Retrospective: Saint’s Row
When Grand Theft Auto III hit the Playstation 2 in 2001 it was unlike anything we had seen before. Sure, the sandbox concept had been dabbled with from time to time and by the name alone it’s clear that Grand Theft Auto had been an established franchise, car stealing and hooker beating included. It was GTA III that put everything together and re-established the concept of 3D world building and open variety of player choice. Despite all the freedom of GTA III – not to mention the fact that most of my friends have explored Liberty City and put tens of hours into the game but never played more than the first handful of missions – it’s a very linear game. Not only that, but as missions progress the game gets quite difficult and the open alive city is a drawback to completing missions. That’s where Volition and Saint’s Row step in to attempt the next step: an open world where everything you do from running around to side missions affect the main story.
Saint’s Row began life in 2003 as a PS2 game called Bling Bling. Senior producer Greg Donovan discussed the genesis of the title at GDC 2014 and the difficulty of pitching the game to THQ, which up to this point had not published anything like it. Donovan and his team envisioned a game about a free world and all the minutia that make up that open world to recreate the gangster lifestyle. The actual phrasing from the pitch video was, “Bling Bling is a third person action game about style, music, gangs, and guns. It is the video game equivalent to a rap music video.” Donovan and developer interviews since haven’t been too forthcoming with how the game eventually became a sandbox open world game, but given that both GTA III and Vice City were already out when Bling Bling began development it almost makes sense that it would take on the same style.
Volition set about making their own response to both personality, something GTA admittedly lacked, and the open world. I should also point out at this time that it must have been interesting being at Volition when San Andreas was announced later in 2003 and when it eventually came out in 2004 and seemed to do almost everything the original pitch for Bling Bling promised. This probably explains the delay in development and focus on modifying the open world formula to be something different. It probably also goes on to explain the change in name to Saint’s Row, offering even more identity to the world your character would live in rather than being forced into playing as T.J. in a fictional California like in San Andreas. The move to Xbox 360 also seems like a twofold win to both release a GTA-like first on the console and to show off hardware improvements over the PS2.
Development documentation on Saint’s Row show that for a majority of development the team was focusing on making an open city that felt real. Scale became the initial focus given that the first city they created was about a fourth of the size of the eventual Stilwater we received. Apparently the team built Stilwater just as you would any other actual city and then spent a large portion of time driving around in it. Certain locations were cut, and later re-introduced in the sequel, but I’m betting this was a time constraint that probably mattered little in context of the finished product. When it came to mission structure, the team focused on the concept of “everything matters,” which if you read the entire run of developer diaries on GameSpy completely shows. Since the game started life as a title about your world, so therefore did the missions. Instead of the character you are handed and missions that unfold a storyline that is pre-determined, Saint’s Row opted to adjust everything to your actions instead. It’s not as dynamic as titles today, but the branching paths and stories based on which gangs you choose to target or areas you wish to visit were somewhat innovative in 2006. It should be noted that until GTA V in 2013 that Rockstar never allowed this type of freedom in characters and your protagonists still aren’t your creation. Some will argue that is the strength of GTA but regardless of your opinion, this became the largest defining factor when Saint’s Row eventually goes into direct competition with GTA.
In Saint’s Row you create your own character that can be adapted in many ways including sex, race, and outfits and drops you in the city of Stilwater. Stilwater is a combination of various cities including Detoit, Baltimore, and Chicago that gives a distinguishing difference to the typical New York and Los Angeles backdrops of most games. Much like circumstances in these actual cities, gangs have taken over certain districts and your character ends up in the middle of a conflicts. At this time you are injured and about to be killed when Julius and Troy, two members of the newest gang the 3rd Street Saints, save your life and offer to have you join them to clean up the streets. From there the story branches into three campaigns – each one linear in nature and similar to a GTA campaign progression – as you take on the three rival gangs of the city. It’s a bit stereotypical, but those gangs are the Vice Kings (African-American), Westside Rollerz (Asian), and Los Carnales (Hispanic). From there you can really do what you want and pursue each mission as you please, but at the end of the day you just have to complete each storyline batch of missions to eventually complete all 3 gangs’ plots. As expected you can then progress to the final set of missions that unfolds the larger plot of the game and puts a big boss behind all gang activity. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice to say Saint’s Row didn’t seem to be initially set up for a sequel.
What I do remember from when it released was that despite having decent review scores (8’s and 80’s) and being a relatively bug-free game (especially compared to the mess of the sequel) it was ignored. Part of that may be due to the summer 2006 release date, which puts it just before the launch of the PS3 and before we saw how difficult that console was going to be to program for. In addition, I think gamers had been flooded with Grand Theft Auto titles on the previous gen, the re-releases on Xbox and PC, and then the additional releases on PSP that any game trying for that genre was put to the wayside. Criticisms aside I think that’s why we also saw relative obscurity to the first Just Cause. In hindsight Saint’s Row is probably one of the more unappreciated Xbox 360 exclusives and it makes perfect sense why team Microsoft were eager to get the game on the platform. While I find some of the missions to be quite frustrating, they don’t even hold a candle to the more annoying missions in the Grand Theft Auto PS2 outings. They also had checkpoints! Oh wonder of wonder the concept of playing a mission and not having to re-find it from the hospital and re-do it from the beginning. In fact, as I’m writing this I realize that was the most innovating feature of Saint’s Row and should put it in the hall of fame for sandbox titles. It also had multiplayer although I will admit that I never saw the value in sandbox multiplayer and Saint’s Row only further confirmed my opinion. Either way, if you have an Xbox 360 and want to see the half step between Grand Theft Auto III and what is today’s sandbox games, Saint’s Row can be an amusing experience. Here’s hoping maybe someday it’ll get backward compatibility on Xbox One so even more can enjoy a game that costs nearly nothing for a used copy.