At the recent X'05 event in Toronto, we had an opportunity to take a look at THQ's upcoming action title, Saint's Row. Currently in development by the team at Volition, Saint's Row at first glance appeared to be another Grand Theft Auto look-a-like; but when we took a closer look, Saint's Row easily stands on its own two feet.

The game takes place in an imaginary city that has similar traits to that of the Midwestern US. At the start of the game, every part of the city is open to you with a variety of missions spread throughout the map. The city contains three different gangs, all vying for power. One of your objectives in the game is to take your small posse and make it into a thriving underground gang that rules the city. There are a variety of missions and side quests that you can attempt to complete. One of the cool features is that if you prefer to do only one kind of mission, such as Insurance Fraud, you can complete the game doing mostly these kinds of missions. Insurance Fraud missions, for example, can include such things as having as much bodily damage inflicted to you as possible.

One of Saint's Row's strongest attributes is the ability to create your own character, similar to the high level of detail found in the Sims series. At the start of the game you are allowed to customize almost every aspect of your character's facial features. This includes character traits such as the colour of your skin and the type of nose or ears you want your character to have. You are also able to pick what kind of clothes you want you're them to be wearing, or the overall physique. Want to be skinny as a rail? Done. Want to look like a sumo wrestler? Done. Throughout the game your character is able to change his appearance through the use of shops located around the city, similar to that of Rockstar's famed franchise.

The game contains over 24 different types of weapons that fit into a variety of different categories ranging from melee weapons to assault weapons. Your character can pick which weapons he wants to use through the use of an in-game weapon inventory divided into categories. For example, if you choose the melee weapon inventory, you could pick from a variety of weapons such as a baseball bat or a knife. As another example, the handgun inventory contains the handguns that could be used such as a 9mm or a Desert Eagle. These specific inventories are selected by using the thumbstick and rotating it to the preferred inventory, then selecting the weapon from within. This setup is a bit of a challenge to get used to, but once you've got it mastered you'll find yourself able to switch weapons in a flash.

The gameplay is very similar to Grand Theft Auto, but the Volition developers appear to be taking it a step forward by trying to give as many customizable areas to game as possible. For example, as mentioned before, your character can change his outfit and arsenal by walking into the shops. It is also possible to pimp the cars that you 'acquire' throughout the game. Though we really were not able to see this part of the game, this area has many possibilities for more in-depth gameplay and adds a whole new layer of opportunity. The multiplayer aspect to the game also adds some serious replay potential. One of the multiplayer gameplay modes that was described to us works as follows. You basically have two teams that are trying to max out a car by "pimping it out" as much as possible. You basically go around the city trying to find parts for your car. The fun part comes from the fact that it is possible to seek out the enemy's car and destroy it, thereby having the other team to start over from scratch. This mode is only one of many that demonstrates the innovation behind Saint's Row, and shows that is isn't simply a knockoff game which many may expect.

One of the creative physics elements is the rag doll effect. Essentially, with a touch of a button, your character will go entirely limp. This is incredibly fun to use when you are purposely trying to get hit by moving vehicle. Because the game was only about 60% complete, the graphics and textures are not completely finished, but we've been told that one of its strengths is the lack of a load time while traversing the city. When you load the game up you will experience a loading screen, but afterwards there are no such interruptions at all. Even when you are entering shops or missions, you shouldn't experience any loading time or graphical lag.

Saint's Row is shaping incredible well, and may just surprise gamers when it launches early next year. Though is does share some similarities to the Grand Theft Auto series, there is enough material to make this game stand on its own. The game is currently looking at a launch date of March 2006.