Saints Row is hardly the first game to attempt to capitalize on the success of the Grand Theft Auto series. In the past few years we have seen True Crime, NARC, The Getaway, Driv3r, and even The Simpsons: Hit & Run. For the most part, these open-ended games pale in comparison to what Rockstar is doing and are usually not worth spending the time to talk about them. But Saints Row is a different story, it manages to get all of the elements right and is the best game of its type on the Xbox 360.
If you've played any of the Grand Theft Auto games then Saints Row is going to be familiar territory. It tells a story of man who is nearly killed in a gang shoot out that works his way up to becoming one of the most important players in the city. This time around the city is Stilwater, a fictional metropolis full of crime, deviance, crooked cops and great radio stations. You can carjack any vehicle in the game, kill innocents with dozens of weapons and play quite a few interesting side missions, all while doing your part to get the city under your gang's control.
You start off the game by choosing what you want your character to look like. You can choose his ethnicity (Caucasian, African American, Asian or Hispanic), his hair, body type and a whole bunch of other crazy options, ultimately crafting him into a character you can be proud of. You will also be able to buy what seems to be thousands of clothing items, jewelry, tattoos and more. The customizability in the game is impressive and can really give the protagonist some personality.
It won't take long for your character to get in the middle of a whole lot of action. You team up with the 3rd Street Saints, a rag tag group of criminals headed by Julius (played by Halo 2's own Keith David). Three other gangs are giving the 3rd Street Saints trouble, so it's your job to do whatever it takes to extinguish their presence in Stilwater. The three gangs (the Vice Kings, Westside Rollerz and Los Carnales) each have their own story arcs and a cool cast of characters. As you shoot your way through the game's missions you will start to see how this all ties together, creating a fascinating story from beginning to end.
Part of what makes Saints Row's story so convincing is the high quality voice work done by popular Hollywood actors. Along the way you will run into characters voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile), Mila Kunis ("That 70s Show"), David Carradine (Kill Bill vol. 2), Michael Rapaport (The Mighty Aphrodite), Tia Carrere (Wayne's World), Freddy Rodriguez ("Six Feet Under"), and Daniel Dae Kim ("Lost"). Although there are a few dopey lines, the writing in Satins Row is actually pretty sharp, and the characters are all a lot of fun to watch.
Besides doing the story missions, a big chunk of your time in Saints Row will be spent trying to capture all 36 districts for the 3rd Street Saints. While some of these districts will flip as you progress through the story, a lot of them require you to actually start a gang fight in that district which will involve a whole lot of killing. You can access the map of Stilwater at any time to see what locations you already control and figure out what you want to do next. This map will also show you where your next story mission is and where all the activities are located.
One thing that sets Saints Row apart from the rest of the Grand Theft Auto wannabes is that it actually forces you to play the side quests. When you complete a side quest (or activity, as they are called here) you will get respect points. Get enough respect points and your meter will fill up and allow you to continue your quest to take over Stilwater. Forcing us to perform these short (and often very simple) is kind of a pain, but it shouldn't get in your way of having a good time. There's a nice variety of activities to do in the city limits of Stilwater, including a few mini games that are new to the genre.
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