I’m afraid I need to get something off my chest, something that’s been slowly bubbling away in the back of my mind for years, but that I’ve only quite recently come to fully recognise. This won’t be easy to hear, and lord knows it’s difficult to say, but… I don’t really like the Grand Theft Auto games very much. When I said I liked them? I was lying. When I acted like I’d played them all? I was faking. I’m sorry, but the truth is every time I’ve been with Grand Theft Auto, I’ve been thinking of Saints Row.
Let me tell you a story. My first experience of the Grand Theft Auto series was with GTA III, playing “swap the controller with every death” at my cousin’s house. I already knew about the game through reputation, and just as I expected, it was bloody enjoyable. While it succeeded in sparking my interest and curiosity, even back then I remember wondering if it would still be as fun playing through the game on my own. It always seemed there were always little things getting in the way of our manic rampages; with every restart we’d have to mess around with weapons cheats, vehicle summoning and awkward reloading of saves. My expectation – even if I didn’t realise it at the time – was that the fun could mostly be stemming from the social environment that we were playing in.
“Saints Row 2 was everything I had ever hoped a Grand Theft Auto game could be – and much, much more.”
Despite these niggles, my fascination with the franchise did not waver as the years went on, and being a fresh-faced millennial bastard it wasn’t until the release of GTA IV that I was able to get my hands on one of these intriguing games for myself. Immediately I felt like something wasn’t quite right. The game looked realistic, but ugly and brown. The cutscenes that I was sitting through were long and boring, and the way my character moved was strange and somehow unsettling. In fact, the dedication that Rockstar Games applied to creating smooth and realistic turning and walking animations (that continues to this day) made the act of trying to make my character walk through a doorway feel like I was trying to thread a needle with a fucking worm. It didn’t take long at all – during an early mission that literally had me sit in a parked car doing nothing for about two whole minutes, I realised I was horrendously bored. I pushed myself to keep going, but every horrible minigame, every bad-handling car and every time I had to furiously mash a button to make my fat protagonist run at a bearable pace – just in the first hour or two of playing – was way to much to put myself through. Sometimes if I close my eyes, I can still taste the disappointment that I felt that day.
But six months after the release of GTA IV, out of nowhere, came a game called Saints Row 2. I was unfamiliar with the first Saints Row game, but I picked up the sequel upon a friend’s recommendation, not quite knowing what to expect or what it would all be about. I played through the whole campaign over the course of about a week, and it became increasingly apparent that Saints Row 2 was everything I had ever hoped a Grand Theft Auto game could be – and not only that but much, much more. Where GTA IV had tedious bowling dates, brown tracksuits and angsty protagonists; Saints Row 2 had streaking minigames, pirate costumes and ridiculous character customisation – covering every detail right down to your accent (I’m a sucker for the gruff cockney voice). While GTA IV opened with overlong cutscenes and dull, unending tutorials; Saints Row 2 kicks off with prison breaks, boat chases and shooting down police helicopters.
“The Saints Row games just know exactly what they’re about – and they don’t take themselves too seriously”
One of the main problems with the later GTA titles is that they try to have the best of both worlds – they want the mindless destructive sandbox gameplay they’re famous for, but also try desperately to create serious and meaningful drama with joyless characters. This is probably their way of trying to make you sympathise with the protagonists; but I would argue that, leaving aside the fact that Saints Row lets you customise the look and personality of your player character to an insane degree (still unmatched by any other game I’ve played), you will always be able to connect with the protagonist because they’re essentially characterised as a psychopath who wants to have some violent cathartic fun – exactly mirroring the mindset of the player. The saddest part is I even liked Niko Bellic as a character in GTA IV – he had a compelling story and often came out with deeply moving and profound insights into our unjust world; but unfortunately, any attempt at a deep or intelligent message in Grand Theft Auto is immediately cheapened when you remember that one of the in-game brands of beer is called “Pißwasser”.
Saint’s Row 2 was a proud Grant Theft Auto clone, but one which stripped away all the bullshit that clung to the series, and simply strived to elevate the underlying concept to become as fun as it could be. To this day, Saints Row 2 is still my favourite crime sandbox game of all time, and Saints Row in general one of my favourite series – even though the third game suffered from wildly ramping up the wackiness without proper context, while continuing to confine itself to the classic GTA format. The Saints Row games just know exactly what they’re about – and everything from the humour and characters, to the visual design and gameplay mechanics, show that they totally understand their audience – because they don’t take themselves too seriously. This is the main theme that runs through every one of the Saints Row games, and what allowed the developers to let the series continuously evolve without ever losing its identity; rather than just re-releasing the same game every few years.
“Any attempt at a deep or intelligent message in Grand Theft Auto is immediately cheapened when you remember that one of the in-game brands of beer is called ‘Pißwasser’”
Based on the sales figures, I think I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t own a copy of GTA V. In fact, based on the sales figures, I think I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t own seven copies of GTA V. This is because the sandbox game I was playing in 2013 was Saints Row IV, the last chapter in a series that started with a Grand Theft Auto knock-off and ended with foul-mouthed superheroes battling alien invasions with pop-culture parodies. God bless you Saints Row. Your commitment to ridiculously idiotic, chaotic and psychotic gratification is a breath of fresh air in this homogeneous age of gaming – air that probably turns into a puerile sexual innuendo on its way back out of your mouth.