The basic consensus among the Internet about the respective merits of both Saint's Row and Grand Theft Auto seem to be this: Saint's Row is the fun, goofy, but ultimately meaningless city sandbox game, while GTA is the serious and adult city sandbox game. Saint's Row is for people looking to enjoy themselves, while GTA is for people looking for a deeper, more engaging story. This is wrong. Grand Theft Auto 4 is an ambitious game that completely misses the mark, while Saints Row 2 is a GTA clone that didn't give a fuck and became so much more. In the video game world, there's this idea that being "mature" means that your protagonist is constantly pissed off, everything is brown, and the controls are shitty (because apparently making controls annoying and frustrating makes them more realistic); GTA4 has all of those things and nothing more, so we like to assume that it is a "good" game, telling a compelling story in a more mature, realistic way than most games. It's not, and it doesn't.
|You can tell this game is good because it's brown and vaguely overexposed.|
For starters, let's look at the basic plot to GTA4. Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City with little money and a dark past. There he meets his cousin, who he stays with. Niko helps his cousin with some odd jobs, then steals a car, drives it the wrong way down the freeway, hits a cop car, gets into a police chase, crashes his stolen car, kills like 20 police officers, then swims across the river to escape. Then he goes on a nice date with girl he met (it's not a perfect date though; he gets into a police chase on the way to and from the restaurant). After wrecking 3 cars on the way, he meets up with his cousin again, who has some gambling debts. Unfortunately for Niko, who was trying to get out of the killing game, this means that he has no other choice but to murder his way to the top of Liberty City's crime syndicates.
|That man is wearing the same outfit as me. I guess I have no choice but to kill 50 people.|
There are a number of problems with this story, but the biggest one is that it is incredibly inconsistent. The story that the cutscenes are telling and the story that the gameplay is telling are two completely different stories. It's like if Francis Ford Coppola threw a Michael Bay-style freeway chase into The Godfather. A good game uses the gameplay to tell the story, while bad games will tell you a story and have you act out the action sequences. Also, the story is repetitive: Niko wanders into somebody's house, so they ask him to kill some people. He kills those people. Repeat. Never mind the fact that at one point he was supposedly trying to escape his past as a professional killer. I get that the game is supposed to be about how hard it is to escape a life of crime (like every gritty crime story ever), but it would be vastly more compelling if if felt like Niko was actually putting any effort at all into it.
|If only there was some other way to go grocery shopping...|
Saints Row 2, on the other hand, has none of these problems. I have no doubts that the protagonist of the SR2 would actually steal an airplane from the airport and try to land it on the highway, or hijack a bus and drive around running over people at the mall. SR2 is one of the first game I've ever played where the story of the game actually made sense with how most people play sandbox games (for another example of this, see Just Cause 2). The protagonist (he/she's never given a name) is a goofy over-the-top supervillain, so it makes sense that they'd go on rampages through the city; Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is supposed to be a down-and-out hired thug, not an unstoppable mass-murderer.
|Don't tell me this game doesn't already look more fun.|
It also helps that the characters in Saint's Row aren't all one-dimensional stereotypes. Wait a second, you're probably saying aloud. That game is so ridiculous and over the top, all of the characters have to be stereotypes, right? Nope (well, some of them are). Look at, say, Johnny Gat. He's a stylish, cool criminal mastermind with a theatrical flair. Notice, now, how no words in that description were "Asian" or "Chinese." I'd bet you didn't even realize what race he was until now (I definitely had to think about it for a second). Or Pierce. If you had to describe him, you'd probably say something about how he's like your second in command, he has entrepreneurial aspirations, or he likes to sing along to terrible music. You probably wouldn't describe him as "the black guy."
Now let's look at the characters in GTA4. There's the Jamaican guy. And your Eastern European cousin. And some Eastern European gangsters. Also, there were some Irish gangsters. Every character is defined by one trait, usually their race. These are boring characters, and this is bad writing, no matter what medium you're working in.
Finally, I think the difference can be summed up with one scene from Saint's Row 2. Your character finds out that one of your homies (the guy who helped you escape at the beginning of the game) has been taken by a rival gang, in revenge for you fucking their shit up. You chase them down, and find your homie being dragged behind a speeding truck. You stop the truck, but you are too late; you try to help him up but he screams in pain; you try to kick the chain off but it does nothing. Then, your character grabs his homie's hand, and ends his suffering. It's a rare bit of seriousness in an otherwise goofy game, but it makes sense. Your character might be a psychopath, but dammit, he cares about his gang. This scene does several things. It shows us a side of the protagonist that we haven't seen, fleshing out the character; it shows us the real cost of their gang war; and it makes your conflict with this particular gang leader personal. The whole scene is shot simply and effectively, and though I may have been wearing a hot dog suit at the time, I was moved, dammit.
|This image alone makes it a better game.|
Compare that to the scene of Roman's death. For one, I honestly wanted Roman to be killed, if only so he'd stop inviting me to play pool. Also, his death comes out of nowhere and feels like it was put in more so there'd be a shocking, emotional event and less because it made sense within the narrative (see also: The "No Russian" level in Modern Warfare 2). Also, the whole murder is shot like a '70s exploitation movie (a woman in a wedding dress crying! a quick zoom-in to our hero's shocked face!). It's obvious the creators were trying to create a gritty crime drama but instead they ended up with a generic rip-off of every crime movie ever made. The creators of Saint's Row 2, on the other hand, were trying to make a ridiculous, fun game, and that's exactly what they did.