Let’s look at a couple of typical missions from each of the games:
Grand Theft Auto IV
You (main character Nico Bellic) are working for some crazyman who sends you to kill a member of a biker gang. Like most of the missions in this game, the events here are bound up in the main story arc and the things you do here will have repercussions down the road. The cutscenes are wonderfully executed, with no less strength and drama than you’d find in and Quentin Tarantino movie. The camera work is stylized and compelling. While 3d models aren’t quite able to emote with the potency of a real live actor, I am constantly amazed at how far they’ve come.
Once you start the mission you head to where the target is hanging out and a cutscene plays. (Just in case you thought you were going to try to stealth-kill the guy before he could see you coming.) Your target spots you and hops on a nearby motorbike, speeding away. Whatever vehicle you might have used to get here has been towed to the lot at /dev/null. But nearby is a motorcycle and a friendly message telling you to get your amoral Serbian ass on the thing and get after the guy. Once the chase is rolling, messages start appearing explaining how to shoot from a bike. This is still pretty early in the game, and unless you’ve gone out of your way to roam around the city this may well be your first time riding a motorcycle in the game.
A car fishtails and cuts across both lanes of traffic. If you’re following him closely (that is, if you’re doing a good job) the car will slam into you and send you over the handlebars. By the time you get back to the bike and get it extricated from the fender bender your target will be gone and the mission will fail. (And in case you haven’t caught on, the car is a scripted event that will happen every time at the same point, making you fail the mission. It’s a useless “gotcha” moment that requires foreknowledge or luck to avoid.)
The biker weaves around through the streets, denying you a clear shot at him. More messages keep popping up, giving you tips on shooting and following. So, you’re trying to keep an eye on the map to see where your target is headed, read the messages that keep appearing, swerve around obstacles, and line up your target so you can spray him with bullets. This seems like an awful lot to ask of players during the tutorial for the motorbike.
I haven’t confirmed it, but I’m pretty sure there is a police car that – like the car crash before – is scripted to appear for no other reason than to mess you up. If you happen to be close on your target and hosing him down with gunfire (that is, if you’re doing what the on-screen prompts are telling you to do) then as you round a corner a police car will pass by in the background and get hit with the spray of bullets. This earns you an instant wanted level, and now you will need to drive, aim, shoot, navigate, dodge obstacles, and dodge the police as the attempt to run you off the road.
If you fail the mission, you’ll be left with whatever problems you started. You’ll have to escape the police if they’re after you, then heal up, and buy more bullets. Then you must drive back to the house to re-start the mission and skip the cutscene. Then you must travel to the destination and skip another cutscene. Sometimes its faster to simply re-load the game, but in either case you’ll have to muck about for 2-4 minutes to get back to the point where you can have another 45 second run at the mission.
I became frustrated at how impossible it was to kill this guy, and looked online to see what I was doing wrong. It turns out that – despite the fact that the on-screen prompts tell you to shoot him – there is no point in doing so. The target is invincible, the tires on his bike can’t be popped, and he can’t fall off the bike. You just need to follow him to the end of his run where he stops in the park and loses his magical invulnerability so you can fight him and a dozen of his buddies. It’s a tricky fight because you can’t be sure on your first time what you’re up against. It’s not clear where you should stop your bike and where you need to go to seek cover. There are a couple of spots that look good, but additional guys show up after a few seconds and surround you. It might take a couple of tries to get it right. (That is, a couple more trips to heal, restock, drive, restart the mission, drive, chase, etc.)
This is the very essence of DIAS gameplay. It’s designed to foil you until you can beat it not with skill, but with foreknowledge. The distracting messages that appear are only there to goad you into doing things that will cause you to fail the mission. (Following him too close and trying to shoot him.) The game pretends to be an open sandbox world, but it’s constantly changing the rules on you in the background and cheating to make sure you do a mission the one “correct” way the designer intended. This is not a freeform game. This is a guessing game, and if you guess wrong the penalty is that the game pisses away a few more minutes of your time.
Saints Row 2
One of the rival gangs has a bunch of their crew being let out of prison. They’ve been loaded onto prison buses and are being taken – along with a huge police escort – to a more or less arbitrary location. If the buses reach the checkpoint you fail the mission. It’s all very mechanical and doesn’t make a great deal of sense if you think about it too much. (Too much = any value greater than “none”.)
So how do you beat the mission? The answer is: Any way you like. There aren’t any hidden tricks going on. No cheating on the part of the game. The buses aren’t made of something bulletproof but not fire proof or vice-versa. It doesn’t force you to use an unsuitable vehicle or inefficient weapon. There is no arbitrarily imposed time limit aside from the need to prevent them from reaching the finish line. You can use whatever you think to bring with you.
That’s not to say the mission is a cakewalk. (Well, it can be, with the right approach.) There are a lot of police escorting the buses, and they will do their best to protect the buses. But there are no artificial restrictions on how you can approach the problem.
When you fail a mission in Saints Row, you are offered a choice:
1) Instantly go back to the very start of the mission. (Good if you want to change tactics and get a different weapon / vehicle.)
2) Restart from checkpoint. (Thank you thank you thank you.)
3) Exit the mission. (Bored? Not having fun? That’s okay. There is lots to do and the game isn’t trying to be a jerk to you. Go have fun with one of the other four dozen activities in the game and come back when you feel like having another go.)
Some missions are indeed a bit tricky. But you feel like you’re playing a game of skill, not a guessing game. (And unlike GTA, you can change the difficulty any time you like.)
I blundered into the bus mission with a dumb car and and not enough bullets and failed it, like I deserved to. Then I had an epiphany and realized I’d been counting on the game to do my thinking for me, because GTA had never given me much license to think on my own. I restarted the mission and picked up a fast car that would handle well on the dirt roads. I’d been saving a handful of rockets for a special occasion like this one. I ran down the buses and pegged them with my rocket launcher. Boom. Another bus came along, and I chased after it to blow it up. I had too many police after me to line up a rocket, but I had a decent car and enough ammo to get the job done. It was a chaotic battle as I followed along while the police did their best to smash my vehicle, run me off the road, or shoot me dead. In the end it was a race to see which would explode first, the bus or my car. Boom! Mission hilariously successful. (And any time I like, I can go back and replay that mission. If I think of another approach, I can try it.)
Compared to Saints Row 2, the GTA IV gameplay is just laughable. No checkpoints. Stupid gotcha tricks. Lots of lost time restarting missions. Lots of unfair bending of the rules to railroad the player into a predetermined solution. All this, and the game imposes a single difficulty level on all players, as if everyone had the same skill and thirst for challenge. GTA has been dragging this Neanderthal gameplay around for over a decade. They’ve updated the graphics, the cutscenes, the plot, the radio stations, the mini-games, and the voice acting, but they’ve never gone and tried to make their asinine guessing game more fun to play.
In GTA IV, the mission designer has all the fun, designing something for you to enact. In Saints Row 2, the designer just fills the world with toys and you get to do the creative part.
EDIT: A couple of people reminded me of the “replay mission” option in GTA IV. I never used it, for all the reasons Solid Jake points out below:
It’s so useless that it might as well not exist, since most players are just going to reload their game at that point.
A true “retry” option would let you retry from your initial state, not the worse one post-failure. And even that takes you back to the start of the mission, not the start of the action. In the mission I cited above, you still had to drive from the house to the biker to get things rolling again. It’s this deliberate squandering of the player’s time that makes the game such a chore.