GTA IV vs Saints Row 2: Story

By Shamus Posted Thursday Mar 26, 2009

Filed under: Game Reviews 21 comments

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.


Yes, you’ve seen this one <a href="?p=1661">before</a>. But it seemed appropriate.
Yes, you’ve seen this one before. But it seemed appropriate.
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.

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.


From The Archives:

21 thoughts on “GTA IV vs Saints Row 2: Story

  1. Damn you Shamus. Every time you compare GTA IV and SR2, you bring up all the things that I hated about GTA IV, and how they are done in a way that I would probably like in SR2.

  2. Just a quick question–“the quasi-Jamaican Sons of Samedi”.

    Would they actually be quasi-Haitian? ‘Cos like, presumably “Sons of Samedi” is a reference to Baron Samedi, the voodoo Loa, no?

  3. Benjamin O says:

    You be having some typos. Which game are you talking about first? Cause the section titles indicate saints row 2 TWICE! Fix that, and then it’ll make more sense.

    Otherwise, since I’ll never play either game (the genre doesn’t appeal), the whole thing is only interesting from an academic standpoint.

  4. Scott says:

    “if the game itself and been less of a chore”

    Just… y’know…

    1. Shamus says:

      Various typos fixed. The Haiti / Jamaica confusion was a simple manifestation of cultural ignorance. Also fixed.

  5. LintMan says:

    Shamus, you quit playing the missions in GTA, or the game itself? Either way, you seem surprisingly positive about the game, given that comment. Generally, for me, if a game results in me quitting play before I’ve completed the single player missions, I’d consider it a huge Fail

    1. Pylo says:

      Yeah, I don’t understand how someone can claim the game has a good story when they weren’t even compelled to finish it.

      I actually finished GTA4 and can’t for the life of me understand what’s so good about that story. And I’m from a country that was actually involved in the war in question.
      Characters were good and I guess the overarching story was ok (though I can’t say I was impressed), but everything in between (that is the actual plot line) was just neurotic to the point that 80% of the time I didn’t know (or care) what the hell I was doing and why I was doing it (other than “It’s kinda fun”).

  6. Demyan says:

    Sounds like a comedic Crackdown to me. And I liked Crackdown, for many of the reasons listed above. Normally I’m sort of a plot junkie, I only play something for the sake of advancing the story, but Crackdown was kinda liberating in that regard.

    It didn’t bog me down with cutscenes and dialog and story, it just said, “Hey, you’re kind of a badass and these are the ‘enemy’. Go get em champ.” Then I proceeded to melee my way to the end of the game. Because nothing satisfies like kicking a ragdoll that was formerly some flavor of terrorist 100 meters into traffic.

  7. Eric Meyer says:

    I was just thinking the same thing, Demyan. I really, really liked Crackdown for all the reasons you list, and now I’m wondering if maybe I should pick up SR2.

  8. Zel says:

    I don’t know, it seemed to me that the GTA4’s gameworld didn’t force mass murders. You’ll occasionally have to clean a area infested with gangsters, but most of the time you can drive around without killing anyone, evade the police instead of blowing up their cars, and just kill your one or two primary targets (red arrow of death above the head). You can blow everything up, doesn’t mean you have to.

    As I understood the story, Niko first takes jobs to earn money but then sets on his quest for revenge/justice. The price tag attached to his help is actually information, introductions and contacts, not just money.

    Different people, different tastes, but to me Saints Row 2’s story was not enjoyable or entertaining. It was very stupid, sure, but stupid + cruel =/= funny in my book.

  9. Julian says:

    “Resident Evil N+1″… where N is a ridiculous number ^^

    Frankly, I liked GTA IV better, (and I’m playing the dreaded PC port. It runs quite well on a 8600gt, 2gb of RAM, and a Core 2 Duo 2,2Ghz processor.). Perhaps, being a non-American, I sympathize with foreigners a lot better. The story is a big part of the game for me, and I found SR2’s to be silly. Not Psychonauts silly, which would make me laugh, or the silly scenes in Okami that would make go “huh? What’s he doing?”, but a kind of silly that is just unbearable.

  10. duncan says:

    while agonizing of the small piles of Serbians he left behind in Bosnia

    I think he’s meant to be a Serbian, so it would have been piles of Bosnians, probably…

  11. K says:

    I am quite shocked that GTA 4 has good story. I never played it and always assumed from what I knew about the gameplay, and if my eyes do not deceive me, I was correct.

    This is really twisted. Now I want to play GTA 4 with cheats. Ideally some “win mission instantly” cheats, so I can watch a decent movie.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “I think he's meant to be a Serbian, so it would have been piles of Bosnians, probably…”

    Considering that he speaks like some ukranian guy,he was probably there with the un,thus killed everyone who wasnt.

  13. Saint Rising says:

    I want to go get SR2. GTA IV’s story was amazing, but it abandoned the humour that the previous games did… I missed that a lot.

  14. Anaphyis says:

    SR2 is really best enjoyed if you take Yahtzee’s approach and consider it a backdrop for an extremely campy super villain series. I cannot play it without seeing Batman (the Adam West one) in my mind all the times and that is fun in itself.

    The GTA plot is nice and all … but after the previous colorful and tounge-in-cheek games it’s hard to appreciate this re tool into gritty realism. At least thats my impression after what little I saw in the demo.

  15. Don J says:

    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.

    I’m not even capable of imagining such a scenario. Every time I try, I come up with something along the lines of this classic post.

    Come to think of it, maybe that’s what you meant. Episodes 1-3 done that way might make us want the Jar-Jar doll.

    Also: @ Zel: I am astonished to see someone using =/= for “not equal to”. I assume you don’t have a programming background, because != and <> both jump to mind as better symbols. :-)

    EDIT: Glad I checked — of course my second symbol doesn’t render nicely with HTML by default. Thank goodness for my memorized set of HTML ampersand codes!

  16. TheRailwayMan says:

    ”At one point one of your friends 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.”

    That friend was a character from the first game, you see. Whilst not the most important character, they are present enough throughout the story of both games that was genuienly shocked to see the persons death. Just thought I’d contribute my opinion, late as it is.

  17. martz says:

    gta 4’s plot felt like it was trying to drag out a story, alot of what happened didnt need to be their, sr2 on the other hand , it had an almost james bondy feel, of exciting over the top mission, the cinematics were also more impresive becuase, i actualy sunk myself into the story, gta’s cutscences were like talking to your mate , fairly average over the top criminals but no dr evils here. having said that the main villian in sr2 was buy no means evil, but he had alot of character, trying to stir up troble, without standing in the firing line himself. i actauly hoped in the end the main character would spares danes life, as a twist, but oh yeah this was a saints row wherby you play as someone you hate.

    1. WJS says:

      Dane not evil? You’re kidding, right? Sure at first he just seems awfully conservative, looking out for the well-to-do and not caring about the lower classes. Then we learn he’s been playing the gangs off against each other with no concern that he’s turning the city into a warzone, and arranges the murder of, what is it, the entire board of executives to secure a promotion? I was happy to off the bastard, he deserved it more than most of the guys you kill.

  18. Yeah, it’s hard. Do we knock a game for trying for a better story even when the gameplay undermines that story, or do we acknowledge the value on occasion of Gameplay Story Segregation? Interactive media as a genre should be INTERACTIVE, using the game mechanics to tell the story, but at the same time you never want to discourage people from trying.

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