Comparisons are made constantly within the gaming industry, from both gamers and critics alike. We often compare different games and franchises in order to determine which is the greatest game for that particular genre. It therefore comes as no surprise when we talk about ‘heavyweights’ within the industry – specifically, particular developers and certain franchises which are hailed as leaders … or bench-setters for a certain genre. There is Turn10 and Forza Motorsport for racing simulators, Infinity Ward for shooters and even Blizzard with role-playing games, but off all these, there is no better example of Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Putting aside all the controversy, to be quite honest, it is probably one of the most well know franchises to date – and if we look more closely, is another example of game development at its best – the franchise boasting record-setting sales figures and renowned gameplay. For many years, rival developers have released games in the same genre, but none have really put a chink in GTA’s armour, until now.
The Saints Row series, now with two released games and a third in development, is described as a true contender to the sandbox/action-throne, sporting engaging and entertaining gameplay in bounds. While the first game mightn’t have caused a splash in the industry (simply due to its first venture), the sequel, creatively titled ‘Saints Row 2’ truly gave gamers a solid game – and should have made Rockstar sit up. Does this mean that Volition have the top spot? Do they have a chance? Or is this franchise a mere rip-off of everything GTA is based on? Looking at both developers latest incarnations – Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row 2, let’s find out.
Graphics are first-up, and given the capabilities of current-generation consoles, I find no topic more fitting to begin this article on. If we look at these last two games, the graphical differences are like chalk and cheese, and that doesn’t just mean one game looks more ‘realistic’ and another ‘cartoonish’. Graphics is where GTA IV really stands out, and when you look at the measures Rockstar North went to, it’s no surprise. From the environment, to the vehicles, from the characters to the pieces of little on the side of the street, this game really shows what the possibilities are of game design.
Saints Row 2 however, is different. Unlike Rockstar’s pursuit for perfection, Volition took the more 1.5x approach in this game – and you will read me place reference on this throughout this article. See, everything about Saints Row 2 is just Saints Row-and-some, and while this is fantastic for the game as a whole, it doesn’t do much for the graphics. The game looks fine, but it isn’t great. There isn’t much focus on the finer details, hair looks a little rough and the skin of characters isn’t exactly mono-toned as you would expect. Unfortunately, Volition losses here.
Sound is a difficult aspect when it comes to sandbox titles – and that is because there is just so much to focus on. Unlike a racer where there are just the noise of the engine and impact/crashes, and unlike shooters where there are just the various weaponry, character dialogue and environment noises, sandbox titles need to deal with all that, and some … but again, Rockstar takes this assumption, punches it, and leaves it squirming a pile of its own mess. GTA IV hits on all fronts. Sure, the engine notes won’t be as perfect as something in FM2, but they are good-enough – and don’t let that sound belittling. Gunfire is also solid, the noises accurately replicate the ‘hustle and bustle’ of modern civilization – not to mention the random and quite hilarious dialogues from the many people of Liberty City.
Again unfortunately, this is an area where Saints Row 2 falls short, but there are some noticeable mentions. Firstly, the sound of gunfire is adequate, nothing much to complain about there, and much like GTA IV, the feel of a busy-city is present – especially with traffic and the occasional ruckus from the trains as they travel overhead. What is somewhat lacking though are the sounds from the vehicles, specifically, whilst driving them personally. I remember taking a sports car out for a drive and while you get that noise of the engine accelerating, there comes a point where it just stagnates, or stops progressing as it is. I would have liked the sound of the engine redlining … perhaps that might be just to large an ask?
Music within a sandbox game is of upmost importance, second really to gameplay. With the sheer amount of travelling required in-between missions and throughout the map, having something engaging and varied is crucial to ensure gamers don’t get bored. It is therefore thankfully, that neither Grand Theft Auto IV nor Saints Row 2 fall short in delivering a pleasant listening experience. In GTA IV, I found the Hip-Hop and Rap stations fantastic, and the talk-back radio was also ridiculously entertaining and interesting. Aside from the staple metal, alternative rock and classical genres, this game also boasts music styles from east-Europe and South America, both of which become quite addictive regardless of the gamer’s preferences.
Saints Row 2 is no different in terms of variety, with music ranging from rap to metal, classical to alternative, again, all preferences are catered for here. What this game does lack though is spoken soundtracks – like talk-back which often can present itself as being as interesting if not, more enjoyable that music itself. I also didn’t find the track listing half as strong as GTA IV and am somewhat reluctant to agree that its predecessor Saints Row, offered a greater soundtrack as a whole. That aside though, with the inclusion of 80s Hits (which I particularly took a liking to), Saints Row 2 still does well in this department.
An important aspect of most games is the inclusion of an interesting, engaging and well-written storyline to accompany the main missions. In the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row franchises, this is yet another area where both seem to hit the mark each time.
It is however, a particular element of gameplay which Volition have done quite well in their past two titles. The storyline of Grand Theft Auto IV has been criticised by some as being bland and boring, really on getting interesting towards the end of the game where the real secrets of Niko Bellic are brought to light. I disagree, and if you take the time to understand the setting of this game and understand that this isn’t some gangster-themed title, you will find that it is quite engaging. That said though, very little can be said against Saints Row 2’s storyline … perhaps for ending at all and for the fact that some characters experience a less-than-desired fate.
I found the storyline in SR2 to be very well written and you will find in more times than one, that as the gamer, you will experience the same emotions of anger, sadness and passion that the main character experiences – and this is something to take particular notice of … Saints Row 2 does an awesome job here.
Much like music, another staple of most sandbox/action titles are side-missions and activities, those of which are vital to one’s progress in the game, but offer something extra to do aside from what is directly linked to the storyline. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the developers included (following with the theme of ‘realism’ – well, at least as realistic as such a game can be) tasks like stealing and delivering vehicles and assassination targets – none of which being particularly interesting and neither really involving a plethora of levels and variety. This was criticised by gamers, adding to the ‘bore’ complaint of many, but I find ties in well with that the game is going for.
In Saints Row 2 though, this couldn’t be any more opposite. In this game, there many (and that might be an understatement) possible activities for the gamer to get involved in. Insurance fraud, racing, mayhem and escort are just the tip of the what gamers have access to in this game. Each containing at least eight levels of difficulty with two sets (locations) in the map means will over 100 levels to complete spanning across all of the possible activities. In addition, this game provides gamers with ‘Diversions’, which can be described as side-Activities to be attempted and completed – such as car surfing, gang kills and headshots- all of which can be done at anytime in the game anywhere. Saints Row 2 doesn’t just tower over GTA IV here, it takes its pimp-hand out and belts the hell of it.
The final aspect of any sandbox title, are the ‘extras’. Putting aside missions, music and activities, the thing that defines these games the most are what players can do in their spare time. Here, we see why Grand Theft Auto is king, and why Saints Row is a serious competitor. In GTA IV, Rockstar hasn’t fallen short of providing more than enough for us to preoccupy ourselves with during the course of the game. First-off, there is Liberty City, New York recreated in stunning detail – which leaves residents of the city in real-life recalling particular sites and landmarks as if they were there themselves – that is just how good this game is.
Furthermore, and still sticking with GTA IV, there is the inclusion of flying rats (pigeons) to shoot and stunt jumps to … jump. These in themselves add more than ten hours of gameplay. Alongside with well-hidden references to past GTA games and some other nice hidden Easter Eggs like the ‘heart of Liberty City’, the realism in this game doesn’t ruin the GTA-tradition. There is also hours worth of comedy skits by the likes of Katt Williams and Ricky Gervais and television commercials parodying the follies of modern society.
Now, moving onto Saints Row 2, much has to be said here. While Stillwater mightn’t be a mirror of a real city, there is heaps to do and heaps to see. With secret areas to find, barnstorms to fly under, stunt jumps to complete, tags to spray paint and CDs to be collected, we again only scratch the surface of what this game offered. Again, Saints Row 1.5 took what the original offered and added, and added, and added.
With that all said, the ‘extras’ of these two games can be described as follows: GTA IV does well with offering content that you will enjoy for quite some time – like listening to comedy, taking a powerboat out for a spin or admiring the city skyline and various times within the day. Saints Row 2 however offers you more to do, and most of which can also be completed over and over – but it isn’t because it looks stunning or sounds funny, but because it is enjoyable and entertaining – like throwing pedestrians into traffic. I guess overall, Saints Row 2 takes the win here.
It goes without saying, both these games are true classics within their own right. Grand Theft Auto IV for proving what is possible with current technology and Saints Row 2 as showing us that absurd and ridiculous is till as fun as ever. If you were to ask different gamers which was better, it would be a split for those two reasons – some will admire GTA IV for its depth but hate it for its lack of ‘random’ and triviality, whereas some will love Saints Row 2 for how zany it is but will then hate it for how dated it might look – when compared to graphics of other games.
Personally, it is difficult to say which is better, from the evaluation, both dominate in certain aspects while not so much in others. I like to think of it as this, GTA IV was like the recession Australia ‘had to have’ – we mightn’t have liked what it did, but are appreciative of it for two main reasons – one, it provided that change in the genre – showing that sandboxes could be both entertaining and serious at the same time – and two, for those who don’t agree with reason one, it showed us just how much we loved the trivialities and absurd gameplay-style that previous GTA games provided.
In my eyes, Grand Theft Auto IV remains the king of the sandbox/action genre, but Saints Row has shaped up to be a formidable foe – considering the experience Volition has had in the genre compared to Rockstar. With Saints Row 3 being the last in the franchise, we can only hope that it provided gameplay well in excess of Saints Row 2, leaving a legacy as not just another GTA ‘rip off’, but as one of the few franchises that not only took at shot at Grand Theft Auto, but as one that left a scar when it left.