When the first Saints Row game was released back in 2006, it was little more than an uninspired Grand Theft Auto clone looking to capitalize on that title’s popularity. Your character gets recruited into this gang and through guile, cunning and savage beatdowns must help his new family brutally put down rival crews. Over the years and three additional games, though, Saints Row has evolved into something entirely its own, and no longer much resembles its spiritual progenitor. The popularity of Grand Theft Auto, meanwhile, remains undimmed, and the latest game just shattered all kinds of sales records. Despite the numbers, though, GTA has changed remarkably little in the last decade, and I would argue that Saints Row IV in many ways is now the better game.
For all of Saints Row IV’s preposterous plot twists, you’re still trying to save the world. In GTA, there’s not much at stake besides staying out of jail.
Humor is one of the major differentiating factors. Ten minutes into Saints Row IV, and you begin to understand exactly what kind of ultraviolent three-ring circus you’re in for. After breaking into this heavily guarded facility, a mad man launches a nuke at Washington D.C. In a daring last second gambit, your character leaps onto the missile as it lifts off, and proceeds to climb it and rip out its guidance systems while Aerosmith’s “Armageddon” song plays in the background. While you’re climbing, and the rocket speeds toward the nation’s capital, your crew come on the radio and all say their goodbyes. This turns out to be premature, though, as you disable the weapon and at the last possible second jump away from it and improbably land directly in the Oval Office.
The game then fast-forwards four years, where you’re in the midst of a reelection campaign (you were elected President of the United States) with your gang as your White House staff and Keith David (yes, that Keith David) as your vice president. All is going well until aliens invade and banish humanity into a Matrix-style simulation, where most of the game takes place. Like that Keanu Reeves vehicle, the rules here can be bent and broken to delightful effect. You can still steal and collect cars, but why do that when you can jump a mile into the air and glide across the city? Sure, you can buy and upgrade an Uzi, but it’s more fun to telekinetically fling your opponent into a building, or maybe just punt them high into the air.
Saints Row IV characters: The most fashionable saviors-of-the-world we’ve ever seen
The laughs in GTA V, on the other hand, are just as crude, but less artfully executed. The game’s talk-radio stations continually lambast liberal hand-wringers and other easy targets; its version of the FBI—the FIB—is typical of what passes for cleverness. But who cares, right? You’re not playing a game called Grand Theft Auto for its subtlety and incisive social commentary. When stood up against a game like Saints Row, though, the nihilism, the ham-handed jibes and really just the pointlessness of your characters’ journey (there are three playable guys) ends up being kind of depressing. Is the best we can hope for that Michael can resolve his deep mid-life crisis, Franklin will get out of the hood, or that wild-eyed Trevor won’t murder the entire city in a meth-fueled rage? (For what it’s worth, Trevor’s antics are the most entertaining part of the game.) For all Saints Row IV’s absolutely preposterous plot twists and nonsensical narrative, when it comes down to it you’re still trying to save the world. For the GTA trio, there’s not much at stake besides staying out of jail and gaming the stock market so you can buy an expensive car.
The bottom line, though, is that Grand Theft Auto V is just less fun to play. For instance, one of the first “optional” missions I played in GTA V required me, as Franklin, to help some cracked-out acquaintance help her boyfriend by covering his shift at work, towing cars to the lot. It’s one of the most pointless missions I’ve ever had to undertake in any game. And while super-mundane tasks like these serve to make the experience more realistic seeming—Los Santos is an incredibly detailed facsimile of Los Angeles, an impressive cartographic accomplishment by any measure—the fact that you can run people over or machine gun them with relative impunity cancels out any immersion. And that same massive map often proves a hindrance. More often than not I just end up taking a cab so I don’t have to drive all the way to a mission marker across the map. Yes, I’d rather take a cab than steal a car in a game called Grand Theft Auto. I’m not sure what that means.
Saints Row suffers from some repetitious missions, no different from Grand Theft Auto, and neither game much values human life, but the world of Saints Row is generally a joy to occupy and traverse, and for all its silliness the game never condescends to its players. (Let’s just say that any game that allows you to call on both “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David for aid in your missions is okay by me.) But really, it’s all a question of how you want to spend your precious gaming hours. For me, I’d rather be leaping tall buildings and fighting to save Earth from alien zookeepers with Keith David at my side than driving a dump truck across Los Santos with sad old Michael. But that’s just me.