Saints Row: homage or shameless rip-off? Ironically it's probably the fans of Grand Theft Auto who'll be most vocal in either ripping it to shreds or admiring it for being just like their favourite crime sim. One thing's for sure. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Saints Row team must sleep in monogrammed Rockstar PJs.
You play as a nameless up-and-coming hoodlum in the tough ghettos of Stilwater. Having a tag or even a personality doesn't matter, because you're just a bad guy. And those two words sum up everything there is to say about you.
Stilwater's hood is reasonably proportioned, about the same size as GTA's Vice City. You're free to explore the entire map right from the start, and all of the hundred plus side missions are also immediately available. That's cool, because you can dip into one of the better challenges like Insurance Fraud or Demolition Derby and instantly impress your mates with some of the high spots.
Driving around the city streets is an exciting experience for the first hour or so. It takes about that long to see the major landmarks and for a malignant sense of over-familiarity to seep through the seams. Stilwater is an unremarkable place, notable only for being a realistic depiction of inner city USA. Aside from the superb RoboCop-style steel mill, there's nothing that hasn't been seen in every other sandbox crime game. As a result, it can't be appreciated in the same way as other iconic game worlds like San Andreas, Silent Hill, or City 17.
It's extremely next-gen for the sheer abundance of high-res texturing. Stilwater looks damn crisp. And although it's hard to keep count, the diverse range of pedestrian characters and vehicles is particularly generous. Yes, Saints Row is exhaustively detailed, but unfortunately it's prone to pop-up and a temperamental framerate in equal measure. It seems you can't have your layer cake and eat it.
The poor framerate is especially noticeable when you're in a street race or driving through a gang war. If the game engine can't cope, these overly ambitious showpieces should have been given the chop.
For the most part, Saints Row's AI provides a satisfying and even-handed challenge. Enemies will duck behind objects rather than just stand there taking abuse. They can be aggressive too, flushing you out from cover by lobbing grenades or by steaming at you in large numbers.
The combat AI puts up a convincing performance, but the driving AI doesn't fare so well. We can't remember any sandbox crime game getting this totally right, so at least Saints Row is no worse.
In some sections, you find yourself in the passenger seat with the AI behind the wheel. Frustratingly, it often gets stuck on scenery, especially if it's been bumped off course. There's not much you can do, apart from abandon the vehicle. This is often at great personal risk. Whenever the AI is in the driver's seat, you know it's exactly that. Finishing these missions is more down to luck than skill.
Stilwater's cops don't seem too clever either. There were many occasions where we gunned enemies down in plain view of a patrol car and they didn't bat an eyelid. Either they don't mind criminals killing each other, or they're just too busy eating doughnuts. Your homies are much more attuned. They'll follow you around on command and will automatically target the person you're attacking. It's a good thing that you always feel more comfortable with a few punks on standby.
Every sandbox crime game has homies. But what they don't all have like Saints Row is real-time physics. It's a logical step, and one that pays dividends. When you run people over, their bodies fly through the air with satisfying rag doll movements. They'll collide with other objects and knock them over. If you get bored, you can run over to a traffic cone and boot it into a passer-by's face. If you rocket-launcher a train cab, it'll derail all the others and they'll cascade onto the road below. Effects like this are really striking.