deliberate design choice no doubt, but one that leaves you asking for a little more. Of more concern is the lack of bikes, boats, planes, helicopters and anything else that doesn't have four wheels. Don't get us wrong, Saint's Row is undeniably an entertaining stop-gap until next October, but it doesn't even begin to push the genre forwards; areas such as a greater sense of "cause-and-effect", the game world changing based around the player's actions and other such "concepts" we'd expect from a true next-gen open-world title have been virtually ignored - why can't we have news helicopters providing picture-in-picture broadcasts of your rampage, your turf becoming more developed as the gang's prominence increases - the list could go on.
Aiming to meet the high-production values of the GTA series is always going to be hard, however, enlisting the support of Keith David as the game's mentor figure was a masterstroke, this guy comes with massive respect after his performance as the Arbiter in Halo 2 and makes the role of Julius entirely his own. Given the game's structure, mature theme, satirical radio stations and high production values it seems strange that Volition have been keen to distance themselves away from GTA comparisons - to us Saint's Row seems like the most sincere form of flattery that a GTA clone could ever manage to muster. Ultimately Saint's Row falls short of the sheer wit and intelligence of a GTA script, but it does manage to provide a sense of humour and balance to the gratuitous violence occurring on-screen.
One of the major selling points behind the game is the inclusion of Xbox Live multiplayer modes, something that initially caused a concerted raise of the cynical eyebrow! Saint's Row multiplayer is very much detached from the single-player experience, which is something that gave us concern; would the game be little more than a run around third-person shooter? Thankfully one or two creative game types and a persistent sense of character development lift the game beyond our initial doubts - though we're hoping somebody will be able to seamlessly blend the storyline and structure of the single-player with multiplayer elements in a future GTA style game, over to you Rockstar North!
The basic Gangster Brawl and Team Gangster Brawl cover the essential deathmatch varieties; it's basic fodder that soon gets a little tired, but does exactly what you'd expect. Things get a little more involved with the Protect Tha Pimp mode, which is essentially a variation of VIP, challenging one team to kill the pimp and another to escort him to safety. Big Ass Chains works similarly to CTF, challenging players to acquire the chains from fallen opponents and deliver them to a safety spot. Perhaps the most innovative and enjoyable mode comes with Bling My Ride, whereby each team has to raise enough money by acquiring chains and killing opponents to level up their car and ultimately hold on for victory. Not content with delivering a handful of entertaining modes, Volition have also worked hard on the structure behind online multiplayer mode. Gangs can be set up in a similar manner to Clans from other titles, whilst the warehouse lobby is perhaps the most entertaining way to wait for a game we've seen on Xbox Live yet! Money earned through the game can be used to buy clothes and accessories, which provides a sense of reward, development and customisation typically missing in online games of this nature. It may not be enough to sustain your interest for months on end, but it should provide entertainment long after the single-player mode has lost its appeal, and it's most definitely more entertaining then we first thought.
With GTA4 still some way off, Saint's Row is a creditable first entry for what will likely become a franchise for THQ and Volition; the core game is sold enough, the wealth of little touches are entertaining and a multiplayer mode to keep Xbox Live fanatics happy.