Since GTA III there’s been an increasing number of sandbox games all sticking with the same formula that Rockstar has been trying to perfect since 2001. Games like the Saint’s Row and Just Cause series’ and even the odd super hero game like Spiderman 2, inFamous and Prototype are going for the open worlded do what you feel like approach. The funny thing is, most of them are better than the very thing they are imitating. Don’t get me wrong, I loved San Andreas and would probably put it in my top 10 but having tried to get into GTAIII and Vice City several times each (even though the latter is often considered better than San An) and failing, I’ve just found other games to be more enjoyable. In this article I will be comparing a few sandbox games that have stood out for me, San Andreas, GTAIV, Saints Row 2 and the recently released Just Cause 2. I would include inFamous and Prototype but they don’t really involve cars all that much unless you count using them as a weapon.
Overall I can’t really pick a single favourite each have their merits but here’s a quick lowdown.
The only area GTAIV is the best for me is story, and even then it’s not brilliant, a little cliché and one or two of the characters are I want-to-punch-you-in-the-mouth-unlikeable, no names mentioned. Its good towards the end but takes too long to pick up. San Andreas and Saints Row 2 are ok, but they are too gang orientated which in my opinion makes it hard to sympathise, but that could be just me. As for Just Cause 2 the story is pretty much nonexistent, it doesn’t flow all that well and the (intentionally) bad voice acting doesn’t help but that doesn’t really matter.
Graphically Just Cause 2 is the best, the draw distance is incredible and standing on top of the mountains or climbing in a helicopter and looking towards the horizon gives you a real feel for how large the game world is, granted this is the most modern of the four but it’s impressive all the same. GTAIV is nice, but on HD resolutions it could have done with better anti-aliasing and there’s way too much bloom at times, all it suffers from is the same fate as a lot of games this generation, everything is grey. Saints Row 2 isn’t amazing but it’s bright, colourful and while not realistic still a nice looking game. It isn’t really fair to compare San Andreas here as it was released last generation but did look nice at the time so it is noteworthy.
When you spend a good majority of the game driving around you need to have a decent soundtrack to help you along or it can get a bit boring, and this is where Saints Row 2 is the better of the 4, plenty of variety with a nice selection of old and new tunes some of which are guilty pleasures but it just adds to the tongue-in-cheek mood of the game. San Andreas is also good, some may argue Vice City is better but I can’t personally vouch for that but most of the time I always ended up turning on WCTR. GTAIV is, well, terrible, I have a very broad music taste but there wasn’t a single station I could get on with, there was Integrity, the equivalent of WCTR but even that wasn’t as good as it was in San Andreas. Unfortunately, Just Cause 2 has no soundtrack to speak of, there’s (mediocre) background music but no radio stations, though, after GTAIV this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Gameplay, obviously the most important aspect of a game, there isn’t really much difference between all of them, get gun, aim, shoot, avoid consequences. Both GTAs have a lock on feature and IV has a Gears of War style cover system which is up there with QTEs and Zombies on a list of biggest clichés this generation, it was useful, but not needed, not in a game of this style. I never really cared for lock on anyway, makes is feel like the game is doing it for you. Just Cause 2 has an upgrade system which adds to the game but is almost compulsory as without it the weapons seem to shoot frozen peas.
Another thing all of these games have in common is collectables, things you run/fly/swim/drive around the entire map for to collect, which in my opinion is kind of annoying, it’s never been something I’ve really enjoyed and almost felt like a chore, San Andreas mixed it up a bit with having photo icons you collected with the camera and spray tags as well as the usual pick-ups but it still felt tedious as all hell but its GTAIV that really takes the biscuit. For those who don’t know, across the entire city are 100 pigeons, or “flying rats” that you need to kill, the main issue is that there is no silent way of doing the deed so 4 out of 5 times you shoot one, you get a wanted level which makes an already mundane task even worse because you need to lose the cops every time you kill one of them. Saints Row 2 has CDs, and these where incredibly hidden, in my entire time playing it I think I found about 10 (out of 50), I could use a map or guide but still, this is a little too secret. Just Cause 2 is nice and puts a blue spot on the map where all the collectables are but with 300 it’s still insane, and then there’s the 2000+ resource items that aren’t on the map, I can’t imagine completing this game 100%.
Then there’s wanted levels, another area where San Andreas is prime, bringing the FBI and even the army in at high levels to take you down, a misguided attempt because then you just steal the tank, maybe that’s why they didn’t do it in GTAIV, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, ey? Saints Row 2, not much can be said, kind of a medium between the one in San Andreas and IV, not quite heavy tanks but a bit more than SWAT. But my main qualm in this area is in Just Cause 2 where the wanted level (or heat as the game calls it) doesn’t really stand for much. Sometimes I can survive for 20+ minutes on level 5 without an issue, sometimes level 2 will completely obliterate me, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Plus sometimes you will actually just gain heat for nothing, I mean literally nothing, I swear they sometimes come after you because they don’t like your face. I was doing a race once, in a small town, not restricted land or anything, just drove past and bam, level 4, out of nowhere, I don’t know whether this is a bug or known issue but when the game screws you out of a challenge because the feds simply don’t like you it’s a bit silly.
An area Saints Row really did well in was customisability; build your character from the ground up, gender, age, colour, voice, build, eyes, hair, size of cleavage/package even the way they walk. It’s arguably more in depth than the sims which is a little crazy. New clothes and accessories were available through my outlets in the game world which you could choose a colour and material for, car mod shops available too with a nice amount of options, really well done. You can sum up the system on this in San Andreas in 3 syllables. Oh-ver-kill. I know how much I just praised the Saints Row for the amount it had but you chose a shirt you chose a colour, San An would be green shirt, blue shirt, red shirt, black shirt, white shirt, green t-shirt, blue t-shirt; ad infinitum. When you're a completionist [Read: Anal] like I am, and you want to own everything and this is just annoying. IV once again went completely the other way and gave so little choices of attired I could count them on my fingers and toes, and then count the ones that looked half decent on my thumbs. Just Cause has well, nothing. You look the same from start to finish and your choice of colour of car depends on who you steal it from.
Finally, gimmicks and side missions, which is where Just Cause prevails, this is a game to get if you like destroying things, trust me. If you wanna blow crap up then there’s not much better out there, blowing stuff up gets you chaos which in turn unlocks story missions so you can progress. I actually spent the first 15-20 hours of gameplay exploring and blowing stuff up and collecting stuff and did maybe 15 missions in that time (including faction missions). Saints Row 2 has respect, which works in much the same way but you get that by doing side jobs such as assassination, drug trafficking, smearing people’s houses in poop, you then “spend” the respect to do missions. Neither of the GTAs really have a mechanic like this, missions are always available once you’ve unlocked them but will normally yield you money so you can make other missions easier.
In a perfect world we’d have GTA IV’s story and characters, Just Cause’s destruction and graphics, Saint Row’s taste in music and missions, San Andreas’ over the top wanted level system and general “feel”, and a healthy mix of all their gameplay aspects. Oh, and the collectable system from pong.
"Man, I gotta drive a taxi, next I'll be flying a remote control helicopter or some ****" ~ Marcus Reed, True Crime: New York City.