Let's not beat around the bush: Saints Row is creatively bankrupt.
The latest in a long list of Grand Theft Auto imitators, this clone replicates Rockstar's controversial games so closely that the uneducated eye could mistake it for the real deal.
But unlike past rip-offs, Saints Row is actually a solid game. And in some small ways, it's actually better than GTA.
Set in the fictional city of Stilwater, the game introduces you quickly to the Third Street Saints, an up-and-coming street gang whose home base is a dilapidated church. Stilwater is divided into sections controlled by various gangs; the bulk of the game involves pushing out rivals and planting the Saints' flag. The more territory you control, the more money you make -- like Monopoly, but with hookers and dime bags.
The overall story, which follows the Saints as they clash with the other gangs and slowly expand their empire, is actually quite compelling, buoyed by solid writing and excellent voice-acting. Working through the game, you'll meet all the power players in the rival gangs, and they all have unique personalities that add texture to the plot.
One notable departure from Grand Theft Auto is your ability to completely customize your onscreen persona. In Saints Row, you're free to design your virtual thug from head to toe, changing anything from the color of his skin to the size of his ears. While it doesn't affect game play -- a morbidly obese hooligan runs just as fast as a fit one -- it's nice to play as a redheaded hillbilly or scary old biker, instead of yet another amalgam of tired gangsta clichés.
Unfortunately, even a robust customization feature doesn't keep the game from feeling awfully familiar: You walk around a virtual city, steal cars, run over pedestrians, and rile the police. It's déjà vu all over again.
Saints Row's greatest improvement on the Grand Theft Auto formula is in the controls. Gone is the clumsy lock-on gunplay that had you targeting pedestrians while the SWAT team riddled you with bullets. Now onscreen crosshairs make it much easier to hit what you're aiming for. This is especially important, since Saints Row is loaded with firefights.
The game also manages to show some creativity in the variety of its crimes. Best are the insurance-fraud missions -- scams where you put yourself in harm's way to earn settlement checks. The more terrible the "accident," the bigger the payoff. In no time you'll be speeding down the highway, searching for the head-on collision that'll send you through the windshield and onto easy street.
Saints Row also adds online play. One of the more amusing modes, "Protect the Pimp," features one team trying to kill the pimp while the other tries to escort him to safety. Naturally, the pimp's only weapon is the ultrapowerful Pimp Slap, which sends his opponent flying.
Although Saints Row definitely looks pretty on the Xbox 360, there are a few visual hiccups. Sometimes entire buildings just pop into existence in front of you, and the game's frame rate occasionally stutters.
But on the whole, the biggest problem with Saints Row is that it doesn't push the boundaries much. It's the videogame equivalent of a cover song. For Xbox 360 owners wanting a next-gen GTA fix, Saints Row is a solid buy -- at least until Grand Theft Auto IV comes along.