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Although it started off as little more than a knockoff on another popular crime series, the Saints Row franchise has since became something so much more. The first game in the series was a relatively uninspired clone of GTA that, while offering fun gameplay and forties of malt liquor, did little to establish itself as a legitimate franchise. Saints Row II upped the ante a bit, adding multiplayer, opening the world up and adding an extra layer of polish that the original was missing. The result was a game that, although still lacking identity, managed to be fresh and fun, although the GTA clone tag was still firmly attached.
With the release of Saints Row: The Third, Volition did the seemingly impossible: turned Saints Row into a serious franchise. How? By removing all seriousness from the occasion. Realizing that Saints Row draws it strength from the absurd, the third installment knocked it out of the part with clever (and hilarious) writing, custom nut shot animations and a focus on refining what makes the series fun, while dropping most of the derivative elements that were holding it back. The result was one of the best games of 2011. While the gameplay was terrific, the cast of characters was an underrated element of the game. What began as a soulless knockoff had become a legitimate contender on its own right. It may not have matched the brilliance of GTA IV’s social commentary, but that was never the point. It may have been a little over-the-top (I think dropkicking people out of vehicles and air-lifting a bank vault count as a little over-the-top, don’t you?), but I genuinely came to care about the fates of the Boss, Johnny Gat, Pierce, Shaundi and the rest of the gang.
I mean…it’s Keith f**ing David.
Then comes Saints Row IV. Despite being handled by a new publishing partner since the dramatic implosion of THQ, expectations were high, and it didn’t disappoint. I loved it, the masses loved it and our own Martine loved it as well. The addition of superpowers turned the game into something else entirely, and I mean that in a very good way. It basically took the best parts of the franchise, added some Crackdown, a bit of The Matrix and as many pop culture references as it could fit on a disc.
The superpowers were by far the biggest addition to the franchise since its inception. Gunplay, while still a blast, took a backseat to fire blasts, power stomps and telekinesis. The excellent car customization was completly overshadowed by the fact that you could supersprint and basically fly anywhere you wanted. You could call up super powered Shaundi or NyteBlade Matt Miller anytime you needed help completely obliterating aliens. While some may not like these offsets, I was all for them. the old options were still there if you wanted them, and the new stuff was so damn fun it didn’t matter to me. Looking back though, I wonder if it might have been too fun.
Sounds ridiculous, right? After spending thirty or so hours superkicking the crap out of everybody, it was a drag whenever the game took my powers away. Being relegated to a regular person, albeit one who could still deal considerable damage, just sucked when I knew the destruction I was capable of causing. Saints Row IV did such a good job incorporating super powers into the game that I wouldn’t be surprised if Volition gets tapped to handle a legitimate superhero franchise in the near future. But this leaves me with one serious question.
Where does the Saints Row franchise go from here?
My hope? Anywhere that still involves the Dubstep Gun.
It’s hard to imagine that Deep Silver is going to abandon the series, but I’m going to be honest: I don’t want to lose my super powers. I understand that some people may not like them, but its hard to argue that they were implemented beautifully. But what now? Do they just abandon them for the next game, possibly in favor of something even more ridiculous? Do they set the next game in a computer simulation as well? Do they invent a storyline wherein the Boss actually gets superpowers? That one seems like it might be the best option, although even Saints Row might find that hard to fit within the fiction.
I never thought a game being too awesome could be a problem, but when you stray so far away from your base concept, I guess anything is possible. Do you see this as a problem for the franchise? It’s plausible that Volition could take this as an opportunity to make something even more crazy and amazing, but I wonder if they haven’t painted themselves into a corner on this one.