These days, Saints Row is very much a household name in gaming. It's a critically successful franchise, a game that has become notorious through its marketing and gimmickry, but also by being a whole lot of fun.
The Saints Row concept really came into its own in the third game, which I liked quite a bit. The over-the-top seeds that were planted for that game were sewn during Saints Row 2. But of all the games in the series, I actually became the most gruelingly addicted to the first one, back when it was just called Saints Row.
At some point during the spring of 2008, I hit a dry spot—this was back when there still were dry spells that lasted more than a week or so—and I wound up picking up a used copy of Saints Row after reading some reviews that called it, basically, an uninspired but functional HD Grand Theft Auto game.
I found that I loved it to death. The way that I'd fight to win new territory, the entirely manageable, persistent gang-warfare... I couldn't stop playing. I didn't mind the grating, ridiculous dialogue, I didn't care that the game was in many ways a shameless knockoff and in most ways an incorrigible tryhard.
I actually liked the TV-movie story, and even when I finished it I just kept playing—I wanted to finish all of the activities, I wanted to find all of the hitman targets, I wanted to stage elaborate Heat<-style shootouts in the street. I blew past the Addicted to Tha Row achievement (a first for a game giving me an achievement for playing it a lot) and kept going, and going.
I'll say it unabashedly: I loved Saints Row. I loved playing an open-world crime-game on the Xbox 360, sure. But I also loved the world, bland though it may have been. I loved the free-aiming—let's not forget that Grand Theft Auto IV actually couldn't manage to top Saints Row in that department—I loved the weapon wheel, I loved how great the explosions looked. I actually learned my way around without the map; I customized a huge fleet of automobiles painted all manner of purple. I spent a lot of time assembling a killer wardrobe.
It's hard to say that the subsequent Saints Row games haven't gotten better—in just about every quantifiable way, they have been. But Saints Row had that brief shining window after its 2006 launch but before GTA IV came out when it was…well, it was the best GTA game you could get on a next-gen console. And it deserved to be.
Discovering a diamond in the rough like Saints Row felt special, and man did I play the hell out of it.