The Saint's Row series began life as little more than a sillier Grand Theft Auto. The original game seemed to wear its GTA-knockoff moniker on its sleeve. Yet with every subsequent sequel the series has diverged further and further, and Grand Theft Auto IV took another step to cement the divide between the two series. With Saint's Row: The Third, Volition has created an open-world game with an identity all its own, and important improvements to the formula that make it not only unique, but an important step forward in the genre.
There are things that Saint's Row: The Third could do better, and Rockstar is still king when it comes to crafting a serious narrative, but the sheer amount of fun I had with SR3 made GTAIV seem like work in comparison. That's why I think Rockstar should be paying attention to this game, and if they took anything away from it, I hope it's these five lessons.
#1 – Consistency and Identity – While Grand Theft Auto IV certainly took the road less traveled in terms of narrative goals, it faltered far too often. By the end of the game Nico Bellic had lost the sympathy of most players. The schizophrenic jumps between vehicular manslaughter and introspective narration were jarring. Saints Row: The Third, surprisingly, doesn't have this problem. While completely ridiculous, the game is so sure of its identity that you're never questioning your character's motives. Sure, being ridiculous and over-the-top in a video game is a lot easier than being dramatic and thoughtful, but I applaud SR3 for sticking to its guns throughout. I can only hope GTAV, whatever tone it takes, it takes with the same level of consistency.
#2 – RPG Elements and Progression – Saint's Row: The Third's character progression is phenomenal and addicting. Money has a very tangible value in the game, letting you improve yourself, your arsenal, and expand your property. Much like a western RPG, you create your character from scratch, and the game gives you endless options for improving them and making them your own. The magic is that while you can dress them up like a cross-dressing furry, Volition still managed to craft a character with a clear identity, much like Mass Effect's Shepard or Dragon Age II's Hawke. Rockstar creates fantastic characters, but they hold most of them (except maybe CJ in San Andreas) a bit too close to the vest. For GTAV, I hope Rockstar lets us take a more active role in our character's progression, just as Volition has allowed with SR3.
#3 – Playability, Above All Else – This one is tricky for me, because I found the finesse required to drive, fly, and move around GTAIV very compelling. Saints Row throws finesse out the window for the sake of sheer playability, and the result may be a bit fake, but ultimately much more fun. Some things, like jump kicking through car windows to steal them, are too silly for GTA, but if Rockstar could come up with a realistic alternative, GTAV might feel a bit less bogged down in monotonous minutiae. Top that off with more ways to quickly get a vehicle or jump to destinations, and GTAV could be mature and artful without devolving into a chore.
#4 – More Activities, More Distractions – Saints Row: The Third follows the same narrative structure as the GTA series, offering up one or two story missions at a time and following a mostly linear narrative. That said, the game never feels like a mission grind the way GTA does. There was always so much to do in SR3 that I could spend hours ignoring the main plot and still not only have a ton of fun, but advance my character in meaningful ways. If Rockstar gives players more genuinely compelling alternatives to the main missions in GTAV, I think more players will be driven to actually finish the game.
#5 – Make Missions Special – I can list off at least a dozen amazing mission moments in Saints Row: The Third, yet for a game that was twice as long, I can only remember one amazing mission from GTAIV – the bank robbery. For GTAV, I hope Rockstar takes a more discerning approach to their mission design, giving each mission an identity and purpose the way Saints Row: The Third has done. I don't expect to jump out of a plane in a tank or travel to cyberspace, but a little more variety could go a long way.
Whatever Rockstar chooses to do with Grand Theft Auto V, even if it's the most self-serious and deliberately-paced entry in the series, I hope it's at least as engrossing and absorbing as Saints Row: The Third. That may be asking a lot for a game that will surely be innovating in other ways, but if anyone can pull it off, I think it might be Rockstar.