Last updated: June 2, 2019
The original Saints Row is one of those games that came out at the exact right time in late 2006. Those of us who owned an Xbox 360 in those early days weren’t exactly spoiled with great games to play on our new shiny next-gen machine, so a competent Grand Theft Auto clone that improved on some of the mechanics of that series was something I was naturally interested in. At this point, GTA IV had only been shown via a fake tattoo on Peter Moore’s arm, so Saints Row seemed like the next best thing while we waited for more information on whatever Rockstar was doing with their latest game. Saints Row remains an Xbox 360 exclusive to this day; a PlayStation 3 release was planned but cancelled in favor of making the sequel multiformat.
Saints Row was developed by Volition, an Illinois studio responsible for titles such as Freespace, Summoner, and Red Faction. To say that the game had a troubled development would be like saying that its sequels were just a little bit over the top — the development period of Saints Row is not something Volition’s employees look back on with particular fondness, as the game had a multitude of technical issues (most of which were barely sorted out by the time of shipping) and was nearly cancelled at least once. The project started out as a PlayStation 2 game called Bling Bling (seriously!) in 2003 and was moved to the 360 some time later.
Interestingly enough, the 3rd Street Saints (or whatever they were called initially) originally wore green instead of the purple we now associate the Saints Row series with, but when Volition saw GTA: San Andreas they realized they’d have to pick another color as the Grove Street protagonists of San Andreas also wore green. Purple is much classier anyway, so I think this would’ve been an improvement even if CJ and his buddies weren’t clad in green.
Speaking of Carl Johnson, San Andreas was known for its high amount of customization when it came to the player character. You could change CJ’s clothes, hair, tattoos and even body shape, although he was still obviously the same guy no matter what. Saints Row takes things a step further, as you begin the game by creating your own character. The customization options aren’t too in-depth by today’s standards or in comparison to publisher THQ’s wrestling game offerings at the time, especially when it comes to body shape and hair selection, but the face sliders are already excellent and you can create a fairly unique looking gangsta dude to play as. Unfortunately, the first Saints Row doesn’t allow you to create a female protagonist.
Once you’ve created the protagonist, it’s time to hit the mean streets of Stilwater. Wandering around the Saint’s Row district (important distinction: the name of the district is spelled with an apostrophe, the game’s title is not) one night, the protagonist ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and stumbles on a three-way gang fight between the Vice Kings, Westside Rollerz and Los Carnales gangs, saved from death at the last second by the 3rd Street Saints. The protagonist joins the Saints himself as a low-level grunt, goes through the initiation (which doubles as a tutorial for melee combat) and gets acquainted with the rest of the gang.
The Saints aim to make Stilwater a better place by bringing down all of the other gangs, and the (mostly) silent protagonist is going to help them do that by killing a whole bunch of rival gang members. As the Playa — which is what Saints leader Julius calls him — helps the Saints take down the gangs, he rises in the ranks and gains more and more money, respect and power. At least until everything comes undone in the final cutscene…
The combat against rival gangs and law enforcement is perhaps the most obvious area where Saints Row shines over the GTA games. Instead of using an awkward lock-on system to target your enemies (or a random grandma that happens to be walking by), you have standard shooter controls and simply aim with the right analog stick. Combine this with proper ragdoll physics, and you have shooting mechanics that feel extremely satisfying compared to what we had seen in the previous generation. You also have regenerating health and can carry up to four healing items, making the difficulty fairly forgiving aside from a few frustrating spikes in later missions.
Up to three Saints members can be recruited to help in combat, and while their AI isn’t amazing they work well as meat shields and do a decent job diverting enemy fire away from you. When one of your homies gets killed, you can always revive them by pouring a bottle of beer on them within a time limit, which amazingly also works with important NPCs in story missions as long as they’re tagged as your homies. No more mission failures due to dumbass AI getting itself killed! Why is this not a mechanic in every open world game?
Naturally, since this is a GTA clone, driving cars is a big part of the game. Bikes, boats, and aircraft aren’t included, but there is a decent selection of cars to choose from and they have fairly different handling characteristics. The cars in general don’t handle as well as their GTA counterparts and feel very floaty, and the damage modeling looks a bit odd as well; the cars end up looking rather like they’re made of crumpled paper when heavily damaged. At least the explosions are spectacular. Driving while shooting is done much better here than in GTA, as you can aim freely with your gun instead of simply looking to the left or right to do a drive-by. Unfortunately, hitting things at speed can be difficult, especially when you’re trying to stay on the road at the same time.
You can make things a little easier by switching throttle and brake to the analog triggers (that option is buried so deep in the menus that even Volition themselves seem to have forgotten it exists) instead of the face buttons, but the handling model isn’t really advanced enough to make good use of the triggers. Navigation, at least, is made easy with the GPS and waypoint system, which is in every open world game nowadays but was something of a revelation back in 2006.
Storing cars is also done much better here than it has ever been in GTA. Your garage holds an essentially infinite number of cars, and even when you “accidentally” blow up your favorite car you can get it fixed and returned to the garage for a nominal fee. Not realistic in the slightest, but works incredibly well and this kind of system should be a requirement for every open world game these days.
Despite the obvious core gameplay similarities and the cutscenes consisting mainly of some asshole telling the protagonist what to do (here it at least makes sense unlike in some of Rockstar’s efforts, you are a lower-ranking member of the Saints after all), Saints Row is structured somewhat differently from the GTA games. Talking to one of the lieutenants will give you a story mission, but in order to play missions or gang strongholds (which are basically just missions without proper cutscenes) you need to build up your respect meter by doing side activities for various upstanding citizens of Stilwater. Most activities involve driving and/or shooting as you might expect, but there are also sillier ones such as Insurance Fraud where your goal is to earn as much money as possible by ragdolling yourself in front of cars and crashing through windshields. It’s incredibly fun and will only get better as the series goes on.
Another staple of the series is Mayhem, where the goal is to simply cause as much damage to everything as you can within a time limit. Due to the way the scoring system and the multiplier work, the most efficient way to complete Mayhem is to get a car and constantly run over fences, which became such a common strategy that it actually got referenced in the introductory cutscene of Saints Row: The Third’s Mayhem activity and the achievement for completing it (“Fence Killa 2K11”). Later games have introduced different variations on Mayhem, but killing fences remains the optimal strategy.
Once you’ve built up enough respect to gain a level, you get to tackle one of the story missions. Each mission you complete gives you some money and control of a neighborhood, as well as free cars and a new safehouse if it is the last mission of a gang storyline path. You can choose which gang you want to focus on, or if you feel like challenging yourself you can also take them all on at the same time by completing missions from each path. The downside of doing the latter is that you will constantly have some gang or another trying to take back one of the neighborhoods you took over (exactly like the annoying “Our ‘hood is under attack” phone calls in San Andreas), and I personally prefer simply taking on one gang at a time.
The missions are fun and varied enough, every bit as good as the ones in the GTA games. The most obvious problem with them is also the same as in the GTA games – there are no mid-mission checkpoints. At least you don’t need to drive from the hospital to the mission marker and can just restart via the menu when you fail, which is already an improvement, but checkpoints wouldn’t have hurt in the longer and harder missions. This, like most other issues with the first Saints Row, would be rectified in the next game. Unfortunately, failing an activity doesn’t let you restart from the menu and you actually have to drive back to the activity location, but at least your progress is saved after each level of an activity you complete.
When you’re not doing missions or rampaging around, you can spend your time customizing the protagonist even further than the character creator allows. There aren’t that many different clothing articles, tattoos or hairstyles, but in 2006 this was enough variety to keep you happy especially since actually buying and changing clothes was much easier than in GTA: San Andreas. No animation to sit through, just pick your item and you’re good. You can also customize the color of your clothes (purple, as mentioned earlier and seen in the screenshots, is the Saints’ gang color and gives you extra respect, although purple clothing also costs a lot more than other colors) and even choose how low you want to wear your pants.
For some reason, all of the stores are closed at night, so you often have to wait before you can go shopping. This was probably done to accommodate the robbery diversion where you break into a store at night and steal their safe, but I’d rather have access to customization at all times.
In addition to customizing your character, you can also pimp out your cars with custom colors and body and wheel modifications. Much like the clothing options, the number of available mods isn’t massive but was satisfying enough at the time and you can still create all sorts of garish monstrosities. The customization would also get expanded heavily by the time Saints Row 2 rolls around. In the first game, you actually have to use the mod shop to customize some of the cars for the chop shop activity, but this was simplified in the later games.
Even though it doesn’t look like much these days, Saints Row was a nice-looking game when it came out. The character models are a bit blocky and the facial animation is rather awkward, but the environment looks very good with some excellent use of lighting. Going back to GTA was quite difficult at the time, this simply looked so much better. The one major complaint I have about the graphics is that the game uses mesh transparency for things such as car windows, which looked terrible in 2006 and is even worse now. I assume this was done to maintain a decent frame rate, as it is already quite rough.
The game does actually give you the choice to turn vertical sync on or off, which is definitely a welcome addition, but unfortunately neither option is ideal. If you turn vsync on, the already questionable frame rate (targeting 30 frames per second but regularly dipping well below that) becomes nearly unplayable, and disabling vsync causes absolutely horrifying screen tearing. I’m not even exaggerating when I say this game literally made me nauseous when I played it a few years ago, the performance was that bad.
Thankfully, Xbox One backwards compatibility has since come to the rescue, and now provides by far the best way to play Saints Row. While I can’t say anything about the performance on the base Xbox One and Xbox One S systems since I don’t own either of those anymore, the Xbox One X offers an extremely stable 30 fps (the 30 fps cap is hard-coded, both in this and Saints Row 2) with no screen tearing whatsoever and improves the experience immeasurably. It’s a shame 60 fps wasn’t possible, but this is still a night-and-day difference. This kind of thing is the reason I love backwards compatibility, as not only do you get to play your old games on newer hardware but the experience is often actually better in every way.
The audio is not exactly spectacular, but it does its job and there isn’t anything major to complain about. The cast features well-known actors including Michael Clarke Duncan, David Carradine, Keith David, Mila Kunis and, of course, Daniel Dae Kim as fan favorite Johnny Gat. It’s not as star-studded of a lineup as that of Vice City or San Andreas (I still can’t believe Rockstar got Axl Rose to appear in the latter game, especially since I’m pretty sure that was during the peak of his weirdo recluse period), but that is not a massive issue because everyone does their job perfectly fine.
The radio stations play music from various genres, and while you won’t find any major hit songs here it’s still a decent enough selection. Any game that has “Wild America” by Iggy Pop on the radio is A-OK in my book, and the station that almost exclusively plays terrible 80s hair metal (Ratt! Great White! Bang Tango! L.A. Guns! Winger!) is absolutely glorious, and the talk radio isn’t too bad either. You can also buy songs from the Scratch That music store and listen to them while on foot, a feature that wouldn’t be seen again until Saints Row IV. The Saints Row wiki also informs me that the MP3 player option has support for the Xbox 360’s custom soundtracks, but I haven’t tested that myself.
While the Saints Row series is known for its humor these days, that is not really evident in the first game. That is not entirely a negative, because I feel the later games (mainly The Third and IV) went a bit too far with the silliness and pop culture references and there are some genuinely funny, if rather lowbrow, bits here. For the most part, though, Saints Row comes across as a fairly generic gangsta-themed GTA clone and most of the humor feels forced when it’s there.
The whole bling theme is definitely much more prominent here than it would be in SR2 (not to mention the later games where it’s completely abandoned) – this comes across in the menu music, the overall presentation, most of the clothing, even the protagonist’s animations as he fires his gun tilted sideways. I will also say that I don’t particularly miss all the pimps & hos stuff from the earlier Saints Row games; activities like Snatch and Escort just feel like Volition was trying to make their game edgier than GTA and didn’t pull it off very well, so it all just feels juvenile and kind of sleazy for the most part (that being said, I will admit some of the Escort client dialog is very funny).
Oh yeah, almost forgot: Saints Row has competitive multiplayer, featuring such classic game modes as “Protect tha Pimp” and “Big Ass Chainz”. The multiplayer was shut down years ago, and I never played it even when it was active so I can’t tell you if it was any good. From what I hear, the multiplayer was added as an afterthought anyway and the developers didn’t much care for it (killing each other in the lobby while waiting for games to start was apparently more fun than actually playing the modes).
Speaking of afterthoughts, a few downloadable content packs were released shortly after launch, but they didn’t contain anything particularly interesting unless you really wanted to dress up as Santa Claus. This DLC has also been removed from the Xbox Live Marketplace by this point, probably because nobody cared about it in the first place.
Saints Row might be a blatant Grand Theft Auto clone with a forced and rather embarrassing gangsta theme, but it plays well and does several things better than its inspiration. I wouldn’t recommend playing it these days unless you’re huge fan of the Saints Row series and want to see where it all got its start, but in 2006 this was really quite amazing and made the wait for the next-gen GTA game more bearable. It’s still a fun enough game despite the rough edges (at least if you can play it at a decent frame rate), but Saints Row 2 does everything much better. That is really what the first Saints Row is in a nutshell – a decent game that laid the groundwork for something much more than that.