Preview: Saints Row (XB360)

Publisher: THQ / Developer: Volition / Genre: Third Person Action/Shooter/Adventure / Release Date: 09/01/06

For those of you out there who have been actively awaiting a GTA-style game for the 360, your wait is over. Saints Row is that game, and you should be plunking down your hard-earned cash on a preorder with no reservations.

For those of you who don’t really care if you see another GTA clone as long as you live, however, should you be interested in the Row? That’s not so easy a question to answer. Saints Row is, above and beyond all things, a sandbox style third person action/adventure/driving title with urban themes, street gang mentality, and questionable content. In other words, it’s exactly what you were expecting. But SR manages to come off as something fresh, less because of WHAT it does and more because of HOW it does it.

The gist of the game should be familiar to veterans of the genre from the get-go: your character is minding his own business when he ends up in the middle of a massive gang shoot-out, which nearly claims his life. From that point onward, he’s asked to join up with the Saints, an up-and-coming gang with slightly nobler intent that’s trying to take over the area. From there, you’re pretty much left to your own devices, though missions are laid before you as in most games of similar design, and it’s ultimately up to you what you decide to do and don’t do. This all sounds like old hat, but the presentation is what saves SR from being another also-ran experience.

For one thing, the game employs ragdoll physics, and while in some games that’s a minus, in SR it’s a definite positive. When you’re in the process of high-tailing it down the street and you, hypothetically, run down a pedestrian, you’ll definitely appreciate the difference. Other little stylistic differences are less noticeable, but no less appreciated; cars take more realistic damage, more environmental objects can be destroyed, fire, water and smoke effects are more realistically replicated, and the world seems to behave in a more logical fashion (people flip on their hazards and pull over when a cop flaring the lights is behind them, for instance). Overall, the changes in SR when compared to other games in the genre are small, but they’re neat regardless.

SR looks nice overall, but for a 360 title it’s a touch underwhelming; while the special effects (lighting, fire, etc) look very good, the world itself simply looks solid, but not spectacular. It’s by no means ugly, and the draw distance is much better than in similar titles on other consoles, but I was expecting more from SR than I received. The audio more than makes up for it, though; the voice acting is cast full of notable talents, including Michael Clark Duncan (he of Green Mile and Daredevil fame) and David Carradine (Kill Bill), and from what has been presented, it’s all good so far. There’s also a solid amount of customization in the game; you can customize your own character from the ground up and dress him (no word if you can play as female gang-bangers, but don’t bet on it) as you see fit, with better clothes equaling more respect, as in similar titles.

The only questionable issue so far is the control. While the game feels something like GTA, the controls don’t feel as tight as one would hope. The game controls are pretty solid in battle, especially the hand to hand combat (delivering a clothesline to a running victim never really stops being funny), but locking on and aiming don’t seem to work as well as they should. The driving controls also seem a little loose and could probably stand to be tightened up before the game hits retail. None of the control issues seem terrible, mind you, but they could certainly stand to be fixed up a bit.

All told, Saints Row is treading very familiar territory, but it’s doing so in a very acceptable way. While SR isn’t really doing anything new at first glance, the solid presentation more than makes up for it, and anyone looking for something in this genre should definitely keep an eye out for SR when it drops in early September. You probably won’t find anything radically new and different, but you’ll most likely find something fun and amusing. And so long as the control issues are taken into consideration before the launch, SR could end up being one of the better titles on 360.