Ive always loved Grand Theft Auto, ever since underage me bought the first one from my local game store, the proprietor giving me a knowingly raised eyebrow when I told him my spurious birthdate. The game, as it turned out, was pure fun rather than the child-corrupting monster the media wanted to make it out to be. Despite having visuals that would have looked more at home on the Amiga or Atari ST than representing the future of gaming, GTA had a huge amount of charm and was more than willing to embrace its own inherent sense of ridiculousness standing in the middle of a street waving a rocket launcher around while belching and farting was just the thing to unwind with.
Some years later, Im at university, old enough to drink and purchase new GTA games, and Grand Theft Auto III hits the scene. Its better than anyone could have possibly imagined, and it was responsible for a large number of almost sleepless nights with a good friend of mine as we struggled to outdo each other and cause the maximum amount of chaos possible. Tanks were usually involved and when they werent we were trying our best to keep the short-winged "Dodo" aircraft in the sky. (I was the best at this.)
As time has gone on, GTA has slowly started to take itself a bit more seriously, with a greater focus on the plot rather than the open-world mayhem. Vice City and San Andreas still had elements of the ridiculous about them, but their narratives had started to go beyond the simple "smalltime crook wants to make it big." And by the time we got to GTA IV, we were into full on ludonarrative dissonance territory, as protagonist Nikos personality seemed completely at odds with the players desire to cause complete and utter carnage. Sure, you could still do it if you wanted, but it didnt feel quite "right."
Enter Saints Row, a series which was previously (and probably fairly) described as a GTA wannabe. But with the latest installment, THQ and Volition have captured exactly what it was that made the early GTAs so memorable and magical to me that sense of unbridled chaos, the feeling that causing mayhem is exactly what the game wants you to do, the sense that yes, your character probably is psychotic enough to run down a street punching every person she sees in the balls for no apparent reason.
Open-world chaos can, of course, get tiresome after a while, but Saints Row: The Third manages to keep this momentum of mayhem going even during missions, which start ridiculous (freefalling out of an airplane, shooting goons on the way down) and only get more crazy as time goes on. Alongside all that, activities such as Insurance Fraud and the appropriately-titled Mayhem encourage you to throw yourself into traffic and blow up as much stuff as possible, doubtless giggling with glee as you do so. The game even has the good manners to temporarily provide you with infinite ammo for your most destructive weapons when confronted with a situation like this, meaning that theres no artificial break in the carnage as you realize youve started a Mayhem challenge with only three pistol bullets and nothing else.
GTA is, it seems, diverging into its own niche: providing fictional but realistically-rendered cities that are interesting to explore and "live" in. Saints Row, meanwhile, has ably stepped into GTAs old shoes to provide the sort of immediate, insane thrills that its impossible to take part in without a broad grin on your face. And Im all for that. Just because a game is about crime doesnt mean it has to explore the psychology of criminals on the level of Scarface. In fact, personally speaking, Im far more likely to take an interest if it follows the cartoonish, overly-exaggerated nature of Saints Row: The Third Ive already spent far more time with Volitions latest than I ever did with GTA IV.
In short, GTA V is going to have to do something very special to convince me its still king of the open-world crime-sim. In the meantime, if youre yet to give Saints Row: The Third a try and are looking for something pleasingly lightweight to enjoy between lengthy Skyrim stints, stop hesitating and grab a copy now.