|Saints Row (2006)
Available for: Xbox 360
Let’s get one thing straight: there’s only one “Grand Theft Auto,” but if you were to grade the makers of “Saints Row” on their shameless rip-off of the notorious Rockstar franchise (namely the most recent installment, “San Andreas”), they’d probably receive a perfect score. Located in the same free-roaming world of crime that appears throughout the popular “GTA” series, “Saints Row” is brandished with plenty of similarities, from the “Fuck You” street gang mentality all the way down to the goofy radio commercials blasting from your recently jacked car. And what can only go down in the history books as a stroke of absurd irony, THQ’s “Saints Row” might actually be better than the real thing, thanks mostly to the addition of the much-lauded online multiplayer mode and a few new bells and whistles.
As the lead character of “Saints Row,” you start out in the right place at the right time. After saving a girl from getting a couple of holes punched in her by a gang shooting gone wrong, Julius Little (head of the 3rd Street Saints) offers you a chance to earn your colors and join up with the hottest new gang in town. Of course, you’ll have to prove your worth if you want to move up in rank, and so you’re sent on a series of missions around town pimping hos, trafficking drugs, taking out rival gangs, and just creating total destruction whenever and wherever you can. With each successive mission, you’ll also earn more respect and extra cash to spend on upgraded weaponry and new threads, but your main objective remains the same: help the Saints usher in a new era of rule over Stilwater.
You’re not on your own, however, and along with having eight inventory spots to hold all of your weapons (including handguns, automatics, and a rocket launcher), you can also recruit fellow homies to bring along on missions. Starting off with only one recruit, you’ll eventually build up a big enough reputation to warrant the protection of three homies at once, and the great thing is, though they almost always fall down in the heat of battle, you’ll have thirty seconds to come to their aid, pour a 40 in their honor, and revive them. You needn’t worry so much about your own wellbeing, because along with you health bar regenerating over time, you’ll also get four designated inventory spots to hold food items from Freckle Bitches (an obvious spoof of Wendy’s) that refill your health.
And when you’re not out progressing the main story, you’ll have to participate in random activities to increase your reputation. Aside from the aforementioned drug and hooker-related side missions, other activities include street racing, providing paparazzi-free escort services, hijacking shipments, and my personal favorite, Insurance Fraud, where you throw yourself in front of oncoming traffic in order to score some extra dough. And just so you don’t have any trouble figuring out how to get from place to place, your map is equipped with a handy GPS system that directs you to your next location, even reconfiguring the route for when you miss a turn. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
The voice talent behind the game is also quite impressive – including the likes of Keith David, Michael Rapaport, Daniel Dae Kim, Tia Carrere, Michael Clarke Duncan, Joaquim de Almeida, Freddy Rodriguez, and David Carradine – but throw in twelve distinct radio stations with over 130 licensed songs (including five custom songs by prominent rap icons like Ghostface Killah and Xzibit), the ability to crack safes, and a supposedly killer online multiplayer mode (Note: we couldn’t test this at the time of review, as there was no one else to play with), and you’ve got the best “GTA” clone to date. One that not only expands the genre, but is actually better than the real McCoy in both style and substance. It's your move, Rockstar.