I first heard about Saints Row as a GTA clone - and paid it no mind. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was about gangs, this clone was about gangs, so it was going to obviously suck. Like comparing Transmorphers with Transformers, or Transformers: Dark of the Moon with Transformers (there was no second movie, shut up!). Spoiler warning: this contains story details for all four Saints Row games.
So you can guess my surprise when I found a teaser trailer for Saints Row: The Third and laughed my head off. I went and pre-ordered it based on how much I laughed at the over-the-top humour very much present in a short trailer found on YouTube. Professor Genki, crotch-punching, giant dildos… Something about the whole situation just appealed to me. This was the first game I had bothered to pre-order since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on Gamecube - because it came with remakes of the N64 games if you did.
Of course, this presented a problem in that I didn’t know anything about the series. It was a game about stealing cars and shooting people - or beating them with massive purple sex toys. So I went in search for cheap copies, which I found easily on eBay. A couple of days later, I loaded up Saints Row - the first in the series - and found myself in the shoes of a silent protagonist who is recruited into a gang and told to drive cars while killing people. So far so generic - but it had been a while since GTA IV and would be a long while until GTA V, so I played on.
In all honesty, the first game didn’t light the world on fire because it really was a clone of Grand Theft Auto III. It did bring things to the table, such as being able to recall your saved cars back to your garage and a pretty interesting storyline of life in a gang in Stilwater, USA. San Andreas dealt with life trying to stay out of a gang, which I could kind of relate to, having never been in a gang, but was ultimately a lot of whining about not wanting to do things. It’s much more interesting when your character wants to do the stuff you’re being told to do, as much as you want to do it. This was something Saints Row had figured out.
There were some more neat touches such as each of the three rival gangs having a Wanted meter as well as the police, meaning that if you angered them too much they would chase you down just as hard as the cops would. It also had a GPS system in place two years before GTA IV would bring it to that series, and a Homies system where you could recruit up to three Saints to aid you in whatever you were up to at the time. Having Homies meant you didn’t have to worry about your cohorts coming with you and dying accidentally to make you fail the mission - you could revive them.
Anyway, spoiler alert for an eight-year-old game, but Saints Row ends with you being blown up on a yacht by Julius Little, the leader of your gang the Third Street Saints. That had me more than hooked for the sequel - luckily I had the disk right next to me, though I doubted it would continue the storyline. After all, GTA has nothing to do with GTA III, which in turn is unrelated to GTA V. I’ve never been more happy about being proven wrong by an old game.
Saints Row 2 begins with you choosing a gender - a hard right turn away from the single character of similar titles, and an improvement on the slight customisation of the first title. You wake up in an island prison off the coast of Stilwater, having been in a coma for five years after your explosive bout of near-death. Even more surprising, you’re no longer silent - which is commented upon by almost everyone alive from the first game who reappears. Upon escaping to the mainland, you find that the city of Stilwater has changed, having been improved by the Ultor Corporation. You might recognise the game from time spent on Mars in the Red Faction series, also from Volition.
Ultor had done some urban reclamation in the wake of the gang violence from the first game being ended - with you having killed all the gangs and Julius disbanding the Saints. This included building around the Third Street church which served as your headquarters. So you - now simply called The Boss or Playa’ (or ‘they’ to avoid gendered words in case you chose to be a girl) - have to get the gang back together: literally.
You recruit former-Saint Johnny Gat, the most awesome NPC ever conceived, from his sentencing at the courthouse of one count of attempted murder and 387 counts of first-degree murder. Together you gather some forces and take the fight to the new gangs and show why the others ‘left’ five years ago and even wind up tracking down Julius Little and shooting him dead. Because screw that guy. Most of the fun comes in the form of the minigames which give you respect to start more story missions - the craziest of which is insurance fraud. You have to get hit by as much traffic as possible - which literally stops for little in this mode - to get an out of court settlement. Of course, doing this on behalf of a shady lawyer means you see very little of your millions in compensation. But nothing compares to getting hit by a trash van, hurling you into the air and landing on the suspended rail tracks above you just in time to be flung across the city by the train.
Eventually, you defeat all of the gangs and even take over Ultor itself despite their private army, which helps run up the next game. Saints Row: The Third - named because of Third Street in the Saints Row district of Stilwater - has the Saints now international superstar criminals, with movies, TV shows and even a sports drink: Saints Flow. They also pay off the police so they can commit crimes with abandon - the first mission having you robbing a Stilwater bank unknowingly owned by The Syndicate. You are robbing it while dressed as Johnny Gat (including an oversized Johnny Gat mascot-style head) along with Johnny himself and former-stoner Shaundi whom you recruited in the previous game.
Now, before we go much further, this is my favourite of the series. I pre-ordered it and got it day of release on Xbox 360, as well as the Season Pass. I later bought it on sale on the PSN for my PS3 and got it with birthday money in a pack of six games off of eBay. I’ve bought it in a bundle recently for Steam! I’ve not paid for the exact same game four times ever before. I’ve only bought Just Cause 2 twice (360, PC) and Sonic Adventure 2 three times (Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS3)
When the police - being paid by the Syndicate - arrest you after a huge shootout, you get to remove the Gat head and choose a gender and clothing options. The head was stuck on and your voice distorted before now, to allow you to get right into the game without all that faff. You are offered by Phillipe, representing the Syndicate who it turns out are a larger criminal empire than the Saints, to leave the Syndicate alone and they can live.
One plane crash later, you and Shaundi are stuck in Steelport - the Syndicate’s home turf - with no money and no Johnny Gat: who went down with the plane. You then set about killing Phillipe and then the rest of the Syndicate as you take over Steelport. Starting off all-powerful before being taken back to basics is a time-honoured videogame tradition, after all, and you don’t get more traditional in Saints Row than “Kill all the gangs”. You recruit newcomers such as Kinzie Kensington the FBI tech nerd and Nyte Blade the fictional vampire hunter Josh Birk the actor. However, the size of your gang war - as well as the size of some new recruits such as Oleg - worries the government who send in STAG.
The Special Tactical Anti-Gang unit is like Ultor on steroids, wherein they have a ton of tanks and jets ready to commit acts of war to ensure peace returns to Steelport. Your fight against them eventually results in another plane crash - this one covering part of Steelport in a mysterious chemical gas that turns the inhabitants into zombies! This isn’t the first instance of zombies in Saints Row, as you could recruit a zombie Homie in each of the previous games. However, they cause the most trouble as Mayor Burt Reynolds asks you to go in and clear out the gas canisters. Yes, Burt Reynolds the movie star is the mayor of one of the most corrupt cities - because he’s Burt Reynolds that’s why!
The thing about The Third is, it gives you choices at certain points. You can blow up or keep Phillipe’s place, or in this instance destroy or keep the gas to create your own zombie horde! They drive cars and kill for you - of course I keep it every time!
Eventually you take down Cyrus Temple, the leader of STAG, and rule Steelport with an iron stripper pole. However, Cyrus doesn’t perish until the opening of Saints Row IV. Kinzie has tracked him down to a terrorist camp somewhere anti-American in the Middle East. The Boss is wearing a helmet and his microphone battery is dead, so again his gender is unknown while you murder insurgents on your way to stop Cyrus launching a missile at America.
The Boss dumps Cyrus into a vat of boiling liquid just as the missile is launched and during some of the best missile-riding fun since Just Cause 2, manages to disarm it. Leaping off they land in the Oval Office of the White House and put their feet up. Time skip a few years - and create your character - and The Boss is now The President. After stopping Cyrus, it only made sense to run for office, it seems, with Keith David as vice president. Yes, actor Keith David who looks kinda like - and sounds like, being the exact same voice - Julius Little who tried to kill you before.
The President is about to address the press when suddenly aliens invade. They kidnap most of the Saints and Keith David while President laments how there should be more armaments within reach instead of the arsenal in the Oval Office. The President eventually gets outside to the recently installed giant rocket turret and tries to shoot down all of the alien ships. Eventually Zinyak, ruler of the invading Zin, captures the President and sticks him in the harsh, nightmarish world of a ‘50s sitcom.
Turns out it was part of The Simulation, a Matrix-esque thing that millions of beings are plugged into aboard the Zin mothership. Kinzie got herself out first - somehow - and rescued Keith David stealing a spaceship in the process - before rescuing the President. However, true to the promise he makes in the simulation, as soon as you escape - Zinyak destroys Earth. No, not the one in the simulation.
So it’s up to the President to avenge humanity - so back into the simulation to disrupt systems and make it easier for Kinzie to locate the other Saints. The simulation takes the form of Steelport, more-or-less exactly the same as it was in The Third. This was initially disappointing - why not Stilwater the Saints’ hometown? - but understandable from multiple points.
Steelport is where the Saints lost Johnny, gained Kinzie and met Cyrus Temple, plus it’s where Pierce - another Saint since 2 - became mayor. Also, reusing the map was better than making a new one due to the fact players wouldn’t need to explore when they get super powers which remove the need for cars.
Super powers - running and jumping, eventually joined with blasts, fire and earth-slamming. It being all virtual means you can do whatever you want (except fly) without the aid of vehicles or weapons. Weapons help too, especially when you can skin the handgun to look like Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ from Firefly or the Uzi like Robocop’s gun. They are especially helpful when you enter the other Saints’ own personal simulations.
Pierce, spokesperson of the Saints, is being constantly attacked by a skyscraper-sized can of Saints Flow. Saving him includes using a giant statue to beat the can up - à laGhostbusters II.
Shaundi’s simulation is the plane that Johnny went down in, then being held hostage by her ex as she was at one point in Saints Row 2.
Matt Miller, a nerd gang-boss who tried to kill the Saints in The Third before the reforming and joining MI-6, is stuck in technology he doesn’t understand - a text-based adventure game.
Asha Odekar is the MI-6 agent who helped you take out Cyrus, and was visiting Washington with Matt when it was invaded. Her simulation is based on Metal Gear Solid - including sneaking around in a box.
Ben King, a gang-boss from the first game turned Presidential advisor, is stuck in the past - Stilwater.
You later find out that Kinzie’s was the same ‘50s world you were stuck in, and Keith David’s is stuck with a simulated Roddy Piper in the ‘80s movie They Live!
And finally, Johnny is stuck reliving the death of his girlfriend in a sideways scrolling beat ’em up.
That’s right, Johnny lives! Zinyak took him from the plane just before it crashed, knowing that Mr Gat alone could probably stop the invasion before it started. So President and the rest of the Saints take the fight to Zinyak, via the simulation. By destroying it, they hope to cause him some trouble, enough to get a fix on his location, and it eventually works.
President super-suits up, literally in a suit designed to mimic super powers, and goes to avenge Earth. In doing so, the Earth isn’t brought back. However the Saints learn that the Zin have mastered time travel! Specifically just so Zinyak could visit Jane Austen. Being the civic-minded souls they are - the Saints decide to screw around with history. And maybe save the world afterwards.
Hopefully over the course of this, I’ve convinced you to at least give the series a go. If not, then at least I’ve shown you why I love it. And maybe - just maybe - convinced Volition that their series needs to continue. Soon, please - I can’t afford to keep buying copies of Saints Row: The Third...