Two franchises that both feature city sandboxes, both feature characters that are on the wrong side of the law and both give the player the opportunity to do basically whatever the hell they want to. Similarly to Infamous and Prototype both of these game franchises have similar concepts but Saints Row is the Prototype in this comparison and Grand Theft Auto is the Infamous. I am going to take a look at both of these game franchises rather than examining each game in their line up individually, we will be going back to the earlier days of the franchises but also taking a look at their more modern versions.
Cast your minds back to 1997 when the first game Grand Theft Auto was released on the Playstation and basically allowed the player to take the role of a criminal who could run around a city committing various crimes. It was of course heavily criticised for its violence, and was immensely fun to play. The sheer joy involved in trying to get into a police car, only to have the officer get out chase you around the car until you ran around to the driver’s side, leapt behind the wheel and roared away never got old. I don’t remember doing any of the missions and instead I spent my time just charging around using a cheat in which you renamed your character to “theshit” which gave you unlimited lives and weapons. You had only one perspective which was the bird’s eye view with the camera looking straight down upon the player (take a look at the screen shot below - the graphics are not exactly first rate but at the time they were top notch) still, in 1997, the game was a little limited but for a first try what were you expecting, gold straight off the bat??
Not surprisingly with a game giving the players such potential to fuck about, sequels would inevitably follow and so there have been, well, this many games...
I cannot say that I have played all of these titles but of the ones I have played, for me the best game in this series was San Andreas. I really liked Vice City because taking over businesses and setting them up to earn you money was great fun and although I did not know it at the time you are becoming Tony Montana from Scarface. You arrive on the sun drenched streets of Vice City and build yourself up taking over car dealerships, printing presses and even a film studio in which you start shooting porn movies with Candy Suxxx (voiced by pornstar Jenna Jameson). The biggest problem with that game was that it was too short. Once you owned the Printing Press and a couple of other businesses the final mission would be triggered. San Andreas by comparison was HUGE, the city was immense, including deserts, a mountain, disused airstrips, a ‘secret’ government facility and hick towns plus its own version of Las Vegas.
You got to do a bit of everything, you started off as a street thug vying for control of the streets before becoming involved in owning a casino and other businesses. You take on a corrupt cop, and you get to play around with a jet pack, a jet pack, has any other game in this franchise had a jet pack?? No, and my question is: why not?? That is the question that I for one have been unable to answer. Suffice it to say there was something for everyone in the game and if you are a fan of open world sandbox games and you haven’t played this game then I’m here to tell you that, no, you are not a fan of open world sandbox games because otherwise you would have played this game already.
But that niggling question of: why no jet pack in subsequent games??
That is a question that I will look at in a little while, but before I do, let’s have a look at the Saints Row games.
So, the Grand Theft Auto games have been going since 1997 and after numerous versions the graphics have improved, the storylines have gotten better, players are no longer interested in just fucking about in the sandbox world, they want to do the missions. Whilst San Andreas was my favourite of the Grand Theft Auto games to date, it lacked the graphical capabilities of more modern consoles, now that point may be obvious. But I remember even then thinking it was a shame that the garage you win from Claude (the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 3 in a great cameo) remains looking as dilapidated after you supposedly fix it up as it did before. The idea is that you are going to turn it into a profitable business doing modifications for cars so whilst you do get mechanics to work for you, the buildings still looks shit and it never gets to a point where it can be used to modify cars. It would have been great if later in the game you can take cars in there to have them upgraded or modified, but it never happens. So after years of tweaking, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was, in my opinion, the peak of the franchise.
Saints Row was released in 2006 so it had 9 years of peering over the shoulder of Grand Theft Auto’s test sheet seeing what worked and what didn’t. So it is safe to say that Saints Row hit the ground running, mainly because it knew that in order to be successful it needed to have the Grand Theft Auto tick sheet present and correct.
So what is on that tick sheet??
Okay, so not everything on the checklist but close enough.
In the first game you are an unnamed and virtually silent protagonist that is working through the gangs of the Third Street Saints. You have to take on the Westside Rollerz, a gang that are interested in fast cars and are torn from The Fast and the Furious franchise. The Vice Kings whose leader was voiced by the late Michael Clarke Duncan and Los Carnales. All three gangs control sections of the city and it is up to you to take over missions given to you by other members of the gang to increase the influence of the Saints. It was available on the Xbox 360 and took the best parts of the Grand Theft Auto franchise but sadly in my opinion it was also too short. When you are having fun, the last thing you want is for it end, and Saints Row did have a habit of forcing fun on you.
How do you force fun??
As the protagonist you could only do the main missions if you had enough respect and you earned respect by completing various side missions. The majority of which I would have probably done anyway because, like I said, they were fun. But what was bizarre about the game was the fact that you could have wiped out two of the city’s gangs and not have enough respect to do another main mission before doing a street race or something.
One of the things I really liked about Saints Row was the fact that you had a garage that could hold dozens of cars that you had modified and saved. So you could take this cars out, drive them around, but if you abandoned them they would reappear back in your garage. This was apparently because one of your ‘homies’ would find them abandoned wherever you happened to have dumped them and return them to your garage. So whereas in Grand Theft Auto your cars would be lost if you took them out, in Saints Row you did not have to worry about abandoning a vehicle you had put time and effort into modifying.
On the whole though Saints Row was a great way to start a franchise and then Saints Row 2 came along and was the San Andreas of the Saints Row franchise. It was fun, it was over-the-top and is a game that I have played over and over and over again because it knows what it is. It is a game that remembers that players are playing a game to have fun and this is where the two franchises really split from being very similar in terms of some realism with some goofy moments, San Andreas’ CJ taking on corrupt cop Tenpenny whilst also flying around in a jet pack and Saints Row’s protagonist dealing with drug cartels whilst wearing bright purple suit that would have put Austin Powers to shame.
However it was after this that the two franchises seemed to be actively trying to distance themselves from one another.
Grand Theft Auto 4 went for gritty realism, and abandoned the popcorn style of the previous games. There is no jet pack. The protagonist was boring, the characters he interacted with were uninteresting, and it did not feel like we were playing a Grand Theft Auto game anymore. I played it through to the end but as I sit here writing this I can remember nothing about specific missions, I remember something about some girl that worked for the authorities who had been instructed to get close to Niko (and she thought the best way was to let him have sex with her repeatedly (after every date in actual fact), not sure if she’s going to get a promotion for her dedication but hey-ho). Beyond that I couldn’t honestly tell you much about the game, you had a couple of safe houses, the cars I’d park outside that were supposedly safe would glitch out and disappear, plus the game looked like I needed to turn up the brightness and colour contrast features on my screen.
Since then Grand Theft Auto 5 has managed to get a bit of that San Andreas feel back, but again NO FUCKING jet pack!!!! Plus I really don’t like switching between 3 characters, I did all of the flying missions as Franklin because I happened to be playing as him at the time and only then did I learn that Michael needed to learn how to fly. So I would have to do those missions again as another character which as of yet I have not done. Grand Theft Auto 5 is still waiting for me to complete it mainly because I have pretty much lost interest in it. Yes, it has some colour to it, the map is vast and you can bang strippers now if you want, but fundamentally I just wasn’t invested in the characters or the story to be bothered about finishing it. I am thinking about it now and honestly it is on my “To Do” list, along with get through to my people, obliterate mankind, and buy a few dozen boxes of orange and lime tic-tacs.
Saints Row then, so first game was good, and the sequel was brilliant. Yes it had a few flaws and of course its map was nowhere near as big as some of the epic Grand Theft Auto games but considering the Grand Theft Auto franchise has been going since 1997 Saints Row does have some ground to make up so smaller maps, shorter games, that I can forgive it for.
As Grand Theft Auto was parking its car firmly in the gritty realism car park, Saints Row instead drove past all the car parks and ended up in front of the Bellagio in Vegas just as the fountain show was about to begin.
Let me make that analogy a little clearer…Saints Row The Third is bat-shit insane.
On the back of Saints Row 2, you (the protagonist) control Stillwater, no other gangs can challenge you, and the Saints reign supreme. In The Third the Saints have become celebrities that rob banks, do whatever the hell they want, and seem untouchable. Out of nowhere you are then dealing with a rival group that kill one of the main characters, and drag you from Stillwater to Steelport, here you must take the fight to them and take over their city as they have dared to challenge you.
This incarnation of Saints Row is still fun but it is so over-the-top that it almost defies belief, in the previous game you can do extra missions which unlocked infinite sprint, no fall damage, and unlimited ammo. But here you level up and as you do you can upgrade yourself. You can make yourself immune to just about everything in the world including bullets, and explosions. You can sit in a car as it explodes and then step out of the wreckage without a scratch. By the end of the game I was disinterestedly ignoring the army that got sent after me when I blew up one thing too many because by that time I had become Superman, no actually, I think my character could have bitch slapped the Man of Steel if the two had crossed paths. Honestly I was so over powered that nothing could challenge me and the best elements of the previous game have been stripped out. Yes, in the previous game you could unlock infinite sprint and your health would regenerate quickly but you could still get killed if you weren’t careful.
Again I played Saints Row the Third to the end but Saints Row 4 is just gathering dust waiting for a time when I will get round to playing it.
I have had a lot of fun with both of these franchises over the years but both of them have taken some incredible questionable directions. Grand Theft Auto seems determined to make a gritty, realistic crime game and hopes that throwing more than one protagonist to play as you’ll like at least one of them. Whereas Saints Row has gone to the other extreme and has just gone completely insane which has taken away a lot of the charm because doing something wacky in a straight world is more effective if the world itself is not, you know, Insane!!!