Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grove Street vs. The Row

This fall we will be treated to new entries in two series that I have a lot of love for, Saint's Row 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5. I am incredibly excited about both releases but when I began thinking about them I realized something; this is the first time these franchises have gone head-to-head like this and it's causing me some concern.

From San Andreas to Stilwater

Original Gangsta

You see, GTA: San Andreas came out in 2004 and the original Saint's Row which was... let's say "heavily inspired" by San Andreas was released in 2006. Okay, so Saint's Row was a borderline knock-off, but it was incredibly well done, unlike other GTA clones like the True Crime series or the remake of Narc. For that reason alone it was easy to overlook Saint's Row's similarities to Rockstar's popular franchise. There had also been enough of a time gap since GTA:SA that people were hungry for another game like that and Saint's Row was on the newest hardware generation, the Xbox and Playstation 3, giving it some extra oomph in the graphics department.

Semi-Original Gangsta

Saint's Row's gameplay was tight and it even managed to do some things better than San Andreas did; specifically the shooting mechanics were much better, in my opinion. It also tried to have a fairly serious story, but the writing just wasn't of the same quality that the GTA franchise had enjoyed. If you compare the games to Hollywood, the GTA series feels like your high-end, big budget gangster films like Scarface, Casino, or Boys in Tha Hood; Saint's Row feels "MTV" Gangster.

The storyline of the original SR gave you the impression the writers listened to entirely too much gangster rap and created a world that was all about "Hos and money." It wanted to be taken seriously, but often times came across laughable because it was just so ridiculous. This humor, intentional or not, lent the game and it's characters a fair amount of charm that many gamers, including myself, really enjoyed. That's not to say that all of the humor was unintentional; one of the side activities in the game involved you hurling yourself in front of oncoming traffic to rack up false insurance claims. The game certainly had some wackiness to it, but it was subdued, especially compared to what future iterations of the series would bring.

The first Saint's Row was a surprise hit for developer Volition and publisher THQ and it was clear that there would be more to come.

A break from tradition and a testing of the (Stil)water

If the glove don't fit...

Meanwhile, Rockstar had been hard at work creating the next entry in their biggest franchise, GTA IV. It was released at the end of April, 2008. The game was a massive hit, but some portion of the gaming community was disappointed by the more serious tone the game took on compared to San Andreas. Most of the game's humor was confined to satirical business names and billboards so that the story of Niko Bellic could maintain an air of grim reality.

Niko came to Liberty City to get out of crime and away from shady gangsters, but he was almost immediately thrown into the middle of a criminal culture that was foreign, yet all-too familiar for him at the same time.

I absolutely loved GTAIV and I though that Mr. Bellic's tale was brilliant, engaging, and sad to witness. However, some gamers were disappointed with it's more realistic approach; there were no jetpacks to fly, no gang territories to take over. It was just the story of one man struggling to eke out an honest life for himself while his sordid past sabotaged that from happening.

Sad Niko is sad...

Saint's Row 2 gave the behemoth that was GTAIV a four month berth, releasing in October of the same year. The designers at Volition had listened to feedback from the first SR; specifically that people enjoyed the crazier aspects of the original game and wanted more of it. They used SR2 to test the waters with more over-the-top game mechanics and a story to match.

Gangsta with a zany twist!

The result was a significantly more exhilarating and hilarious experience. Spraying down people and local monuments with a septic tank full of shit that had somehow been equipped with a hose, just to devalue the local property so that you can buy it up for cheap, is truly an experience I'll never forget.

Eww... Just, ew.
Unfortunately, the engine the game had been built on, the same engine Volition had created for the original game, just wasn't able to handle the kind of chaos they asked it to produce. This left the game with some serious performance issues that hampered the experience significantly. For example, one of the new activities, known as Trail Blazin', sets you on fire, places you on a quad, and asks you to drive trough a series of checkpoints within a set time limit. And oh yeah, anything you get near during this activity explodes... cars, trash cans, PEOPLE, they just fucking explode when you get close. It was a fantastic idea, but the frame-rate would routinely dip into the single digits once the explosions started getting too hectic, making the missions far more difficult and frustrating to play than they should have been.

Saint's Row 2 was flawed, but it was a necessary experiment that would help the franchise evolve into what it is today. It allowed Volition to test their audience's reaction and see whether or not this was the direction the series should be headed in. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" Volition now had a blueprint to take Saint's Row to the next level...

Wrasslin', Dildo Bats, and Gangsterism

Painful AND humiliating?!?!?

While Rockstar focused on new entries in their other franchises, like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, Volition went straight to work crafting a new engine for the next installment of the Saint's Row franchise, Saint's Row The Third. And this time, there would be no holding back. From the outset, SR:TT was designed to be as over-the-top and crazy as they could possibly make it. The motto during the game's development was "fun trumps all". Meaning that if something was fun and exciting, then it didn't have to make logical sense right off the bat, they would find a way to incorporate it.

This design philosophy resulted in a ridiculously fun experience that nothing else could rival. It was a breath of fresh air in a year that was dominated by self-serious games, several if which were marking the end of a trilogy, such as Mass Effect 3 and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. That's not to say those games were bad; Mass Effect is my favorite franchise of this generation. It's just that dealing with all of these heavy, often tragic stories throughout the year made SR:TT feel like just what the doctor ordered.

The Third placed you back in the shoes of the leader if the Saint's and dropped you jnto Steelport, a brand new city for the series. The Saint's, now international celebrity criminals, had been challenged by a larger organization known as the Syndicate. And it was your job to show them why you don't fuck with 3rd street. Despite seeming like a pretty straight-forward setup, the story managed to take some interesting and unexpected twists, but I won't spoil them here.

How do you say "Oh, Shit!" in Belgian?

What made Saint's Row: The Third exceptional was the way that it flew in the face of traditional open world game design. Typically, in these types of games, you have to slog through with sub-par weapons and vehicles, while being arbitrarily cut off from a large portion of the game-world for many hours before the fun truly begins. And most of the early missions are mind-numbingly boring.

Volition threw you into the middle of some truly crazy missions from the outset. There were a few simple missions used to introduce the side activities on offer, but the game got to the fun quickly after that. Soon enough you were gaining access to insane weapons, like a laptop used to launch and guide missiles, floppy dildo shaped baseball bats, and exhilarating vehicles like Vtol jet bikes and tanks.

You'll be flying both of these sooner than you'd think.

Even more impressively, Volition was able to make every story mission unique and exponentially more crazy than the one you just finished. A few of these missions became instant classics and infinitely memorable. Ask anyone who's played the game about a mission called "Deckers Die!" and you will see a smile wash over their face.

This mission drops you into a near-copyright infringing world based in Tron where you must do battle with the leader of a gang of super-geek hackers. As you progress, the leader if this group tries to use his hacking skills to slow you down. Ever wondered what it would be like to play as a walking toilet?  How about a sex doll? Thanks to Saint's Row: The Third, you will wonder no more.

What did you think I was exaggerating?  THIS THA ROW BITCH!
Saint's Row: The Third received almost universal praise from critics and fans alike, garnered many awards, and was undeniably one of the funnest and funniest games of the year. Volition built upon the world of Steelport with several DLC packs before moving on to create the next game in the series, which they say will mark the end of the current SR storyline, but not the end of the franchise; provided that the game sells as well as the last few have.

The Face-Off

And finally we have come to the showdown. After years of putting months, if not years between each other's releases, we'll be seeing the latest entries in these two great franchises within one month of each other:

Saint's Row 4- August 23rd
Grand Theft Auto 5- September 17th

And Goddamn do they look fantastic!

From the streets to the white house

In Saint's Row 4 you have gone from street gangsta, to celebrity gangsta, to President of the United States... gangsta. And that's just the set-up. How could it get any more ridiculous, you ask? Your main nemesis throughout the game is an alien race that is trying to enslave humanity. Yeah, it's that kind of crazy. The final entry in the SR saga promises to reunite you with all your favorite characters from the previous games in the series, and it will give you even more freedom and super hero-like powers to wreak havoc on the world as you choose.

Los Santos welcomes you home.

Grand Theft Auto V places you in the shoes of three very different protagonists and gives you the freedom to switch between them at will. Each character has his own story and life to lead, but they're lives will converge as they plan to pull off big money heists, which is central to the game's story.

First up you have Michael, who is often described as the "GTA protagonist that won." He was a successful bank robber in his younger days but then turned state's witness against some of the people he'd previously worked for. This landed him in witness protection, living a comfortable, but soul-crushingly boring lifestyle. He yearns for the days of old and chooses to get back to what he was always good at.

Apparently money can't buy you happiness

To pull off these heists, Michael recruits his old pal Trevor; a meth-dealing psychopath who seemingly never wanted to get away from the life of crime. He is now living a trailer in the middle of the desert, fighting with biker gangs for territory. Unstable as he may be, Trevor is a skilled pilot and has always been loyal, so Michael seems willing to put up with his chaos.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

And finally there's Franklin, a street thug with ambition. Franklin works as a repo man, but also boosts cars on his own to make extra money. With his habit of hanging around with people wearing green, he seems to have ties with the Grove Street Families from GTA: San Andreas. However, petty crime simply isn't cutting it for Franklin anymore; he wants something more substantial. When Michael runs into him on the street one day, he quickly takes a liking to the young street kid and decided to take him under his wing to teach him a thing or two.

Grove Street 4 Life!

All three protagonists promise to have individual strengths and weaknesses, but you'll be able to increase each character's stats in several different areas over the course of the game. Also, while not in the middle of a mission, you'll be able to switch to any of the characters on the fly. So if you want to go from cruising the hoods of Los Santos as Franklin to off-roading through the desert as Trevor and finally end by playing a relaxing game of golf as Michael, you will be able to do so seamlessly.

Choices, choices

With both of these powerhouses coming out so close to one another, which do you choose? Personally, I will be playing both because I couldn't possibly neglect one for the other, and with a little less than a month between them I might be able to at least finish the main story of Saint's Row 4 before GTA V hits the streets.

But this may not be the case for a lot of people out there; Both games promise to offer massive worlds to explore, numerous story and side missions, as well as the endlessly replayable ability to go on a rampage for no particular reason whatsoever. It would be feasible to play either of these games exclusively for months to come, so what do you do?

And that's where my worries start to seep in: I am excited for SR4, but I am HUNGRY for GTA V. There hasn't been a new Grand Theft Auto game in over 5 years and I cannot adequately describe how excited I am to see what the team at Rockstar North has been working on. I don't think that I'm alone in this either; there is a palpable feeling of anticipation for GTA V in the gaming community, and I just hope that Saint's Row 4 doesn't get steamrolled by it. I get the sense that, if you had to choose only one, a lot of gamers would go with the new GTA, simply because there hasn't been one in a while and they're always excellent.

...or this?
That being said, I think that Saint's Row 4 may be coming in just under the wire to give people time to enjoy it before it's bigger, beefier cousin steps in to steal their attention away. I certainly hope so; SR is a fantastic franchise from an amazing development team and I would love to seem them continue making them well into the next generation of hardware.

Either way, the next few months will deliver an extraordinary pair of games that are sure to be a fitting swan song for the current consoles before they're eclipsed by their successors. And with games like these, and the fact that neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 are backwards compatible, it's likely that those boxes will maintain a place in your entertainment center for some time to come.

Game on!

All hail the commander in chief