Posted January 18th 2012 by Anthony DiPalma.
Years ago you could have said that Saints Row was just a slightly wackier version of the Grand Theft Auto series that has revolutionized open world gaming, and you wouldn't be far off the mark. As someone who has put in hundreds of hours playing every GTA game, I can see why, despite commercial success, many fans were turned off by GTA IV, the latest entry in the series. For the longest time GTA fans were looking to sate their appetite for an open world game that focused more on having fun than having a somewhat deep narrative. In fact, you could say that the student has become the master, as Saints Row: The Third shines brighter than GTA IV in just about every way. Over time, the GTA series has put on a suit and tie, but Saints Row is lighting a bag of dog shit on fire and leaving it on your front steps.
Like the people who have played GTA growing up, Rockstar Games, the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, have matured in many ways. A brief look at their history will show how their early games had pretty contrived stories, but managed to hook audiences in just about every other area. Over the years, Rockstar seems to have hired a team of writers that are competent and capable of creating memorable characters that stand out in the world they're apart of. Unfortunately, the heavy focus on creating a great story has overshadowed the reason why the series was so well received to begin with.
The opening tutorial missions of almost every Rockstar game are mundane and annoying. In fact, most of the missions in GTA IV revolve around the basic formula of "drive here, shoot, drive back." The opening mission in Saints Row: The Third throws players into a bank robbery and within minutes, you're dangling from a wire, shooting down helicopters and jumping out of airplanes. First impressions are important, and tutorial missions should be a thing of the past. Ask anyone with a controller if they'd rather learn the basics by driving around for a half hour or if they'd prefer to parachute into a penthouse, guns blazing, while laying waste to anyone who gets in your their way. The answer should be simple.
Granted, GTA has had its moments of complete absurdity. In Vice City, players had the option of dealing drugs through an ice cream truck. In San Andreas, the main character was a gangster who had to break into Area 51 and steal a jet pack. Just about every single mission in Saints Row: The Third is memorable, but the best part of all is that you can share these moments with a friend through co-op gameplay. While I feel like some of the missions weren't specifically designed for two players, it's great being able to enter a computer simulation dressed up as a toilet and bash civilians over the head with six-foot dildos with your best buddies.
Yes, GTA IV has multiplayer elements, and while I understand that you can't exactly have TWO Niko Bellics running around Liberty City, there are other alternatives. Saints Row: The Third lets players customize their main character to be a man or woman. In fact, Saints Row: The Third is rich in customization. Your character can be a man with a woman's voice, or a woman with a man's voice, or a woman with a beard and a zombie voice. (You read that right, your character can have the voice of a zombie.)
The fact that you can create a woman for a main character is not revolutionary whatsoever. RPGs like Skyrim, Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc. have allowed players to create female characters for a long time, but the role of women in Saints Row: The Third is something that should be noted. In a game where you can throw gas grenades called "Fart in a Jar," one would not expect the role of women to be important, but it is. Women in Saints Row are treated just the same as men and their roles extend far beyond the typical archetype that women are defenseless in the gang world.
I'm not a pioneer for women's rights, but I do like seeing that the role of women in videogames is going beyond the love interest/beacon of morality that only serves to annoy me in most games. In GTA IV, Katie served as the pious "stop this life of murder and find a normal life" kind of girl. In Red Dead Redemption, Bonnie MacFarlane was the woman who told you that killing was bad and blah-blah-blah it doesn't matter because after her preaching, I went to a saloon and hogtied the first guy I saw and dragged him across the desert. In Saints Row: The Third, the female characters are just as capable as the men in matters of both, physical and mental abilities. Sure, you can escort prostitutes around town, but there are male sex slaves as well... Even a former pimp who only speaks in auto-tune is captured by a prostitution ring run by twin sisters. The fact that over 42% of gamers around the world are women should say something to developers, Rockstar included. Like it or not, women play games and if any developer wants to make a better story, they need to follow the example set by Saints Row: The Third, a game that glorifies drug dealing and murder. It may come as a shock to some, but women have important shit to say, too.
Besides the issue with equality that I won't go much further into, there is also the issue of finding shit to do in the city. GTA IV looks fantastic, but there isn't much to actually do in this massive city. The same can be said to an extent with Rockstar's L.A. Noire, as Frankie pointed out in his review of the game. A big city is fine, but the important thing is to actually have stuff to do. Saints Row: The Third has tons of different, replayable side missions that vary from escorting an angry tiger around town to participating in a game show where you're required to shoot men dressed up as hot dogs, soda cans, and dogs/cats while jumping through electric fences. Doing these side missions earns you money, which you can use to buy upgrades to your character, making him/her an unstoppable juggernaut. In GTA IV, you can shoot pigeons and buy clothes.
The main lesson here is that GTA seems to be taking itself very seriously, but forgetting how exactly the series got the attention of millions of fans around the world. It's important to tell a great story while still remaining true to the open world formula that the series is known for. Saints Row: The Third builds an entire city from scratch, tosses players in, and lets us figure out just what we want to do. Amid a sea of dick/fart jokes and juvenile antics, Saints Row: The Third manages to tell a story while providing some great dialogue between characters. Most importantly though, Saints Row: The Third reminds us why we play games: To have fun. Hopefully Rockstar takes some notes and remembers this for GTA V.
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