Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saints Row

DefJam-signed music artist David Banner first came to my attention for his appearance in the incredibly excellent DefJam: Fight for NY, in which he was a playable character who, in a shoutout to his Marvel Comics namesake, started battles by yelling, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry - bitch!"

It was dialogue that snapped, that rippled, that drifted across all that followed it like a silken banner blown by distant, heroic winds. In my mind, it raised the bar for speechmaking - the very science of speaking had been evolved. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt had had this technology, we might have realised that we had nothing to fear but fear itself, bitch. Had it been in possession of Churchill, we surely would have fought them on the beaches, bitch, fought them on the landing grounds, bitch, fought them in the fields and, bitch, in the streets, and so forth.

It is with unleavened delight that I discovered the good Mr Banner had delivered the title track to Saints Row. The anticipation of this musical masterpiece seasoned my early experiences with the game. Like all things worth having, acquiring this tune required work; it required unlocking, and by golly I unlocked. Collecting the last hidden CD from within the virtual city of Stilwater, I fired up the in-game music player, turned the relevant knobs to "Banner" and sat back to bask in the glory.

I was not disappointed. The lyrics to Saints Row's flagship tune - itself named "Saints Row" - proceed largely as follows:

"Holla bitch / holla bitch / y'all know me
Mississippi ho / I'm a real O.G.
If you're sick of being sick and you're tired of being broke
Go and get your guns and bring your ass to Saint's Row
Saints Row, bitch!
Saints Row, bitch!
(mumble mumble mumble mumble mumble), bitch!"

I'm telling you this story in order to warn you that had David Banner saying the word "bitch" been the sole redeeming feature of this game, with the rest being an unholy mashup of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and Imagine Babyz, I would still have given it an enthusiastic pass mark. The man can do no wrong and, if Fight for NY is to be believed, he is not averse to throwing those who anger him in front of subway trains.

It is to Saints Row's enormous credit that it is possible to completely overlook the work of Mr Banner amid what may well be the greatest open-world game ever created by human beings.

Saints Row is a copy of Grand Theft Auto. If the box had borne the GTA logo, it would have been forgivable to mistake Saints Row for another entry in that august franchise. The thing about Saints Row, though, is that it is better.

Grand Theft Auto is the squalid third-world country squatting fetidly on Saints Row's borders. Saints Row is modern; in Saints Row they can afford luxuries like a user interface, a pathfinding overlay, and consistent mission difficulty. In Saints Row even the most ill-made vehicles are fun to drive, few if any cars engage in 360-degree rolls under normal driving conditions, and the whole game can be played from beginning to end without reference to a FAQ, hidden collectibles and all.

It's hard to imagine people who are unfamiliar with the Grand Theft Auto formula - possibly they exist in the darkest depths of Africa, or in the less popular homes for the aged - but for the purpose of refreshing memory it is this: you are set loose in a large virtual city, in which can be found guns, cars, innocent civilians, and police officers, and you are left to your own devices to cause havoc. In and amongst the creation of havoc you may find time to complete "missions", which advance a central storyline, and "side-jobs", which are allegedly optional and reward you by unlocking new weapons, abilities, and customisation options.

In GTA the havoc was great, but the difficulty of both missions and side-jobs would waver between "trivial" and "controller-snappingly infuriating" with all the predictability and grace of an inebriated hobo. Saints Row decides that too easy is, on the whole, a better place to be than too hard, and while you will certainly need concentration and focus to make progress, it's rare to need more than a couple of tries to finish any of the game's challenges.

That's great, because it lets you really concentrate on the game's strengths. The havoc-causing is front and centre, and it is almost exactly as good (in fact, almost exactly the same) as what Grand Theft Auto has been serving up for years. You smash cars into other cars, gun down civilians, blow things up with explosives, and then play cat-and-gun-toting-mouse with the cops until you eventually go down in a blaze of glory. The cops are noticeably more wussy than their GTA counterparts; they're slower to anger, easier to evade, and they're missing the auto-arrest-if-they-catch-you-prone power that made the GTA fuzz so effective. That's fine, though, because you're also able to piss off Saints Row's various rival gangs, and gangbangers are vastly more dangerous than their GTA equivalents.

What's better than all the havoc, though, is the story. If you've played GTA, you'll know that the story there is little more than an excuse to carry you through a succession of unlikely psychopaths who'll make awkward double-entendres while telling you to kill hundreds of innocent civilians (which you invariably do without question).

Saints Row, by contrast, sets you up as a fledgling member of the 3rd Street Saints, one of the city of Stilwater's four major gangs. Pushed into a corner by their rivals, almost completely stripped of territory, Saints leader Julius instigates a campaign to save the Saints from extinction and retake the city. Naturally, you get involved in the fight, and as the battle against the competition heats up you rise through the ranks, eventually taking a lead role in the final onslaughts against Stilwater's key gang figures.

Rather than linking missions to caricatured madmen, Saints Row carefully and efficiently introduces you to Julius' lieutenants - Dex, Tony, Lin, and Johnny Gat. It also brings the leadership of the rival gangs on-stage at any early point - each gang has three well-realised characters in its upper ranks, whose internal politics as shown through surprisingly well-written cutscenes offers a real personality and immediacy to the missions you'll be undertaking.

These aren't just questgivers - these characters have interrelationships. The history and brotherhood between Julius and rival gang-leader Benjamin King gives poignancy to the final missions against the Vice Kings gang. The mixture of hero-worship and frustration that the cool-headed Dex has for the violence-prone Johnny brings him to life as a character, and offers understandable reasons for the often circuitous missions he tasks you with. Lin, sent undercover with the Westside Rollerz, is in danger of coming off as a one-note bitch, but ends up a surprisingly memorable and powerful part of the overall story. Minor characters take surprising twists, becoming tragic heroes or unlikely villains.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't fine art. It's still a violent cops-and-robbers story about two-bit hoods with a dubious moral code. It's derivative and it's contrived and it's frequently crass. But it takes itself seriously, and it's not afraid to occasionally do things just a little better and deeper than it strictly had to, and after the narrative famine that GTA has been offering for years Saints Row makes for a feast of awe-inspiring proportions.

The combination of sandbox and story is supported by a whole host of fine detail that really lets the game shine. You can plot courses on your minimap; you pause the game and set a destination, and the game sketches out an optimal route in glowing blue dots. The pathfinder tool isn't aware of the many shortcuts across private land, and it gets a bit muddled with Stilwater's labyrinthine aerial overpass system, but it's still a vast improvement on trying to memorise the streets of the city's 36 distinct districts.

You've got a cell phone; I've heard a lot of people making a big deal of this feature in GTA IV but Saints Row got there first. You can call friends to back you up in combat, you can call taxis to ferry you quickly around the city, call ambulances for medical attention, and of course call a number of "secret" numbers for short humorous pre-recorded messages.

You can customise your character's clothing and appearance, setting racial type, hairdo, and outfit, with (naturally) more customisation options unlocking as you progress. There's a stupidly large number of radio stations to tune in to as you drive around, although (David Banner aside) the quality of the licensed music is vastly inferior to GTA's typical offering. The hip-hop collection is probably the highlight, featuring Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, and Xzibit, among other recognisable names.

Saints Row is the game that Grand Theft Auto has always wanted to be. It's loud, it's memorable, it's addictive, and most of all it's incredibly fun and if you're an XBox 360 owner you've really got no good excuse not to have your own copy of this game. Bitch.

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