The GTA series just about nailed every aspect of the free-roaming 3D action adventure genre, seamlessly mixing driving with shooting, fighting and many other elements of gameplay into the landmark titles. Many have tried to emulate the successfully crafted formula but none have really even come close. Saints Row is yet another GTA clone then, but the good news is it's a pretty decent one.
When you start up Saints Row for the first time you will be presented with the highly comprehensive character creation facility. This allows you to determine many features of your character's appearance. All the usual options such as height, weight, eye colour and hair colour are all included as well as what seems like limitless other more subtle options. After a bit of practice you could most likely create a character that has a respectable likeness of yourself, or none at all; depending on your preference and perception of yourself.
The storyline sees you very nearly caught up in the crossfire between several rival gangs in the fictional crime-infested city of Stillwater. You are rescued by a guy named Julius who is the leader of a gang called the Third Street Saints. From then on you work with the Saints to take back the city and wipe out the remaining gangs, leaving you chief of Stillwater. As simple as it sounds the plot presented throughout the main missions is very well written and has many decent twists making for some compelling reasons to continue playing through the game.
The structure of the game is set out much like that of other GTA games. You operate within the city taking on missions to the complete storylines. However, unlike GTA, Saints Row includes a new respect feature that forces you to explore the city and find other activities. Completing these different types of activities around the city will increase your respect rating. The higher your respect, the higher the amount of main story missions you have access to. There are a bunch of different activities around the city of Stillwater, many of which are good fun in their own right. The overall system leads to a good sense of achievement and adds tremendously to the lifespan of the game. Rather than breezing through the 35 main story missions straight away leaving you nothing to do after a few hours, the respect system cleverly adds lifespan without the game feeling unnecessarily dragged out. And because of the humungous amount of alternate mission activities the game never loses its sense of freedom.
Saints Row unfortunately doesn't feature boats, helicopters, planes or bikes, but it does have a huge roster of four wheeled transport such as cars, vans, coaches and lorries. Most of the vehicles look very distinctive, some look old and battered up, whilst others will look more modern and almost fresh out of the showroom. The damage models are also impressive, with localised models reflecting every dent and scratch.
Saints Row has a variety of different multiplayer modes such as Gangster Brawl; which is the game's equivalent to deathmatch. Protect The Pimp; which is a team-based shooting event, and Bling that Ride; which involves driving to a location and getting your car upgraded before the enemy team blow it up. The other multiplayer mode is something called Big Ass Chains, where players carry chains around and have to drop them off in certain locations. Saints Row even has a co-operative mode to play though certain missions against AI characters. The multiplayer can be played online or through system link. It isn't the game's strong point, but can you honestly say you never wished you could play GTA online? With the exception of GTA: Liberty City Stories on the PSP, this is about the closest to it so far.
Graphically Saints Row has a nice look to it. It's a huge step up from GTA thanks to the Xbox 360's more powerful hardware. Smooth surfaces aplenty, with high-res textures and detailed surroundings complementing the action superbly. While there are indeed some noticeable graphical glitches from time to time and the frame-rate can dip a little in those frantic moments, overall Saints Row is impressive visually.
The audio in Saints Row is also highly commendable. Anyone who has played any of the past three GTA games will more than likely remember the in-car radio stations. Well, Saints Row has copied and imitated that concept blatantly and very effectively. There are around 10 different radio stations spanning different genres of music, and not forgetting those hilariously comical ads in between songs. If you prefer to listen to your own playlists, there is the option to do so while in car and on foot. The voice acting in Saints Row is also first class, and the experience of Keith David, Michael Clark-Duncan and David Caraden really shines though. The crisp gunshot sounds and neat touches like being able to hear a car radio blurred and muffled from outside the car gives the sound a polished overall finish.
At its heart Saints Row may be little more than a GTA copy, but where many others have failed, Saints Row succeeds. Sure, it's never better than GTA itself and isn't going to win any awards for originality, but Saints Row does measure up to 2001's GTA III pretty well. Saints Row is a very accomplished game, but sadly falls short on truly excelling simply due to the nature of the game being based so strongly on another. However, in its own right Saints Row is a memorable play-through and without doubt deserves a look from anyone wanting a next generation GTA-type experience.