"Our development team, when we saw the various GTA games coming out, thought Rockstar had created a genre."
As we approach the autumn, Saint's Row creator Volition isn't going to be the only development team making this argument. With Vivendi's Scarface also due out in a couple of months, and also looking remarkably similar to the long-running law-breaking series, upbeat violence in freeform cities is going to be a recurring theme. Perhaps it really is a genre. Perhaps.
As well as getting our hands on some all-but-finished code of Saint's Row to play over the weekend, we also got a chance to sit down with the game's project lead, Christopher Stockman. As it turns out, Saint's Row's gang focus has nothing to do with San Andreas, and much more to do with what they saw was missing from GTA as a whole.
"A couple of years ago, when thinking about future projects and what we wanted to do, we came up with the idea of a gang-based game," says Stockman. "We did some research into the GTA series and other games like it, and we saw that there was a common complaint against the genre. As freeform as it was, all the side-games didn't really matter too much."
So instead, Volition has created a game that puts the emphasis on those side games. "What mattered the most in the GTA-style games was the storyline, and going from A to Z. But people loved goofing off, it was something they really enjoyed. It was something we really enjoyed. So we took those ideas, and then made those things matter. We created thirteen of what we call 'Activities'."
These Activities are similar in some ways to the side missions in the GTA series, but this time with a purpose. Completion not only earns you money, but also Respect. "Respect is a currency," Stockman explains. "You use to unlock the missions. There's four different storylines in the game, each made up of a series of missions." But you can't simply play through these storylines - you have to earn the right.
For instance, if you carjack a vehicle with more than one person inside, you'll immediately find yourself playing the Hostage mini-game. Depending upon the number of unwilling passengers, you will be given a length of time (somewhere around two minutes) during which you must keep the car moving fast enough such that none of your captives can jump out. With the police on your tail, this becomes a high-speed chase game, with no room for serious error. Slow down too much, or have a crash, and the hostages will bail out and escape, and the Respect and significant reward money will be gone.
Other Activities available include Drug Trafficking, Street Racing and the all-important Snatch, where you must steal 'hos' from rival pimps and take them to those working for your own gang. Those crazy gangs!
The Respect is then spent on missions that can be found marked on the main map. But this isn't simply a loose disguising sheet draped over a linear thread. Stockman is very keen to point out that the freedom remains throughout. "You could start one of the four stories and go through twenty-five percent, then stop, and go play another one for as long as you like. Completing missions from a storyline gains you territory, and you eventually have to gain all the territory to ultimately win the game, but you can really do it in any order you like. It's as non-linear as possible."
This notion of gaining territory introduces another distinguishing aspect. As you play, new options begin unlocking, including new contacts for your cellphone, and more importantly, the ability to recruit 'homies'. These AI buddies will assist you when in territory owned by your gang, the 3rd Street Saints. "This means there's a little bit of interaction between the stories," adds Stockman. "When you've earned a part of a neighbourhood's territory, your own friendly gang members will spawn there. So if you then play a mission that takes place in that area of the neighbourhood, or pass by it during one, you'll have your friends coming up to help. There's definitely some strategy to it."
As well as the multiplayer modes we told you about last week, Saint's Row also features a limited co-op mode. "You and a friend over Live, or a system link, can play on specific maps," Stockman describes. "One's set in an airport, and you're trying to get out, with tons of law enforcement coming after you. In another, you and a friend have to transport these drugs to a safety spot, but you can't fire weapons while carrying the box - it has to be well organised teamwork to beat the AI."
Volition appears to have learned lessons from its predecessors. Stockman ensured us that there were going to be no hidden surprises for the ratings board. "We've got an M rating in America, so we're not nervous. As long as you're not trying to hide anything you don't need to worry. We're not incredibly violent. There's no graphical depiction of decapitations or dismemberments - it's very over-the-top, very comical." But is he afraid of the current hysteria over such games? "I'm not too worried about people complaining about the content of Saint's Row. There's no secret porn codes!"
Along with the peculiar nature of assuring the public that there would be no nudity in a game involving trafficking drugs and stealing prostitutes, it does appear that developing such a game in the current climate is at least frustrating. "I hope that our ratings system becomes more like the movie industry," Stockman went on, "and so you can have more risqué content in an 'M' rated game. If you get an 'AO', that's a death sentence. You're banned from the retail outlets in America. I hope that as the industry matures we can start seeing people push more with M rated games, like an R-rated movie." Is there an explanation for this contradictory immaturity? "The current politicians grew up with movies, but they didn't grow up with games. They don't understand them. I think once people get over the stigmatism that games are for kids, and we get a new generation of politicians that grew up with games, who understand the medium and what we can do, then I think you'll see the laws begin to change."
Playing Saint's Row, it's immediately apparent that it's attempting to keep fingers in two different pies. While it's still remarkably violent - the addition of ragdolls and real physics makes car crashes and hit-and-runs a lot more, er, affecting - it's also much more light-hearted than other similar games. There are a lot of jokes thrown around the city, and some slightly more subtle than in-game burger chain, Freckled Bitches' slogan, "You can't beat our meat."
Stealing a car from a posh young female we heard, "Hey! That was my graduation present!" Then using the car to t-bone an ambulance a passer-by yelled out, "What are you doing? Someone's life is on the line!" Drive a cop car like a loony, and others will make comments on the dreadful state of the police. And while pretend radio stations are hardly their idea, some of the spoof commercials, and especially the right-wing-alike talk radio station, are superbly written and produced, sometimes even scathing in their satire. ("I don't mind immigrants coming into the country and I don't mind if they wear their costumes. They should just wear costumes that are red, white and blue to prove they love America.")
"We aren't trying to be authentic. We're trying to be the MTV view of gang life." Stockman believes that people still don't quite understand Saint's Row's attitude. "I would say that the overall tone of the game is very comical. I think people are going to be blown away. They're going to go in thinking this is serious, and they're going to come out laughing. The characters are so crazy, and so outlandish, that it's a breath of fresh air that people are not going to expect."
It will be interesting to see if Saint's Row's freeform nature, and lack of emphasis on a central narrative, will be sustained by the side-games. And if it can be distinct enough in its... genre.
We'll all be able to find out on 1st September.