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Saints Row

Surrounded by a myriad of questions, THQ's release of Saints Row is clouded by extensive comparisons to the ever-popular Grand Theft Auto series, specifically GTA: San Andreas. After playing through the single player and several sessions of the multiplayer modes, it's very interesting to see how Saints Row carbon copies and differentiates itself at the same time. The developer, Volition, delivers a graphical enhanced version of GTA: San Andreas with a bevy of new features into the gangsta-laden mix. In a variety of ways, Volition has done their best in creating a game that can stand on its own, without suffering from constant attack directed by Rockstar loyalists.

Presentation: The presentation relies on the same urban-thugery that has been predominant in recent video game franchises such as the True Crime series. Situated in the criminal-filled town of Stilwater, the game focuses on a growing, powerful gang named the 3rd Street Saints. As seen in the Xbox Live demo, your character is tossed into the fracas immediately and ultimately recruited by the Saints as extra manpower for the impending gang war within Stilwater. Volition's impressive dedication to extensive story elements is noted in the cinematic quality of the cutscenes and how they interact with the rest of the gameplay elements. More specifically, the story develops just as a crime drama would; including a variety of twists and heavy character narration in the form of personal monologues.

The other three rival gangs within the city are named Los Carnales, the Vice Kings, and the West Side Rollerz. Los Carnales are headed up by two brothers named Hector and Angelo Lopez. These two Latinos couldn't be more distinct as Angelo's hothead behavior always attempts to be quelled by Hector's calm business sense. The Vice Kings are represented by a powerful African-American named Benjamin King. Mr. King rules his empire coolly with a variety of political tactics rather than brute force. In the suburbs, the Rollerz are manipulated by an aged Caucasian called Joseph Price. Price's dry wit, above-average intelligence, and willingness to get his own hands dirty provide ample leadership skills for the Rollerz. All three of these gangs are deadly adversaries, but all stand in the way of the 3rd Street Saint's rise to power. The Saints are managed by Julius, a militant African-American with the stomach for blood and the brains for gaining control of the streets. With your help, the Saints just may knock out their rivals and take over Stilwater.

Stilwater is reminiscent of the large metropolis of Chicago mixed with the poor weather of Seattle. The city landscape seems smaller than San Andreas, but removes most of the useless backcountry. The sidewalks are lined with roving pedestrians, alert gang members, and Stilwater's boys in blue. The streets are packed with an extensive number of automobiles ready to be jacked from their unsuspecting drivers. Similar to any major metropolis, random incidents such as traffic accidents, muggings, and police shootouts will all occur without any action on your part. Volition's venture to create a lifelike asphalt jungle certainly shows when traversing the city landscape.

Understanding the mission structure is wholly dependent on learning the Respect system. The Respect system is partially what seperates Saints Row from GTA: San Andreas. Essentially, the main missions won't open up until you acquired a certain level of respect which is calculated by a point value. Respect can be earned from the vast variety of side missions at your disposal. Also, a percentage multiplier can be added to every allotment of respect you earn though the outfit you are wearing. For instance, my character is currently wearing all purple (the 3rd Street Saints color) clothing which adds a 15% multiplier to my total. Other items such as jewelry and tattoos also figure into the overall total as well. The multiplier allows my character to do less work in opening the main missions since my respect totals rise faster.

Respect is rarely earned during a main mission, but occasionally pops up if you complete certain hidden mission objectives. For instance, killing a meter maid during the insanity of a chase scene awarded 1600 respect points as well as $5000. The main missions are split between the three rival gangs, which are uniquely signified on the game map with their gang symbol. As a whole, the main missions are incredibly varied, quite fun, and usually pretty challenging. For example, one Vice Kings mission required me to dress in the rival gangs colors, start killing shopkeepers, progress to destruction of an art sculpture using my vehicle as a projectile, and finishing up by jacking a bulldozer to knock down a city leader's monument; all for directing blame at the Vice Kings. Delightful destruction at it's finest.

After completing a main mission, a rival stronghold will pop up as an ancillary mission. These tasks usually concern the elimination all enemy opposition in the area to gain control of the district (36 in total) and ultimately the monetary compensation that comes with it. Gaining control of rival territory will increase the amount of money gained at your crib. Also, gangs will attempt to regain control of an area which necessitates immediate attention. These missions are usually quick lieutenant assassinations and offer up a modicum of respect as a reward. Besides a call phone call about the attempted takeover, districts that become endangered will flash on the map as well.

The breadth of Saints Row gameplay is fundamentally established in the amount of side missions available. There are a large variety of missions available: Snatching Hookers from Rival Pimps, Escorting Hookers, Car Jacked Hostages, Drug Trafficking, Chop Shop Car Theft, Late Night Heists, Insurance Fraud "Accidents", Tagging Rival Graffiti, Demolition Derby, Street Racing, Collecting CD's (GTA had packages), Store Holdups, Insane Mayhem, and Hitman Assassination activities. Most of these types have two or three locations and each location has seven to ten levels of play. Side missions will be come progressively tougher as each level is completed as well. For instance, Escort missions require you to transport a hooker and her client around while avoiding the nosy press. By the time you reach level seven, news vans will set up road blocks and aggressively attempt to sideline your vehicle to get the scoop. Overall, the side missions are just as entertaining as the main storyline and offer bonuses such as cars, weapons, or loads of cash when fully completed.

Besides side missions, there are several stores that can be visited in the daytime for shopping (and broken into at night!). Stilwater has burger joints, clothing stores, jewelry shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors, car dealerships, music stores, custom car shops, loan sharks, gun shops, and even plastic surgeons. Also, visiting the local Forgive N' Forget (Pay and Spray in GTA) is a welcome addition to reduce that pesky star level when being chased down by the Feds and SWAT.

The weaponry of Saints Row is divided into groups of threes. There are three types of melee weapons, handguns, shotguns, semi-auto machine guns, full auto / sniper, and thrown explosives. The only weapon to exclusively snatch up a slot is the rocket launcher. The groups of three correspond to the types of weaponry that each rival gang uses. As each gang has a different weapon supplier, the weapons will differ between the three. Ammo can be picked up at the local gun shop or from your main stash at the crib. And yes, the AK-47 still spawns in the middle of that basketball court from the Xbox Live demo.

Frequently, the pause menu becomes your most useful source of information for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the map always pops up as the default screen. The map has the option to show all points of interest on the map at once or you can split them via the legend into cribs, save points, activities, shops, strongholds, main missions, or nothing at all. Additionally, you can set any green waypoint on the map to create a temporary compass via the circle map on the main screen. Unfortunately, the compass isn't perfect when it comes to outlaying a path via the interstate, so the map becomes a useful tool for quick navigation.

Beyond the map, the pause menu also provides 14 topics on the Help page, a Save/Load area, a MP3 player for custom soundtracks, a wireless phone to call for help or enter cheats, and the info screen. The Info screen is another page to recheck frequently. Info offers a place to review objectives, check the main story recap, and tear through the statistics. The stats section keeps track of records such as number of kills, money earned, total time in the game, shot hit percentage, hated gang, favorite weapon, activities finished, and even amount of drugs trafficked.

You have homies at your disposal to help out with missions. These fine young members of society will loyally fight by your side, even if they kill infrequently. The buddy AI is competent in a gunfight, but fails at traversing a landscape successfully. Changes in terrain, such as fences or steep hills, will occasionally send the AI into fits. Also, I found the AI success in taking out the enemy is dependent on the type of weapon they are wielding. Let your homies pick up the higher quality, powerful weapons to weaken the competition.

The control scheme is very simple to pick up and works well the majority of the time. Weaponry and health items can be switched though via the directional stick / pad and the red button. Quick weapon changes are fairly simple to get the hang of which helps when conserving ammo. Each car has a different feel, so quick adaptation to the control increases positive results during chase missions. The only truly difficult portion of the control scheme involves directionally shooting while driving. The target reticule likes to reset itself after a couple seconds of unresponsiveness, which makes targeting a moving vehicle a chore. Beyond that negative point, the control scheme is pretty solid.

The achievements are split into 43 different tasks for a grand total of 1000 gamerscore points. Roughly, the points are split 75% / 25% between single player / multiplayer. The single player tasks are heavily geared toward 100% completion of the game as well as unique requirements such as driving 500 miles or collecting 50 particular cars in your garage. I enjoy these exploration style achievements as the replay value is upped considerably. The multiplayer achievements are centered on raising your trueskill ranking in ranked games and reaching certain amounts of kills in the various modes. Volition did an excellent job awarding these precious gamerscore points for entertaining, challenging tasks.

Multiplayer: There are five different multiplayer combat modes as well as a co-op mode. The multiplayer modes include deathmatch, team deathmatch, and three fairly unique modes: Protect the Pimp, Blinged out Ride, and Big Ass Chains. Protect the Pimp requires one team to protect a team member as you traverse the map landscape to a particular checkpoint. It's a very tense situation and requires a massive level of teamwork to move effectively. Blinged out Ride requires the player to rack up enough cash, from various illegal activities, to upgrade your sweet wheels. Without a focused team, your ride will likely be destroyed before raising enough loot. I found it very easy to destroy an opponent's unprotected ride rather than raise capital myself. Finally, Big Ass Chains is perhaps the least fun of the three. This mode requires the player to wander the map collecting chains off deceased opponents and deliver them back to your base. It's very similar to capture the flag if everyone carried a flag.

The Co-op mode is diverting entertainment, personally I found more so than the multiplayer. Also, it has the possibility for more map expansion as there are only two maps to begin with: an airport escape and a drug transporting mission. You can play over Xbox Live or use system link. Again, this mode is wholly dependent on the intelligence of your teammate. Properly covering each other is exceptionally rousing and can make for some climactic shootouts.

At the time of this review, Saints Row is suffering from serious lag over Xbox Live. I'm hoping the lag will be alleviated when the game launches, but it's something to keep in mind. I'll update the review accordingly by mid-week. The gang setup menu is simplistic, but effective for basic clan support. You can setup your team name, colors, and a motto. There are a few leaderboards keeping track of online gang progress and challenge tools in place for taking on a rival smack-talking gang.

Visually, Saints Row is vastly more impressive than San Andreas due to the powerful 360 hardware, but it's not without its share of problems. Most importantly, there are no load times when traversing the city unless you enter a mission. Even then, the load times are barely a few seconds before jumping back into the action. The character models are high resolution and the clothing looks realistic. The facial detail isn't up to snuff compared to the recently released Dead Rising, but still standard for a next generation game. The fire and smoke effects are perhaps the eye-popping visual that highly surpasses anything in GTA. Watching a vehicle explode into a multitude of charred, flaming car parts is absolutely breathtaking. The Havok physics engine is put to good use in Saint's Row, but seemingly unrealistic. Of course, watching burning bodies helplessly fly around as I pump a couple rocket blasts into the nearby gas station is viscerally rewarding.

Unfortunately, the cost of minimal load times comes at a price. There are massive pop-in issues as well as disappearing acts when a new portion of the city is loaded from memory. Vehicles beside you will vanish into thin air and buildings will appear as if David Copperfield was performing a magic act. This problem is most noticeable on the interstate, but it happens in other portions of the city when traveling at a high rate of speed. Beyond these issues, there are slight collision detection problems, minor frame rate issues, and graphical glitches during gameplay. For instance, characters will occasionally appear floating ten feet above you when opening a car door. It doesn't affect gameplay, but looks silly visually. Additionally, the game occasionally locks up. During my seventeen hours of play, the game engine locked up three times; presumably to the heat generated by the 360.

Saints Row mostly relies on high quality voice acting for the principal actors, a highly comprehensive soundtrack, and a variety of radio stations to provide an optimum auditory experience. The voice acting is mostly made up of Hollywood actors that take supporting roles in movies. Michael Clark Duncan (The Green Mile, Daredevil), Tia Carrere (Wayne's World, True Lies), Joaquim de Almeida (24, Desperado), Keith David (Crash, Pitch Black, Halo 2), Daniel Day Kim (Lost, Crash, Angel), and Michael Rappaport (Deep Blue Sea, GTA) make up a solid voice ensemble for the main characters. My absolute favorite voice actor is Clancy Brown (HBO's Carnivale, Starship Troopers, Justice League Unlimited). His resonant, booming voice is particularly effective as the fat-cat politician, however a bit underutilized. The only weak point in the voiceover cast is Mila Kunis (That 70's Show, Family Guy). Her lines don't flow well in the various conversations and the delivery sounds awfully repetitive.

The sheer amount of music that's included in the game astounds and impresses. Genres such as hip-hop, classical, electronica, rock, metal, and reggae are all represented on the radio stations when driving and within the CD shops. Also, the integration of the custom soundtrack feature with the virtual MP3 player is fabulous. Basically, you can load in-game CD purchases into the MP3 player and create various playlists using them.
Additionally, music on the 360's hard drive can be loaded up as well. The MP3 player trumps the car's radio station and continually plays while running around causing mayhem or finishing missions.

Looking ahead, Saints Row opens up a real possibility in the future of the 360 marketplace. Imagine a renowned music artist being able to sell their song for marketplace points through the in-game CD shop. The song would hypothetically be stored on the 360 hard drive for later usage in other games or downloaded onto a Microsoft Zune for real-life usage. Anyway, it's an interesting scenario to ponder.

There are several radio stations to choose from, all of which use a sample selection of the tracks found in the CD shops. While the music is enjoyable, the real treat happens to be the various DJ banter / commentary, the advertisements / commercials, and the Talk radio station. Be sure to listen to all the Talk radio bits as they ramble on about topics such as immigration, undesirable elements within the city, and video game violence in a very humorous fashion. While not the same production quality as GTA's Laslow, it's still worthy of a listen.

Simply put, Saints Row can do nearly everything GTA: San Andreas can do, only better. Perhaps the greatest fault of Saints Row is a lack of originality when it comes to subject matter. If Volition had used a unique presentation within their game, I have a feeling it would be heralded as a must own, system selling title rather than GTA: San Andreas redux.

That being said, Saints Row shouldn't be missed by any breathing Xbox 360 owner, regardless of preferences in genre. It's a wonderful romp that will take about 15 hours to knock out the single player storyline, 10 to 20 hours to fully complete the side missions, and another investment of time if you wrap yourself up in the multiplayer. Feel safe in picking up Saints Row as a purchase, even at the full retail price.