Following a recent—and still ongoing—gaming binge I’ve realized that open world action games, best exemplified by the Grand Theft Auto series, constitute my favourite genre in the video gaming medium. Following the fairly on-rails single player experiences of the Call of Duty and Gears of War games I’ve come to really appreciate interactivity or at the very least well-executed mechanics: games like Half-Life 2, the Halo series and BioShock give you a variety of tools but don’t hold your hand, preferring to let the player work their way through a scenario as they see fit.
In the case of open world games, where missions are accessed in a continuous environment and non-player characters abound, the beauty is how you can make other entities react, like dropping a pebble into a pond just to see the subsequent ripples. Or, in the context of GTAIV, dropping a live grenade in the middle of a traffic jam smack dab in the centre of Star Junction.
The result: always this.
I’ve elaborated how GTAIV succeeds, for me, not in spite of its flaws but because of them, its clunky handling and at times aggravating lack of mission checkpoints resulting in one of the few modern action games to make you feel genuinely vulnerable. Its vehicle mechanics differ from most other games of its type—Hell, from every other game in its own series—by having cars handle like real cars, swerving out of control if you take a turn too fast or too suddenly. Try to play it like any other driving game and you’d think your character was drunk (even more so for the mission in which Niko Bellic actually does get drunk and go for a spin).
It’s that sense of danger that makes GTAIV such a fulfilling game. Frustrating? Yeah, especially when I’m doing a fucking motorcycle mission and both digitally and in real life motorcycles are the worst vehicles ever…
*takes a deep breath*
Sorry. I had to do that mission, like, fifty times.
Protip: always do this.
2012’s Sleeping Dogs is a little more conventional in terms of driving and combat mechanics, in pure gameplay terms a lot more polished product than GTAIV. Between its sleek Hong Kong aesthetic, seamlessly incorporated martial arts combat and the ability to hijack a car while you are driving another car, it’s also the epitome of cool. Storywise, it’s also really interesting, putting you in the role of undercover cop Wei Shen, assigned to infiltrate and dismantle organized crime in Hong Kong.
But as enjoyable as it is, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, removing any element of choice from the plot proceedings—say, forcing you to decide between your allegiance to the police or to your friends in the mob. Furthermore, there’s no real sense of danger, with police pursuits easily halted and the actual police response pretty insubstantial (I’ve learned and accepted that there’s a dark side of me that wants to be chased by armoured tanks and we’re all just going to have to deal with it).
And then there’s Saints Row: The Third.
Yes, that is what you think it is.
I’ve never played either of the first two Saints Row games. I never plan on it, because I know I’ll just be disappointed. Saints Row: The Third is both the antithesis of Grand Theft Auto IV and everything it could be, offering in-depth character and vehicle customization unlike anything else I’ve seen in the genre. It’s also set in the most delightfully batshit insane fictional universe I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.
Saints Row: The Third possesses none of the pathos of GTAIV and Sleeping Dogs and certainly none of the vulnerability of the former (you can upgrade yourself to become essentially immortal), but it’s pure fun distilled in digital form and allows you to have some of the greatest effect on your environment, be it altering the skyline by demolishing a skyscraper or by wreaking enough havoc to bring out the military. It has no limits and no sense of restraint and while I don’t prefer it over GTAIV, it possesses a lot elements I hope to see in a game like it.
Ideally, Grand Theft Auto V will have the vulnerability of GTAIV, the polish of Sleeping Dogs and the nuance of Saints Row: The Third. I’m disheartened by the knowledge it’s been delayed until September but until then I can titillate myself with the idea of this perfect game. And by dropping a few more live grenades in Star Junction.