I finished Red Faction: Guerrilla a couple months back and decided that I definitely needed to play more games from Volition Software. This in turn led me to Saints Row 2, and a startling realization: there were dev studios out there doing open world games just as well as Rockstar was, and in the case of Volition, in many ways they were doing a better job. Saints Row 2 has its share of problems—predictable story, a host of bugs and glitches. But it takes the over-the-top approach to sandbox gaming that felt tacked on and out of place in GTA 4 and runs with it. What’s more, most of the problems in Saints Row 2 were fixed in its spiritual successor Red Faction: Guerrilla; Volition learns from its mistakes and corrects them.
If Rockstar had been acquired by Sega circa 1999 and subsequently released GTA 3 as a Dreamcast exclusive, it would have essentially been Saints Row 2. The attitude, presentation, licensed music and general insanity of Saints 2 felt like Sega’s take on a GTA. Like Crazy Taxi, Seaman or Space Channel 5, Saints 2 knew exactly what it was and didn’t care what anyone else thought, probably because it didn’t have the massive fanbase and expectations attached to a GTA. There was none of the gangster movie worshipping or macho insecurity that have always tinged Rockstar’s series. In spite of its problems, that is what I loved about Saints 2—it lacked the sense of identity crisis that plagued Niko Bellic’s maudlin journey through Liberty City.
Do I think the next GTA should emulate the Saints Row series? Absolutely not. Volition is doing their own thing. At most, GTA should take pointers from Saints Row in terms of gameplay and playability, not theme and story. Saints 2 might not have the plot complexity or realistic physics of GTA 4, but I noticed something about an hour into the game: I was having fun. I was mostly frustrated for about 80% of GTA 4. GTA 4 sacrificed fun, intuitive play for realism. It was a decent stab at serious crime drama but in the end it came off as pretentious and self indulgent. In terms of gameplay, it’s merely a thorough next-gen polish of what came before. To paraphrase one of my favorite game commentators, GTA 4 did not change the landscape of gaming; that’s what GTA 3 did. At most GTA 4 did a very good job of mowing the lawn.
I have no doubt that Rockstar could release the equivalent of GTA 4 expansion packs for the next decade and the fans would be happy, but as a gamer I can’t be satisfied with that. I like the GTA series a lot, but I want to see it evolve. I want to see Rockstar challenge themselves and what their crime franchise can be. GTA can be unabashedly fun again, and without going the goofball route that Saints Row takes. GTA just has to get a lot better at being serious, and not divide itself between immature cultural parody and mature storytelling.
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