It’s a curious thing whenever games need to present a scrappy crew of underdogs, because by dint of the player character’s reality-warping power and skill they inevitably won’t stay underdogs for long. The Third Street Saints of Saints Row may well be the apotheosis of this, evolving in short order from a humble street gang into the interstellar defenders of reality as we know it.
The sandbox game, too, tends to go a certain direction. Despite the Minecraft-inspired modular world boom, and exploration-themed titles like Kerbal Space Program, the enduring image of the sandbox game is a contemporary city that you can run around, stealing cars and firing guns to your heart’s content.
In the spirit of a certain other game franchise, that’s always been a part of Saint’s Row. Even as its action became more and more over-the-top and nonsensical, there was still that central core to it, the sheer naughty thrill of mowing down pedestrians and driving cars off bridges. Here’s the history of the Saints Row games to date.
Saints Row: A Short History
The Stilwater Days (Saints Row, Saints Row 2)
The first Saints Row was coming off the back of Grand Theft Auto’s sprawling San Andreas – still, for my money, the best thing that the GTA franchise has ever done. This new pretender was liberally borrowing from, or inspired by, or, if you prefer, ripping off the well-established GTA, there was no denying that.
Nonetheless, within a sea of what are derisively known as ‘GTA clones’, Saints Row didn’t do it half badly. Off the bat, it could boast a number of quality of life upgrades from GTA, especially the customisation system. Whereas GTA was yet to go beyond ‘choose between this or that low-poly shirt’, Saints Row let you muck about with everything: your player’s race, age, skin tone, facial features, you name it. Ditto the cars, any of which could be souped up to the nines and given ostentatious gold rims.
Unlike GTA’s generic tough-guy protagonists, this allowed the player character to be a truly blank slate, made in the player’s own image (or whatever image they cared to use). The first game was particularly strong on this aspect, since the protagonist was almost completely mute, and, tellingly, addressed only as ‘player’.
The story was a simple one of brute force, as you and your new pals the Saints wiped Stilwater’s three other gangs off the map. Each mission you completed would slice off another chunk of enemy territory, into which the Saints would expand. Still, it was charming enough, not least because of a voice cast which was punching well above its weight, including people like Keith David, David Carradine, and Michael Clarke Duncan.
The Detroit Free Press went so far as to call Saints Row “the deepest and most exciting to date of all the freewheeling street shooter games” – a straightforward throwing down of the gauntlet to Grand Theft Auto. Most outlets weren’t quite that positive, but the general consensus seemed to be that Saints Row was a more-than-worthy rival, head and shoulders over all those other imitators.
One point of contention raised by GamesRadar and Gamespy was that you had to build up a certain quantity of ‘respect’ points to start the story missions – forcing you to do the side activities. The critics didn’t really dislike them in and of themselves, though. Here, they were fairly standard crime-simulator affairs, be it pimping, drug trafficking, or simply destroying things.
A standout, though, was the incredibly fun insurance fraud activity, where you were rewarded for ragdolling into fast-moving traffic and bouncing off as many cars as possible. It was this kind of gleefully ridiculous tone that would truly come to fruition in the sequel.
With Saints Row 2, the franchise truly came into its own. By this time it was duelling with GTA IV, which after the grandiose scale of San Andreas had taken the path of being more gritty and realistic (not to mention desaturated). This left a vacuum that was eager to be filled, and so Saints Row 2 charged off in the polar opposite direction, turning its more cartoony qualities up to eleven.
With the map of the first game slightly expanded, including areas like the shopping mall and the trailer park that were too complex for the original, Saints Row 2 could really go to town. It was this second entry that introduced many of the wackier side activities which quickly came to define the games, including streaking, vehicle surfing, and spraying property developments with the contents of a septic tank – among which insurance fraud seemed a bit less of a zany aberration.
If this sounds like one of those sequels that’s more like an expansion pack – albeit an unusually big and robust one – well, you’re not altogether wrong. Taking place five years after the first game, wouldn’t you know it, the Saints had to fight three more gangs who’d carved up Stilwater. There was the additional frisson that an evil corporation (Ultor, from Volition’s sister series Red Faction) had gentrified Saints Row itself, but ultimately they were just another enemy to bust up.
The Steelport Days (Saints Row: The Third, Saints Row IV)
When Saints Row: The Third rolled around, the Saints had mutated into an international phenomenon. Not in real life, although the games were very popular, but within the game itself. After killing approximately a million people over the first two games, the Saints now had their own lines in branded clothing and energy drinks.
Just as the gang became a bit more polished, so too did the game, no longer just an unapologetic cut-and-shut of the wackier bits of GTA. In many ways it became more gamified, if that’s the right word – now you could steadily upgrade your guns, which here included a Call Of Duty-style drone strike. Bringing in the fruits of the military-industrial complex wasn’t such a bad thing, though, as Saints Row: The Third finally let you loose with a tank, a staple of the GTA games which had been inexplicably absent from the Row.
This instalment added some new activities, such as tank mayhem (naturally), the Japanese game show pastiche Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, and driving around with a tiger in the passenger seat. There wasn’t much to expand on in gameplay terms, but it did have the small-but-effective addition of the ‘awesome button’. Practically speaking, this was more than anything else a quality of life upgrade. Instead of fumbling around with car doors, now you could leap through the windscreen into the driver’s seat from twenty feet away.
The new setting, Steelport, was something of a disappointment, though. It was a bigger map than Stilwater, but that means very little when it’s all more of the same. There simply wasn’t the same kind of variety between one neighbourhood and the next as there had been in the first two games. Every part of Steelport was the same sort of vaguely dilapidated city centre, which didn’t provide much incentive to wander around and explore the place.
Joining the already celebrity-studded cast in Saints Row: The Third was Burt Reynolds as himself, who happened to be the mayor. And, at that point, why not? It was if anything a more realistic feature than the rest of the story. Mayor Burt, at least, was a fairly evergreen image of cool – less so the pimp who speaks only in autotune, an idea which was already dating itself by the minute when the game was first released.
While the silliness had always been present, Saints Row: The Third finally put it at the core of the design ethos – and the critics were quick to notice, with Gamesradar calling it “the complete realization of everything this franchise has set out to do”. The harshest criticism was that all the nonsense it had to offer going off at the same time could quickly get overwhelming – and not in a good way, either.
Saints Row IV didn’t do away with the core gameplay element of stealing cars – merely made it largely unnecessary by introducing superpowers. Technically these weren’t true superpowers, since you only had them in the computer simulation that started when the aliens conquered the earth, which should all give you some idea of just how wacky the story had become.
In spite of these grandiose developments, Saints Row IV largely took place in the same free-roaming open world as the third. Two settings in four games is a ratio no franchise ought be particularly proud of. However, the fourth made up for this by making the story missions increasingly experimental, although this may be the wrong word given as they were chock-full of homages to other video game classics: side-scrolling beat-’em-ups, a stealth mission where you shuffled about in a cardboard box, and, to go way back to gaming’s primordial beginnings, shooting down descending space invaders.
Saints Row IV attracted now-familiar reviews, consistently hovering at a solid 8 out of 10. IGN summarised it pretty well, saying “with its recycled map and wildly overpowered abilities, playing Saints Row IV feels like a lot like enabling god-like cheat codes in Saints Row The Third and going nuts”. From this you can probably gather how much you’d enjoy it – it’s more of the same, but with superpowers.
Spinoffs and Speculation (Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell, Agents Of Mayhem, Saints Row V)
After Saints Row IV came the standalone epilogue Gat Out Of Hell, putting Daniel Dae Kim’s Saints OG Johnny Gat in the driver’s seat, as he, well, you saw the title. Having screwed around with aliens and superpowers, they had little option if they wanted to keep ramping up the absurdity, and so it literally all went to hell.
Gat Out Of Hell was a bite-sized addition to the franchise, although being set in Hell was a perfect excuse to bring back departed characters from previous games (admittedly, they hadn’t balked at imperfect excuses for that before). Actually being set in Hell – finally, a new setting – was a common point of praise, although in spite of this it was still all a very similar affair to what had gone before. PC Gamer put it down to simply lacking “the spark of creativity” of previous entries. Even those who liked the game had to admit that there simply wasn’t enough of it.
Volition’s 2017 shooter Agents Of Mayhem merits a mention here, since it’s technically part of the same in-universe continuity and features some familiar characters. After his time in hell, Johnny Gat returns to earth as (record scratch) a police officer in Seoul? From a selection of twelve agents, you pick three at a time to roam around Seoul scrapping with supervillains.
Agents Of Mayhem received lukewarm reviews, with many (accurately) saying it was an attempt to chase the high of the Saints Row games proper. Like the Saints, much of the charm was in the wide range of characters, but the gameplay itself was criticised as repetitive, including by our own review. Most damningly, not long after its release and some disappointing sales figures, Volition cut about a fifth of their workforce, rarely a sign of a studio on the up and up.
There are still tenuous rumours about a fifth Saints Row, though most of these are limited to hesitant speculation like ‘it’ll probably be an open world sandbox’. Volition officially confirmed that it was in development back in 2019 – beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.
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