I played Saints Row completely out of order. I started with the third one, moved on to two, then four, then Gat Outta Hell (which I guess could be called 4.5), before finally looping back around to play the first game of the franchise. I lost out on some of the story. Okay, I lost out on a lot of the story. I had no idea who Julius was, for one. I didn’t understand the connection between the Chief of Police to the Saints. I didn’t understand the ongoing jokes about how unimportant Dex is in three and four. Or how the unnamed protagonist you play as rose to the ranks of the boss of the Saints. It makes me wish that I had started at one and worked my way forward. Of course if I’d done that I wouldn’t have gone past the first game.
Way back in 2011, Saints Row the Third hooked me with its ridiculous television commercials. I didn’t know a thing about the series but I knew I wanted to play it. Badly. Like, I went crazy waiting for it to come out. Then I got my hands on it and it was everything I’ve ever wanted in a game! It’s ridiculously violent with over the top missions and situations. Your unnamed character is completely customizable with neon skin options to deciding how big your breasts or the bulge in your pants will be. You can drive tanks through the city streets or in a rickshaw pulled by people decked out in BDSM gear. There are zombies at one point! This is what I started with and this is what made me love the Saints. Sure, some of the plot was lost on me, but had I started with the first game in the series, there wouldn’t have been anything that made me care enough to stick around.
The first Saints Row game starts with three gang factions shooting it out on the street where your unnamed character happens to be talking to a prostitute. Well, not talking. Because he doesn’t talk in the first game. He’s also only a HE. You can customize your character within the constructs of having a penis, but you’re a dude or you’re nothing in Saints Row! Not what I was expecting when the others I had played let me choose my gender. I mean, I always choose the British male voice and ended up a guy anyways, but it’s nice that the choice is there! Anyways, the story. You’re in the middle of trying to get laid, three separate gangs are killing each other and then trying to kill you but Julius Little of the 3rd Street Saints shows up, saves you, and then recruits you. From there you bash, crash, explode, kidnap, threaten, and murder your way through the Westside Rollerz, Los Carnales, and the Vice Kings until all of Stilwater is under the 3rd Street Saints control.
Taking over Stilwater consists of story missions and side missions. Each gang gets their own story arc. The arcs don’t cross over with any of the other gangs and are linear, but you can decide how much of one story you want to do at a time. Finish off an entire gang before moving onto the next, or mix and match. I’m a little meticulous myself, so I tend to do as many missions related to one gang before moving onto the next, but playing all story lines at once, so they intertwine, offers what feels like a more authentic taking-over-the-city experience.
To even get to the story missions however, you’ve got to earn respect by completing the side missions. Each side mission has eight levels of difficulty and you’ll earn bonus items on top of respect. There are the more benchmark sandbox missions: racing, hijacking cars, escorting people around, drug trafficking, and playing hitman. Then there are the consistently fun ones: Mayhem, where you cause a set amount of property damage in a set amount of time, and Insurance Fraud, where you run into traffic, go limp, and ramp up as much insurance money as physically possible. When so many of the main story missions run what’s basically the same set of tasks over and over again, it’s so much goddamn fun to run out into traffic and go limp!
Saints Row’s setting is the fictional city of Stilwater. It’s a mixed bag of big cities like Detroit and Chicago with two large islands out on the ocean. It’s split up into different areas with each area run by a different gang. It’s a pretty diverse location, touching upon what actual bit cities have: the downtown core has skyscrapers, there’s slums, there’s an airport, there’s suburbs. And with the diversity comes dinginess. Stilwater is a city that’s been hit hard (like Detroit) but there are the hangers-on. It’s more or less the perfect locale for gang violence. Check out my last retrospective series where I looked at The Crow if you want more gang related violence! (Yay tasteless self-promotion!)
Taken as a whole, “standard” is the word I’d use to describe the game’s story. It’s very GTA: San Andreas in its feel and approach. It’s… kind of boring to be completely honest. Saints Row 2 (which was two years later in 2008) follows the same general design but offers more personality. Saints Row is just too cookie-cutter. Though there are some interesting choices here and there. It’s a little less dour than GTA with things like insurance fraud and Stilwater’s favourite restaurant being an analog of Wendy’s called Freckle Bitches. There are touches like this throughout that give some personality to the third-person shooter, but it’s drowning in the tropes that these sandbox, ultra-violent games deal in.
My least favourite trope that Saints Row is neck deep in? The general and unrelenting misogyny. It covers all the misogynistic bases: women are called bitches and whores just for existing as women, girls are plucked off the street to be put in the sex trade like they’re objects without freewill, all female characters are put in skimpy clothing, and all that receive the honour of being main characters are killed off before the end. Charming. I am happy to say that by Saints Row IV, the series does completely away with the casual misogyny and it’s because the franchise changed hands from THQ to Deep Silver.
What makes the first Saints Row worth playing is the cast of characters. I know that how forgettable the first game’s characters are is a running joke in the third and fourth games, but before bigger and better personalities were introduced, you’ve got an entertaining troop in Saints Row. And you can always depend on the franchise getting on point actors for amazing voice acting.
Case and point, Keith David (Gargoyles, They Live) is Julius. I don’t really need to say anything more, because Keith David proves pretty much any point you’re trying to make, but I will because there are other performances that need mentioning. They’re all great, but Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) as Johnny Gat, Michael Clark Duncan (The Green Mile) as Benjamin King, Mila Kunis (Black Swan) as Tanya, Freddy Rodríguez (Six Feet Under) as Angelo Lopez, and Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World) are the best.
An important point that needs to be made is all the characters of colour are played by their corresponding people of colour. That’s… it’s… they… I’m literally speechless! It’s like, a huge deal guys. Live-action casting isn’t this thorough! You actually see the actors there and they’re like: “Sigourney Weaver as the ancient Egyptian Queen Tuya? I don’t see a problem there.” Or “Emma Stone as a Hawaiian/Chinese character will sell tickets better than an actual Hawaiian/Chinese person, so cast her!” Saints Row is presenting actors to us just on voices alone and they cast every ethnicity correctly! It’s a thing of fucking beauty.
Another important point that needs to be made is that all these characters feel real. They work well together and play off of each other nicely. They’ll fight and sling insults at each other, but they’re all in it together and you’ll never forget that. Scenes that feature Aisha and Johnny are the best for this. Johnny is impatient and short tempered but Aisha isn’t scared of him and will shoot her mouth off just as much as he does. They’re a functioning dysfunctional couple. (Here’s some more tasteless self-promotion: tune into Scooby Dos or Scooby Don’ts to hear one of the most functioning dysfunctional couples currently podcasting!)
The character designs are great too. The 3rd Street Saints’ signature colour is purple (my personal favourite) so I’m immediately behind them for that! Is it wrong to choose sides based on colours? Probably. I wouldn’t recommend joining a gang in real life on this basis. But I really fucking love purple! The gang symbol is a fleur de lis as well, so I’m on board. Canonize me, there’s no way I’m not a Saint!
As for the character you play as, it’s a dude with customizable options that end at gender and voice. Why no voice options? Unnamed playable dude doesn’t talk outside of maybe three lines. The best comment he has to make is when Johnny says he’s going to skull fuck Tanya and he replies: “Hope you don’t mind hepatitis.” Well, that and pointing a gun and yelling “Those are last season’s shoes and you know it!” at Luz when she says she was late because she had to buy new shoes. He has a passion of fashion! It’s kind of endearing and it lends itself to how far out they take our protagonist in future games. Plus, making him silent works in many physical comedy moments. Having him scooch towards Dex in a car that’s about to tip or having him nonchalantly shrug when Johnny takes credit for your work to impress Aisha is cute. He’s a sociopath, but he’s got impeccable gag timing!
Out of the Saint Lieutenants, I like Lin’s look the most. She’s dressed in blue because she’s undercover with the Rollerz, but she’s in the sexiest bralette and her hair is perfect. I love her. Of course they kill her off, but that’s a rant for another day. Then there’s Johnny Gat with his tiny, tinted glasses and frosted tips. So exquisitely mid-2000s! Am I mocking him? Who will ever know for sure?! As far as the gang that wins at overall style, that honour hands down belongs to Los Carnales. Their colour is red and their style is straight out of the forties with their high-waisted zoot suit pants and suspenders. Such class. Who’s not winning at style? The Vice Kings in yellow and the Westside Rollerz in blue. They’ve got little to no fashion sense. Vice Kings wear yellow t-shirts, the Rollerz wear blue track pants. C’mon guys, if you’re going go to all the trouble to start a gang, at least infuse a little fashion into it! A little flare! Wow me!
The graphics of Saints Row are what bum me out the most. They’re… not so great. They’re okay, but they’re on the lower side of okay. Draw distances are bad, details near nonexistent, and everyone’s eyes are little black holes of soullessness. Don’t look directly into them lest you lose your soul as well! Some of the issues can be explained away because of the year and the type of game. Sandbox games are big after all, not everything can be top notch. Of course when you look at Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Tomb Raider Legend, Okami, Final Fantasy XII, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, it’s clear Saints Row could have come out looking better.
On the bright side, there’s no lag or slowdown that I could tell. There’s also automatic cycling of day and night and different types of weather which is a nice touch. The game is still okay to look at ten years later; it’s just not as timeless as some other games that came out during that period.
So as a full game, taking everything into account, where does Saints Row stand? There’s fun to be had in Saints Row, but I wouldn’t believe you if you told me it was your favourite game of the series. To sum it up, it’s a solid base for a franchise that would (and continues to) get to express itself more fully. The graphics don’t hold up quite as much as other games of the time period and the story is a little too cookie cutter to GTA but the characters are amazing, the setting is good, and the gameplay is fun if not a touch standard.
Saints Row 2 is up next. I’m so excited! The main character will talk and I will be with my British voiced babe once again!