There’s no denying it, Grand Theft Auto has dominated the open-world crime sim genre for decades and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, but that didn’t stop contenders from rising up to try and take the throne. While some tried to go back to the golden age of the mob, there was one game that wet toe-to-toe to do everything they could do, but better.
I’m talking about none other than Saints Row, the so-called GTA clone, that burst onto the scene with a unique style that captured the imagination of players around the world, including me. I remember reading about it in magazines months before it finally released and it quickly became the most played game on my console.
At least until the sequel came out, that is. And now, more than a decade later, I felt the sudden urge to return to the city I once called my home away from home. But is it still as good as I remember or am I simply looking back at it through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia?
Well, there’s no better way to find out than to dive straight back into the pseudo-gangster reality of my favorite franchise and, with all 5 games recently on sale, there’s never been a better time to do exactly that. So, without further ado, let’s see if Saints Row is still good in 2021.
So, What’s It All About
In Saints Row, you play as the nameless semi-mute protagonist commonly referred to as Playa. He is an entirely customizable character with creation tools that could rival the Sims. You can change the shape of his nose, his ears, even change his race and physique. This ensures that no 2 ‘playas’ will look the same.
Once you start the game, Playa immediately finds himself caught in the crossfire of a shootout between the three rival gangs in Stilwater. The Vice Kings, Westside Rollerz, and Los Carnales but, he is saved in the nick of time by Julius Little and the 3rd Street Saints. A 4th gang ready to take over the city.
Once Playa joins the gang, it’s time to start doing missions with the other 3rd street Lieutenants, taking over territory and running the other gangs out of the city. But, in order to do that, you need to make a name for yourself by earning money and, above all else, respect.
You need to keep your respect bar filled in order to do the missions from the main storyline and there’s no limit to how much you can accumulate through activities. There are a variety of money-making activities throughout the city and you don’t need to complete them all to advance the storyline, just earn enough respect to keep moving on to the next mission.
The Activities are:
- Snatch: Steal hoes from rival pimps.
- Hijacking: A specific car must be pursued, hijacked, and brought back.
- Drug Trafficking: Protect the Durg Dealer while they drive around and make deals.
- Racing: Drive from checkpoint to checkpoint against A.I. opponents.
- Chop Shop: Find specific cars with specific modifications scattered throughout the city and return them at any time.
- Hitman: Eliminate Specific targets with specific weapons scattered throughout the city. they can be killed at any time.
- Escort: Drive around while the hoes entertain clients in the back seat.
- Mayhem: Cause as much…mayhem and destruction as you can in a certain time-limit.
- Insurance Fraud: Cause as much bodily harm to yourself in a certain time limit.
- Demolition Derby: Compete in a Demolition Derby against A.I. opponents.
Then, What’s Good About It?
For this part, we have to look at the timeline of when exactly this game came out because there are 2 comparisons to be drawn. Saints Row was released after GTA: San Andreas but before GTA IV and so this was the comparison people used back then. From that perspective, there’s a lot that this game did to improve on an already proven concept.
Sure, you could get buy fast food in GTA but what about drugs and alcohol? And after buying your favorite substance at the local liquor store, why not start a hold-up and rob the place before you leave? It was new-found freedom at the time and it extended into gang warfare as well.
Although it’s a cartoonish representation of gang culture, I like that Saints row didn’t try to be too gritty and realistic because that’s not where it shines the most. It’s goofy without losing the adult appeal and does the most to remind you that this is still just a video game.
Each gang had its own identity with the way they dressed and cars they drove and I loved that gang notoriety was given its own meter and kept separate from your wanted level. Each storyline felt unique within each gang as well and the cast of characters that they came along with helped to shape the world even more.
Speaking of characters though, Saints Row introduced us to some of the most iconic video game characters ever to grace the Xbox 360, and they were brought to life by the A-list voice-acting cast that they recruited for this game. I mean, even people that have never played Saints Row know the name Johnny Gat.
The in-depth customization extends even further into the clothing options and modifications you can make to your car. You can turn literally beat-up old pieces of junk into show-stopping head turners and the same goes for you as well. From thrift store hand-me-downs to high-end suits, you can dress any way that you would like. And don’t worry about your car despawning if you take it out on the town. All cars saved in the garage can be retrieved at any time from the garage.
So, What’s Bad About It
First things first, we have to address the elephant in the room. I mean, I love this game but yo, these graphics are straight-up trash. Even for 2006 standards, these are some of the blockiest character models I have ever seen. It definitely had better graphics than GTA: SA but Saints Row was a whole generation ahead of it.
I remember people asking me at the time whether or not I was truly on a next-gen console because the graphics were so lackluster, clearly most of the budget went to the actors and the soundtrack which is filled with some absolute bangers if you ask me. Could not get enough of the music in this game.
Another thing that I couldn’t ignore was how repetitive the missions felt after a while. I got a lot more variety from the activities and I spent most of my time just doing those than doing the main missions. There was a lot to unlock by doing this so I didn’t mind but I would’ve liked it if the main missions weren’t so boring.
I mean, there was one mission where we literally drove to one place just so we could drive back and that was it. There were supposed to be people chasing us but I had the fastest car in the game and so I lost them before the chase even began. Overall, the freedom of choice within the mission layout is also a bit weird for me.
I like that I could do missions for any gang at any time but it crippled the story a little since we couldn’t spend too much time one character across multiple storylines. that’s because there are some significant events that happen to certain characters that wouldn’t make much sense if they suddenly appeared in another storyline.
For instance, there’s a part where Johnny Gat gets kidnapped and so, just in case you decided to do other gang missions while this was happening, he can’t appear in any of the other storylines and, as a result, one of the best characters in the game only appears for a third of the action.
Should I Play It?
Just like the first Gears of War, playing the first Saints Row is a perfect trip down memory lane but I don’t know if I could recommend this game to anybody jumping into the franchise for the first time. Especially since the sequel did everything this game did but turned up to the maximum.
The action, the drama, the goofiness is all perfected in Saints Row 2 and you won’t miss much within the story if you skip to the second game. There are a few familiar faces that will give you major fan-service if you play it in the correct order but otherwise, it’s not a necessity.
I enjoyed playing Saints Row again because it was my favorite game as a child and I wanted to live in this world one more time before this classic is lost in time forever. It’s not a perfect game but it’s perfect for me and I highly doubt this will be the last time I roam the streets of Stilwater in this game.
Have you played Saints Row? What do you think of the first game in the franchise? Let me know in the comments section below.