Grand Theft Grand Theft Auto.
Life is full of imitators. The harmless scarlet king snake mimics the deadly eastern coral snake, The Monkees aped the Beatles, Fred Flintstone is no Jackie Gleason, and David Hasselhoff is just the poor man’s William Shatner, who somehow managed to sell a lot of albums despite having (astonishingly) less musical talent.
But to say that Saint’s Row is just an imitation of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a disservice to Xerox machines everywhere. GTA imitators like The Getaway and True Crime tried to create their own variations on Rockstar’s successful theme, but Saint’s Row flat out copies it. Although the result is not as sharp as the original, it’s the best clone yet, proving that old Grand Theft axiom: If it ain’t broke, steal it.
[image1]The thievery begins in the gang-bangin’ city of Stilwater, yo. Fo’ shizzle. And while its hip-hop flava may be as forced as my dweebonics, at least it’s consistent. There’s the Westside Rollerz, who like to race riced-out rides, The Vice Kings, who have a lock on the local music scene, Los Carnales, who control the city’s drug trade, and finally your own gang, the 3rd Street Saints, whose leader, Julius, has all the aspirations of a ghetto Caesar.
Helping the Saints spread their neighborhood empire is you, a.k.a. Playa, a nameless, eerily silent, newly-initiated gang member. Other than forcing you to be male, the game lets you look like anyone you want with a versatile player creator. In a move that should terrify anti-video game nut jobs, the player creator is robust enough that you can create a remarkably accurate avatar of your real-life gamer self. As much as you may like C.J. in San Andreas, running around and wreaking havoc in your own shoes is as uncanny as it is satisfying. Give yourself a pat on the back. And no matter who you are, you’ll fit right into the Saints, because it’s a politically-correct, multi-ethnic Starship Voyager of a gang with men and women of all races delivering random acts of violence with equal color-blindness.
While Saint’s Row really puts you in the game, its lack of plot and personality take you right back out again. The gangs have stories, but you don’t. So while it’s interesting to see yourself running amok, your Mini-Me feels like a stranger. You also don’t have any personal characteristics like in GTA; you never get stronger, faster or better at shooting. The game mechanics are great and Saint’s Row is a lot of fun, but it simply has no soul.
Nor an identity. For example, you’ll jack a car, lose sight of your nerdy self and completely forget that you’re not playing GTA. Oh well, at least it’s a well done copy, because the controls are tight and responsive. That makes sense, because they’re the exact same controls you encountered in Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas. Seriously, if you’ve played any GTA at all, you’ll have no trouble immediately picking up Grand Theft Auto, er, Saint’s Row.
[image2]The streets of Stilwater run just as red as those in Liberty City, so the experience is essentially the same. Within the confines of the town there are three main storylines to follow, one for each gang, and you can progress through them in any order you please. The main missions are generic, involving typical gangster tasks like hijacking trucks, bringing down rival crackhouses and stealing guns. Every time you complete one, the Saints gain control of a new hood in Stilwater.
To open up the main missions, however, you have earn ‘cred’ by killing rival gang members and completing “activities.” These Tony Hawk style challenges litter the map and pay in cash as well as cred. There are races and a destruction derby, just like in San Andreas, and a few original ones like the Hitman missions, which reward you for killing a certain person. We know it sounds like a blast, but the game gives you almost no help finding your target, making the hunt about as fun as finding a needle in a haystack. The strangest activity has to be insurance fraud, in which a crooked doctor or lawyer will dole out gifts if you get in the most brutal, life-threatening accident possible. Excuse me, but I thought insurance fraud was where you faked getting hurt. Oh never mind, just jump in front of the oncoming bus already. You won’t die, and even if you do you wake up at the hospital short a little cash, just like GTA.
Though the 30-40 hour single-player game is pure Rockstar, Saint’s Row has one distinguishing feature – multiplayer. With a variety of interesting modes, it’s actually well done. In addition to basic Deathmatch and a variation on capture the flag (called "Big Ass Chains"), there’s Protect Tha Pimp, which works like a Counter-Strike VIP mission, and Blinged Out Ride, where you must collect cash and chains to pimp your gang’s ride. Best of all you can form online gangs (clans) and fight other gangs for cred, making Saint’s Row one of few titles with a built-in clan rankings system. That’s almost original, gangsta.
The graphics aren’t, though, as the characters, cars, city and even the fonts scream of familiarity. Sure, Saint’s Row looks better than last-gen games, but not much. The textures are more detailed, the flame effects are nice and the world seems slightly more governed by the laws of physics, but overall Saint’s Row doesn’t feature a much nicer looking neighborhood than Grand Theft Auto.
[image3]Just like that game, Sain’t Row sounds great. The engines, guns, shrieks and explosions are music to my evil ears, and the voice actors are all quite good, although you have no voice yourself and simply take orders in stony silence. The radio provides the soundtrack, with the same corny chatter and sophomoric sense of humor as that other game, replacing AmmuNation with Friendly Fire.
Heavy on the hip-hop and (oddly) classical music, the game’s soundtrack is absolutely enormous – even by GTA standards – and you can buy more songs and customize your playlist by going to the game’s many music stores. Don’t expect Rockstar’s, uh, rock stars, though. While they included the occasional tune you’ll remember from Iggy Pop or Tupac, most of the music is a showcase for lesser-known artists. This actually works in Saint’s Row’s favor because you get to hear some new music as opposed to all the hits from a certain time period.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the guys over at Rockstar should view this as the biggest compliment of all time. It’s good, messy fun, even if everything but the multiplayer is “borrowed.” Saint’s Row is worth a spot in your collection, just don’t whine to us when Rockstar breaks down your door and asks for their game back.