Volition have tried so hard to step out of Rockstar’s shadow, ever since their first attempt at an open world game they have had to bear the GTA clone tagline. Saints Row IV is their latest attempt to put their own stamp on the genre. Where Rockstar have gone towards cinematic griping gameplay as was demonstrated by 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, Volition have decided to go in the other direction where over the top weapon and character customization take precedence over narrative gameplay.
Saints Row IV is a perfect demonstration of why many serious media critics can’t hold video games up to the same standards as they do with other mediums. The latest game in the GTA series looks to take a very wry look at modern day California, played out by three characters from different walks of life. Whereas Saints Row IV in some ways has no meaning or purpose, with the story of a guy from the streets who works his way through the hierarchy of the gang culture of the first game long abandoned. A thin narrative of an alien invasion enslaving the city of Steelport with the Presidential Saints the only ones who can save the day, is laid over what is essentially repurposed missions pulled from the atypical game design bin. Go pick up one thing, bring it to some place and repeat. There is no compelling reason for the player to have any vested interest in what is going on around them. Superpowers and Dub-step guns are not a substitute for game design, Volition have looked to take the easy route. However if they wish to shake of the shackles of Rockstar then they need to try a little harder to upset the applecart.
“It’s off to the White House for the Saints crew, how a gang member with a prison record is elected to office beats me but when has Violation ever worried about the finer details”
Saints Row IV has had a bit of a turbulent birth which might explain some of its shortcomings. It was original planned as a DLC expansion to the previous game in the series with the interesting title of Saints Row the Third: Enter the Dominatrix. It was set to be a standalone expansion similar to Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. In June of 2012 it was then announced that the DLC would become the basis for the fourth game in the series. Then in January of the next year Volition’s publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy and sold off most of its major assets Saints Row included. Koch Media who own publisher Deep Silver bought the rights to the franchise and this week sees the game finally getting its release. It is clear that this game is borrowing heavily from its predecessor with a very slightly re-textured Steelport and an identical game engine that reuses many of the same mechanics of the last game. It’s not surprising with only a two year delta in the development between the third and fourth game, is the Saints Row game to become an annual series like so many other franchises. Where there is little in the way of innovation but instead the budget is spent on marketing the game as something new that isn’t, I’m talking about you Call of Duty. Why is the industry in such a hurry to produce content, maybe some developers should take a page out of Valve’s book. In that you take an extortionate amount of time that has gamers tearing their hair out with anticipation and then blowing those raised expectations out of the water when the game is finally released, saying all that will they please get a move on Half Life 3 unless there trying to beat Duke Nukem Forever record. Violation can’t be fully blamed in this matter it is the gamers themselves that create this demand, they need to practise a bit more patience and allow video game developers to take the time to craft a more fleshed out and graphical impressive game. It is also partly due to the pressures put on by the publishers who want to feed the insatiable appetites of impatience gamers, all in the pursuit of vast sums of money. Whereas companies like Rockstar and Valve self-publish most of their games and have a long standing presence in the industry that allows them to set their own deadlines and release dates, others like Violation have to answer to their publishers demands.
“It’s back to the streets of LA for the next instalment of GTA, Rockstar could do with branching out to some other regions of the country”
The main issue with a game like Saints Row IV is that although they offer the player an amazing array of character customization options, there is no emotional connection with the main character. To use another game that Saints Row IV parodies, Mass Effect too offers the player a chance to customize their character and even choose which gender to play as. The difference between the two is that through an engaging narrative storyline the player is able to connect with the mass of polygons on screen and have real moral decision posed to them, with the player having to genuinely weigh up the choices before commenting to an action. Those choices coming back to either help or hinder the player later in the game. In Saints Row IV the player becomes a god like superhero with a vastly overpowered skill set that separates the character from the rest of humanity that populate the game. Both Infamous and Prototype are games that put the player in control of a super powered human, however both offer consequences and a narrative interest when using their abilities. Saints Row as ever just throws out the “It’s just a game” line that seems to absolve them of having to make any effort in the narrative and storytelling department. Endless culture references written in as bad puns and cheesy one-liners are a substitute for the writers having to actual construct any meaningful dialogue. Anyone who has played a Rockstar game knows well that the writers like to make a joke or two and aren’t opposed to the odd culture reference, however they don’t let that affect the overall narrative. Lazlow one of the writers for the GTA series weaves his very apt satirical views on modern culture into the world without impacting on the main characters story or dialogue.
“It seems poor timing on the part of Deep Silver to launch their newly acquired franchise a month before GTA V, have they not heard of Rockstar before”
The sexual content of Saints Row IV is also an issue that was a talking point prior to the games release. It was the ACB Australia’s ratings board that deemed the game unrateable for the sexual content within. In particular it was the games anal-probe weapon that caused the Aussies the get all hot and bothered. The game was eventually given a M15+ rating with some of the sexual and drug related content edited from the game. The Australians ratings board can often be quite harsh when it comes to judging the explicit content of video games, Undead Labs know that with their game State of Decay being given the same treatment. However in this case I have to agree with them, they stated that the sexual content in the game including the explicit weapon set was not justified within the context of the game. It is the cardinal rule for game developers who wish to delve into the murky waters of explicit content, it must be justified within the context of the narrative. The much acclaimed LA Noire produced by Bondi Games and published by Rockstar featured racially offensive dialogue but is justified as it imitates the time in which the game is set. It is possible for games to feature explicit adult content, it just has to have a reason for being there and not just for the sake of it as it seems to be with Saints Row IV. I would genuinely like to know what in what context does an anal-probe with an animated tongue that propels unsuspecting victims across the map, have in Saints Row IV or any game for that matter.
Ultimately it seems like Saints Row has removed its unwanted tag of just being a GTA clone but not because it offered players a more carefully crafted gaming experience, with an impressive amount of narrative and gameplay innovation. Just as Uncharted unseated Tomb Raider as the King of the Relic Hunters. No Saints Row decided to go off the deep end and spend its time coming up with more and more ludicrous weapons and abilities that relegated any engaging gameplay to the side-lines. They have become a parody onto themselves. Rockstar will have no worries about Saints Row IV affecting the sales and player numbers of their latest GTA release. I would doubt any serious open world fanatic will still be playing Saints Row IV when GTA V hits the marketplace. The students still have a lot to learn from the masters who have dominated the open world genre for the last 15 years.