Full disclosure: I absolutely love the Saints Row series. Not because of the humor, which tends to run the lowbrow gamut from dick jokes, to scatological. Not because of the stories, because to be honest, the stories in the Saints Row games aren’t all that great or memorable. It’s certainly not because of the graphics, which have never been particularly mind-blowing. No, none of those things make me love this series. What it boils down to is a simple concept that often can be hard to deliver on. Quite simply, these games are just damn fun. Now, with the Saints Row IV trailer and overall plot hitting last week, I felt it would be a good time to run down memory lane, or the row, perhaps?
The moment the series had me hooked was way back in 2006 – which is literally a lifetime ago in console years. I was taking my voiceless avatar out for stroll in the neighborhood I had just acquired from the Vice Kings. Purple clad “homies” everywhere nodded as I walked by. I was impressed. The members of my gang, The Saints Row Saints, were actually acknowledging me. For giggles, I punched a passer by – just ‘cause – and they proceeded to run away to avoid fisticuffs. Before she could take three steps, a Saint drove up along side the fleeing victim of my cyber right cross, shot her to death, and then drove off. Yes, I had just witnessed a drive-by in a video game. Not just any drive by; the driver knew I had some sort of beef with this person, decided to shoot them as a sign of loyalty, and drive off into the sunset.
It was then when I went all tingly with love.
Up until that moment, the game was merely a very good Grand Theft Auto clone. I say “merely” but lest we forget that around that time there were a glut of Grand Theft Auto clones. Not a single one is worthy of firing up the recollection portion of my brain reserved for forgettable, and some downright terrible video games. What Saints Row managed to do, even on the most fundamental level, was be fun to play. Most games that tried to follow the template laid forth by the ultra-mega-successful Rockstar franchise, would always try to blaze their own path and would do so with less than impressive results. True Crime penalized you for wanton destruction and murder, as did Driver 3 (I refuse to use “Driv3r” in a sentence and mean it). These were design decisions, no matter how well intended, which completely missed the point of the Grand Theft Auto series’ appeal.
Then along came Volition’s Saints Row, published by THQ. THQ was always seen as a mid-tier publisher, whose best game up until that point was arguably Red Faction for the PlayStation 2 – which itself was more or less a knock off of Half-Life. I had low expectations going in, but was quickly won over by the fun, arcade-like driving, the much tighter shooting mechanics, and the over-the-top kitchen sink approach to fun the game employed. It offered nothing new in terms of how the controller worked; every button functioned much in the same way as Grand Theft Auto. Even the basic gameplay of doing whatever you want in this world when not on mission was the same.
However, Volition didn’t merely ape the mighty Grand Theft Auto franchise. Instead, what they managed to accomplish was to even best Grand Theft Auto in some areas. First of all, you could fully customize your character in the game. Needless to say, it was not the first and last time I found myself as the avatar in a game world. My glasses, beard, hair, body type – the whole nine – were present and accounted for on my Saints Row avatar. It was a pretty impressive likeness if I must say so. Beyond the customization of your character, cars could be customized from the body, to the paint job, rims, and even rims with knee cappers – blades that came out of the rims and annihilated the tires of any car you sideswiped – straight out of the original Death Race 2000.
The story was forgettable for sure. Something about the Saints working their way up the ladder amongst the local gang population. In all honesty, I had to look that up on Wikipedia, but like I said, I don’t love these games for their stories.
Having been pleasantly surprised by Saints Row, when Saints Row 2 was released I was downright excited. I had already played, completed and had declared Grand Theft Auto IV as my game of the year in 2008 but Saints Row 2 was highly anticipated by me, nonetheless. What I didn’t know prior to playing Grand Theft Auto IV, and there was no way Volition could have known as both games released in the same year, was that Grand Theft Auto was going to move further away from the ridiculous. What this did was leave the absurdity door wide open for Saints Row 2 to smash in and stake their claim. And stake their claim they did. One particular mission had me as the passenger in a sewage truck tasked with spraying citizens with excrement and causing as much property damage as possible.
All the things I loved about the first game were present and accounted for; the customization, the shooting, the buttery smooth driving and above all, the fun. Even better, the soundtrack turned me on to bands like Paramore and Dillinger Escape Plan, whom I knew existed, but thought every song was a math metal blast beat Hell. Not so, here they included Milk Lizard and I wound up picking up their album Ire Works as a result. I only walked away enjoying two songs from it, but Milk Lizard is still a great song that I most likely wouldn’t have heard had it not been for the Saints Row 2 soundtrack. Something no other game soundtrack has managed to accomplish.
Ultimately, the takeaway from Saints Row 2 was the co-op. I had more fun playing Saints Row 2 co-op than I have had on any game online. Playing the missions were fun enough with a friend, but the real fun was found in between missions, with us just messing with each other in all sorts of Looney Toons kind of ways.
Three incidents stand out to me as a testament to how fun this game can be while harmlessly griefing your friends. The first was while my friend was customizing his car. Let me say, first of all, that patience is a virtue I do not possess. Idle hands, the Devil’s work and all that jazz, you know. So, while I was waiting for him to emerge with his glorious new creation, I had decided to lay several satchel charges at the entrance to the garage. As soon as he pulled out, he proudly stated “Yeah, check out my ri-.” Well he was proud for a moment, because as soon as he pulled out, I blew up the satchel charges and blew him and his car to Hell. What followed was me laughing to the point of tears for a solid 5 minutes. To this day my cheeks start to hurt as a recall the entire scenario.
Another incident occurred, not unlike the previous one, in which I was waiting for him to change his character’s clothes. I started blowing up everyone in the crib with satchel charges. Then it dawned on me that I could see him standing there while he changed his outfit. Once again I threw satchel charges, only this time, I stuck them to his body. As soon as he returned to the game, his avatar was now naked I might add, I blew him to Hell again.
Finally (and I have no idea why he would let me control any vehicle at this point) I was piloting a helicopter and headed straight for a building. Unbeknownst to him I quietly jumped out and landed safely on the ground. Before he could react the helicopter crashed into the skyscraper and I laughed as his burning body plummeted hundreds of video game feet to the street below. Even better, I was able to revive him with a 40oz. Ah, good times.
Unfortunately I was unable to play Saints Row: The Third until recently. After hearing how great it was for almost a year and half I couldn’t hold out anymore and I picked up Saints Row: The Third The Full Package, which includes all released DLC. Initially, something felt off. First of all, the custom character options felt not only limited, but also flat out skewed to either creating a woman, or a cross-dresser. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that one of my great pleasures in the games is creating a reasonable likeness of myself. This would have been congruent with the previous two games, but instead I had something that didn’t look anything like me. Disappointed for sure, but I wouldn’t be deterred from enjoying the wacky hijinks the game would lay in my hands to do with as I saw fit. Except I found that the activities were pretty underwhelming to say the least. Driving up and down the street running over pedestrians and lighting them on fire could be fun, but doing so in a car that was slow and handled even worse, while being chased down by overzealous fans, while trying to maintain a high level in one meter while keeping the other low, was pretty much the opposite of fun. Also, picking up prostitutes and driving them back to my pimp friend is tedious at best.
And why on earth did they take out reviving your homie with a 40?!?
Apart from the Assassinations, the activities did little to keep me interested and add hours onto my game time. I instead stuck to story throughout most of my play through and ultimately, the game was surprisingly short for its genre and the city wasn’t very interesting. Mind you, I did enjoy the game – stand outs include free-falling, getting into a shoot out with other free-falling enemies, the shooting through the front of the plane and going out the back in the same mission; a free-falling dog fight in a tank; being a superhero with super fast speed and a punch that smashes the recipient into gory bits; and seeing Burt Reynolds as the Mayor – I just didn’t enjoy the game as much as I had hoped, nor as much as 2.
That brings us to the coming release of Deep Silver’s Saints Row IV. I must say, the trailer does look promising – super powers, rocket launcher guitar cases straight out of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and an alien invasion – all look to be more of the same, over-the-top fun that the series has always delivered. And I absolutely adore the premise that the Saints’s leader, and ostensibly I, have been elected President of the United States. It’s one of those truly inspired ideas that Volition is so skillful at pulling off.
I remain optimistic as ever for Saints Row IV, which by all accounts, we as gamers are lucky we’re even getting considering THQ’s dissolution. But this time, the Saints are up against their biggest threats ever in the form of the coming console generation switch and the mighty Grand Theft Auto V, which is arguably, the most anticipated game this season, if not the generation. I have a feeling that the Saints will pull it off though, seeing as how they don’t even seem to be playing by anyone else’s rules but their own.
Ah man, there goes that tingly feeling of love again.