Saints Row IV And Sandbox Deconstruction

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I originally didn’t plan to bother with Saints Row IV after recently finishing Saints Row The Third, but that free weekend and $5 sale on Steam took me by surprise (and is actually the same way I tried out and bought The Third). A ways into the game, it’s got me wondering about what’s happened to sandbox games and where the game format is headed.

Open-world game design is getting pretty stilted. I hope new hardware can inspire some evolution on them, but the last few years of open-world games have brought us some design that’s so formulaic it’s starting to feel like busywork. SR4, mostly in purpose but sometimes unintentionally, has brought me to a point of deconstruction with open-world games where I’m starting to wonder why the game’s city is even there anymore.

I’d like to believe a lot of the earliest open-world games were made to immerse players in large, systemic worlds looked at from a human perspective. Games like Elite wanted players to simply live in a massive universe and its systems. The Elder Scrolls puts players through quests making narrative choices in such worlds. As soon as Grand Theft Auto III brought the idea to mainstream audiences though, it suddenly became about breaking these worlds, like picking apart a gigantic toy. Nothing was the same ever since somebody wanted to shoot people until they got a five-star rating and shot down a helicopter with the rocket launcher in the middle of a sprawling city.

The GTA games have advanced that idea while balancing some kind of scale between not taking themselves too seriously and trying to have characters and stories you care about. The Third decided to stop pretending to take itself even the slightest bit seriously and I think that allows it to be a lot more fun than most open-world games (as well as less frustrating than GTA on a mechanical level). Where The Third loosened up the urban sandbox format, SR4 endeavors to completely tear it apart.

If you haven’t played the game yet, the city in SR4 isn’t even real within the space of the game — just a Matrix-like simulation. In it the game gives you Neo-like superpowers which put the experience somewhere between Crackdown and Prototype. Because you’re basically a superhero in this setting all attachment to the city, its inhabitants, and the places within it is gone. You have a super jump and super speed, so you almost never need to use vehicles anymore. Buildings are no longer buildings but just giant platforms. The city is no longer a city but, well, a sandbox. I guess in some ways Assassin’s Creed feels like this too.

SR4’s approach seriously quicken’s its pace compared to The Third, removing most traversal from quest to quest with this new feeling as the result. I remember someone way back on G4 criticizing GTA as “Just a bunch of minigames.” In my opinion when GTA works it becomes and immersive world that happens to have a bunch of minigames in it. SR4 however really does feel like it’s just a bunch of minigames now. If the game feels like a mixed bag to many, it’s because those minigames are a mixed bag.

The activities in The Third while outrageous and fun in that craziness, were still thematically related to doing urban action stuff. SR4’s activities have no real focus, and I think many of them are outside developer Volitioin’s comfort zone. They’re varied to the point where I’m not even sure what kind of game SR4 wants to be. Climbing its towers is basically a platformer, there are multiple activities that are essentially racing games, you spend a significant amount of time in what is essentially Bioshock’s hacking minigame, and then there are the games where you just throw balls at things. And for some reason Insurance Fraud feels a lot harder in SR4 than in The Third. Some of these activities feel fun, others are just okay. The most engaging are the ones still related to urban sandbox action. I will say though that bundling SR4’s activities together in side quests somehow made me more likely to do them. It’s like the game chooses activities for me instead of making me pick them individually off the map like in every recent Ubisoft game.

Generally, The Third is an insane game, but it’s insanity is focused on something — deconstructing the GTA format. SR4’s insanity is just all over the place.

BULLETS:

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