Action RPG set in a Sandbox
Played a lot like Grand Theft Auto
PC, 360, PS3
Saints Row 2 $10
Saints Row: The Third $10(15)
Saints Row IV $15(20)
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell $15(17)
As I have said, and will likely say, I am not a fan of guns. This is due in part to growing up in a place where gang life was a reality. As games were and are an escape, I do not want to spend my free time steeping myself back into gang culture. As such, it took me a long while before I picked up a Grand Theft Auto title. GTA V had been announced, game play trailers had been released, but GTA IV was the latest outing. I finished my play through over the course of a week. It’s not a bad game by any measure. Rockstar does excellent work. My qualms were that the characters did not feel as though they stood up on their own and that the inundation of foul language was just to be edgy rather than to reinforce a culture or sharpen characters. I may lay outside of the “target demographic” for the series, so I serve my critiques with a pinch of salt. However, if I know that someone would like the game I would not be afraid to recommend it. On the norm, this is the highest praise that I will give anything.
As with Bastion the Xbox Live Marketplace had Saints Row games at a reduced price. I picked up Saints Row: The Third tentatively. From what I could tell from screenshots and trailers it seemed a lot like GTA IV, but I wanted to see what was done differently. Additionally, I had never heard of Saints Row and thought I could learn something. This is one of many times my curiosity did not let me down.
Or, four times, if you want to get technical.
I flew through Saints Row: The Third. I grabbed a used copy of Saints Row IV, and bought Gat Out of Hell when I saw the end of IV in sight. Later on I picked up Saints Row 2, to see the roots of the series. As I probably played all these games in the course of a month it is difficult for me to not think of all of them as a whole. As such, this is an instance in which I will speak to a whole series and try to highlight some of the design mainstays and changes. I will likely reference Grand Theft Auto IV frequently as I used it as a measuring device for this series.
After being saved by an inter-gang conflict, you join the 3rd Street Saints as they push back against the other gangs in the city. I haven’t played this title myself, but from the story of the other games I have surmised that this was the original premise.
Saints Row 2
Following revenge gone wrong, several years have passed with The Playa in a coma. Upon waking, they seek to rebuild the broken Saints gang and reassert themselves as a dominate force in the city. Align with a new crew to upend not only other gangs, but the Ultor Corporation as well.
Saints Row: The Third
After successfully taking the top seat of Stilwater back, the 3rd Street Saints go from local toughs to internationally known celebrities thanks to the reach of the Ultor Corporation. While a bank heist gone wrong is rarely a problem (all of Stilwater is in Ultor and the Saints’ pockets somehow), this time some had bigger pockets to pay people off with. After landing in Steelport you begin climbing the ladder of revenge. As “The Boss”, you lead the Saints to ensure that the job is done.
Saints Row IV
Having brought down The Syndicate, the Saints were back on top. So much so, that they made a successful bid for The White House. Someone should have really listened to Kinzie, because one of her many fears came to light. The President and the rest of the Saints are all humanity has left.
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell
Keeping in what few traditions were possible, a surprise birthday party was thrown for Kinzie. But a Ouija Board turned out to be an actual conduit to Hell. Drawing The President to Hell, Johnny Gat and Kinzie ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll raid Hell if I want to!’ Kensington. jump in to rescue their leader. The plan? Shoot Satan in the face.
Both GTA IV the Saints Row series dealt with problems the same way: Shoot it. Having only played GTA IV, I may be missing out on this element in other installments (Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and the Damned, Vice City, San Andreas, and perhaps V). Saints Row felt like there was a sense of community. And because it followed the core group of the Saints it gave them more space to develop especially as the series changed. In four, Niko Bellic had some people around him. I remember his cousin Roman and that there were love interests. They all felt like boxes to check off for me rather than elements that added to the world genuinely. There were a few missions in which they were used to tug at the heart, but that is because they had the most connection to Niko.
In Saints Row most of the characters you come across are actually on the front lines with you at some point. Sure, oft times you may be sent on a fetch quest. But there are plenty of instances when quest givers become party members and are right in the thick of things with you. The characters that you interact with in Saints Row are not inert and helpless NPCs. They defer to you because you’re both crazy and competent enough to handle the issues.
Additionally, Saints Row is wacky. It’s grounded, but the odd things keep the world uncanny. Enough like our world to be immersed, but just strange enough to keep you on your toes and leave a smile on your face. At no point do I think any of the characters are taking themselves too seriously. Are there stakes? Yes. Can all be lost? Of course. But the characters are having fun, joking with one another even when the world is being set on fire around them. The Protagonist feels like a brother to Johnny Gat. I feel strong concern for Shaundi and Pierce, care about Oleg and Kinzie, and understand why Benjamin King and Keith David (yes, that Keith David) are motivated as they are. And I can remember there names, which is more than I can say for whoever the love interests and side characters are in GTA IV.
The writing turned out to be a refreshing aspect to this whole game series. At no point is anything taken too seriously. The characters had life and personality not because they were always very serious, brooding, or foul mouthed in an attempt to be edgy. Each character was unique unto themselves. Some of it is just puny, but cleverly so, I think. For example in the original and second game, there is a lawyer called “Legal Lee”, and his firm is “Legal Lee’s”, plays of ‘legally’ and ‘legalese’ respectively.
Another strength I noticed are in references to the player have long been gender neutral. Based on flashbacks and wiki entries, in the first game The Protagonist (your character) was often referred to as “Playa”. On the one hand, this works for an inner city gang environment where use of Playa is common. But it is also fourth wall breaking as you yourself are literally the “Player”. This set the ground for pretty much all the other writing and jokes in the series. By the third game, being in charge of the Saints, you’re known as “The Boss”. And by the fourth, “The President”. These are mainly titles. But they defer an amount of respect and they don’t feel tacked on. Because it happens in every game you notice it, but it pulls you into the world rather than push you out.
Compare this to Final Fantasy X. The main character which you can name is, by canon, named Tidus. However, his name is never used in the original game or the sequel. When being spoken directly to, a name is not needed. It is jarring to simply be yelled at for attention (“Hey you! Yeah, you!”) or for his closest friends to refer to him vaguely (“That Man” or “You Know Who”). It is played at a bit, especially in X-2, since Yuna’s friends jab at her affection for Tidus in this way.
Also, it is explicitly stated that the other Saints feel The Protagonist is psychopath. The fact that few emotions are shown, save for joy while killing, leads even Johnny Gat who is no slouch to murder himself to give cautions to people when dealing with you. And, over the games, it is stated that you’ve “calmed down” or at least focused your aggression.
A special note here. With cries of whitewashing and racial insensitivity across the board, I want to point out that this game series is diversely populated throughout. I may not use the most politically correct descriptors, and I’ll admit to making some assumptions, but here is a roster of the folks I can remember.
Johnny Gat, Asian American
Shaundi (surname unknown), Caucasian American – Admittedly, due to her skin tone I thought Shaundi was Latinx (especially when compared to Kinzie and Oleg for instance) but I was wrong.
Pierce Washington, Black American
Oleg Kirrlov, Russian
Kinzie Kensington., Caucasian American
Zimos, Black American
Angel De LaMuerte – Latinx
These are just a few handfuls of the named characters that are aligned with you. There are more arrayed against you, and more than I would want to bring to the forefront of what always spills over from a short article.
Over the course of the series the mechanics have remained fairly stable. But as the series has grown it has incorporated other genres into the control scheme as well as streamlined its own.
Respect here is experience points in other games. For killing gang members while adding flourish, completing activities and diversion, or simply improving the appearance and performance of your homes and vehicles you’ll gain ever increasing Respect. In Saints Row 2 Respect simply allowed you to open up more Main Missions and by that the boons that came with them. One full bar would allow one full mission and you can hold onto them. (My play through for research left me off at eleven missions I could burn through.)
In the later titles this changes. Respect has levels, making it a more traditional experience bar. Opening the menu are different bonuses you can unlock for yourself. This is everything from greater health and stamina, increased ammunition for each weapon type, to damage mitigation for each weapon type. In Saints Row: The Third and IV, you can become completely immune to all but melee damage at the maximum level of 50. In Gat Out of Hell, this is nigh immunity. In all three titles you can have unlimited ammunition as well. In Saints Row 2 the same boons can be earned by completing missions and side quests. If you are here for the thrill and action, you can up your survivability and ammo reserves. If you take an RPG angle you can grind until you can max out and be invincible, all in the same title. These improvements are the best for achievement hunters. Not needing to worry about running out of rounds while you try to amass 500 head shots will speed things up, for example. All of this can be done in the same title and that versatility is a wonderful thing. Additionally, one of the bonuses I liked the most was a Collectible Finder. With a map filter, anything that added toward the respective All Collectibles achievement was put on the map so you could hop from one to the next. It made what would have been a chore (looking at you Assassin’s Creed) in a diversion.
I mentioned above that the characters you meet would fight with you. More than that, you can call them outside of instanced segments. As you start taking over more of each city, Saints gang member will occupy those areas. If you get into trouble, they’ll fight with you taking aim at your assailants. You can recruit them on the fly, or go into your phone. These characters are the named ones you meet, and you can have up to three of them. You could have Oleg, Shaundi, and Kinzie helping provide cover for you while you accomplish a task or just cruise around. There are unique dialog interactions for a number of them, and they always come fully loaded. On average they have more health and resistance than street level members Additionally, if they do fall you can revive them. Even if you are invincible from your own RPG Launcher, they aren’t. But you can pull them back from the brink none the less.
One thing I noticed about the games mechanically is that the mobility always got better. Saints Row 2 is very realistic, as is much of your time in Saints Row: The Third. Late in the game, or earlier if you have the appropriate DLC, you can acquire vehicles that switch between flight and hover modes with the designation VTOL. This seems simple. But there are a host of collectibles scattered around Steelport, the setting of the third and fourth games. I originally played the game with no DLC. The easiest way to get some of these, especially those on tiny rooftops, was to hover above the building, land if I could and base jump if I couldn’t. My vehicle would crash and explode while grabbing my prize. I then I had to go to my nearest safe house with a heliport to grab another hover jet to head to the next collectible With the DLC hover bike, you can actually grab many collectibles on the bike itself then fly off to the next one. This was much faster.
Saints Row IV made vehicles superfluous very quickly. The superpowers in the game take the place of grenades from a selection standpoint. However, some are integrated with your regular actions. The first two powers that you get are Super Jump and Sprint. Do you remember how the original Superman couldn’t fly, but could “leap tall buildings in a single bound”? While this escapes truth in the most extreme circumstances, you can nearly skip over whole neighborhoods. Coming from The Third and, essentially being Metroid-ed again (losing all your nifty items and bonuses from the previous game), this was a welcome addition. I did not know that superpowers were part of the game. So when I set foot in Steelport again I said aloud “I have to do all the City Takeover again? I don’t want to do all that driving…” Almost to answer my quip, my present mission made it so I could run faster than any vehicle and jump to any rooftop I needed to. While more of a stand alone expansion, Gat Out of Hell upped the mobile ante again with full free flight. Like Saints Row IV, this came on fairly early. And this was atop similar powers and boons from the previous game.
Cash, Cache, and Wages
Money helps the world of the Saints go round. In the second to fourth games, taking over segments of the cities via missions, activities, and diversions adds to your bankroll. Periodically, these payouts would be accessible to you. In Saints Row 2, you have to go find a safe at one of your Cribs to access the money. In The Third and IV, it was accessible directly from the menu. These funds would pay for bonuses and weapon upgrades. I much prefer the automatic, wherever I am functionality of the latter two titles.
Gat Out of Hell took an interesting turn. I think is because the game was shorter, Wages became drops that had to be picked up. If you could just gain money automatically it would hasten an already short game. This said, it is possible to upgrade the Stomp power in this game with Vacuum, which will pull in Wages from a fair distance when improved.
Grenades and Superpowers
While Saints Row always provides you with lots of guns to take your enemies out with there are other options. Grenades and other thrown devices are available up through Saints Row: The Third. The secondary assault options from IV on are Superpowers. I was happy to see this change because I did not get a lot of mileage out of Grenades. Each Superpower had different “elements” you could apply to them. Additionally, there were some included in DLC that were even more fun. For example, Blast sends out an orb of power which will take effect once it hits something. Originally, this was Freeze. It would ice into stillness whatever it hit, including flying vehicles causing them to crash. In a DLC pack came the Explosion element. This would cause the subject hit to explode, which would chain react to whatever was around it. If you were to pack the city with enemies, vehicles, and other destructible objects you could make a ripple of destruction across the whole city. On another side was Telekinesis Originally you just help up people and objects. In the DLC was a Bling element, which let you siphon off money from your target. The applications were varied and fun, and due to how the wheel was designed you could press the Blast power selection button multiple times to switch the element in real time. Additionally, while Grenades can be upgraded with money, Superpowers had a unique “currency” of Clusters. These were set in a variety of areas, and were a collectible in the last two games. Their positions offered a payoff for using your powers.
As much as I loved the superpowers, there was one grenade I found exceptional in Saints Row: The Third. The Fart-In-A-Jar. Improving a Flashbang as high as it would go to Level 4 would grant you this item. It’s usefulness is beyond unreal, especially as the game offers many explosive options. When thrown, the smell would cause everyone in the area of effect to double over and throw up. What made this so good was that it worked even on vehicles There are side missions in which you have to find a car and take it to a chop shop. You get more money the better condition it is in. As an outright theft could take some money out of your pocket and gain police attention, letting someone drive into a cloud will have them stop and exit the car. This gives you the chance to swoop in and steal the car with only questions about the scent which have no bearing on your pay day.
No Difficulty Achievements
As I am working out how I want to build my own game, I often ask myself “What is hard?” In many cases harder difficulties mean that you will get harder and all enemies will become bullet sponges. This can be an aggravation especially for the sake of achievements. The Saints Row series lets you enjoy the games however you wish. The main place this is useful is in the Difference-In-Kind segments. Much of the games are 3D sandbox shoot em ups with RPG elements. But to change the pace you are thrust into mini games as part of the main story line While these give breaks to and punctuate the main story, many of the bonuses and boosts you may have acquired have little meaning in these segments. And, while beatable, it can still be punishing. I am namely thinking of one portion of Saints Row IV. After dying at the exact same point about ten times in a row, I went to look at a video to see how much further I had to go. In much aggravation, I had about another 10~20 seconds before a scripted event marked the end of the mission. So I turned the difficulty down, finished the segment, turned it back up, and went on enjoying the game.
I ended the previous section of Theming with the diversity of the cast. Mirroring that, I want to talk about the character you control for the games. One of the first things you do in the games is make your character model. Going beyond simply the face and hair is what gets me talking. Although I will talk about the hair too.
Again, citing cries for diversity in the present day conversation, Saints Row delivered on it well before it became en vogue. I have what I would call an “athletic” body type. I’m not layered in muscle, but I’m not scrawny either. I can, with little preparation, fall into a sprint or full out run. Most games I play have protagonists that look this way. In fact, most of the characters do. There are often male and female “skeletons” that every character is built around. If you ever see costumes in Batman: Arkham Knight take a look at Catwoman vs. Harley Quinn. In her Arkham series duds, Quinn has a unique stance. But put her in her original The Animated Series outfit and you’ll see that they used Catwoman’s work.
Saints Row brings the difference by allowing selections of different body types. The Character Creator was fairly run of the mill on the surface. Pick your race, sex, etc. Body type was new to me. In a triangle is a toggle between Skinny, Muscle, and Fat. It is the first, and only time, I can think of having a video game protagonist who was hefty. I can think of a character or maybe two in Street Fighter, and I am wholly discounting “Fat Nathan Drake” from Uncharted because I feel that was done up for yucks. But if you are aiming to make someone that looks like you and you aren’t a body builder or marathon runner that can be reflected in your avatar in the third and fourth games.
But I have an oft represented body type. Still, ever since their inception, character creation engines have always left me feeling lacking. I remember in preschool playing Mixed Up Mother Goose. It was a point-and-click problem solver. You’d find items that were key to completing their respective nursery rhymes. One of the things I like about it was the ability to choose avatars that had different skin tones and hair styles. It was the first time that I could pick someone who looked like me, the girls could pick someone like them and everyone could pick whichever one they wished.
Character Creation in the third dimension has been lacking, but I have been patient. With no more politically correct way to say this, most of the time I had to make a “dark skinned white character” if I wanted some passing resemblance to me. I’ve picked up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion again recently. I view the Redguards as a parallel to people of African descent. There are options for cornrows, but they are more like colored pieces of rolled dough atop the characters heads. Maybe the graphics haven’t aged well. There are afros of various lengths, but I see a fair number of Redguard males with long straight hair. Unless Nocturnal has a side racket of unbreakable combs based on Skeleton Key, her unbreakable lock pick, there is no way that many people with kinky hair have straightened with only medieval technology, presence of magic or no.
With all this in mind, I have simply accepted that no character will look like me. If the skin color is right, the facial features are lacking. If those are right, I’m missing the hair.
When Saints Row was still a new series to me, I gave it a fair shake and went through all the options. I saw the “Rasta” option for hair and wrote it off. But I was blown away because… they were not just dreadlocks, but GOOD dreadlocks. A channel on YouTube called PlayStation Access has a man named Rob who admits to being obsessed with water physics in games. This is what I was like with the Rasta hairstyle. They were too fluid for dreadlocks. At least for the dreadlocks I wore on my head. Compared to the real world they responded to every motion, every bounce and bob. However, they did move consistently with the rest of the world. It went with the character and style of the game overall. They adhered to the physics of the Saints Row world. Plus they were textured and detailed. It is, to date, the only game in which I have been unabashedly happy with my self selected hair style. This tiny thing must have taken some time to program, especially considering all the other hairstyles in the game. But it heightened my experience from “not a wast of time” to immersive and enjoyable.
Another simple choice, but one that set the game apart, was the clothing. There is no gender lock of clothing. I set up one of the kids I watched with a sandbox segment of Saints Row IV. About an hour later he needed help with a platforming instance. He had a bearded, roughneck muscleman covered in tattoos running around in high heels and a cocktail dress with a beehive up do. I gave him a curious side eye, and he said he was having fun, so I left it at that. I have many friends that place themselves in gender fluid state. I can relay this game to them because they will be able to put themselves in the world however they feel.
The voice acting is something I haven’t played much with. I have stuck to the voice(s) that sound most like me, and have not been disappointed. Again, you can have a female body with Nolan North’s voice if that suits you. Yes, he did voice acting for the games, but in Saints Row IV “Nolan North” is a voice option outside the others. This ability to mix and match the different layers, whether it is an outrageous hair style or color, mixed with whatever clothes you like, body frame, style, and voice. Saints Row is the only game where I have successfully made My Self in a game. It is a powerful thing and one of the reasons I recommend it so strongly. Heck, even in Gat Out of Hell you can play as either Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington. as it suits you.
I’ve extolled the virtues of this game. I’ve given it high marks. I feel that the original games are worth it all on their own. Even after completing everything just picking it up for a few hours of downtime can be enjoyable. Going through the game using different voice schemes and Homies can change the dialogue experience enough to remain fresh. Adding on the DLCs will put more potential functionality in.
At the top of the article I said that the series is a 10 overall. I want to elaborate on some of the downs.
Saints Row 2 – 8
This is a solid title. No doubt about it. A lot of changes happened after Saints Row 2 which can be jarring coming back to this title. First and foremost, you need Respect to play Main Missions. If you don’t have enough you have to clear side missions until you do. This can slow up pacing quite a bit. The driving controls are different from later games too. There is some variation in combat which the latter games lack, but it can be a bit harder to pull off. This game is not as fluid as its descendants, but it is still good.
Saints Row: The Third – 10
I am biased towards this title and blown away by it. Coming off of Grand Theft Auto IV, a series which I mentally marked as competition, I enjoyed this game. My opinion may be more lackluster if I had played this one first. How, I didn’t. Saints Row: The Third is worth the price and revisiting. Get this bundled with the DLC. It can run $65 piecemeal, whereas it’s a five dollar price tag for The Full Package.
Saints Row IV – 10
Everything I loved about The Third, plus superpowers. Again, get the Game of the Century collection. The piecemeal price of DLC is worth another new game.
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell – 9
This is a good game, but short. It has a $15 price tag, which is the same as Saints Row IV base game. I like it, but grab it and the one piece of DLC it has on sale. I call it Stand Alone DLC. It is an additional story and, back on the 360, it actually pulled in my Protagonist character customization into this game, so I know they tie together. This is a cherry on top of the other Saints Row games, which are the real treat. The free flight is fun and worth it to me. But really… wait for a sale on this one.
Saints Row is a game series I’d buy for all my friends if I could. It does so much, faithfully and well, that pretty much everyone I know would love at least one aspect enough to play through a whole title. The worse thing about it I find is the piecemeal price of all the DLC, which is countered and eliminated by the collections. If you ever want a funny sandbox game with plenty of ways to dish out mayhem, you’d be hard pressed to do it better than Saints Row.