When Rockstar North (then DMA Design) developed and released Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001, they literally changed gaming from that point on. GTA III certainly wasn’t the first open world/crime game, I mean, there were two other main GTA titles before it for starters. But that one game in particular struck a very receptive nerve among gamers. It was, for want of a better word, perfect at the time. It’s melding of open world, anarchic action and tight storytelling was unmatched in 2001. Yeah sure, there were other GTA-like games, but those just weren’t GTA.
For a good while after the release of GTA III, there was an ongoing trend of developers trying to out GTA Rockstar North, developers wanting to not just mimic GTA III, but also attempt to better it. Those games were a very mixed bag. Some really good titles, some awful ones. It seemed for a while that no one was capable of making a truly brilliant ‘GTA clone’, as they were labelled as back then. Then in 2006, American developers Volition threw their hat into the ring with Saints Row. A new franchise was born that is still going today, with the announcement of the latest game, Saints Row V last year. And according to Volition, they’re deep in development on the game too. So with fourteen years and four main games in the franchise… and a spin-off or two. I thought I’d take a look at the entire Saints Row franchise… you ready for this, playa?
Okay so a quick aside here. I originally started to write this one in August of last year when Saints Row V was first announced. Covered the first two games, but put the article on hold as I waited more info on the fifth game, and then… I just forgot about the whole thing. Then, Saints Row: The Third Remastered was announced, that I completely missed, until a friend mentioned it to me (thanks Martin). So with the remaster now out, I thought I’d get back into this retrospective and finish it. Oh and a big thanks to Dan over at Koch Media for sending me a copy of Saints Row: The Third Remastered.
I always do this, but I’m going to pop in a SPOILER warning right now. I’ll be covering the plots of each game, including the endings. So if you don’t want the story of Saints Row ruined, then stop reading now.
This is where it all started. You control an unnamed, low level street thug, who never talks. Finding yourself in the city of Stilwater, you are taken under the wing of local gang, the 3rd Street Saints, who really like the colour purple and is run by Julius Little. Dexter “Dex” Jackson, Johnny Gat, and Lin are Julius’ main lieutenants in the gang. After a few initiation missions, Julius Little tasks you, the player to take out the three rival gangs in Stilwater. An African American gang, the Vice Kings, who’s main source of income is from strip clubs and record labels. The Los Carnales are a Hispanic gang who’s main line of business is drugs, they run the narcotics trade. And finally, an underground racing gang called the Westside Rollerz. Julius also appoints one of his three lieutenants to each of the three gangs to work alongside you.
Once all three gangs are taken care of and the 3rd Street Saints in control of Stilwater, the player is made a chief lieutenant by Julius. Then, Stilwater’s corrupt police chief, Richard Monroe arrests Julius and holds him to ransom, forcing the player to kill the city’s mayor in exchange for Juluis’ life. The Saints ambush the police chief, kill him and free Julius. The mayor invites the player onto his yacht, where you learn that he (mayor) is planning on having all of the 3rd Street Saints arrested and to also have their main territory, Saints Row, burnt to the ground and made way for redevelopment. The mayor orders for you to be executed, at which point, the yacht explodes as Julius watches on. Was Julius involved in the explosion and are you, the player dead? Questions to ask as the game ends on a cliffhanger.
Saints Row, while definitely a ‘GTA clone’, also stood out in it’s own right. It wasn’t very original, but what it did do, it did very well and in some cases, it did it even better than GTA. The introduction of a cell phone for instance, which you could use to call in back up, unlock hidden secrets and cheats. A GPS system to help you get around the map. All done before GTA. There was a certain element of ridiculousness that came with Saints Row, which GTA just didn’t have at the time. An almost cartoony style, which gave the player many more options and ways to create havoc around the open world the game provided. Then there was the immense level of customisation available to you. Creating your player, with such a deep and easy to use system which allowed you to design a reasonably ‘normal’ looking character, or you could go the other way and create some real freaks of nature. That deep customisation also applied to the many vehicles in the game too. The customisation soon became a fan favourite feature and would only get more in-depth and more insane as the franchise continues.
Saints Row is packed with anarchic missions and side-quests/distractions which just make the game so much more fun and exciting. Developers Volition managed to make Saints Row offensive (a good thing) and thoroughly entertaining in ways Rockstar with GTA hadn’t even thought of back then. They do say that imitation is the best form of flattery, and so Rockstar should’ve been extremely flattered with Saints Row… and maybe a little envious too. A little bit ropy and rough around the edges now, especially with the controls. But Saints Row is still a great title to play.
Saints Row 2
Picking up five years after the events of the first game. Your character survived the explosion on the yacht… but not unscathed. Finding yourself in Stilwater’s maximum security prison, being in a coma since the explosion, and laid up in the infirmary of the prison. You regain consciousness, after some extensive plastic surgery (queue the game’s impressive customisation), you break out of the prison to find that the 3rd Street Saints have disbanded and leader of the gang, Julius Little has gone missing. Oh and you can talk now too. Amazing what being on board an exploding yacht can do.
The Ultor Corporation have redeveloped a large chuck of Stilwater, including the gang’s main territory, Saints Row itself. After taking down and rescuing ex-Saints lieutenant Johnny Gat from a court trail, you and Gat set about rebuilding the 3rd Street Saints. Setting up a new HQ in an earthquake damaged hotel, you the player becomes the new boss, and now earn the name of The Boss. With help from Johnny Gat and two new members, Pierce Washington and Shaundi, you have to recreate and even re-brand the 3rd Street Saints from the ground up.
Of course, after a five year absence, the 3rd Street Saints name is now mud and new gangs have moved it to lay a claim to the streets. The Ronin, a Japanese gang who run gambling and porn operations in Stilwater. The Sons of Samedi, a Haitian voodoo gang who run the drugs business. The Brotherhood, an outlaw gang who are into gun-running. Take out the new gangs, reclaim the city in the name of the 3rd Street Saints, teach that pesky Ultor Corporation to not mess with Saints Row… oh, and find out what happened to ex-leader Julius Little.
Saints Row really was a cracking game, Saints Row 2 was even better. While still set in the same city as the previous game, the five year gap between the stories means the city has changed a lot, thanks to the not exactly on the level, Ultor Corporation. The map is familiar, yet still fresh.
Yes, the customisation is back, and far more in-depth than before. Not only can you still create a seriously strange looking character, you can now be male or female too. There’s even some amusing dialogue in the game from the likes of Johnny Gat who suggests that you look different somehow… but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Yes the customisation is back in full force with plenty of new features, you can even customise the gang itself now too. The humour of Saints Row 2 is what really works here, the first game had a sense of humour sure, but this sequel goes above and beyond to be hilarious. That crazy OTT gameplay style of Saints Row is back, and pushed even further this time around. More zany distractions and side missions, more stupidly silly but thoroughly enjoyable main missions too.
For me, this is as good as Saints Row got. It melded everything together perfectly. The OTT gameplay, the humour, the characters (especially Shaundi) and the story are all balanced to perfection. I quite honestly didn’t think Volition could ever top Saints Row 2. Then…
Saints Row: The Third
Taking place five years after the previous game’s events. The 3rd Street Saints have become a brand, and a vastly popular brand too. The Saints name appears on clothing, drinks and anything they can sell to keep the 3rd Street Saints brand alive and profitable. But don’t think that the Saints have gotten soft over the years, they still indulge in criminal activity. The game opens with you the Boss trying to rob a Stilwater bank, with help from Shaundi and Johnny Gat
But the robbery quickly goes sideways and the Boss along with his/her lieutenants are arrested. The trio are handed over to Phillipe Loren, head honcho of a worldwide criminal syndicate rather imaginatively called the Syndicate. So Loren says that Shaundi, Gat and you Boss (that’s really your character’s name, Boss) can keep their lives in exchange for most of the profits from the 3rd Street Saints brand. A deal that doesn’t go down too well at all. Johnny Gat sacrifices himself so Boss and Shaundi can escape, and what an escape it is too.
Boss and Shaundi find themselves in the (new) city of Steelport. A city overrun with gangs owned by the Syndicate. There’s the Morningstar who are Phillipe Loren’s main gang and who run the sex trade in the city. The Luchadores are a Mexican wrestling gang who run a large casino. Then the Deckers are a high-tech gang who operate the cyber black-market. Saints lieutenant, Pierce Washington turns up in Steelport and the Saints begin to fight back against Loren and his gangs to take over the city as their own.
I said previously how Saints Row 2 is as good as it gets. That’s a statement that needs some clarification. I think the map, story and characters in Saints Row 2 are perfect, at the time, the customisation was unmatched too. For me, Saints Row 2 is the best of the franchise. But with Saints Row: The Third, Volition perfected other elements of the franchise. The zany, ridiculousness of the franchise is absolutely perfectly balanced against it’s more ‘grounded’ elements. The customisation is brilliant, now with many more options and variables. The distractions and side missions are wonderful. Yet saying all of that, I still prefer Saints Row 2 as an overall game.
What Saints Row: The Third does, it does with passion and delight. But the story is a bit flat, passé… a bit ‘seen it all before’. Plus I really miss old stoner Shaundi as a character as she becomes an overbearing business woman in this one. This game is still utterly brilliant. It’s OTT nature is sublime, the level and detail in the customisation is second to none, especially with the character creation. Over the years, people have made some amazing Boss characters, even some based on real world people and TV/film characters. I do genuinely adore Saints Row: The Third and it’s insanity, I just prefer Saints Row 2’s structure as a game little bit more.
But before I move onto the next game in the franchise, I just want to offer my view on Saints Row: The Third Remastered, and again, thanks to Dan over at Koch Media for a review code.
So this remaster is just as good as the original game, but with a few bells and whistles. This is more than just a slight upgrade as Sperasoft Studio, who have handled this game, have done a bit more than just give it lick of paint. Models have been completely redesigned from the ground up, the characters, vehicles and weapons have all been re-built from scratch. The environments look beautiful, now with improved lighting, visual effects and a deeper colour palette. Every piece of previous DLC has been included too, that’s over 30 for those keeping count. From cosmetics that really add to the customisation to full on extra gameplay additions. And it all runs buttery smooth on the Xbox One X too. Some sites have been saying the game is locked at 30 fps on consoles… it’s not. In fact, there’s even an option to unlock the frame rate, which I did and had zero issues. The game looked and played silky smooth.
Saints Row: The Third Remastered is the definitive version of the game. Whether you’re new to the franchise or an old-timer when it comes to Saints Row. I highly recommend this remaster to anyone who fancies causing some crazy havoc and destruction…. with a great sense of humour to boot. But of course, this all depends on how much mileage you may get out of the game. I mean, at least on the Xbox, the original version is backwardly compatible, so is it really worth spending cash on this remaster? That’s a tough question to answer and I guess it all boils down to just how much you love the game.
Saints Row IV
When I finished Saints Row: The Third, I honestly didn’t think that developer, Volition really had anywhere else to go. The previous game was so OTT, it didn’t leave much room for experimentation. But boy was I wrong!
So the opening to Saints Row IV takes place just a few months after the events of the last game. It begins with Boss going on a mission to assist MI-6. This mission results in Boss stopping a nuclear missile from hitting Washington D.C. and the White House. Being hailed a hero by the Americans, Boss is elected President of the United States.
Cut to five years later (they really like these five year time jumps eh?), now established as the POTUS, Boss has actor Keith David as his/her adviser and several 3rd Street Saints members as part of his/her cabinet. And if that’s not crazy enough, then things get really out of hand. Aliens invade Earth, led by evil warlord, Zinyak. These aliens, called Zin, abduct Boss along with his cabinet. The Zin enslave humanity and trap Boss in a computer simulation/The Matrix kind of thing, which he must escape, rescue the Saints and save the Earth from the aliens. See, I told you I was wrong about Volition having nowhere to go… but does it work?
I have a real love/hate relationship with Saints Row IV. There is a lot to love. The game features some very clever, self-referential and very meta writing and humour. There are parts of this game when your stuck in a 1950s sitcom. Parts where (thanks to the computer simulation) you go back into previous games. There’s a clever and very well observed Streets of Rage parody tied into one of the major events of Saints Row 2, there’s a part where you go back the very first game and Boss makes comments on how bad the graphics look. The moments between Keith David (who voiced Julius Little in the first two games) and Ruddy Pipper when they reference ‘that fight’, the interactions between characters both past and present, etc. Saints Row IV is crammed full of creative moments, references and in-jokes to films, TV shows and games, enough to keep the biggest nerd, like me, happy.
These touches are great, brilliantly written, conceived and realised. And that much loved customisation is back in full force too, turned up way beyond eleven. But there’s so much more I don’t like about Saints Row IV that I just can’t ignore. Where as Saints Row: The Third managed to strike the absolute perfect balance between it’s iconic craziness and yet, still maintain a level of verisimilitude, Saints Row IV goes way too far into the absurd. Your character is too overpowered, the fact you can run at super speed and fly around the map renders the use of vehicles redundant. You become a superhero. The computer simulation setting is horrible, the re-used map from the last game just doesn’t work here and gets old fast. The game is perpetually set at night, making everything gloomy. Plus the fact you become the POTUS is completely irrelevant as the aliens enslave and eventually destroy the Earth, rendering your presidential status completely void anyway.
Then there’s the mission structure itself. Truth be told, there’s only a small handful of actual story missions. Everything else revolves around the reused distractions and side missions from the previous game. On the previous games, these distractions and side missions were just that, distractions and side missions. But in Saints Row IV, they are integrated to the main plot, the side missions become part of the main story… so not actually side missions now. The whole game feels like an afterthought, like this was half a game that has been massively padded out. It just didn’t sit right with me. It’s too OTT, even for Saints Row, it’s main plot is haphazardly thrown together, it’s structure makes zero sense. You feel like you’re playing a game with cheat-codes on that you can’t turn off and it all gets a bit boring to be honest.
I enjoyed Saints Row IV from it’s humour point of view. It is funny, it’s well written and observed, it’s chock full of clever references and all that… but it’s just not a Saints Row game, it doesn’t feel right at all. If Volition had created an all new IP about a disgruntled and reluctant superhero, like the movie Hancock, I think they could be had a fantastic title here and future new franchise. If they had fleshed out the story proper and installed a real story progression system, instead of relying on building everything around side missions, this could’ve been amazing. Saints Row IV is a good and funny game that’s fatally flawed. It’s just not Saints Row and feels more like an extended piece of DLC over a full game.
Well that’s the main games in the franchise covered. But I also want to take a look at the various spin offs too.
Saints Row: Total Control
This game was developed by Punch Entertainment and not original developers Volition, which should tell you all you need to know really. This wasn’t a ‘real’ Saints Row game, it was a Facebook only kind of thing.
This was completely non-canonical to the main series and was one of those property building games, very much like Mafia Wars or Gangster City, with some social media interactions thrown in. Those not very interesting tappy-tap games with no real depth and long, real-time waits to do mundane tasks. The game was set between the events of Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third. Not that it really matters because, as I said, this was non-canonical and never mentioned or referenced in the main games.
No longer available as it was removed from Facebook back in 2011. No major loss either as it was dull and didn’t bring anything new to an already over crowded market then.
Saints Row: Gat out of Hell
The story of this one is a little out there, maybe not quite to the level of Saints Row IV, but it’s certainly close. Taking place after Saints Row IV, Boss gets dragged to Hell by Satan after playing around with a Ouija Board. Satan tells Boss that he/she will have to marry his daughter, Jezebel. 3rd Street Saints lieutenants Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington go to Hell to save Boss. When in Hell, Gat and Kensington learn that the Saints old enemy, the Ultor Corporation have a branch down there. But instead of rekindling bad blood, Ultor offer to help Gat and Kensington save Boss from his forced marriage and take out Satan once and for all.
Saints Row: Gat out of Hell isn’t a full sequel or even a full game. It’s more if a fun and extended piece of DLC. It plays very similar to Saints Row IV before it. It’s stupid, OTT and ridiculous. You don’t play as Boss for the first time in a proper Saints Row game, Saints Row: Total Control doesn’t count. Instead you play as either Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington, with the ability to swap between the two.
Just as with Saints Row IV, you become incredibly overpowered and pick up all sorts of crazy talents. Flying and other superhuman abilities soon make you pretty much unstoppable. As you don’t play as Boss this time around, there’s no character customisation, which is definitely greatly missed. I enjoyed this one a bit more than Saints Row IV to be honest. I think it’s mainly because it can can be seen and treated as non-canonical, it doesn’t really effect the plot of the main games like Saints Row IV does. It’s not a big game at all, as it really is just a piece of DLC over a full title. But what it does, it does very well. It’s stupid, OTT, funny and a fun, playable little experiment.
That’s really it for Saints Row games and spin offs. There were a couple of planned, but never released games, such as Saints Row: Money Shot and Saints Row Undercover. Though an unfinished version of Saints Row Undercover has made itself onto the interwebs if you really want to check it out. But that’s about it. However, interestingly enough, the Saints Row universe is actually a shared one and spills over into other games too.
Red Faction is it’s own franchise, consisting of four main games. A franchise also developed by Volition, though no new games in the series have been announced since 2011’s Red Faction: Armageddon. Though a Red Faction: Guerrilla Re-Mars-tered, a remaster of the third game, was released in 2018.
The franchise is set way in the future, starting in 2075 and going through to 2175. Oh and takes place on Mars too. So pretty far removed from Saints Row really… even at it’s craziest. But the main villains of Red Faction are the Ultor Corporation, the same Ultor causing problems for the 3rd Street Saints since 2006.
Agents of Mayhem
This one is set in a futuristic version of Seoul, South Korea and is based off one of the endings to Gat out of Hell. Telling the story of M.A.Y.H.E.M. (Multinational AgencY Hunting Evil Masterminds), an organisation funded by the Ultor Corporation. Various agents from M.A.Y.H.E.M, including Johnny Gat, do battle against super-villain organisation L.E.G.I.O.N. (the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations).
I love the Saints Row franchise. It’s stupid, ridiculous, completely OTT and full of fun gameplay. Of the ‘GTA clones’, Saints Row is by far the best. So much so that it’s broken free from that ‘GTA clone’ label into it’s own, very much deserved sub-genre and one others just can not match. I may not have enjoyed Saints Row IV as a Saints Row game, but it is a fun-packed title none the less. For me, the games peaked with Saints Row 2. The map, the characters and the story was a great as the franchise got. But Saints Row: The Third is the franchise at it’s madcap best.
Saints Row V?
But before I end this, Saints Row V (or whatever it’ll be called) was officially announced last summer. That’s the reason why Sperasoft Studio took on Saints Row: The Third Remastered instead of series creator, Volition, who are already deep in development on the new title. Anyway, after the immensely fun, but far from right Saints Row IV, it’s hard to say or even guess where the franchise can go. I’m seriously curious as to what Volition have planned for the new game. So much so that I and some friends came up with a few ideas.
If we do ignore Saints Row: Gat out of Hell and it’s multiple different endings, if we go off the ‘proper’ ending to Saints Row IV. Then Earth has been destroyed, but Boss and what’s left of the 3rd Street Saints discover time-travel. The credits even roll with humorous images of the Saints going through time interacting with historical people and events. So, I guess Volition could use time-travel to put the Saints pretty much any-when they want. This could kick-start a new franchise of the Saints in history creating their brand centuries ago, Assassin’s Creed style. As my pal Badger suggested, have the Saints ride a T-Rex to kill Adolf Hitler.
Maybe the new game won’t be Saints Row V at all. Maybe it’s a complete reboot? Given the ending to Saints Row IV, given the fact Volition pretty much screwed the franchise from a storytelling perspective, maybe hitting the rest button is the best thing to do? An all new Saints Row starting fresh.
Or how about the idea that there are various 3rd Street Saints all over the world? Saints Row IV could’ve been the end of the story for that particular Boss. But what if there’s another Boss in China, England… pick a country. What if the 3rd Street Saints are a worldwide gang with branches spread all over the globe? The new game could jump back 20 years or so and tell the story of a new and different Boss in another country. A story that runs concurrent with the main plot of the first four games.
They could even do an origins kind of thing and tell the story of how the 3rd Street Saints began. Get into the histories of some of the more notable characters from the games like Johnny Gat or even Julius Little himself… remember him?
Perhaps Saints Row V could be a ‘real’ sequel to Saints Row: the Third. Maybe the events in Saints Row IV didn’t really happen, it could’ve all been a crazy dream, Bobby Ewing shower scene style. Then the new game could be the ‘proper’ sequel to Saints Row: the Third.
Anyway, enough of my rantings. Time to end this Saints Row retrospective, just sit back and wait to see what Volition have planned for the next game…