I see a lot of people getting excited about the upcoming release of Saints Row IV. But did you know that you are actually wrong?
Yes, it's true! The Saints Row series peaked at 2 and has been circling the drain since. I don't know if it's out of laziness or just plain contempt for their audience, but the developers made The Third a worse game and will probably ruin IV as well.
I know some of you were introduced to the series with Saints Row The Third, so let me explain why Saints Row 2 is the high point of the series that they will never reach again, ever. Prepare to get sad.
Stilwater is a more interesting city than Steelport
Stilwater in Saints Row 2 is one of the best open worlds in a video game, and I'm just talking aesthetically here! We'll get to the other good stuff later!
There are so many distinct districts and areas of Stilwater that it's crazy. You have a college campus with skateboarding students, a huge student center, and the "Frat Row". You've got a nuclear power plant island, Chinatown, the airport, factories, some high-class downtown areas that have totally different street textures, a trailer park...pretty much every traditional “open world city” setting is here. The cool thing is that they're all visually distinct and have different NPCs walking around depending on the area. You won't see gang members strolling around in baggy jeans in the downtown area.
In comparison, Steelport is a mostly flat, all industrial city that gets more boring to explore as they close off bridges. There's no variable weather or day/night cycle. You're looking at mostly the same scenery throughout Saints Row The Third and it gets boring. As opposed to Saints Row 2, where every location is visually distinct. It feels like a real town. Steelport feels like a video game fake city and really only has one "setting", lessening the joy in exploring it.
Basically, there are no cool hidden secrets like this in Steelport.
And this is only tangentially related, but the soundtrack in Saints Row 2 is the best in the series. I actually recognized a lot of the songs, as opposed to the soundtracks in Saints Row The Third and IV which are just obscure to get indie cred. Whatever, I'll be over here killing dudes to this amazing music.
More Customization in Saints Row 2
The city of Stilwater has LOADS of clothing stores, each catering to a different style. There's a hippy store, used clothing store, campus store with college clothes, and even separate stores for jewelry and cars. There's even a mall with a few unique stores and some secret shops.
Steelport in Saints Row The Third has like 20 Planet Saints (that all have the same clothes), and three specialty stores that are really far out of the way. I like the clothes in Nobody Loves Me, but why is there only one in the entire city? Am I gonna drive all the way through this boring city to get clothes there? Probably not.
I suppose there's a metaphor at play here. The Saints in The Third have grown soft and complacent, so they just monopolize the city's clothing outlets because they're boring now. And it makes shopping for clothes a boring time when there's 30 of one shop EVERYWHERE, and then three other shops that are out of the way. Why not spread that out?
Anyway, there are more glaring omissions to customization in Saints Row The Third. Stuff that was already in 2 that they removed for no good reason. You can't have custom walk cycles. You can't customize how you wear your clothes. In 2, if I buy a pair of jeans I can choose to wear them sagging, the type of wear they are (regular, battered, or acid washed for example), if I want a belt on, and many other options[u].[/u]
In The Third, that stuff is just gone. I can't customize my own walk cycle. Why? I can't customize how I wear my clothes. Instead of buying a pair of jeans and wearing them how I choose, I have to buy Baggy Jeans 1, Belt Jeans 1, Acid Wash Jeans 1...it's such a step backwards. For no good reason.
More Stores in Saints Row 2
Back in my day, Saints Row games had hella stores. In addition to the clothing options I already went over, there were some extra stores that most open world games don't have.
I'm talking about the liquor stores, mostly. In gas stations, liquor stores, and nightclubs in Saints Row 2, you can buy alcohol and weed. Now I'll admit, there's no reason for there to be several types of stores selling the same thing. And I don't even know what the alcohol and weed does besides be less useful than food powerups. They don't add anything to the game...except charm.
You know, the thing Saints Row The Third went very far out of its way to avoid? Having charm and personality? Saints Row 2 has that.
There's also record stores so you can buy songs for your portable MP3 player. That's right, you can listen to music from the radio even when you're not in the car. Another feature pointlessly removed by Saints Row The Third. I can't wait to not hear the soundtrack in Saints Row IV because I'll be running around with my super speed! Not using a car ever, because why would you? Seriously, why does that game even have a soundtrack?
There are car dealerships to buy cars to store in your garage in Saints Row 2. Which is...kinda pointless because you can steal whatever car you'll need. But that shows the length the team used to go through to immerse you in the game's world.
Saints Row 2 has regenerating health, but sometimes you don't want to just sit in a corner as your health recharges (which happens all the time in The Third). So you can go to fast food shops and buy healing items to store in your inventory. And even though every store has unique food items for no good reason because they all work the same way, and even though there's no real reason for them to offer multiple sizes of health packs because you should just buy the biggest one anyway...why take that out of the game?
It's a good idea and you just remove it. Great job.
More Side Missions In Saints Row 2
This one is a pretty big failure. Sidequests Fight Club, Crowd Control, Septic Avenger, Tow Truck, Ambulance EMT, Ho-ing, Taxi Driver, Tagging, Secret Areas, CD Collection, Drive-By, and Mugging are just gone from Saints Row The Third.
Why? Well, some could make the argument that a good deal of those aren't fun and don't fit into the story of a mogul who basically owns a city. And they'd probably be right. But find a replacement for them or tweak them to make them more fun instead of just cutting huge amounts of content.
I really enjoyed customizing your character with different fighting styles in Saints Row 2. You could pull off cool combo attacks in addition to using improvised weapons everywhere, like traffic meters and wooden barrels. And they take it all out in The Third for a worse melee system with no combos and the glitchy “finisher” button. I guarantee that the wrestling match would be more fun if they kept the old combo system.
Unlocking more rewards by completing Side Missions in Saints Row 2 was rewarding. It was admittedly annoying playing side quests just to progress the story. And even more annoying having character power-ups tied to some of the side missions, especially if the side mission wasn't fun. Why should I have to play Mayhem to make my character better? I don't like Mayhem. And Snatch is terrible.
Oops, I'm supposed to be praising Saints Row 2 here. Uh, just don't play that stuff if you don't want to! But then play them to unlock new missions and finish the game because you have to. Moving on.
This is the biggest reason why the Saints Row games won't be as good as 2. The story in Saints Row 2 was perfect. It's one of the few games to pull off the Playable Character being a villain. In their rise to the top, this character does some despicable things. They poison a rival with radioactive waste out of spite. They manufacture and sell hard drugs. They CONSUME hard drugs. They brutally decapitate another rival. They spray feces all over nice houses for some cash.
You do some ridiculous stuff in Saints Row 2, but there's also some story beats with true emotional impact. Like the infamous scene where Carlos is murdered, or when you kill your former boss for no good reason. The last one in particular shows how ruthless the Boss has become.
Each gang storyline has a buildup where you learn to really despise your rival, and a final confrontation where you kill them off in a satisfying way. There's buildup, and payoff. Even the sidequests have a small story behind them.
In Saints Row The Third, all of the gangs are a big conglomerate that fight against you. The bosses are defeated anticlimatically because there was no buildup. When Loren dies from having a giant ball dropped on him, I honestly don't know anyone who didn't say “That was it? The big boss guy just dies like that?”
Not only that, but the over-the-top elements of Saints Row The Third disconnect the player from any emotion. I really wanted to kill Maero after he tortured Carlos to death.
I didn't feel anything toward any of the bosses in The Third because the plot jumped around so much. It felt like there were large sections of story content cut out, giving the game a disjointed feel.
And now Saints Row IV seems to go in the direction of eliminating all the drama the series once had for sheer absurdity. That's not why I liked the game in the first place. The mixture of silly stuff and characters I actually cared for made it worth playing.
So, go back and play Saints Row 2. Ignore Saints Row IV and any future games in the franchise. They've peaked, and instead of improving on what they did right so many years ago, they'll just continue to get away from it and make strange “wacky” games with less and less content than the second game. But at least the gunplay and driving feels better, right?