I’m sure you’ve noticed the thin gruel that’s been passing for content around here lately. If it wasn’t for Spoiler Warning this place would have been a ghost town last week. This is why. I’ve been playing Saints Row the Third.
I did a series a few years ago where I compared Saints Row 2 with GTA IV. Now I want to do the same thing with Saints Row 3 and compare it to… everything else.
Saints Row versus BioWare
Remember the awesome button video?
Fans of the KOTOR era BioWare games (this is a set that includes me) were frustrated with the “awesome button” idea because it was more proof that our exploration, dialog, and character-driven adventures were being “streamlined” out of existence and turned into action schlock.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the real problem with the awesome button wasn’t that it existed. The problem wasn’t the change in tone and focus. The problem with the awesome button was that it completely failed to be awesome.
Saints Row the Third has an Awesome Button. The game even explicitly calls it the Awesome Button. When you hold the button, it modifies the other actions you perform. Why punch somebody when you can suplex them? Why enter a car through the door when you can enter feet-first like the Dukes? It’s analogous to the “high profile” button in Assassin’s Creed, only completely bonkers.
BioWare, if you really want to make “awesome button” games, then this is what you’re up against. You’ve got that one button for talk, use, sprint, enter cover, exit cover, vault over, and move to new cover. You’ve got opposing actions bound to the same button. The controls of SRtT are more complicated than those of Mass Effect, and the pace is far more frantic, yet I never once had that awful frustration of being unable to wrangle my avatar in a tense situation because the game was misinterpreting my inputs. You should try to figure out how all the other buttons need to work before you try to make any of them “awesome”.
Saints Row versus Bethesda
I enjoy the character builder in Skyrim. It’s nice to craft just the right face, even if that face is going to end up stuck on the same body everyone else has, and sooner or later it’s probably going to end up under a helmet.
As with the previous game, Saints Row the Third lets you build an entire person. Age. Race. Gender. Physique. Do you want fat? Old? Supermodel? Beefcake? Grotesque? Do it. It’s all there. I’m pretty sure this is the only game where you can play as the transvestite / transgender person of your choice.
You can even play as a zombie, complete with zombie voice.
Saints Row versus BioWare. Again.
At the risk of picking on BioWare, I really think they need to look at how players make choices in Saints Row the Third. In BioWare games, you make choices by pushing buttons or selecting dialog options. Even your big choice between Kaiden and Ashley took place within the context of a dialog tree, despite the fact that you were running around on the battlefield.
In Saints Row, you make choices by doing things. If the Kaiden vs. Ashley choice took place within the context of this game, then you would have picked who lived or died by going to where somebody was and saving their life. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s amazing how much more “free” a choice feels if you do it instead of making a selection like you’re at a vending machine.
Saints Row versus Rockstar
Let us agree that open-world urban playground games are a genre in their own right, even if we don’t have a better name for them than “Grand Theft Auto Clones”. Obviously GTA and Saints Row fit into this genre, but we can arguably include titles like Mafia II, Scarface: The World Is Yours, or Driv3r. The formula of…
guns + cars + big city = superfun murdertime
…is a compelling one, and a lot of developers dream of hitting that sweet spot of satisfying mechanics, high replay value, easy headlines, and emergent “Did you see that!?” moments that border on the viral.
The point is: Saints Row The Third is better than Grand Theft Auto IV using any meaningful metric I can think of.
Yes, even on story. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Now, some people might argue that the title of “best” should go to Saints Row 2. Okay, I can see that. SR3 has polished a few mechanics from SR2, but it also removed some. A case can be made for either game. But no matter which game it goes to, I can’t escape the conclusion that developer Volition has done more than just beat Rockstar at their own game. They have humiliated Rockstar. Maybe the sales don’t reflect this. Maybe the scores don’t reflect this. But all it takes is ten minutes of actual gameplay to reveal that Rockstar has more money than brains and it’s entirely possible they never understood why people played these things to begin with.
Chris even devoted a whole video to discussing why GTA IV got such phenomenal scores despite the fact that it left such a comparatively small impact on the audience:
In GTA, the side games are mostly grafted on. They take place outside of the urban playground. When you’re bowling, playing darts, or watching TV, you’re no longer interacting with the world. You’ve effectively stopped playing the core game and are now doing something unrelated. It’s the equivalent of hitting pause and playing Angry Birds on your smartphone for fifteen minutes. It doesn’t detract from the core game, but it doesn’t really add to it either. Worst of all, it doesn’t leverage the immense gameworld that Rockstar spent so much money bringing to life.
In Saints Row, the side activities take place right there in the world. Insurance Fraud uses ragdoll physics as a gameplay mechanic and encourages you to throw yourself into traffic for hilarious profit. Mayhem adds a combo multiplier and scoring to encourage you not just to blow stuff up, but to blow it up at a frantic and self-endangering pace to push the score as high as it can go. Yes, GTA has street races (with shamefully flagrant rubber banding AI) but Saints Row has Trail Blazing where you race against the clock and use environmental destruction as a means of earning more time. Trafficking has you riding shotgun in a mad chase across the city, trying to hold off the waves of attackers before they can inflict too much damage on your driver or vehicle.
Saints Row versus Every Game Designer Who Wishes He Was Making A Movie and Thinks He’s Quentin Tarantino
Far too many games slather their stories in swearing and blood in an attempt to tell something gritty and intense. This is like trying to set something on fire by painting it orange. Game stories end up getting bogged down and defeated by the inherent conflict between the one hour story they’ve written and the ten-hour game they’re making you play.
In contrast, the Story in Saints Row The Third is an epic tale that speaks to the very foundations of what it means to be a human being, and offers a deeply moving look into the nature of love and friendship.
Nah. I’m just messing with you. The story is mostly idiotic nonsense, but I give it points for charm and audacity. It doesn’t work any better than GTA IV, but it has the virtue of being more consistently funny (assuming you have a high tolerance for lowbrow humor) and matching the tone of the gameplay.
In one mission, the writer decided that he wanted me to fight my way through this building. To make things exciting, there was a timer counting down to when a bomb would go off and destroy the building. To establish this desired scenario, my crew came in, set up the bomb, and then we invaded the building.
In too many games, the designer would stop there, because their goals have been met: The player is in a building full of guys and there’s a timer running to encourage them to hurry. But in Saints Row the Third we get this: (Paraphrase.)
Ok, Bomb’s set and the clock’s ticking.
Why didn’t we wait to do that until after we’re done inside?
That’s…. a really good question. Uh, we should move.
Lampshading. The game designer lets me me know that he’s not expecting me to be stupid. It’s the characters who are stupid. That’s it. That’s all I need.
I admit this is much easier in the context of a farce like Saints Row and much harder to pull off in a story with serious characters, but it’s what you need to do if you don’t want players looking at their screens and sputtering, “WHAT?” when mission objectives come up.
I’m hesitant to use the word “better” when talking about the story in Saints Row. It’s dumb and obvious and sometimes lazy. It’s a much simpler work than the polished, visceral, Hollywood-ready script of GTA IV. And yet I can’t escape the conclusion that I enjoyed the story of Saints Row more.
Both worlds have the same conceit: Everyone is corrupt. The cops, community leaders, the government, the media. Crime lords are corrupt, even by their own standards of amorality. In GTA IV this takes the form of ugly people doing ugly things. Literally. It’s shocking just how many people in Liberty City are just as grotesque on the outside as they are on the inside. It’s almost macabre. Saints Row does the same thing, but it’s played for laughs. Both games are trying to satirize American culture, but I think it works better in Saints Row because Saints Row begins from a humorous space and the world they’re making fun of looks more like the pop culture I know. I can laugh at its jokes. I can’t laugh along with the angry nihilism of GTA IV because I can’t even tell when the game is kidding. Wait, is this the part where you’re making fun of western culture for taking itself so seriously, or is this a serious part of the story? Because I can’t tell.
Saints Row versus Chest-High Walls
I have an idea! Let’s take the frantic pace of a firefight and replace it with a simple timing game where you wait for enemies to stick their heads out of cover. Let’s take our expensive, super-realistic, gritty grimdark environments and clutter them up with obvious and contrived chest-high walls. Let’s punish the player for doing interesting things like moving around, and encourage them to just sit still and play whack-a-mole. Let’s make the battlefield linear and tightly scripted to remove any dangerous dynamism that might creep into combat.
Or I suppose we could do what Saints Row the Third does, and have mobile, open, dynamic, interesting battles on varied landscapes with a wide variety of distinct weapons and a broad palette of foes with different behaviors. You know. Whichever.
The combat is one area where Saints Row the Third really outshines its predecessor. These weapons are crazy fun to use. “Kinaesthetically Pleasing” is the phrase that comes to mind.
Saints Row the Third versus Saints Row 2
Sadly, this is one foe that Saints Row the Third just can’t steamroll. Third is a step up graphically. It’s far more stable. The underlying mechanics are much more polished. But there are things that this game is missing.
I’ll talk more about these flaws in another post.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
Do It Again, Stupid
One of the highest-rated games of all time has some of the least interesting gameplay.
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.