If you were to ask me a few years ago what it was that sold me on the current generation of consoles, I would have only one thing to say to you: Saints Row. I remember vividly the first time I saw it advertised on TV and was hypnotised by how awesome it looked compared to the sandbox games around at the time, with the fast-paced gameplay, huge explosions and next-gen visuals. My heart sank, though, when I saw that it was a 360 exclusive – I had nothing against the 360, just that up to that point I had no experience with Xbox and was a big PlayStation gamer, so naturally I was waiting for the release of the PS3. As time went on I forgot about the game, until recently, when I finally took the plunge and bought the 360S. I finally had the chance to play the game I had wanted all those years ago.
Many have unsuccessfully tried to imitate the Grand Theft Auto franchise, mainly, in my opinion, because of one fatal error. In addition to copying what makes GTA good, such as the range of weapons, vehicles and freedom in tackling missions, they also copied all the tedious rubbish that players hate. There are only so many times you can protect useless NPCs or act as a taxi service before it gets to you. For me, Vice City was the last of the ‘great’ GTA games, where fun was the order of the day. The story, setting and characters were clichéd, but you didn’t care because it was so entertaining. If you needed some shops to pay protection, you didn’t walk into them and shake down the owner for cash – that’s not extravagant enough – you walked up to the shop and wrecked it with a minigun.
After that, the series set its sights higher, giving us San Andreas – a good instalment in the series, but one which included too many story-padding missions, annoying territory mechanics (the back-and-forth territory possession grates after a while) and started down the path to realism. The situation only worsened in GTAIV, which was an ambitious game that turned out to be a flawed experience. The realism was too much at times, especially with the number of friends that needed to be appeased over the course of the story. Many exhilarating passtimes, like base jumping, were omitted from GTAIV after being used in San Andreas. Outside of the lacklustre story there was little to do other than shoot pigeons and play darts, which hardly gets the heart racing. There were of course races and stunt jumps (a staple of the series), but these weren’t half as fun as they could have been, given the vehicle handling.
So, enter Saints Row, essentially the carbon copy of San Andreas (as GTAIV was not out at the time), but with the fun dial cranked up to 11. It’s one of those games that just grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let you go for 20 hours. The story is somewhat shallow but most of it is just a means to an extremely bullet-riddled end. Gone are the superfluous, game-padding missions – you always feel like you’re making progress in the story with every mission you undertake, and that they’re essential for your gang to prosper. If you want action, you’ve got it. As with any shooter you start with small weapons, but your pistol is a force to be reckoned with and it’s not long before you’re introduced to the big guns. Rocket launchers become a common sight in missions, so you’re never going to be too far from an explosion.
What really sets Saints Row apart from the run-of-the-mill sandboxers are the activities outside of the main story missions. Most of the missions are locked until you’ve gained enough respect to play them, and, you’ve guessed it, respect is mainly earned through the activities. From races and demolition derbies to drug trafficking and insurance fraud, there’s always something to keep you entertained in weird and wacky ways. A plus point for the system as a whole is that it forces you to do things with the game which you otherwise would have ignored. Take insurance fraud, for example. How many other games have you jumping in front of traffic to gain fake injuries for insurance payouts?
Whilst the structure of the game is most similar to San Andreas, with progression through territory acquisition and gang warfare, it really reminded of the good ol’ days playing GTA3 and Vice City. It’s not spectacular, visually, but what it lacks in detail it more than makes up for with vibrant colours. The character and vehicle control is extremely similar to that of Vice City, which allows for great vehicle chases and on foot action without the hindrance of that downer we all know as “realism”. Shooting has thankfully been updated so that aiming is completely free, so there’s no hassle associated with an auto-aim system. Oh, and people turn their guns on the side when firing because, y’know, it’s awesome and real gang members totally do it too.
All-in-all, Saints Row lived up to all expectations and was everything I thought it could be. I could talk about it for hours, but instead I’ll move on to Saints Row 2 – I had to try the second game in the series, and golly gosh, my mind was blown. Saints Row 2 takes everything the original did but tweaks it and multiplies it in the right places and by the right measures, ditching realism almost completely in favour of pure entertainment. It’s in no way perfect, but it’s one of, if not the best mission-marker sandbox game I’ve ever played.
To be continued…(after being in a coma for 5 years)