on Mar 26, 2009
The battle continues. Which game will win? Actually, I guess I sort of gave that away back in the first post. Still, let’s go through the motions together.
I love the story of GTA IV. Or at least, I loved it up until I got tired of the missions and quit. You play as Niko Bellic, an illegal immigrant and veteran of (so says wikipedia) the Bosnian War. You join your cousin Roman in America, lured to New York by his tales of wealth and women. When you arrive you find he’s working at a cab company and badly in debt. The relationship between Roman and Niko is wonderful, and I always loved when the plot focused on them and their story. Their fortunes change a great deal as the plot progresses, and some parts were quite riveting. (When the cab company was burned down I was actually moved by their plight and by Roman’s reaction. I didn’t, you know, CRY or anything. I’m just saying it was a big moment. Maybe had a lump in my throat a bit. Not much.) The acting and dialog are wonderful, and easily stand up to or even surpass your average big-budget movie. If the writers from GTA IV had worked on Star Wars, we’d all own Jar Jar dolls and complain that we didn’t see enough of him in the third film.
Yes, you’ve seen this one before. But it seemed appropriate.
But when a cutscene ends you say goodbye to interesting, witty, and layered Niko Bellic and find yourself controlling loony Niko Bellic, comedic mass-homicide mayhem enthusiast. The transition from story to gameplay makes the sound of shifting gears without a clutch.
Niko is supposedly a man haunted by some of the awful deeds in his past. That sounds interesting, but once you’ve shot five dozen union/mafia guys who are willing to fight to the death to defend a construction site then all his haunted recollections about the war start to sound a little thin. And by the time you’ve shot your 100th police officer I think it’s time that Niko stops obsessing about his past crimes and start paying a little attention to the heap of corpses at his feet.
The story lost traction for me as I amassed wealth and advanced the plot. Niko eventually had more money than I’ll make in two years and a couple of modestly successful jobs. Yet he was still taking suicidal jobs for chump change where he had to murder huge piles of Americans, while agonizing of the small piles of Serbians he left behind in Bosnia.
The story in GTA IV is, essentially, too good for the gameworld in which it’s set. Having said that, I would have been happy to play through and ignore the narrative / setting discord if the game itself had been less of a chore.
Saints Row 2
By contrast, the story in Saints Row is obvious, straightforward, and ridiculous. You bust out of jail during the opening tutorial. Not because you have a clever escape plan or a stroke of luck, but because you’re a bullet sponge with regenerating health. You then meet up with Johnny Gat and the two of you decide to take over the entire city. Not for any specific goal but because, you know, it’s there, the game needs a plot, and what the hell anyway, right?
People’s perceptions of gangsters is a greatly exaggerated version of the genuine article. Movie criminals are greatly exaggerated versions of people’s perceptions. GTA gangsters are over-the-top versions of movie criminals. And Saints Row gangsters are exaggerated versions of GTA gangsters. Saints Row seems to have pushed this one step too far, and went so far over the top that it generated an integer overflow and went back down to the bottom again. The characters seem to know they’re videogame characters, and sometimes they even seem to be aware that they’re inhabiting a GTA styled gameworld. They’re stupid and simplistic and mostly uninteresting. At one point one of your friends (Jonny Gat’s girlfriend or wife or live-in prostitute or whatever the hell she is) is killed, and it generated precisely the same amount of sorrow that I would feel if you told me that someone I’ve never met or heard of just had their pet hamster die on them. If I express any emotion at all, it’s because I’m trying to be polite.
The plot itself is a little bit freeform. Once you get your gang established, three mission branches open up, each corresponding to one of the rival gangs you must eliminate. You’ll be fighting the pseudo-Japanese Ronin, the tattooed truck-driving Brotherhood, and the quasi-Haitian Sons of Samedi. You can switch between quest lines freely, or just focus on a single one if it’s really captured your attention. Each arc ends with a climactic set-piece battle to defeat the gang once and for all. Once you’re the only gang in town, you’ll have to face off against the Ultor corporation to control the city. (I’m not even going to bother with a spoiler tag on that one. If you can’t see that “twist” coming by the end of the tutorial, then please put down the controller and stop playing. You are clearly new to this planet and you should not begin your study of our species with Saints Row 2. I’m begging you.)
All of which makes it a very good thing that the plot is played mostly for laughs. Unlike the abysmal plot of Fable 2 or Resident Evil N+1, this is not meant to be taken seriously and the plot doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay. Sometimes it’s humorous. Sometimes it’s just stupid. In any case, the tone of the plot and the gameworld are in harmony: Stupid but amusing.One of your henchmen comes up with a very GTA-esque mission: He suggests sneaking into a casino, planting bombs, subduing guards, and a bunch of other elaborate things. My eyes begin to roll. Here comes the forced stealth section of the game, followed by some escort nonsense and maybe a little AI wrangling. This is really going to be tediou-Suddenly Jonny Gat strides in and suggests that you just go in and shoot everyone. Then you go and do exactly that. It’s a hilarious and deliberate satire of the railroading GTA gameplay that players hate so much.
The story is less entertaining when it tries to go for drama. There are a few moments that were uncomfortable due to the insane and pointless brutality of the characters. But these dalliances with angst and loss are mercifully brief. Mostly the game is about encountering generic respawning gang members and finding interesting or amusing ways to bring about their deaths.
In the end, I admire the approach of both games. GTA IV gave us a great story. Saints Row 2 didn’t, but it was usually wise enough to go for laughs. Each was entertaining in their own way, although GTA IV deserves some special recognition for going above and beyond what I’ve come to expect from an action-driven videogame.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.