Over the past five years, Rockstar North (once known as DMA) has created — and set — the standard for games in a genre that, for lack of a better term, are “Grand Theft Auto” or “GTA” games. Some might call the genre “urban mayhem,” but whatever you call it, Grand Theft Auto III created a genre, the same way Castle Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom did with first-person shooters. Thus, at least right now, every game that competes in this genre competes directly with any one of the GTA games, all of which have raised the bar in videogame production, theme maturity and language, open-world design, and lastly, production cost (they’re expensive games to make). That is, until another developer does it better than Rockstar. Volition’s Saints Row is the newest contender on GTA grounds, following all three GTAs, Activision’s True Crime, Sony’s The Getaway, EA’s The Godfather, etc., and it’s both a ballsy, brave, fun game while simultaneously being guilty of the heaviest degree of copy cat-ism, me-too derivation, and just-plain over-doing it.
Saints Row, however, portrays Volition (The Punisher, Red Faction 1 & 2, Descent: Free Space) as an erudite student of the genre. This next-gen, open-world action-shooting-racing game solves numerous problems born in GTA, and the Champaign, Ill.-based studio has whittled away at the concept, forming a highly polished design that plays well, feels good, and that functions smoothly and with great ease of use. Saints Row is not only a 30-40 hour single-player game with a smart progression system, a breadth of engaging missions, and tons of car and character customization, it’s the first game in this genre to successfully negotiate online and multiplayer waters, including online and SystemLink co-op functionality.
The gameplay is just like GTA in most respects. It’s open, enabling players to walk, run, swim, fight, shoot, drive, and pick missions at their will and in any order. The third-person view enable players to freely swing the camera around using the right analog stick, while moving the characters around with the left analog stick. Players can punch, kick, and block using the left triggers and bumpers, and with a gun in hand, the right trigger provides the shooting. While driving you can shoot, select weapons (as long as they don’t require two hands), and recruit other Saints. You start the game by joining the Saints, and through in-game tutorials, learn how everything works each time you encounter a new interaction. The story is solid on most fronts. Even though you’ll cringe here and there from the overt amount of foul language, forced humor, and shamelessness of the game’s hip-hop “vibe,” the narrative is slightly better than ordinary, but the characters flesh it out skillfully thanks to adept voice actors and generally smart dialog. You’ll hear the F-bomb every fourth word from the main characters, the pedestrians, even on the radio — and that gets really tiring. Thrifty use of the f-bomb is far more effective that swearing in every sentence. Still, enough twists and turns come your way to keep the narrative interesting and worthwhile.
Volition did several things very right, especially with gun controls. It worked tenaciously on nailing a good control system down, and in a sense this was easy. Instead of struggling with a lock-on aiming system, they let it go free. Aiming consists of picking a weapon holding the B button, selecting a weapon on a radial dial, and pressing the right trigger to shoot. The small circular reticule turns red when rolled over a non-gang member, i.e. pedestrians and opponent gang members. Again, there is no auto-aiming. The reticule freely moves around using a steady not-too fast, not-too slow mechanic that doesn’t get in the way. It works, and it works well.
The game is built on a relatively new progression scheme, which shapes the way in which a player progresses, with Volition appearing to pick what it likes and dislikes from GTA, True Crime and The Godfather, and then making its own slight variations. Players earn a currency called “Respect,” earned by beating story missions and non-story missions (called “activities”). Respect accumulates in a half-circle meter and can cue up multiple times before being “spent” to open new missions. Basically, the more fighting, busting, and killing you do (in missions) the more respect you get. Volition democratically doles these out, sprinkling them evenly across story-missions (which progress the main story) and activities, which earn respect but don’t forward the story. Volition’s even distribution is smart, since it gently forces players to explore and perform in a wide variety of missions, instead of just gunning through the core missions to the end as fast as possible. By beating levels, you earn both respect and money independent of one another, and if the mission is a Stronghold mission or a Story mission, you’ll earn a territory. The goal of the game is to attain them all.
The core story missions dip into the story of the Saints’ rise to the top and they range in style, depth, and difficulty. You’ll find these familiar: fetch this item, bring it back; escort this dude, bring him back safely; blow the crap out of gang XYZ; prevent the Rollerz from jacking four cars, escort a certain gang leader to kill them all off; etc. Some are single objective missions, and as you progress, they’ll grow in size and complexity, comprising multiple parts. The game reads your progress, upping the difficulty no matter which gangs you take out first. I decided to wipe out the Vice Kings first, followed by the Rollerz, and finished up with Los Carnales, but you can beat them in any order or take them all on simultaneously. The only weakness with the multi-tasting strategy is that each gang engages in Push Back missions, where they start small wars to gain back territory, and these happen randomly, so logical deduction leads one to the conclusion that fighting one gang at a time is easier than fighting three.
Unoriginal But Fun
I’ll be totally honest up front. For the longest time, I’ve had serious doubts about Volition’s game. It was originally slated as a launch title and was pushed back due to many obvious reasons (looked bad, played bad, wasn’t done, etc.). On the surface, it smacks of being the biggest rip-off of all time. The game mimics nearly every possible thing that’s done well in GTA and re-creates it with a bravado and guiltlessness that sticks in my ribs like a dull rusty knife. How can Volition do this and feel good about itself? How can they so indiscreetly copy GTA? At least True Crime and The Godfather tried different font styles, pedestrian humor, and radio station ideas. They copied ideas, not the whole damn thing. But like so many great writers (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wasn’t his original story, he just did it better than the original playwright), artists, musicians and game developers, copying an idea is one thing; copying an idea and making it better is another. Z-targeting from Zelda, soul sucking from Legacy of Kain, you name it, ideas flow freely from development studio to studio. You feel slighted when an original game like GTA is copied and pasted, but you feel better about it, and you give credit to the artist that copied it, improved upon it, and went a little further. While Volition is guilty as sin for copying Rockstar wholesale, it’s also improved upon GTA in many ways, making the experience of playing a game in this genre bigger and brasher.
Despite it unoriginal premise and derivative nature, Saints Row holds up throughout because it’s smartly designed, technically solid, and straight out fun, whether we’re talking single-player, co-op, or multiplayer. In the single-player game, you follow the story of four gangs fighting for power in the imaginary modern day town of Stilwater, and you start as a no-name, low-level innocent whose life is saved by Julius of the 3rd Street Saints and eventually play a major role in the gang’s rise to power. The Saints (a mish-mash of ethnicities) compete with Los Carnales (the Mexican gang with Columbian ties), the Vice Kings (the African-American gang with ties to the music industry and cops), and the Westside Rollerz (the suburban dudes with a thing for import cars), all visible through their consistent use of colors and a handy map that provides exquisite detail for each territory.
Volition’s Saints Row is an impressive game –in most respects. The core missions, side missions, the controls and flow of the game, the graphics and sound, they’re all solid and smartly designed. This game feels and plays better than most, if not all, of the other GTA clones.
But is it better than Rockstar’s benchmark? On the whole — Not a chance. But in very specific areas? Yes, absolutely. Saints Row is a study in how to copy a model in order to improve upon it, and Volition should get full credit for taking one of the hardest games to replicate, copying it right down to the character font, and improving upon it. Does it feel like a rip-off? Yeah. Is the harsh and often overly crude humor a step down from GTA’s? Yeah. Does Volition’s brash desire to show off hip-hop culture feel crass and painful? Oh yeah.
But Saints Row, despite its distinct lack of originality, is fun. It starts out fun and it stays fun. It gets deeper and more engaging, and the storyline and the characters come to life, and you’re compelled by seeing the narrative unfold just as much as getting all of the 10- and 20-point Achievements. Saints Row offers a kick-ass online mode with at least two out of four compelling online modes totally worth your while. Hate it if you want to, snicker at its obvious me-too qualities, but don’t forget to recognize impressive, kick-ass gameplay as you walk out the door.