Saints Row or Fun Trumps All

The throne of “modern times” open world/sandbox gaming is a heavily contested one – while GTA V has the most publicly accepted claim now, there are two more series also asking for the crown – the Just Cause series, hellbent on chaos, explosions and beautiful sceneries (although thematically a bit different), and the Saints Row series, that rose from a humble beginnings to the most outlandish and batshit gaming experience ever.

So, in case you haven’t played any of them, let’s have a look at how it all started, shall we?

Saints Row – Humble beginnings in the shadow of San Andreas

True, the first Saints Row kind of earns the title “GTA clone” – not only do you play the from rags to criminal riches story, Saints Row is also dominated by different gangs fighting for control. Even more enervating for San Andreas veterans, your gang is dressed in purple …

But it is definitely the best San Andreas clone – and the first Saints Row already added a few activities that are now trademarks of the series, e.g. the amazing Insurance Fraud where you have to throw yourself in front of racing cars to ragdoll around in a most hurtful manner to proceed, or Mayhem where you just have to rack up points by killing and/or blowing up everyone and everything – weirdly enough, the best way to get points has always been vandalising fences …

The story deserves some mention as well – in Saints Row (as well as in the next two games), you would battle three different gangs in three different story arcs – and there was always an end game with yet another story to tell!

If you wanted more San Andreas and then some, Saints Row was your game. And yes, some originality was already there, but the game and also the cliffhanger ending with a few decisive twists served mostly as a blueprint for the sandbox revolution:

Saints Row 2 – Fuck your cousin, let’s blow shit up – literally!

Remember this hilarious ad for Saints Row 2, mocking Rockstar for the less fun and mayhem yet more going bowling with your cousin approach in GTA IV:

Actually, this trailer describes Saints Row 2 perfectly – crazy missions and crazier side activities (septic trucks, streaking, being a bodyguard and brutalising people), insane depth of customisation, immature, dark and savage humour … plus, you have a story that ends up connecting all dots in a clever way (big, bad corporate crooks involved) … hell, there are some disturbing and emotional moments in there – Saints Row 2 ticked many boxes, but above all, the game wants you to have fun while playing it. While the first Saints Row copied Rockstar’s formula, part 2 refined it, added bits of insanity and scat. Yep, Saints Row 2 sat comfortably on the urban crime sandbox throne.

Another reason was the honesty of Saints Row 2 – while CJ in San Andreas was still somehow a nice guy, the protagonist was a ruthless son/daughter of a bitch, showing no mercy or regrets akin to Tommy Vercetti in Vice City. And yet despite dealing with drugs, thousands of homicides, the protagonist still was some sort of good guy compared to the corporate nightmare visions of Ultor!

Hands down, Saints Row 2 is at least one of the best games of the last generation, and perhaps the best in combining a convincing story and an urban sandbox. So yes, it is fair to say Saints Row 2 beats GTA IV in the urban crime sandbox competition! As we witnessed a few years later on, combining is the key word here!

Saints Row The Third – A few steps forward, quite a few back

Sadly, the third Saints Row couldn’t live up to its predecessor’s fame and glory. Customisation got severely crippled (no more layers, no more customisable cribs), the serious undertones vanished, the story had absolutely no depth and neither had the characters, old or new.

The missions? Fragmented, sometimes even disconnected, plus the introduction of activities counted as main missions. Yep. The big villain? Dies in the first half! Johnny motherfucking Gat? Dies off-screen in the beginning, and then that’s it. What the fuck, Volition?

Another ugly byproduct of Saints Row The Third was the abundance of shallow to useless to shameless DLC pieces of worthless junk – even advertised as “40 weeks of DLC” – paying money for cheat codes is still a bad fucking joke! Pretty much the only worthwhile minor DLC is the Shark Shotgun!

But Saints Row The Third isn’t a bad game despite all these flaws – gameplay was refined with more fluent controls and the “awesome button”, the action was more explosive, the graphics were overhauled as well, and at least weapons could be customised. And yeah, while the James Bond villain dies early on, the second half of the game develops a completely new dynamic at least, a pretext to the aliens and sci-fi in its successor!

And if you look beyond the flaws and at the fun factor – hell yeah, it is lots of fun to create havoc in this game! You have the tools – from stink bombs to airstrikes and tanks of today and tomorrow, you have the opportunities, pretty much every minute you play the Saints Row The Third is tailor made for our amusement, be it missions or the open world. From a sandbox perspective, THIS is one of the greatest – and even more so in co-op.

So yes, the game is still fun and gained a lot of new fans, but just as GTA IV was a let-down to many fans who enjoyed the size, the crude, immature humour and the general hilarities of San Andreas, the new direction of Saints Row The Third felt a bit shallow – depth was sacrificed for over-the-top action, the humour was just silly at times … But that would change soon …

Saints Row 4 – The best of virtual and virtual² worlds

How can the crazy insanities of Saints Row The Third be even crazier and more insane? By mixing in an alien invasion and the Matrix, of course! This stroke of genius solved the problem of limitations to the over-the-top approach as well as not connected story arcs in next to no time! Two birs with one stone – in Saints Row terms, it’s rather two planets with one death star!

By explaining it all (well, most) happens in virtual Steelport, everything was permitted and the over-the-top attitude culminated in a game full of super powers – including a nuke bomb from high above – the most outlandish weapons ever (black hole launchers, rectifier probes, inflato-ray guns – to name a few and leave them to your imagination), batshit-crazy missions full of easter eggs, nods (from Metal Gear Solid to Mass Effect to They Live) and Keith David as himself aka Vice President! Oh, and Johnny Gat is back  in Saints Row 4 – fuck yeah!

You even get to recruit some of the Saints’ departed antagonists as virtual homies – and they even have a back story to tell! And then there’s the most insane DLC ever – How the Saints saved Christmas is surely one of the craziest experiments in gaming ever. Plus, you can have 3 Shaundies at the same time! Enter the Dominatrix isn’t as great unfortunately, although the ending that is even crazy for Saints Row standard sis something that has to be seen to be believed! Oh, and that throne …

Now, Saints Row 4 certainly is the brawns of the series, while Saints Row 2 is the brains – but it is hard to establish which one is the heart and soul. Probably both, because they are deep yet entirely different.

What does the future hold for the Saints?

Well, no one knows. But since that’s a boring answer, chances are Volition could go for one of these three options:

  1. Time travel: In Saints Row 4, time travel is introduced, and certainly, the fusion of Assassin’s Creed and Saints Row could be mindblowing. After all, what’s left to do without the earth?
  2. A reboot: The easiest option. Let’s return to Stilwater and let’s re-visit the beginning of the Saints saga. While it worked for Tomb Raider, knowing we already know about the betrayals of Julius, Troy and Dex would mean the story would have to be completely rewritten.
  3. Wrestling Stilwater back from the Syndicate: While the Saints battle the Syndicate in Steelport, we could retake Stilwater from the Syndicate – and other gangs. Afterwards, the game could end with us getting honoured by the president …

Whatever will happen, let’s just hope the next Saints Row will live up to its big name and give us some good stories and gameplay antics. Or, as good old Johnny would describe what Saints Row is all about: “Let’s kill some shit!”

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