saints_row.jpgWhile this might not have been the most original open-world crime game, it was one of the best and most unique. When it was released, Grand Theft Auto 4 was more than a year away from release. Volition’s (The Punisher, Red Faction) game helped to make the wait much more bearable, and it even improved some of Grand Theft Auto’s game mechanics. With a sequel on deck for later this year, GTA IV less than a week away from release, and even Mercenaries 2 arriving this fall, now is a perfect time to visit Stillwater, if for no other reason than to get yourself ready for the open-world goodness arriving throughout the next several months.

Taking control of a nameless gangbanger (you create him yourself when you start a new game), you arrive in Stillwater only to get yourself involved in a 4-way gang war almost immediately. You join the 3rd-street Saints as you try to take control of the city from the Vice Kings (a gang ran by Businessman/media exec Benjamin King), Los Carnales (a predominantly Latino gang which specalizes in drug trafficking and gun running), and the Westside Rollerz (a suburban gang whose members seemed to have watched The Fast and The Furious one too many times, thus they specialize in street racing and car tuning). The three gangs each have their own storylines, complete with their own missions. However, before you can attempt the missions, you’ll have to earn respect by preforming various activities. This would only be a bad thing if the activities weren’t as fun as they are. The activities range from Street racing to assassination, insurance fraud (fake injuries to collect insurance money), and even good old fashioned rampages, just like you enjoyed them in Grand Theft Auto. The Havok physics engine makes the activities even more fun, especially when blowing police helicopters out the sky using a rocket launcher.

Saint’s Row differs from GTA in quite a few ways. First off, you can save anywhere, and when you resume your game, you’ll restart at the nearest save point. There is no running around trying to get back to the apartment like in GTA. When you eliminate a gang, you’ll even gain access to their safe house. Also, customization plays an even bigger role in this game. As stated before, you’ll create your own character when you start. Throughout the course of the game, you can outfit him with better clothes and jewelry (equipping purple gear gains you a respect bonus). You can also customize any car you steal, and since your safe houses have garages, you can store them and save them for later. Even when you abandon them in the road, they’ll be waiting for you back at the garage. For a small fee, you can even fix them. Outfit your hummer with hydraulics and candy paint, and have it waiting for you when you get back. The customization also carries onto the soundtrack, as you can either listen to the game’s radio stations (which feature everything from Hip hop to classical, and even some reggae for good measure) or customize your own playlists (with either your own custom soundtracks or in-game music you either unlocked or bought from the music stores). The aiming system is better than GTA as well. Although there is no auto-targeting, players can aim in 360 degrees (even while preforming drive-by shootings). When you fail a mission, you are given the option to retry it from its beginning rather than being transported to a hospital or jail. Perhaps most importantly of all, the game has online multiplayer. While it initially only has three maps (with more downloadable for a fee), it serves as a neat diversion from the single player game. You can even bring your created character and earn money to buy better clothes and accessories for him. If you see someone with nice clothes, then you know he’s been doing it big online. Since the game’s release, there has been a lot of Xbox Live Marketplace content released, both for free and for a small fee.

A stellar voice cast (featuring the likes of Mila Kunis, Keith David, Michael Rapaport, and David Carradine), nice graphics, and a shock ending help round out an awesome package. There isn’t really much else that I can say about this game that I haven’t already said either now or when I reviewed the game nearly 2 years ago. If you have yet to check this game out, now is the time to do so, as by this time next week, chances are you’ll be busy with GTA IV.