Last week, the next entry in the Saints Row franchise was announced. Saints Row 4 will release on Aug 20 on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. The news came seemingly out of no where because only the tiniest bit of information said that Volition working on the next Saints Row when the Dominatrix DLC for Saints the Third was scrapped. That came last June, but no official announcement was made about the fourth game. Then THQ’s highly publicized financial trouble happened leading to its inevitable bankruptcy, dissolution and auction of popular assets. Deep Silver won the fierce battle for the Saints property and the brilliant minds at Volition, and paid heavily for the franchise back in January. To say the announcement of a big game like Saints Row 4 for a late summer release is a surprise is an understatement given all the studio shuffle and drama that went down with THQ. Yet this August, the world will have a chance to play the next manic entry in one of the zaniest and over-the-top crime sandbox game out there. Saints Row 4 will launch a full month (almost) before the pushed back and hotly anticipated Grand Theft Auto 5. The fervor and excitement even after the huge delay for Rockstar’s GTA 5 is still high despite little to no new details coming out since the second trailer debut in Nov and the official date announcement in Jan. Despite the promise of a new GTA, the announcement and release of Saints Row 4 is infinitely more exciting.
Saints Row, Really? Uhhh, Yeah!
Then in 2011, Volition released Saints Row: the Third, if there ever was any notion of making a grounded crime series again that went out the window with this atom bomb of unrestrained lunacy. If Saints 2 was simply a straight crime game with some quirks then Saints the Third is a plague of quirks with some crime drama thrown into it. The game opens with the Saints robbing a bank dressed as Johnny Gat and during the robbery gone wrong, players can sign autographs (because the Saints are media icons) in between heated firefights. In the game, the Saints are dropped into the rival gang turf of Steelport and have to take out the gangs that make up the Syndicate who want a cut of the Saints’ business. To eradicate the three gangs of Steelport (one including a gang of luchadores), the Boss (player) enlists the help of old Saints like Shandi and Pierce (who care about Pierce though) and newer characters like superhuman experiment Oleg, superhacker Kinzie and pimp extraordinaire Zimos complete with Roger Troutman voicebox. Eventually, the United States declares war on the Saints and Steelport is under martial law with paramilitary group, S.T.A.G. hunting the player with lasers, battletanks and fighter jets with giant lasers attached. Oh and Burt Reynolds from White Lightning is the Mayor. Things are weird to say the least. Saints the Third is funny, insane and kind of brilliant. As Josh Birk phrased it in the opening cinematic, “Ultra post-modernism… I love it”.
Little details are available at the moment for Saints Row 4, there is a brief synopsis of what the story will contain. The Boss has been elected as the President of the United States and from the looks of it, he/she is more of a Dwayne Mountain Dew Herbert Elizondo Camacho kind of President than Abraham Lincoln (even in vampire hunting mode). At some point in the game there is an alien invasion where the Saints get sucked into an Earth-2 Steelport. From there it is up to the Boss as President to defend and free humanity from the aliens by defeating their leader, Zinyak. It seems that Saints 4 is making the end of the last game happen for reals. While that is not a whole lot to go on as far as information goes, but still seems pretty crazy. The trailer announcing the game with footage from gameplay says volumes about the level of ludicrousness to be found in the new game. Players will get superpowers that let them run like the Flash (complete with a Flash-like costume), ice powers, telekinesis, full frontal nudity, Tron-esque light cycles, guitar cases that shoot rockets, guns that make enemies heads grow gigantic (and hopefully explode), and gigantic monster energy drinks. Oh and plenty of nut punches. The short trailer sells the game better than any press release ever could. If Saints Row 4 deliver on half of what it seems to propose then it is Game of the Year potential.
Yeah, but GTA 5, Dude!
The public knows pretty much the same amount of information about how GTA 5 and Saints Row 4. Rockstar has been selective about the information released about GTA 5, they have released two trailers and an article in Game Informer, but not much else. As it stands that players will venture to Los Santos (Rockstar’s stand-in for Los Angeles) and it will be the largest game environment Rockstar has done (possibly ever if it is truly bigger than all prior Rockstar games combined). That means there will be plenty to explore and discover, in addition to fun little diversions like golf, tennis and other types of sports, recreation and presumably an alive nightlife (with the LA setting). A sore point for the series has been clunky combat and rough driving mechanics. Rockstar is looking to rectify that with this new entry by adding more refined driving controls, improving the physics and fleshing out the types of vehicles offered to the gamer with ATVs, planes, helicopters, trucks and motorcycles (no Tron light cycle though). The combat will focus more on shooting than melee (do not expect any Sleeping Dog-level of hand-to-hand combat), but Dan Houser said that the shooting will be better than it has ever been. That makes sense considering Rockstar has had plenty of practice since GTA 4 working on Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, both of which featured vastly better combat mechanics than the previous GTA games. The cars will be customizable and so will character wardrobes, while pedestrian interactions will receive and overhaul as well. GTA 5 is making plenty of smart moves with its gameplay and setting choices (at least from what is currently out about it).
What about the story? This is where Rockstar shines, their games are adeptly written, smart and often great comments/satires on whatever time-period, pop culture reference or ideal they are tackling. In GTA 4, they took a look at the immigrant story and the idea of the American Dream revealing some fascinating commentary on how it is warped and largely a lie. This time around the game centers around three protagonists in the various area of what seems to be modern-day Los Santos. There is Michael, a 40-year old retired criminal, currently in the witness protection program. Due to family problems and money troubles, Michael gets sucked back into the life in order to maintain his high-end Los Santos’ lifestyle. Then there is Trevor, a meth-out psychopath with thining hair and filthy t-shirts, who is Michael’s best friend and a criminal controlling his rural looking area of Los Santos. Finally, there is Franklin, a mid-20’s young man who is a criminal with dreams of going legit, but his friends and significant other want to keep him mired in illegal activities. As a young black man, he looks to be in the more hood areas of Los Santos (reminiscent of San Andreas’ CJ). Through a series of events, the three men eventually will start pulling of jobs together and in a scene in the trailer where Michael introduces Trevor to Franklin, he calls Franklin, “the son I never had”. That gives the viewer an idea of where Michael is at in the game, especially with the footage of him talking to a therapist and tense interactions with his son.
The most exciting part of GTA 5 will likely be what it can pull of with the three protagonists, which the player will control and be able to switch between during missions and in-between jobs with the press of a button. That opens up plenty of interesting gameplay ideas, and allow for more complex missions. The key will be to differentiate the characters well and give them each their own special skills, otherwise playing at three characters will be a chore. One of the most fascinating ideas with the switching between characters is that when one of them is not controlled by the player, they live their own lives. Thus, when controlling Franklin and doing specific character missions, Trevor and Michael will be off doing other things. So, when the player switches back to them, they could be clear across Los Santos by the time the player chooses them again. While that could get annoying if the gamer wants to quick run to a mission, the idea of opening up exploration through non-controlled protagonists venturing off in compelling. It is also extremely complicated and complex, which means Rockstar could fall on their faces with it.
A Separation of Degrees
What makes Saints Row 4 a more exciting prospect is that it offers plenty up about what it will play like in a simple trailer, whereas GTA 5 has plenty going for it, but so far it all seems theoretical. There is cool stuff in the GTA 5 trailer like a jeep driving out of the back of a carrier jet and then a guy jumping out to sky dive, and Trevor jumping off a train before it crashes into another train. However, none of that seems nearly as thrilling as freezing a guy then shattering him to bits or piloting a mech suit against aliens. Saints 4 is balls out crazy from the jump. Whereas, GTA 5 is restrained, elegant and serious, Saints 4 seems like it could do a bunch of rails off a urinal then beat up a cop. There is a degree of difference with these two games, GTA 5 is more of a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon action film with plausibility, characters and plot, while Saints Row 4 is a Neveldine-Taylor joint. Ultimately, GTA 5 will likely push forward the genre with its intriguing new mechanics involving multiple characters and will be a very good game, but Saints Row 4 will probably be more fun and offer the player a chance to cut loose like they did when they were teenagers playing earlier GTAs.