Hey, great news! Saints Row IV is out today. The fourth installment to this sandbox series promises to be just as outlandish and fun to play as some of its previous installments, and if the reviews that are already out are anything to go by, it's a fantastic experience to be had.
This series hasn't always been quite so crazy, however. In fact, earlier titles in the Saints Row continuum had trouble shaking the stigma of being a 'Grand Theft Auto clone'. While its fairly obvious that Saints Row has moved well beyond that stigma, it's interesting to see how the games have developed over the last seven years. In celebration of Saints Row IV's release, let's take a look of the series as a whole.
The original Saints Row came to the Xbox 360, and gamers everywhere were quite excited. Saints Row was the first sandbox game for the system and for the generation alike, preceding Grand Theft Auto IV by a bit under two years. As such, gamers and critics alike praised the new IP, many saying that it was far more fun than any sandbox experience they have played before, including the granddaddy of the series.
Interestingly enough, the title had initially started development for the PlayStation 2, under the rather lacking title Bling Bling. After a couple years, however, development moved to the Xbox 360, and eventually it became a 360 exclusive release in mid-2006. While there were plans to make the title go multiplatform, the PlayStation 3 version simply took too long to create and was no longer relevant. The Windows version did eventually end the original console's exclusivity, but the first Saints Row is still a Microsoft exclusive title.
Anyhow, the first Saints Row focuses on you, a random bystander, who almost gets killed in a sudden gang fight. You're saved by Johnny Gat, leader of the 3rd Street Saints, and end up joining the gang to get 'The Row' under their control. Unlike other titles in the series, Saints Row plays it safe with the setting (for a sandbox game); both the plot and general gameplay make it very much a Grand Theft Auto clone. There are a few tweaks to the general formula to make the title a little more fun to play, but there's no denying the striking similarities.
However, the game does end on a very interesting note: After a long string of crimes and misdeeds, the player meets with a corrupt politician on a yacht. After some talking, a bomb suddenly and unexpectedly explodes; leaving the fate of your character undetermined (though probably dead). It's an ending many developers wouldn't dare to pull off, since such an ending can really disappoint gamers. However, Saints Row did it anyway... and it helped lead into quite the sequel.
Saints Row 2 began its development shortly after the release of the first game, and this time it was released for the PlayStation 3 as well as the Xbox 360 (and eventually a PC release). The second title in this series hit store shelves in October of 2008 after a few delays, coming out after its biggest competitor, Grant Theft Auto IV.
From the get-go, the development team knew that Saints Row 2 would have to be different to survive. Lead producer Greg Donovan explained to Game Developer magazine in a Saints Row 2 postmortem that "From the start, the team“s fundamental goal was to create an original open-world gameplay experience that would further distinguish Saints Row from other non-linear games, and carve out a distinct identity in the genre."
During Saints Row 2's development, two things were paramount: The game having a unique identity and giving players as bug-free of an experience as possible. The latter led to the previously mentioned delays, but when Saints Row 2 finally launched, many gamers thought the wait was well worth the delays.
Saints Row 2 takes place five years after the original. After waking up from a five year coma after the yacht explosion, the player (with some serious plastic surgery done) breaks out of prison and finds Stilwater a very different place. You, now being The Boss, set out to revive the Saints and bring the city back under their control--even if that means taking down the corporation that brought the city back to life after a devastating earthquake.
Unlike the original, which plays it safe, Saints Row 2 takes itself out of the comfort zone a bit. While the main story of the second game is still Grand Theft Auto like, the game features some very tongue-in-cheek humor that really sets it apart. You're still a gang and working to take over the town, but the dialogue and some of the cut-scenes give you a feel for something more.
The beginnings of the series' quirkiness were there, but it was not the entire game; it's for that reason that many fans still consider the second game their favorite. It was a mix of the typical crime-ridden sandbox style with a bit of crazy flair: Nothing too crazy that keeps the essence of the original intact, but provides an entertaining ride through the new Stilwater.
In terms of gameplay, most of it stays the same, but with some refinements to help make the game more fun to play. The biggest new addition was the inclusion of multiplayer; you and a buddy could get together and create havok on Stilwater together in drop-in drop-out co-op, or even go head-to-head in a couple minigames. Players could even go do their own thing without being restricted by the game; the only time were a player's forced to do anything is if a story mission is activated.
So at the end of the Saints Row 2, the Saints again own the city, and are more or less able to do what they want. Seems like a happy, conclusive ending, right? Maybe not...
Then came Saints Row: The Third... the title in the series best known for its over-the-top nature and presentation. The humorous, crazy antics of the second game are taken to a new level here, and how successful that was depends on who you ask. But more on that in a bit.
Saints Row: The Third was supposedly in development as early as the second game's release, as was common with more popular game series, but little more than the name was known about the title until March 2011, mere months before the game's November release. Despite the short time between announcement and release, however, the third title of the franchise received a heavy advertisement campaign to get hype for the game going. With such a campaign, THQ made sure that this title would reach a wider audience than ever before.
As for the game itself, the development team set out to create an experience that was far more over-the-top than Saints Row 2. Donovan stated that everything had to be over-the-top with Saints Row: The Third; otherwise, the title wouldn't be able to stand out amongst the crowding sandbox genre. The team did succeed in what they set out to do, and as such gave the series its own unique identity, and one that can hold its ground even against the likes of Grand Theft Auto V.
Also interesting to note is that in the interim between the two games, a completely different Saints Row game was announced. First titled Saints Row: Drive By then Saints Row: Money Shot, the downloadable title was to be released on PSN and XBLA to market for the third game. It was a bit of an unusual title; instead of the typical Saints Row gameplay, you play as an assassin that can control the path of a bullet, and were tasked in doing so to hit your marks. The game was later cancelled, and the rewards for playing the game that transferred up to Saints Row: The Third were later made available as DLC.
Anyhow, the plot for Saints Row: The Third starts off after the events of Saints Row 2 (naturally), and now the Third Street Saints have made quite a name for themselves. The gang has moved up from the streets of Stilwater, becoming a household name with their own clothing and merchandise line. However, after a botched bank robbery that was to be part of their movie, The Boss (that's you) and the Saints' other top members get arrested. After a series of events, you end up in the new city of Steelport, with new gangs to overthrow and a new area to reign supreme over.
While the gameplay still retains the feel of a Saints Row title, everything else about the game is completely over-the-top. Gone is the still serious, but humor-lined plot of the second title; instead, Saints Row: The Third is completely silly and ridiculous all the way through. Some fans were upset with the change, but still others enjoyed the nature of the third title.
Saints Row: The Third managed to sell more copies than the previous two games, selling over 2.6 million copies by the end of the company's fiscal year (in March, so over a six month period). Undoubtedly, fans spoke with their wallet with the latest release of the series, and Volition's idea to make the series stand out from other sandbox games was a success.
Which brings us to the present--or more specifically, today. There is no doubt that Saints Row IV continues the quirky humor started in Saints Row 2 and taken to whole new levels in Saints Row: The Third. After all, The Boss is now the President and you have to fend off an alien invasion. For better or for worse, the Saints Row series has gone in its own direction, and found a very unique, if somewhat ridiculous, voice in the genre.