Saints Row Retrospective

When furries and gangs collide

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We’re right in the middle of the annual Summer drought, but at least there’s some reprieve on the horizon. Pikmin 3 isn’t too far away for Wii U owners, and the Summer of Arcade is on the way for Xbox 360 owners. But by far the biggest game of the Summer for most will be Saints Row IV, coming August 23rd to all Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Seven years is a surprisingly short time frame to release four games in an AAA series, but Volition have delivered with each release being notably different and arguably much improved over the last. Volition’s quick turnaround is testament to the hard work the now 200+ strong dev team and all the supporting staff have put into the series. Volition have produced some of the most exciting and original games out there over the last few decades in a number of different genres, the epic space-trading-combat-exploration-anything else you want title Freespace was them, the wall crumbling-tunnel making-earth shattering Red Faction games were by them, they’ve shown time and again that they’re capably of reinventing the wheel and releasing games with a high level of polish and creativity. There have been hiccups along the way, most recently with the bankruptcy of THQ, but Volition was picked up by Koch Media to publish their games under the Deep Silver name and was valued as the most expensive of THQ’s assets, at an impressive $22 million.

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The first game in the series, ‘Saints Row’ came out exclusively on the Xbox 360 less than a year after the console’s launch and was immediately compared to the 3D GTA games, all of which had been released on the previous generation (GTA IV was still two years away). Saints Row was much more serious back then, yes there was the ability to do drugs and drink before you went out on a killing spree, and many of the activities were as madcap as we have come to expect as a minimum from the series, but bear in mind this is back when GTA’s last game, San Andreas had featured just as much insanity. Where Saints Row stood out was the customisation and the graphics. Being a next gen game, doing something as ambitious as an open-world third person game with a fully customisable avatar in HD was incredibly brave. It also paid off in leaps and bounds, Saints Row looked amazed, played well, and the abundance of crazy physics glitches were more entertaining than irritating. Surfing on the roofs of cars, shooting out tyres, it all felt so exciting and ridiculous. By the end of the final act you were really rooting for the Saints and they had been established as a believable and sympathetic group against the other gangs.

There was even a multiplayer component, something new to the genre, that was unfortunately plagued with lag for the first couple of months of release. It was stripped back compared to what we’re used to now, but getting a group of people together to fight as a team was incredibly exciting and novel way back in 2006.

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The story was darker in tone than the last couple of games, telling a tale of gang warfare, betrayal, murder and friendship. While the gameplay may have been bordering on the slapstick, the plot was anything but. We were introduced to long-term favourites like Jonny Gat and Aisha; the fact we still remember their names is partly due to their continued storylines in other titles, but also thanks to the excellent characterisation and voice acting. I can’t remember a single ancillary character from any of the GTA games before IV, when they really started to go all out with the voice acting and character development, one could suppose as a response to games like Saints Row moving the medium forward.

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‘Saints Row 2’ came out in 2008, six months after the release of GTA IV. Despite being made in a short two years, it proved to be an improvement in every way over the original. The graphics were much improved, it was a multi-platform release (although the PC version continues to perform poorly to this day even on modern hardware thanks to some awful optimisation, customisation was increased to an insane degree including the ability to change your voice and gender, the whole game could be played in co-op (lag free) and the city was reworked and expanded upon.

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In terms of tone, Volition began to loosen up and introduce more of the insanity that pervades the series today into the plot. From a guy stabbing himself to get put into a prison hospital just to meet you all the way up to monster truck rallies and Kill Bill style swordfights, everything was stepped up a notch (or eleven). There was still the drama, and that’s never left the series, but the crazy gameplay was made a more integral part of your character as ‘the Boss’. In Saints Row 2 you were now in charge of the gang, and took on the task of eliminating three rival gangs in any order you chose. This led to a huge amount of freedom in how you approached the main campaign and I can’t begin to imagine how complicated it must have been to interweave three complex plotlines that all have massive twists and developments without having them interfere with each other depending on how the player chooses to approach them.

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Saints Row 2 is still a brilliant game to pick up and play today, the graphics have stood up well, the physics are as ridiculous as ever and the side-missions and activities (particularly the pimp and ambulance sets) are challenging and hilarious in equal measures if played in co-op. Saints Row 2 is widely regarded as a classes by gamers in the know and started the series off on the path it follows today. This game also introduced the one-upmanship that Saints Row has consistently played with itself. In the first game you might have grown to lead a gang, but in this game you go from street fights and courtroom rampages all the way up to helicopter assaults on skyscrapers.

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‘Saints Row: The Third’ is the most recent release in the series, available on 360, PS3 and PC (with a well optimised engine this time meaning it oddly requires a less powerful system than the second entry despite looking much better). The title firmly cemented Saints Row as one of the craziest games around, maybe slightly behind Noby Noby Boy and Tokyo Jungle. Within the first hour or so of the game you’ve stolen a vault (the whole thing) from a building, fought helicopters through the city, been captured, used a predator drone to attack the military and passed through an airplane at least twice. It’s hard to express just how much they managed to cram in to what amounts to the tutorial for the game. Thankfully it’s not downhill from there as the game keeps up the pace through involving you in wrestling matches, VTOL combat, a zombie outbreak and a manic Japanese-inspired televised deathmatch. You even get to be a film star.

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All of this takes place after the Saints became famous thanks to the events of Saints Row 2, you have your own merchandise, you’re rolling in money and everyone knows you. Some of that changes near the beginning but by the end you’ve got skyscrapers, gangs, an army of vehicles, clothes and territories all under your control. The world becomes your playground and Volition have given you the tools to do what you want with it. One moment you could be fending off zombies in the exlusion zone and then suddenly a stray shot will irritate a local gang who’ll start to chase you down in droves. You can fire octopuses at their heads to make them start dancing, or simply call in an air strike to deal with them. You can ever phone up some minor celebrities to come help you in combat and then while you’re escaping you’re liable to see someone dressed as Professor Genki run across the road, causing Mayhem all of their own. You might make plans in Saints Row The Third, but you never know where you’ll end up.

For some, this break from the more down-to-earth combat of the last game was a little too much, particularly when you end up fighting entire hordes of enemies, and each gang has one or two super-powered units they use against you. That being said it’s impossible to not enjoy yourself throughout the campaign and yet again the whole thing is playable in co-op which makes everything better. We’ve been replaying a lot of the game recently in co-op and there’s a huge amount of fun to be had leaving your partner to fend off a gang, only for you to return in a blaze of glory with a fire truck that’s on fire, ploughing into the superunits with a horde of police cars in tow.

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Customisation took another step up, and with all of the adventures apparently happening to one individual it’s easy to get attached to ‘your’ Boss, and the other supporting characters. Despite the absolutely ludicrous situations you find yourself in, there are real tearjerker moments in the plot and even some moral decisions to be made throughout that affect the city in serious ways. There’s RPG systems based on levelling your character and weapons, there’s an array of ridiculous cheats and there’s a giant city with incredibly distinct zones that can all be traversed at breakneck speeds thanks to the aircraft and even a hover bike.

Some disagreed with the DLC system for the game, but if you picked it up on PC all of the DLC has been on sale repeatedly now and much of it is worth picking up. The extra missions are all entertaining and well written, and all the vehicles, weapons and customisation options give you more toys to play around with as you go through the game. The only issue we had with it is that once you have a gun that fires underground sharks at people, why would you use anything else?

Overall, the Saints Row series has established itself this generation as one of the greatest AAA IPs in gaming. Alongside Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War and Uncharted, I’m hoping we see much more of the Saints in the next generation. For now though we’ve got Saints Row IV to look forward to. Tomorrow we’’ll be posting a full preview of what you can expect from the Saints’ farewell to the current gen.

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