Thanks to a birthday present from Kevin Church, I’ve recently been playing the Saints Row games on the Double Pack that came out in advance of November’s release of Saint’s Row: The Third, and there’s no doubt about it: SR is a complete and utterly shameless ripoff of the Grand Theft Auto games. It boasts the same mechanics, from the names of the cars popping up whenever you steal them to the radio stations playing as you drive, right down to being able to lose your Wanted Level by driving through a
Pay ‘n’ Spray Forgive and Forget. There is, however, one crucial difference.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, you can steal a police car and drive it around.
In Saints Row 2, you can steal an armored personnel carrier, paint it purple, give it gold rims and spinners, and drive around blasting unlimited rounds from the roof-mounted chaingun.
Neither of these approaches is really all that much better than the other when it comes to making a video game, but for me at least, it made a pretty interesting contrast. I think it’s fair to say that with Grand Theft Auto IV, the developers were going for a far more “realistic” and — loath as I am to say it — cinematic approach than they had with the last generation’s titles. Liberty City boasted photo-realistic recreations of locations from New York City, and the car controls even took a while to get used to because they actually handled like cars, and not like an idealized video game representation of cars — which, incidentally, made motorcycles an absolute Goddamn nightmare until Lost & Damned came out and patched things up. The focus was on building a setting, not just for gameplay, but for a story that was centered around Niko Bellic, a character whose personality and desires became fully realized as you played the game.
But as impressive as that is, it can also be a limitation. Unlike games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, where the player is invited to determine the main character’s personality for themselves and see how the world reacts, Niko’s personality is pretty much set by the developers — with maybe one exception, you’re a participant in the action, but an observer in the story.
Again, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing — it certainly doesn’t keep GTA4 from being one of the best games I’ve ever played — but it does create this weird conflict between what you’re allowed to do and what the storyline and characters want you to do. For example, when Grand Theft Auto 3 came out, one of the things that got an insane amount of attention (mostly in the form of flecks of spittle rocketed out of an apoplectic Jack Thompson‘s mouth) was the fact that you could have sex with hookers — or at least that you could watch a car bounce back and forth while ridiculous porno moans played and both characters sat motionless in the front seat, staring straight ahead. When I played GTA3, I’d do that before every mission, because the boost in health that came along with it (ha-ha!) was a big help for getting things done.
You can do the same thing in GTA4. The mechanics are still there. But if you actually do it, Niko offers up a depressing bit of commentary along the lines of like “I’m a hired killer who pays for sex. My mother would be so proud.” The game makes it clear that while you, the player can do things, it’s not the sort of thing that Niko, the character would do. The same goes for just tooling around, running over NPCs and dropping grenades when the cops start chasing you. It’s fun, and it’s there, but it’s not what Niko would do. Meanwhile, the last thing I want to do when I’m playing the game is go pick up my cah-zin for another boring trip to the bowling alley / strip club / miscellaneous waste-of-time minigame, but it seems like Niko feels an obligation to spend time with his family.
In a way, that’s a pretty masterful move on Rockstar’s part, the fact that they’re able to create a character that can draw me in and make me want to
turn off that damn cell phone so that I can do a damn mission once in a while subvert my own desires by pursuing the character’s. But at the same time, if you get into that stuff as much as I do it provides a psychological limit on which options in the game you’re willing to take part in. The fact that the words “Niko wouldn’t do that” went through my brain while I was playing that game is an incredible triumph for Rockstar in terms of storytelling, but it takes away part of the fun of that sandbox.
Saints Row, on the other hand, solves that problem by making your character an absolute psychopath and then rewarding you for it.
The whole thing is a massive throwback to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, to the point where the entire mechanics of running a gang are pretty much lifted straight up. Territories that generate money, pushbacks from rival gangs, even being able to fill up a car with your gang members and pull drive-bys against rivals. If the Saints rocked Green instead of Purple as their colors, you’d think it was a direct sequel.
And it makes sense to do that, too: While IV may have been a shift towards realism and grittiness, San Andreas was a game that saw the main character steal a jetpack from Area 51 so that his street gang could be more effective at hijacking cocaine shipments. That would never happen in GTAIV. It’d be as much of a jarring a tone shift as if Niko started shooting out Hadoukens. But in Saints Row 2 it’d fit right in. Hell, it’d be the first checkpoint of a mission.
So yes, Saints Row 2 is a throwback to San Andreas, but it’s a throwback with everything taken to a truly ridiculous extreme, both aesthetically and mechanically. It doesn’t just give you the ability to indulge in the carnage that made GTA such a classic, it requires you to do that stuff in order to earn the respect that you need to go on the story missions. That can be a pain, since they’re done up as minigames with levels that get increasingly difficult, but there are enough of them that (like me), you can do the ones you find the easiest and still finish the game with 8 missions worth of Respect in the bank. I got a kick out of the Insurance Fraud ones, where you attempt to get yourself hit by cars for fun and profit, but I ended up being the best at the Fight Club, where my ladytype character picked up a cinderblock and beat MMA dudes to death.
Even the missions themselves are ridiculous, and there’s no time wasted with tutorial-style training wheels missions. The first thing you do after character creation is break out of prison by shooting like thirty guys and stealing a boat, and two missions later you’ll be flying a helicopter around, raining .50 caliber death on anyone who gets in your way, building up to where you finish off a gang by fighting a gigantic dude that you poisoned with radioactive tattoo ink in a monster truck arena. And he’s voiced by Worf from Star Trek.
My pal CJ put it best when I was talking to him about the game: “Saint’s Row 2 is the world’s best Batman villain simulator. At the end of the game I flew around in a personalized gyrocopter with a cane shotgun and color coded ninja goons.”
As evidenced by the first 600 words of this very review, it’s hard to talk about Saints Row 2 without comparing it to its more prominent cousin — or cah-zin as the case may be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a better game, and in fact, of the three year-old games I’ve blown through over the two months — Assassin’s Creed 2 and Fallout 3 being the others — it’s not even my favorite of them. But it is something that took elements abandoned by another game and built something incredibly entertaining and fun with them, and it’s done a pretty darn good job selling me on picking up The Third when it hits.
I mean, if nothing else, “Friendly Fire” is a way better name for a gun store than “Ammu-Nation.”