If games are a reflection of modern society, then it would appear that a lot of us would like to: a) kill people and b) drive fast cars. Games that combine the two, as well as a healthy dollop of prostitution, drugs and general criminal mischief; are a dead cert to do well in the charts.
So far though, next-gen console gamers have been denied that most delightful of gaming recipes, a true crime-em-up. That is all about to change, now that Saints Row has arrived.
I spent the last week working my way through this massive game, with one question burned into my mind – is this game better than GTA? The answer, as you will come to see, is that the question could probably be better worded to: is this game meant to be GTA?
Either way it's nowhere near as poor as many feared, in fact, despite it being a bare faced "I-don't-care-who-knows-it" imitation, it is actually quite fun.
Make a gangsta'
The game begins with an Oblivion-like character creation scene; you get to choose everything from your characters ethnicity to the size of his forehead. I settled on an overweight white guy, with a luminous yellow afro and a Gervais styled facial hair tuft. Happy with how scary my gangster looked I jumped into the game's first cut scene, in which all of the gangs are introduced doing what they most like (shooting one another), before you get saved and press-ganged into joining The Saints. They wear purple clothes and are lead by a guy who likes to swear a lot and looks and sounds remarkably like Samuel L. Jackson.
The first thing that really strikes you about the game is how similar it looks to GTA. The interface is almost identical, with a little circular map in the bottom left corner of the screen letting you know exactly where you are and where you need to go. Movement feels the same and you can run, jump, punch and kick your way around the streets. It's easy to jack a car (you don't need one straight away but what the hell, it's fun), and navigate to your first mission – an initiation with your new found purple clothed friends. You soon discover a war on the streets is erupting, and you've been bowled into it.
The game includes four gangs, The Saints – your own gang who remain fairly run of the mill bad guys; Los Carnales – a Mexican gang with South American drug ties; the Vice Kings – black gangsters who fulfil the stereotype of loving a bit of Hip Hop; and the Westside Rollerz – a gang who like fast cars. Each gang occupies a section of the map, with the ultimate aim being to wrestle control of all the territories from all your rivals, along with all their criminal assets.
Different from GTA?
And what a group of assets! The criminals in Stillwater (the fictional city you inhabit) are remarkably similar to the criminals in the GTA series, offering a wide range of missions including intimidation, spying, murdering, destroying and delivering stolen goods. The way each mission is introduced is identical to GTA, a short cutscene involving a character offering a job which you then go out and perform. Most missions reminded me of my previous GTA experiences, in a slightly inferior kind of way. That didn't mean they weren't enjoyable, but that the unique edge GTA offers just wasn't there, taking the gleam off.
One mission that did buck the trend was insurance fraud – a great task that isn't actually part of the main storyline. A crooked Doctor asks you to get into accidents to try and make money out of insurance companies. With great use of the Havok physics engine, you run around jumping in front of cars and from heights. You have infinite health in these sections which means there is no limit to the devastation. The bigger the 'accident' the higher the payoff, and so ensues riotous fun. Waiting on the highway for a police car to scream along before jumping face first into the windscreen and being thrown hundreds of feet into the opposite carriage way to only get knocked the other way. The combos add up giving you a cash bonus – it's a really basic idea that provides lots of fun.
One of the (few) other areas that distinguishes this game from GTA is the implementation of multiplayer. The game offers a limited co-operative mode which isn't really much fun, as well as a few varied online competitive options. Those are: Gangsta Brawl, a simplistic death match; Big-Ass Chains – a kind of capture the flag style game with chains instead of flags; Protect that Pimp, a team based game almost identical to the VIP mode of play in Counter-strike (replacing the VIP for a pimp); and finally Blinged Out Ride – a complicated game that requires you to upgrade your car by eliminating rival gang members faster than your opponents.
When I pick up my 360 controller for some multiplayer action, I don't particularly like too much sophistication. I got a bit confused by the action in Blinged Out Ride and preferred the familiar style to Protect that Pimp. The important information is that the multiplayer has been done well, this hasn't been just pasted on with little thought, and it has been well crafted and designed and does work well. I had a few problems with graphical and network lag whilst playing, which did make the experience less enjoyable – but on the whole multiplayer will be an area Rockstar will look to emulate and improve upon in GTA IV.
As I have already said, the game is based on the Havok engine. This really is a great addition to the game, making people spiral in brilliant ragdoll arcs as you slam into them. It means that when objects interact, they do so with a satisfying realism. The physics engine has been made a bit unrealistic too, so smashes and explosions are welcomingly over the top. As fun as mowing down pedestrians can be, I was slightly disturbed by their willingness to jump in the way of my speeding automobile. Perhaps this is the work of an over-zealous developer, wanting to show off the physics engine a bit too much?