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.|
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.|
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.
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.