Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Saints Row (Xbox 360)

Developer:Volition|Release Date:2006|Systems:Xbox 360

This week on Super Adventures I'm going to fix an obvious omission on my site that's been bothering me for two years. I've written about Saints Rows 2 to IV, but I've completely overlooked the original game in the series! No I'm not talking about Grand Theft Auto 3, but I understand your confusion.

I'm a big fan of the Saints Row sequels but I've only played the first game once back when it was new, and only long enough to think 'wow, this is familiar'. The impression I've been getting from others is that the game was pretty much a practice run for Volition, a generic GTA: San Andreas clone without the personality the series developed later, so now I'm going to play it properly and see how true that is.

By the way, the game's 10 years old this August, and the console it was released on was discontinued in April, so that means it's officially retro! Maybe. Either way it's a pleasure to finally introduce the Xbox 360 to Super Adventures (even if I'm only doing it because this bloody game didn't get a convenient, easy to screenshot PC release like its sequels).

(Clicking the images will make them big, so you can see all the nice H.264 video compression artefacts).

Saints Row character creator screen
Here's one difference between this and GTA right from the start: it's up to me to create the protagonist.

Seems that the powerful character creator was part of the Saints Row series from the start, though the choices they've given me are kind of weird. I thought Saints Row 2 had every option imaginable, but that's just because I never imagined the 'Nose Roll' slider. Plus all these sliders for yaw, elevation, pitch, longitude etc. have got me wondering if the guy's face was engineered by Boeing.

It's always a guy by the way, there's no way to play as a woman in this game (though the sequels would later retcon it so this character may have been female). I can't select a voice either, and the hair selection's unimpressive. Though I am impressed by the way he's keeping his head perfectly still while I'm adjusting it. There's an innovation other games could learn from.

The game begins with a cutscene showing an average night out in Stilwater. Things start off small with a guy dressed in blue hitting a guy in yellow with a baseball bat. Then these folks in red drive up for a drive by and suddenly everyone's whipping out guns. A blue guy with an AK blows up the red guys, before getting capped in the head by a yellow guy, who then tries to shoot my dude!

I don't even know what his problem is; I'm just an innocent passer-by in the wrong place at a bad time! He just didn't want a witness I suppose. There’s a gunshot, the screen goes black... and it turns out I was rescued by team purple!

It’s the 3rd Street Saints, the most heroic of all street gangs! Well they were heroic enough to save me at least.

In the later games the player character runs the Saints, but here they're led by Keith David. I mean a character he plays called Julius, not the actor himself. I have to make that clear because Keith David himself shows up as the Vice President in Saints Row IV.

Julius didn’t save me out of the kindness of his heart though; he wants to recruit me for the Saints. I suppose he was impressed by how effortlessly I failed to defend myself just then. Personally I'm impressed by how fast Julius talks. It's like the actor had an appointment and absolutely positively had to get the entire game's worth of dialogue recorded in half an hour. My guy on the other hand is... less talkative.

Unlike the GTA games I've got the entire city open to me from the start, so I can either walk over to that marker and join the Saints, or I can run aimlessly around the streets with no plot and nothing to do. Nothing to buy either, as my silent protagonist came into the world with no identity, no possessions and not a penny to his name. Or even a name. I do have a minimap radar though, which is cool.

First thing that happened when I walked up to the church marker was a cutscene explaining that I have to be 'canonized' first as my initiation into the gang. Which basically means they get to gang up and kick the shit out of me. Hey, this is just like Sleeping Dogs!

Sleeping Dogs is all about the hand to hand combat though, while fighting in this is something that theoretically happens if the bullets ever run dry. I'm meant to be punching with the left and right triggers, and holding both to block when appropriate, but I'm pretty much just tapping the bumper here to kick everyone into unconsciousness. In Saints Row 2 I'd get a little cutscene every few punches to show my character doing a special move, but this doesn't do that. I can't even grab people and use them as human shields!

Saints Row Julius fist bump
So I beat them up and now I'm officially one of the 3rd Street Saints! I came away with a fist bump from Julius, a $1,000 cash prize and a couple of bruises… which will heal up after a short delay thanks to my Wolverine-like regenerating health.

I played some of the classic 3D GTAs recently and man they're stingy with the health pickups. It's a pain in the ass to get right to the end of a long mission with a tiny sliver of health left only to get gunned down at the finish line, so I'm happy I have to have the option to hang back for a few seconds to heal up. 

Saints Row Unlocked Wheel Woman
Now that I'm part of the Saints I’ve unlocked the ability to recruit one Homie to follow me around as a sidekick, plus the ability to call up the Wheel Woman on my phone, whoever that is. I'd rather have Wonder Woman's number to be honest.

And that was the entire first mission! The Saints Row sequels kick off with increasingly elaborate and ridiculous set pieces escalating the point where the protagonist's hanging off a nuclear missile in flight while Aerosmith plays, but in this I just had to kick a bunch of people and I was done. Now I can move on to mission two: buy a gun and shoot all the fools in yellow that are hanging around our church.

To be fair this is is moving way faster than the GTA games its emulating. In San Andreas you have to work your way up from spray paint to baseball bats before it lets you anywhere near the firearms.

Those GTA games also have lock on aiming, but Saints Row has free aim, all the time. Though I can't find a way to aim down sights or even pull the camera in a little, so getting shots on target with my worn out analogue sticks in this semi-choppy frame rate is taking a little work, but it's nice to play a GTA-style game that actually wants to be a third person shooter. My crappy aim's not a problem as long as I get there in the end, as the enemies are kind enough to drop ammo (and sometimes money) to keep my underfunded murder spree going.

I do need to stop for a breather though sometimes, as my stamina bar doesn't last for long sprints, and my health regeneration takes forever to kick in. Kind of makes me wish Volition had replicated some of the RPG elements of San Andreas so I could work my guy into shape. On the other hand, I've just remembered having to mash X to pump iron in the gym and I'm suddenly much happier with what I've got.

Now the tutorial’s teaching how to jack a car and use the Forgive and Forget drive-through to wipe away my gang notoriety so Team Yellow will quit trying to chase me. If this is anything like the other Saints Rows I’m sure I’ll be doing this… basically once in the entire game.

The power of the Xbox 360 allowed driving physics to reach a new level of realism, but Saints Row's got no interest in that. This car handles so absurdly well that I can feel myself getting worse at racing games every time I take a corner. Plus a tap of the handbrake lets me do an instant 90 degree turn, without all that tedious slowing down business. On the downside it's got me using (A) to accelerate instead of the analogue triggers, which isn't what you want. Especially with the way the car reaches max speed after a just couple of (automatic) gear shifts, making me think I haven't got the button pushed hard enough.

Alright, I've successfully driven through a drive-through, but the game's not satisfied yet. A normal sensible sandbox game would say 'good job finishing that mission off, now go do another one', but this only gives out jobs to players it respects. Saints Row 2 was the same way, but in that I was able to build up respect by screwing around, driving on the wrong side of the road, starting gang wars etc. Saints Row on the other hand is adamant that I go play its activities to pad out the plot, so I guess I'm doing 'Snatch' then.

The game uses a Saints Row 2 style GPS, meaning I get a dotted line on the map leading me through the Saint's Row District to my objective. Hang on, Saint's Row has an apostrophe in its name, but the game title doesn't? Well now I'm just confused. I know we're trying to take over the whole district, but then it'd be the Saints' Row, surely?

Right, so to complete Snatch I have to take out the pimp marked with the red arrow, then whistle to the hos to get in the car so I whisk them away to a very slightly better pimp. Just doing my bit to help improve Saint’s Row. You know, I think I’ve finally figured out why the pimps were all out to get me in the sequel.

Saints Row 2 (PC)
Or maybe they just liked my hat.

Once I’ve collected one prostitute I get to move up to level two, where I need to collect two prostitutes! Each completed level gets me a little more respect until I get a little 'x1' under my health and stamina bars showing that I can get on with the actual plot again. Well, it's better than taking my cousin Roman bowling in GTA IV I suppose.

This time I decided to spend my hard earned respect on a Stronghold mission, which are less about plot, and more about wiping out a building full of bad folks.

There's nothing like a cover system in the game, the shooting's pretty basic, but I'm more nimble than your typical GTA protagonist so getting my ass behind a wall is simple enough. Plus I can duck behind something if I'm in trouble. Blue barrels are the ones that don’t explode, right?

This simple Stronghold mission’s taken a turn, as the enemy lieutenant’s making a run for it! That means I get to try to steer a car, hold (A), and fire the gun with the right trigger at the same time! Or maybe I'll try just running him off the road, because that is really awkward.

One thing I like about the game is that whenever it tells me to find a car, there’s always one right there nearby that’s up to task. I also like how there’s enough draw distance to see the city in the background! There's a bit of obvious pop in, but it's pretty good for the very first sandbox game on the Xbox 360. Yep, that means the game's even older than Crackdown. Oh no, now I’ve got the phrase "Agency supply point" echoing around my head again.

For completing the mission I win the neighbourhood it took place in, meaning I get an extra $400 a day I can withdraw from my crib! That’s free money that builds up just for spending time in this sandbox.

Speaking of my crib, I'm going to claim the lieutenant's car by driving it into my garage. In the GTA games I've played the garages and parking spots are basically just there to let you keep your car when loading a save. In Saints Row on the other hand I can keep throwing cars into the garage and build up a collection.

Even if I take a car out, get it shot up and drive it off a cliff, when I come back it'll be in my garage again! Which makes a lot more sense when I can waste money on car mods. Trouble is it doesn't get repaired in there unless I utterly destroy it, so I'd have to drive that wreck to a shop to get it back into fighting shape before using it. Kind of encourages me to just take cars off the street instead of using one of my own rides.

Also annoying is that I can throw dozens of cars in there, but it doesn't let me sort them! I have to scroll through the whole list to check I haven't brought in a duplicate. Though on the plus side, I own dozens of cars.


I'm amazed he was able to say all that in one breath.

Right, I've completed the first few missions and cleared up Saint's Row. Trouble is the entire city of Stilwater's split between these gangs, and until they're all gone we'll never have peace.

So like in the other games the Saints are fighting a war on multiple fronts, taking on the Vice Kings, the Westside Rollerz and the Los Carnales, in three concurrent storylines. But it's me that's got to do all the work, so I can choose whether to finish the gangs one at a time or alternate between them. Which is good, as it means it's not as linear as the GTAs. Though wiping out a gang gets me their cars and crib, so being focused is good.

Each story has me working for a different lieutenant, with one of them being the legendary Johnny Gat, voiced by 'Lost'/'Hawaii Five-0' star Daniel Dae Kim... which I mention every time I write about one of these games. The first of these I really played was Saints Row the Third and I worked backwards from there, so I just assumed that Gat became more prominent as the series went on after he became a fan favourite. But nope, even in this game the characters won't stop going on about him being their top lunatic.

People call my dude 'playa' by the way, as I haven't climbed the ranks to 'boss' yet. I haven't even got myself some colours to wear yet!

Looks like the clothes shops are more or less the same as in Saints Row 2. Their inventory isn't all that impressive, but I can wear overshirts over undershirts, and a coat on top of that, and I even get to pick whether they're tucked in or how they're buttoned up. So I've got a lot more options than in your average GTA (and I can flick through items a lot faster too thankfully).

Clothes give me a bonus to the respect I earn on activities, so it's in my interest to get that percentage to go up as soon as possible. Trouble is I get more of a bonus if I'm wearing expensive apparel, and even more if it's purple, so the game’s basically pushing me to dress like the Joker.

No shop is off limits, though at $3000 for a coat I'm going to have to save my pennies before I visit the high level retail area. Still, it's not like there's any character upgrades or real estate I'll be spending the money on.

I've got myself 'x2' but I want to bank a bit more respect, so I'm trying out the Escort activity.

Thankfully it's not that kind of escort mission, as all I have to do is drive around and keep my client out of the prying eyes of roving news vans while they have some fun in the back seat. Funny how it's another activity about driving prostitutes around, though clients can be men or women so everyone gets to join in.

There's a lot of female gangsters roaming around as well, which I'm mentioning because it really stands out after playing the GTAs. The game's not as balanced as the sequels though.

Holy shit, am I having flashbacks to The Saboteur again or did the world just blink out of existence for a moment? At least I didn't fall out of the world, though be honest I wouldn't hold it against the game if I had.

Saints Row: The Third (PC)
It can happen even in the best of games, from time to time. And Saints Row has been well behaved so far otherwise.

Alright, I'm bored of the Escort activity. What else is there?

Oh duh, I should've expected Mayhem to be in the series from the start.

Mayhem is basically just like a Rampage or Kill Frenzy in GTA, where I have to do a certain amount of damage within the time limit. I've been provided with infinite submachine gun ammo for the duration of the activity, but it's actually kind of hard to shoot cars as they always drive away! It'd be fair to say I'm doing a bit crap.

It doesn't help when I just keel over and 'YOU'RE SMOKED!' flashes up on screen. I probably got shot by someone, but the game's so terrible at giving me feedback when I'm taking damage that I only learn about it when it's too late to run and hide. Saints Row 2 handles it better by putting a marker on screen to show which way the hurt's coming from.

Uh... that doesn't usually happen. I've found two major graphics errors so far and I've shown you both of them, so it's been rock solid for me. I guess the game was just moving too fast for the DVD drive.

One thing Saints Row does far better than its inspirations is put a checkpoint at the start of the missions so I can instantly restart with no fees. But failing an activity on the other hand means a long drive back to the icon from the hospital. They let me keep my guns though! Which is good because it's the middle of the night and shops actually close in this game. Why they had to add that little bit of awkwardness I don't know; it's not like the game cares much about realism otherwise.

I mean the Insurance Fraud activity has me throwing myself in front of traffic to have the most impressive accident I can manage! The only realistic thing about this is how drivers always slow down when they see me in the road. It's like they even don't want me to rack up the $45,000 of hurt I need to complete the activity.

A lot of players seem to love Insurance Fraud but even after beating the sequels I still suck at it. The only way I get any points is by bringing an ambulance or cop car and driving it fast enough into oncoming traffic to fly through the windscreen. Hopefully into a police car, in front of another police officer (for the cop witness multiplier).

Seems to me that a number of these activities are about figuring out the trick rather than having fun playing around, especially when I get to the higher levels. And I have to get to the higher levels to get the respect to keep playing the bit of the game I like. Then I have to do it two more times, because every activity has three icons on the map.

So I tried to earn my respect by racing instead, and it’s even harder than in Saints Row 2! For one thing it doesn't give me a car that matches the other racers, so I’m stuck racing rare supercars in whatever I brought. Plus I don’t even get the big floating arrows at checkpoints to tell me which way to go, so I'm driving by the minimap breadcrumbs instead. You know what I miss? Saints Row: The Third's big glowing racing game chevrons floating on the sides of the road to lead me down the correct route.

Then I tried the Hitman activity, driving around the city in circles searching for the target I was given. I wouldn't recommend it. The Chop Shop activity went better, as at least the cars had the decency to turn up. Still kind of tedious though.

I'm thinking I'll just get a map of graffiti locations and spray over them for respect instead.

I'm still saving my money for clothing, but I just wanted to check out the garage to see if it still has that awkward camera angle as the second game. Turns out it does! How do they expect me to see how the hood mods look if I can't see the damn hood, huh?

The car customisation is another feature lifted from GTA: San Andreas, though it works a lot better in this due to the fact I get to keep the car forever afterwards. Weirdly Grand Theft Auto IV, the game's true follow up, dropped car mods entirely while it was clearing away the clutter.

Here, have a gratuitous bridge shot as I drive into town to upgrade my wardrobe. I'm starting to miss the epic car conversations from the later games though. Characters still try to talk to Playa sometimes but it's hard to have banter when he doesn't talk back.

This looks like a nice spot for a screenshot comparison, as I'm curious how it compares to its sequel.

Saints Row 2 (PC)
Yep, that's definitely the same city. They've change the bridge though and there's new buildings on the skyline. You can't compare the visuals properly as it's a different time of day (and a different game system), but Stilwater's clearly been given an upgrade in the meantime.

Saints Row map comparison
Here, I've painstakingly assembled the two city maps from in-game screenshots to show you how the Stilwater of Saints Row 1 differs from its sequel. I realise it would've made more sense to put this in my Saints Row 2 article, but I hadn't played the first game then so I'm putting it here instead.

First change I've noticed is that the city becomes an island! They could've extended the map to the left a bit, maybe add some countryside, but nope they just dropped the land into the ocean. Though they have extended the islands to add things like a beach, a university, an ampitheater, a prison and a nuclear power plant, meaning that the original Saints Row's Stilwater is a less interesting place to hang around in.

While I'm talking about the map, I want to whine about the activity icons not telling me what level I've reached in them. I have to check a separate activities page to find out and that only gives me place names! Otherwise this is a big step up from San Andreas' map.

Here's one of the strange changes between the games I've noticed. If you check the minimap you can see I'm facing roughly south right now, looking at the Saints' church.

Saints Row 2 (PC)
And here's the same church in the second game. I can understand why they'd fix the roof, clean up the graffiti and change the windows, but it's downright weird how they rebuilt the whole thing to face in a different direction.

Alright, enough posing in front of holy buildings, I need to head back to the crib and make a withdrawal. There's a cash limit for my stash so I need to make regular visits to empty it out.

Wow, can you two not kick someone to death on my floor while I'm trying to show the place off?

Alright this is where I keep my floating icons. It's a bit of a shithole but I've no need of food or sleep so I only visit to grab my money and reload my pistol. I can also change into cheaper, less useful clothes or use the save point. I can save the game anywhere and any time I want, but sometimes it's just nice to have an actual save point floating. If nothing else it reminds me that there's no autosaves, and I really do need that. I had to redo a few Escort levels after turning the game off without saving.


Damn, I'm still playing this? I must really like the game.

But I've found myself a real escort mission now, rescuing kidnapped women. Fortunately I can revive people by walking over and pouring out a 40, so aggravation's at a minimum. Also they've got guns and are being helpful, it's great.

Maybe I'll go get myself behind a crate and let them handle it, as I'm paranoid about my health now. I keep glancing over at my bar to make sure it hasn't been emptying while I was distracted with putting bullets into people, as I really don't notice when I'm being hurt. I haven't ran into any mid-mission checkpoints so far and I'd prefer not having to replay everything all over again.


I'm in the contested hood you dumbass game, can't you see the arrows on their heads?

Sometimes territory I own is attacked by a rival gang who wants it back and I have to fight for it if I want my income back. It's all very San Andreas, but it's not a huge inconvenience to me. I don't mind driving around a multi-storey car park squishing gang lieutenants under my wheels if that's what it takes to fill my respect bar in this town.

Anyway I'm stopping here now as I think I've reached the limit of the game's hidden depth. Well, except for the multiplayer modes, but that's not really my thing. Especially as you can't co-op the actual game bit of the game.


In my Saints Row 2 article I mentioned that the game was like the missing link between Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and Saints Row: The Third. Well this is the missing link between San Andreas and Saints Row 2. They even kept the fast food, car modding and graffiti minigames! You could say it's a massive rip-off, but I'd rather think of it as an alternate universe version of Grand Theft Auto IV with more padding and less phone calls from your cousin.

I can't say it's as pretty as Rockstar North's actual sequel though and the frame rate wasn't quite silky smooth, but it's not a terrible looking game either. Well, aside from the times the world disappeared around me, but that happened like twice in the 14 hours I played it, it's a non-issue. The story not the highlight either really as it doesn't have the characters of either the GTA games or its own sequels and it's rarely laugh out loud funny. But it is a fun game, and even though it doesn't drop you into action movie set pieces, or go utterly batshit insane, it does has its moments.

As a sandbox crime simulator it's... derivative, but solid. I'd probably be more enthusiastic about it through if it'd stop kicking me out of the missions to go do more activities. The third person shooting is definitely dated and hampered by the frame rate, but it's a big step up from the GTA 3 trilogy and honestly I think I prefer it to GTA 4 as well. There's no lock on aiming, I could steer my playa around comfortably, and I never ended up two thirds of the way through a mission with half a hit point left in the tank and no hope of finishing it. Some games suit regenerating health, and I'd say this is one of them.

If you like the GTA games or the other Saints Rows then don't dismiss this out of hand (like I almost did) just because Saints Row 2 is the same thing done better, as it's actually pretty entertaining in its own right. It's just a shame it's still exclusive to the Xbox 360 after all these years.

Congratulations on getting through the whole article! I'd give you an achievement if I could. Though the real challenge will be figuring out what the next game will be.

Leave a comment if you feel like it!


  1. First change I've noticed is that the city becomes an island!

    I was a bit surprised to discover the same in GTA5. I assume the Big One hit and everything around Not Los Angeles fell into the sea.

    1. It's almost like they're building to a Waterworld twist revealing that most of the US ended up underwater years ago, with just a few city islands remaining.

    2. Yes! Then the next game in the series is a version of Wind Waker, except you're a gangster in a speedboat with a rocket launcher.

  2. I know the next one, it's an intro of one classic dos game .. but since I suggested it to you, I won't spoil it (just a hint: the character name starts with S, and the game title starts with his name)

  3. Have you played Spiderman 3 and Ultimate Spiderman yet?
    If not you should, they are both great games.

    1. I haven't and I probably won't I'm afraid. Unless I come across them for cheap at some point.

  4. Hey. May I please use one your pictures, Johnny Gap, for my school blog. Thanks!

    1. Sure. In fact I demand that all my readers use Johnny Gat in their school blog.


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