It's an unfortunate inevitability—nearly every preview, review, or opinion piece about a Saints Row game is tarnished with the mention of its similarities to Grand Theft Auto. Of course, this article is hypocritical, since I've already mentioned Rockstar's flagship series, but instead of remarking on the resemblance between the two, I'm here to showcase the unique qualities that make Saints Row stand on its own two feet.
Sadly, this redundant argument will never cease: Saints Row copied Grand Theft Auto by using an open world urban setting where you go on a crime spree to gain the respect of different gangs. I will concede that both games have a similar blueprint, but Volition uses different materials and thus the end product has its own identity both broad and subtle. Each game of the series has brought in some new features, working to make itself tougher without worrying about the big bully trying to smack it down.
Apart from the dedication of its developers to infuse some originality into Saints Row, the first game was blessed with good timing and a little luck. It beat Grand Theft Auto to the Xbox 360, presenting far crisper visuals and more technical power than the competition. It launched two years after San Andreas, so most gamers had done everything possible with CJ and were itching for something new. It also had a conversion factor for those who liked the gameplay but were bored or disillusioned with the Grand Theft Auto series. These were all external factors to the game's success, but let's talk about the exclusive innards.
The character customization was so massive and finely detailed that you could easily spend over an hour just fooling around with your hero creation. There were different racial profiles, body types, and all the subtle facial tailoring to make your character as wimpy or hardcore as possible. I found it both hilarious and disturbing going through gang-infested territories with a scrawny puppy-dog-eyed pimp-cane-shotgun-toting maniac. Saints Row was also the first to make cell phones and GPS more than a passing feature. Calling up "homies" to help out, getting serviced by Lik-a-Chick, and using those sweet in-game cheats to beef up your arsenal elevated the fun factor in Saints Row.
Plotting waypoints on your map would have your GPS find the quickest route to your destination, a nifty feature to make your driving a little easier. Finally, and probably most critical, was the inclusion of multiplayer, which despite being a little rough around the edges, offered hilarious hybrids of standard modes, including Gangster Brawl, Blinged Out Ride, Protect the Pimp, and of course, Big Ass Chains. They weren't perfect, but they sure beat playing alone for hours and hours in San Andreas' single-player-only offering.
Saints Row 2 had a much tougher challenge, as it lacked many of the external factors that made its predecessor successful. While optimistic about their product, Volition was undoubtedly anxious about the retail numbers, having their launch within two months of Grand Theft Auto IV. All they could do was pray that they'd built enough of a fan base to keep the series alive. Well, despite only selling roughly a quarter the copies of their rival, the fans held strong, with several million units sold to date, putting the series into an elite group of best-selling video game franchises.
Saints Row 2 brought back all the original features of the first game and included many more, most of which upped the enjoyability. A female character option was finally introduced in the character creation, letting players try both genders on for size. Combat kept the tight controls and nice selection of weapons, but everyone's favorite guilty pleasure had to be using poor souls as human shields and then hurling their lifeless bodies over railings or into the streets. Speaking of corpses, I'd have my brain eaten if I didn't mention how deliciously fun the Zombie Uprising diversion was. The competitive multiplayer was okay, but it took a backseat to the Co-op mode this time, with full freedom to join up for missions or simply wander opposite ends of Stilwater, causing your own trouble.
Now we are at the doorstep of Saints Row: The Third, and for the time being, the series will once again be able to bask in solitude; Grand Theft Auto V is still lacking in information on a near-future release. Most of the goodies from the first two games will be incorporated into the upcoming entry, along with some fresh swag. The action takes place in a whole new city this time, Steelport, which will be shaped (or more accurately, unshaped), as you progress through the game. The full story arc is much more open-ended, and your decisions will deliver both rewards and consequences, such as demolishing a skyscraper (permanently) which gives you loads of respect but loses a potential gang base. Respect itself is receiving a new treatment, where before it was required to unlock missions, now it grants you experience points to level up your character with new attributes and perks. Also, new combat scenarios like freefall shootouts and the ability to call in air strikes should add even more heft to the already robust system.
Saints Row: The Third looks to be taking the series forward, and hopefully more new surprises are in store for us. There's certainly no denying that the series takes an unconventional and unrealistic approach to the urban gang warfare formula, and going in this direction has given them more liberties to test out unique features like those showcased above. In fact, some of them were actually introduced by Saints Row before being absorbed by Grand Theft Auto. With both series continuing to add iterations, it becomes less clear who is copying whom.
By Sean Engemann
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*