Chasing Open-World Ideals in the OG Saints Row
After Grand Theft Auto III practically rewrote the book on open-world urban adventure, there were plenty of games out there that tried to imitate or compete with the level of style and enjoyment presented in that game. Meanwhile, Rockstar just continued to up the ante with titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The franchise was and arguably still is the king of its kind of game, but there was a point when a solid competitor entered the market in the form of Volition’s Saints Row. It wouldn’t be long before Volition quit trying to chase Rockstar and embraced a far more over-the-top nature, but it was today in 2006 that the first Saints Row hit shelves, making a serious attempt at capturing Grand Theft Auto’s fire with its own brand of open-world, urban sandbox.
Volition began work on Saints Row in 2003. From the beginning, the developers were invested in a mission to supply a story and progression with an open-ended world. They wanted the game’s narrative arcs to feel natural while not interfering and shoehorning the player into them. At the same time, they wanted the open-world segments outside of the core story to matter. Designer Christopher Stockman noted in a developer diary on GameSpy that players enjoyed the random experimentation open-world games, but few other games rewarded this or tied it into the overall main story. It was this observation that led them to attempt to create events in the world specifically to reward player exploration outside the main story arc.
These came in the form of activities. After the player creates their character and plays through an introductory sequence, they are tasked with gaining enough respect to advance through three different arcs of the game. Respect is earned by taking part in activities throughout the game’s city and more can be earned through higher difficulty levels. Activities are mini-games that range anywhere from racing and escort missions to drug trafficking to simply causing pure mayhem. Gaining enough respect allowed players to move onto the next area of the game. However, while this did indeed make the world outside the story more interesting, many critics felt that it also had an effect of breaking up the story a little too much with respect requirements forcing the player to abandon main progression for long periods of time.
The game is centered on the city of Stilwater where the unnamed protagonist becomes a member of the new 3rd Street Saints gang. The Saints’ leader wants to take over turf in the city, which requires breaking the control of three separate gangs that control different aspects of both legitimate and illegal underworld business throughout the city. The player must participate in the aforementioned respect-earning activities in order to gain the trust of specific Saints lieutenants working on plans for wrecking each of the other gangs. Throughout the game, the Saints become more powerful, collect more territory and ultimately garner more attention from more powerful enemies.
Saints Row was interesting in its approach to the open-world format. The activities ensured that every part of the world was brimming with gameplay and opportunities. That said, the requirement of these activities to advance hurt the overall pace of the game and the slightly more serious nature of the game garnered its own criticism. Sequels would push in a more comedic direction to escape the shadow of comparison to Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row would certainly find its audience, but there’s something to be said for the direct challenge Volition made in the early running. In many ways, Saints Row came closer to giving GTA a run for its money than any other franchise had ever come.