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The poet TS Eliot once said that “talent imitates, but genius steals.” If Eliot’s words apply to games as much as they apply to literature or other arts, then there’s little doubt that Saints Row is one of the greatest works of genius that the medium has ever produced. Indeed, there’s a certain irony in the fact that a game that celebrates crime – Grand Theft Auto – has become the victim of one of the most blatant and impressive thefts of style, idea and game mechanics in gaming history. Saints Row is the Great Gianna Sisters of this generation, only without the stinking Nintendo lawsuit that kept that game off the shelves. I know Volition’s defence has been that Rockstar has created a genre and it’s only doing its best to expand it, but – really – just look at the cars, wander the streets, watch the cut-scenes and tune into the radio stations. Who are they trying to kid?
Of course, Saints Row comes out on a console without a GTA to call its own, and if it’s a vaguely cynical clone of GTA, at least it’s a good one. Unlike such horrors as The Godfather or True Crime it gets the basics right, creating a busy city packed with interesting missions and genuinely fun activities, with a working combat system and decent enemy AI. Say what you like about Volition, but of Rockstar’s wannabe rivals, only Pandemic – with Mercenaries and Destroy all Humans – has managed anywhere near the same thing.
More impressively, there are concrete ways in which Saints Row actually improves upon its inspiration. For one thing, it has actually pulled in a functional navigation system, with a map that shows all the available shops, missions and safehouses, and a facility to set waypoints so that a route on the mini-map leads you there. I know those who spent months learning the Vice City knowledge are going to feel this cheapens the whole experience, but it certainly helps you find your feet in the first few hours. For another thing, Volition has made it quick, easy and relatively painless to restart missions when things go pear-shaped, and even added checkpoints to some of the longer efforts. And unlike GTA or The Godfather, hand-to-hand and armed combat both work really well, partly because Saints Row sticks to a sensible twin-stick move and aim system, and partly because weapons and ammo are relatively plentiful and pack a real punch. You go into this game not dreading every fire-fight, but actually relishing the opportunity to fill your enemies full of lead. Can you say the same about Vice City or San Andreas?