The Evolution of Saints Row
Having recently revisited Saints Row 4 I was amazed at just how fun the game was. Perhaps one of the best examples of big, triple-A game that does comedy well. But it hasn’t always been that way, Saints Row as a series over the last 9 years (Yes 9 years) has evolved into something quite different from what it was once. From a borderline, GTA rips off to something far more outlandish and witty. It’s a series with a surprising amount of story depth and background with a load of returning characters, each with their own personalities and quirks. Having played 3 of the 4 games allow me explain how the series evolved.The course of the Saints Row games really comes in two eras which I shall call Pre and Post Johnny Gat’s death. While this is a flawed way of putting it, it works pretty well for our purposes of simple categorization, so without further ado lets get going.
Saints Row came out in 2006 (Yes the series is almost ten years old) This is the one game in the series I hadn’t played, but from my research I’ve come to the conclusion that this game was the most comparable to games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It was an open world game with an emphasis on gang culture. The story has the player as a muted novice who joins the Third Street Saints after they save their life. From there the gang must wrestle for control of the city of Stillwater from three other rival gangs. As I said I don’t have much knowledge of this game, but from what I saw it was a rather decent game, which clearly aspired to be something greater than it was.
Saints Row 2
With Saints Row 2 I can actually start talking with a bit of knowledge. Set in the same city of Stillwater, the protagonist wakes up from a coma that ended the last game, reuniting with old members of the gang, including Johnny Gat, they set to take over the city once again (Hardly original) Two new characters were introduced to the series Shaundi the stoner who slept about and Pierce the loud mouth. With the core team now assembled the series story really begins to take shape. With each being given a character arc over the next few games, we’re allowed to get to know each one in a way most games never really allow us to.While one character did get a major overhaul between games, the basics for each character had been established. The Story itself actually went to some surprising places, from Gat losing his wife and going off the rails, to the Saint leader (You) having a rival gang leaders girlfriend killed in a rather tragic way.
One accusation of this game was that it tended to make the women characters into plot devices, turning these once strong independent women into mere damsels in distress for the player. I’ve bemoaned games such as Watch Dogs for doing this so it’s only fair that I chastise Saints Row 2 for it as well (Especially since the boss fight with Veteran Child is a bastard).
From what I remember of playing this game, it did have some jokes though the firing of sewage at houses seemed to be the pinnacle of it. The series hadn’t really found it’s groove of pop culture gags and absurd humor, it was still a series pretty firmly grounded in reality. There was a greater emphasis on character and gang customization with players being encouraged to have slightly wacky characters.
Saints Row 3
With Saints Row The Third, we enter the post-Gat era and where the series became what it’s known as today. At the end of the last game, the Saints own a media empire and so become international celebrities, Pierce as the Saint’s spokesman and Shaundi having her own reality show called “I want to sleep with Shaundi” Through a rather odd set of events the gang is stripped of their empire and forced to the city of Steel Port by perhaps one of the best opening acts in a game ever made. In the process, Johnny Gat is lost (For now) and the player must rebuild and take revenge on the crime syndicate that took everything from them.
The Evolution of Shaundi
Here was where the series trademark humor really started to shine. Unlike in GTA where the game world is a close approximation of the real world but with the odd bit of satire, the world of Saints Row was one where anything could go as long as it was done with a straight face. At no point did the game ever stop and say “Ain’t this a bit stupid” directly to the audience, there would be fourth wall breaking jokes but all of which made sense in the game and were only funny to the player, not the characters. Filled with a whole bunch of new characters such Oleg, Simon the Autotuned Pimp and Kinzie the hacker, the player was treated to some of the funniest dialog and missions that have been put in a game. While the game did have a bit of fixation on prostitution, it was unlike GTAs where the player could have sex with them, instead using them as items to trafficked.
The game itself was terrific fun to play, with great mission variety and sense of character. With Saints Row, the Third the series had finally found its voice, what made it stand out from all the over open world games out there.
Saints Row IV
If Saints Row 3 was taking things up to 11 then Saints Row IV went to 22. Set five years after the leader of the saints becomes the president of the United States of America, who is abducted by aliens and thrown into a simulation of Stillwater. Borrowing elements from everything from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen is the narrator) the Matrix and every superhero game ever made. Here the world was your oyster with the player being given super powers such as super speed, strength, and telekinesis. The game’s development is a pretty interesting story as well, originally intended as an expansion to 3, it was to be called Enter the Dominatrix. But development took too long and Volition was bought by Deep Silver when THQ went under. As such the whole expansion was scrapped and turned into the full game before us.
Replaying this game was what inspired me to write this blog piece about the series as whole (It also explains why I haven’t been posting as much as I should) It’s a fun game with a great campaign but the open world is pretty badly put together. You see in most open world games you get about by driving, you get in a moderately fast car and you have to obey the barriers in your way, you can’t drive through buildings instead you must go around. In Saints Row 4 that isn’t the case, with super powered movement comes the ability to leap over entire city blocks, as such you’re rarely on the ground long enough to breath in the city streets as you would in games like GTA. You don’t get attached to certain locations, or remember where certain cool car ramps are, instead you’re soaring above the roofs which all look the same.
I’ve always found the world building in the Saints Row games to be pretty weak. The cities always lack a certain identity, I believe they’ve usually been based on cities such Detroit and Chicago, but unlike (Sorry to keep coming back to this comparison) in GTA 4 or 5 you really don’t get a feel for the city you inhabit. Stillwater and Steelport are bland with no culture outside the gangs live there (Who themselves only have a few notable traits each). It’s an issue i’ll come back to in the future for sure.
Gat out of Hell
Now of course the spin off expansion Gat out of Hell has been released, to mostly middling reviews. As of yet I haven’t picked it up but I may do at Christmas in the sales. I’ll be honest and say though that I don’t get why it exists. Gat out of Hell is part of a small niche that’s been growing over the last few years of a stand alone expansions that take the game’s core mechanics and goes a bit nuts with them. Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon and Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare are two of the bigger examples of the genre. But with Saints Row it doesn’t make sense, the series is already off the wall as it is. So setting the game now in hell instead of a matrix inspired wonderland almost seems like a step back.
As a series It’s hard to know in what direction the series should go. Do they take away the super powers and have the player return to a more grounded way of playing? Do they keep trying to push the limits of what they can do, have the Saints go into space and explore other planets? Or do they let the Saints rest? Personally I’d say the last one. Saints Row 4 is in many way a love letter to the fans of the series, exploring where the characters came from and concluded the story with the Saints being the masters of a galactic empire and if that’s not a good place to end things I don’t know what is.