Saints Row Retrospective: Part 1
With Saints Row: The Third on the horizon and the recently re-released Saints Row Double Pack available for only $19.99, I decided it was probably time I give this series a try. So without further ado let me welcome you to the first entry in my two-part Saints Row Retrospective, in which I’ll be playing and reviewing the series thus far while we all wait patiently for the next installment.
Developed by Volition, Inc. and released for the Xbox 360 in August 2006, the only real way to describe the original Saints Row is “Grand Theft Auto clone”. Not that this is a bad thing, by any means. “Sandbox” style crime games were peaking in popularity and with Rockstar’s GTA IV still a couple years off, this game filled a definite library void for the fledgling 360. I love this genre, so I’m not sure why I never played it at the time. Luckily for me though, it still holds up.
Saints Row kicks off with one of the main things differentiating it from the Grand Theft Auto series-a custom character generator. Options are pretty limited…faces look awkward and many of the hairstyles are outright ridiculous. I’d be willing to bet that only 10% of them or so actually ever get picked by first-time players. I initially wanted to make my character on the heavier side as a change of pace, but one look at the model told me I’d be dealing with awkward clipping issues for the entire game if I did so. So in the end I relented and went with a much more generic build.
As you can see from the above screenshot I did end up with an awesome looking character. But to be fair this was only near end-game, after sinking thousands of hard-robbed dollars into suits, platinum chains, and custom cars. At the beginning, you’re going to be looking awkward. By the end you’ll look way too good to be orchestrating smash-and-grab robberies at the local thrift store.
So after creating your character you find yourself in the game’s first cutscene, in which your newly minted persona finds himself caught in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. Caught in a crossfire between rival gangs, you’re quickly rescued by members of the Third Street Saints, one of four main warring factions in the city of Stilwater. Saints kingpin Julius Little (voiced by the always awesome Keith David) apparently likes the way you get shot and invites you to join their somewhat less than exclusive organization.
It’s about this time that you’ll realize that although the game is packed with fantastic voice actors, your character doesn’t really get one. He’s not completely mute, I counted two lines of dialogue for him throughout the entire game. But in the interest of the character creator and player immersion, you can expect to be awkwardly silent for the duration, much like GTA III. After a while though this didn’t really bother me, and it does lead to a few funny lines from the rest of the cast.
After a couple obligatory “prove yourself” missions you are then left to basically progress at your own pace. Saints Row differentiates itself from the competition once more here. Unlike the Grand Theft Auto structure of arbitrarily unlocking “islands” within a city as you progress through the story, you are free to roam all of Stilwater from the very beginning. You are tasked with eliminating three rival gangs, each having their own story line and not crossing over in any meaningful way. This means you can approach any of the three sets of missions as you see fit, along with around a dozen different “activities”.
Activities available throughout the city include such diversions as “acquiring” vehicles for chop shops, street racing, pimping, drug running, rendering your services as a hitman, and many more. You can even participate in insurance fraud, which consists of intentionally throwing yourself into traffic in designated areas to rack up some extra cash. You are forced to participate in some activities to increase your respect meter and access missions, but you don’t have to do anywhere near all of them. Especially if you increase your respect multiplier by wearing the nicest clothes and jewelry that your ill-gotten insurance gains will allow.
Once you’ve gotten your respect up, it’s time to tackle some gangs. Saints Row pretty much has all its stereotypes covered in this department. You’ve got the predominantly black Vice Kings with their hand in the recording industry, the Colombian Scarface wannabes Los Carnales, and the street-racing ride-pimping Asians that make up the Westside Rollerz. To be fair though the Rollerz aren’t all Asian-they did remember to include the obligatory Vin Diesel analogue character cleverly named “Vincent”. I’m not sure where the Third Street Saints fall in all of this. They’re supposed to be the good guys, the gangsters with the hearts of gold. But to be fair I murdered more people throughout the course of the game than all the other gangs combined, and I was the new guy.
The mission structure is kinda hit-or-miss. They’re mostly pretty short, but a few are incredibly frustrating and could definitely use checkpoints. There’s an option to retry if you fail, which is nice, but that often means making another cross-city drive from the point where you pick up the mission to where it actually begins. And the overall randomness of the game means that at a maximum wanted level you could have your vehicle immediately rammed and blown to shrapnel in a police chase, or you could drive to a safe zone at a fairly leisurely pace with maybe two cops behind you on the highway. You just never really know how it’s going to play out. Add ten points to this potential frustration if you’re saddled with an NPC who tells you “Okay, you shoot. I’ll drive”.
All in all though I rarely found myself not having fun on a mission. The missions where you take over enemy strongholds were usually my favorites, in that they’re a little more dependent on your own skills and you are free to round up a couple sidekicks off the street to help out. Most story missions you complete will reward you with an enemy neighborhood being claimed by the Saints. You’ll have to defend each of these again in a quick “pushback” event, but after that they’re yours for keeps.
Overall I had a great time in my first outing through Stilwater. There are minor frustrations, sure. I’m not going to say I had a great time cruising the streets for an hour trying to complete my hit list by killing a guy in a hot dog costume with a grenade, because they just absolutely refused to show up on my map. But the gameplay for the most part is solid with a lot of variety, the cutscenes are well written and performed, and I laughed at a lot of the jokes. I’d be remiss in this review if I didn’t mention the great running gag where a Saints lieutenant is constantly correcting others for the redundancy in saying “the Los Carnales”. Made me laugh every time.
As always thanks for reading, and join me next time for part 2 of my Saints Row Retrospective, in which I will believe it or not be reviewing Saints Row 2. This will be taking place, appropriately enough, as soon as I finish the game. In the meantime you can raise your own respect meter by leaving me your comments in the clearly marked box below!