GTA IV vs. Saints Row 2: Final Thoughts

  By Shamus   Mar 30, 2009   28 comments

If you spend a few minutes watching GTA IV and then a few more minutes watching Saints Row 2, they’ll look more or less functionally the same: Steal cars, shoot stuff, drive around, do crazy missions, etc. But the underlying assumptions on the part of the developers about what parts of the game are fun and what drives people to play them form a stark contrast.

It really is shocking how far games have come.  Here is a shot of GTA IV.  Look at the detail reaching off into the horizon.  Getting that much shifting data off of disk and into the world in a timely manner is far more impressive to me than what they’re doing with pixel shaders these days.
It really is shocking how far games have come. Here is a shot of GTA IV. Look at the detail reaching off into the horizon. Getting that much shifting data off of disk and into the world in a timely manner is far more impressive to me than what they’re doing with pixel shaders these days.

GTA IV retains the playpen approach to content which has made the game so beloved / reviled. Two-thirds of the gameworld are locked away at the outset, along with a good portion of the mini-games. You earn those new play areas and toys by working through the story missions. Saints Row 2 takes the opposite approach, making you go play with the toys before you can advance the story. The gameworld and its offerings are all open at the outset, and it’s up to you to explore and find games that amuse you.

While not a mini-game that is formally recognized by the gameworld, solving traffic congestion with a rocket launcher is still deeply satisfying. I don’t know why they call this “road rage”, as my own sensation was one of glee.
While not a mini-game that is formally recognized by the gameworld, solving traffic congestion with a rocket launcher is still deeply satisfying. I don’t know why they call this “road rage”, as my own sensation was one of glee.
I listed as many of these mini-games as I’d managed to discover in one of my Saints Row 2 comics. It’s a massive list, and nearly everything is available to you as soon as the first tutorial mission is over. You just drive around and look for the mini-game icons on the map. (The game calls them “diversions”.) Try one. If it’s fun, you can keep doing it to earn more money and respect. If not, you can just look around for something else. Each time you complete a mini-game, you earn enough “respect points” to play through a story mission. Each activity has several levels of increasing difficulty. If you really like one, you’ll probably want to hammer away at it until you beat all of the levels. But if you just want to hoover up easy respect points you can run around and simply beat the first level of every diversion. Now, Yahtzee said in his review that you’ll tire of the mini-games and run out of respect points long before you complete the game and end up grinding the mini-games to be able to advance the story, but I had the opposite problem. Being a sandbox player at heart, I spent a lot of time gorging myself at the mini-game buffet before I started working on the missions. By the time the game was over I still had enough respect left over to do 35 more missions.

Having said that, I don’t see a need to force the player to do mini-games. Both games seem to be afraid you might skip bits of their sandbox content, which is the entire point of making a sandbox.

And here I realized that I’m entering the home stretch of this series and I never got around to telling you about the outstanding avatar builder used in Saints Row 2. It’s one of the most comprehensive I’ve experienced, down to the ability to adjust your voice and walking style. And yes, you can be female.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, the mission design of GTA IV is an obvious attempt to make missions more “cinematic”. The designer is convinced you’re a dullard who will mess up his show and so he’s railroading you via cheating into a course of action that makes for the most thrilling chase, battle, or stunt. I think he’s simply trying too hard. Sometimes it works and you get the big cinematic moment, but usually it fails and you end up slogging through the mission a few times like a dog being taught a new trick. Saints Row 2 has demonstrated that you can trust serendipity to create the magic and have about the same rate of success at producing memorable events, but without the frustrating cheating and without imposing the designer’s will on the player. I experienced chases in Saints Row 2 that featured insane stunts, close calls, hilarious mishaps, and unexpected fireball explosions. But these events were unique to my game. They were the product of random chance and my own spastic efforts to reach my goal, not something scripted by a tyrannical codemonkey at Rockstar.

GTA IV offers incredible production values, voice acting, music, and visuals. By contrast, all Saints Row 2 can offer is fun. You’ll have to work out for yourself which one sounds better.

20828 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. Eric Meyer says:

    Well, that’s clinched it: if I ever decide to pick up one of these, Saints Row 2 it will be.

  2. krellen says:

    I’m definitely going to have to err on the side of fun.

  3. ThaneofFife says:

    Man I really want to play Saints Row 2 now! But I only have a PC and a Wii and the PC port is supposed to be awful. Oh the humanity…

  4. Mike says:

    ThaneofFife:
    Well, there’s always that upcoming streaming game console service I’ve been hearing about…

  5. Namfoodle says:

    Yeah, the Saint’s Row method sounds less frustrating than GTA IV. If the designers are going to railroad the player and give the bad guys “plot defense”, there should be something on the screen to warn you that the guy is currently bullet-proof.

  6. Noggy says:

    It sounds like GTA 4 would benifit from he ability to skip the gameplay, which is the exact opposite of what I usually want in a game.

  7. Julian says:

    I’ve played both games on the PC (since I don’t have any of the new consoles) and I preferred GTA IV. I wasn’t really playing it as a sandbox, if you catch my point. I did mission after missio after mission, and I felt very happy when the rest of the map and content became unlocked, because I felt like I was being given a reward for my all my achievements, whereas in SR2 I had no incentive to do the missions.
    That said, I still love SR2. It’s a fantastic game and I’d recommend it to anyone, but if I had to pick one of the two, I’d pick GTA IV.
    I liked this review series very much. You essentially voiced everything I thought about the two games, but from a “I prefer SR2″ point of view, which I found deeply interesting.

    • ........... says:

      Well to go with your opinion on feeling good about unlocking new boroughs, in Saints Row 2 you actually conquer little chunks of the city as you go. I think that is a great substitute for unlocking a whole chunk of land.In Saints Row 2 easily to Fuzz (police work-killing ppl) and drug trafficking for fun and respect allowing you to missions on and on. But i must addmit the whole respect for missions in Saints Row 2 is quite annoying for those who must know what’s next in the story.

  8. Guus says:

    I’ve already played GTA, guess I’ll be picking up Saints Row next.

  9. John Callaghan says:

    Going seriously off-topic here…

    A startling word in your review led me to read the Wikipedia entry on how different the US and UK connotations of “spastic” are. Divided by a common language!

  10. vdgmprgrmr says:

    Yep, Shamus, now I want to play Saint’s Row 2.

  11. Mayhem says:

    I haven’t played a GTA game since Vice City, and I enjoyed that one pretty well. I never bought another because of two words: Spike Strips. I love car chases and the spike strips ruined them for me.

    At any rate, one other thing that’s bothered me about GTA, as well as when it happens in other games, is another form of cheating other than scripted “accidents.” It’s when the NPCs don’t have to follow the same game physics as you do.

    Cases in point: the police cars’ speed changes with your Wanted Level. I can see how their aggrssiveness would be affected, but by the time you reach level 4, they can easily catch up to the game’s Lambourghini (Inferus). And if you get into a cop car, you can’t go that fast yourself. That’s just friggin’ stupid.

    Also, the police choppers don’t experience collision if they hit a building. It’s just eye candy to them. And they can shoot you from any angle, even straight down where you cannot aim straight up to shoot them back.

    I can take some cheap advantages for NPCs to an extent, but when they don’t even have to follow the same game physics as you do, that bugs the shit out of me.

  12. Rutskarn says:

    Yeah. I’m all for an engaging story, but at the expense of the gameplay?

    A great story with frustrating gameplay mechanics is better suited for another form of media.

  13. Zel says:

    I pretty much did like Julian and played both games, mission after mission. SR2 did have incentive to continue its story to me, mostly because from the start I thought “Let’s kick some rotten corporation’s ass!”, and couldn’t do it until way later after a lot of nonsensical gang wars (hated them in San Andreas too). There are however no incentives to play the mini-games : bonuses are not worth the effort and the respect needed to finish all missions is earned after one or two completed mini-games.

    It’s a completely subjective opinion, but my experience of GTA4 was very fun, with only a few hiccups on some particular missions (only the bank heist was getting frustrating). Maybe it’s because I already played previous entries and know what to expect. Maybe my way of thinking has been formatted into a “GTA” style that made me unconsciously follow the path the designer had drawn for me. Either way, it was hard to stop playing GTA4, while despite the tons of “Distractions” available I was bored with SR2 after a mission or two.

    @12 : the Police is much easier to evade in GTA4, thanks to some very long and wide avenues and easy to reach highways. Police cars don’t catch up to your high speed sports cars, and I don’t recall any spike trips.

    @13 : the story isn’t so great or engaging, it’s actually pretty cliché. What made the game for me, same as previous GTA’s, was the characters. I instantly sympathized with Niko, and the cutscenes made me laugh much more than SR2’s tattoo prank or genocides.

    • SaiNtS RoW vEteRaN/EnThuSiAsT says:

      I actually like the chases better in Saints Row 2 b/c the police cant arrest you. For your hate of spikes you can go to a mechanic and reinforce the cars tires. I believe in a certain way that Saints Row is more realistic b/c of the fact that you suffer more losses and you get to build up a gang. In GtA4 you dont have much exitement and infact the opening sequence to the game was too boring and was a major set back, and though I kept playing in hopes it would get more exiting Saints Row 2 shows much more entusiasim toward the world of role playing.

  14. Maldeus says:

    I remember having all kinds of fun with the sandbox world of Mercenaries. There was a time when I escaped being blown up by a tank by driving my Sungri jeep off a cliff, completely unscripted, and after rolling over about four times, I came out upright and sped out of the base as fast as I could. If I ever try one of these two, it’ll definitely be Saints Row 2. Moments like that are practically the reason I play video games.

  15. Noumenon says:

    I almost want to buy Saint’s row just for the chance to ogle the female avatars — not only can you outfit them in all kinds of tight T-shirts, you can actually adjust their waist-to-hip ratio on a slider. I’m sorry, the hotness of my avatar is very important to me in a game. See Tomb Raider, and Jessica from Dragon Quest VIII.

  16. Craig says:

    Reading this i kept thinking, “man why did I get gta 4 instead of SR2?” Then I remembered I borrowed it. I still won’t get saint’s row, though, because I think I’ve had enough killing lots of people for other people in a morally ambiguous urban setting for awhile. I am also only a third of the way through gta 4. Damn that game is HUGE.

  17. chabuhi says:

    I picked up GTA IV on the heels of completing GTA: SA for the first time, so I was deeply disappointed at the departure GTA IV took from its predecessors in the fun department.

    I think if it had been years since I played SA then I would have been much more receptive to IV. But, since I had just come off the Incredible Carousel of Fun that is SA, I found IV sadly lacking.

    SR2 I simply won’t bother with since I think I am just done with this “genre”. Oh wait, I have one last slot open for This Is Vegas (if Midway doesn’t completely disintegrate).

    Then I’ll be done … promise.

  18. Deadpool002 says:

    I have to agree that some of the best stories come from what happens at random in SR2:

    During the Ronin Mission with the motorcycle Chase from the graveyard. I watched as the man I was pursuing was killed by his own henchies. Their car zoom by me crashed full speed into him. Game cued up the end cinematic, and I laughed for a good 10 minutes and this turn of events.

  19. Cody says:

    I say if you’re thinking of buying saints row you should really just pick up GTA instead because they are the ones who deserve that fucking money. It’s hard for me to comprehend how everybody just seems to shrug off the fact that Volition STOLE somebody else’s hard work used it for their own profit and not only got away with it but made a successful sequel.

    • WJS says:

      That’s ridiculous. They didn’t steal anything, just made a game along similar lines. Would you also say that all first person shooters are stealing from Doom?

  20. Noumenon says:

    I did buy Saints Row 2 finally and the avatar hotness is totally worth the money. I bet I spent several hours looking for clothes stores, trying on outfits, admiring how sexy my avatar was in the outfits, and then having plastic surgery. That chick is hotter than a lot of porn stars.

    Unlike you said in your comic, I did binge on the game for almost 24 hours in a row last weekend. Just going from exploring secret areas to buying a new crib to trying to steal a boat by landing on it with a helicopter to finding a way to get that Attrazione out of the mall and into my garage. Let’s see if I follow the monorail all the way around the track will I get an Achievement unlocked. (Answer: no.) But just so many different things means you can play forever.

  21. john says:

    I’ll buy this Saints Row 2 because i miss the fun that I had in San Andreas, I still love GTA IV but it’s too serious.

  22. Danny says:

    I have GTA IV, but not SR2, so this is a little biased. I just feel the need to comment on the author’s assertion that GTA IV has “railroaded” to cinematic moments. The only one I can think of that fits that description is a scene on a motorcycle in which chasing a guy on a motorcycle results in an explosion of a car near the chase. It’s definitely scripted, happening every time I played the mission, but it was great. I loved every moment of this game so far, although some missions are a little too difficult. I find myself having to replay missions upwards of 3 times frequently, and needing to delay my reattempt to go heal and pick up a thing of body armor.

    I love GTA IV’s seriousness, but I seem to be one of the few who do. The gritty, more realistic story is more gripping to me, and although it does seem to meander a bit as an excuse for more missions, is very satisfying and definitely present.

    SR2 sounds like fun, but I’m not sure I can go backwards in terms of technical achievement. Also, I hate the idea of demanding that the player play minigames before advancing the story. It sounds like an attempt to make you not think about the story, which stinks of a crappy story.

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