There have been some completely craptacular attempts to cash in on the overwhelming popularity of Grand Theft Auto over the years. Like the mediocre 25 to Life. Or True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City. Or Just Cause/50 Cent: Bulletproof/NARC. Most rely on gimmicks, offer little innovation, and leave a bad aftertaste—cynical money grabs that insult gamers everywhere.
Thankfully, the designers of Saints Row have managed to go well beyond expectations and produce a great game along the way. You may play a customizable, generic, silent gang member helping take over a huge open city one neighborhood at a time, but while the genre trappings are the same, Saints Row gets the little things right. Like the ability to manually aim your shots right where you want, which helps to shoot out tires and gun down drivers right behind the wheel—tactics the GTA games have historically been painfully clumsy with. The many car chases are surprisingly fresh, and a good mix of driving and gunplay is only enhanced by a better map system than Rockstar's monolith, helping you automatically find an updated route to the next destination. Adding to the excess: Each car you find can be pimped out to your liking and saved in your garage.
Visually, the game is graced with lushly detailed Xbox 360 graphics in HDTV (the blur effect after sipping gin and juice is an especially nice touch). The realistic explosions and fire details turn the game's carnage into pure eye candy, and the rag-doll physics are impressive; crash into a pedestrian at high speed and they will fly through the air and bounce against a wall, limbs flailing like Gumby. As for the AI, for your fellow gangsters it's near perfect; unlike GTA, when you call for help your homies actually stick around and aid you in your missions. Plus, when one gets killed, you can revive him by pouring a 40-ounce malt liquor over his lifeless body.
Besides the main missions there are a plethora of entertaining criminal activities to enjoy, including street racing, pimping-related turf fights, carjacking, contract killing, robbery, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and even auto-insurance fraud, where you attempt to get the worst injury possible by throwing yourself into oncoming traffic.
One minor flaw: the online death-match fights you can engage in over Xbox Live. While they are a first, potential fun is hindered by really bad lag and, as always, punk-ass, foul-mouthed teenagers quoting Scarface. That lameness aside, though, Saints Row is a fantastic symphony of mass violence, filled with just enough sardonic humor to keep it from being too grim. The incremental improvements in game play complement the game's massive graphical advancement, and it should help fill the long wait until Grand Theft Auto IV arrives in October 2007. It's a game made for the Xbox 360's "kiddie lock"—luckily, my sense of right and wrong has been forever warped by years of violent games and heavy metal played backwards.