The Saints Row series had one of the strangest progressions in tone and setting of all-time. The first game in the series was similar to the Grand Theft Auto games, in that it involved gangsters committing crimes in a contemporary setting, but the last game in the series ended up with alien invasions, breaking out of the Matrix, and trips to the afterlife.
Saints Row had to forge its own identity in order to escape from comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto series, which involved going right into the deep end and embracing a comedic and wacky tone. There was a time when Grand Theft Auto became far too serious for its own good and that allowed the Saints Row series to win a fanbase of its own, as it reveled in the fun that could be had in its genre.
The Clone Wars
The original Saints Row game was almost universally referred to as a Grand Theft Auto clone. A lot of outlets still reviewed Saints Row favorably and the critics praised the game for improving upon the formula of its competition, but a lot of people called the game out for its lack of originality.
Saints Row had some smart ideas when it came to character customization, mission progression, and having interesting side activities, but the game could never leave the shadow of the title that it was copying.
Picking Up The Ball That Was Dropped By Grand Theft Auto IV
2008 turned out to be a pivotal year for the Saints Row franchise, as it was the year when both Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row 2 were released.
Grand Theft Auto IV was highly-acclaimed upon release, but it has faced scrutiny over the years regarding its uneven tone. The life of Niko Bellic was one of gaming's most tragic backstories, witnessing war atrocities and bearing personal loss, which didn't mesh well at all with the goofiness of the Grand Theft Auto setting. Niko was a great main character, but he was trapped in the wrong game.
Saints Row 2 embraced a wackier form of story and setting, with the Saints being pitted against a powerful mega-corporation that needed to be stopped. The player was given a lot of character customization options and could tailor the appearance of their gang, which was a feature that fans had been wanting to see in the Grand Theft Auto series for years.
Grand Theft Auto would later go back to its comedic roots and achieved incredible success with Grand Theft Auto V, which is now the third best-selling video game of all time. The Saints Row series went all-in on the goofiness and managed to form an identity of its own.
Embracing The Madness
Saints Row: The Third sees the Saints becoming an international brand, where their violent antics are trivialized by, for example, the selling of merchandise based on the gang. The Saints are pitted against a criminal organization called the Syndicate, made up of the Morningstars (guys in suits and women in dominatrix outfits), the Luchadores (masked Mexican wrestlers), and the Deckers (goths and hackers).
Saints Row IV was when the series took a complete turn to insanity, as the protagonist becomes the President of the United States. Earth is destroyed by aliens and the Saints are placed in a machine that is similar to the Matrix in order to control them. The Saints are able to escape from their bonds and they learn how to give themselves superpowers while in the computer realm.
Saints Row IV was loved by fans due to how it offered something that they had wanted for years - Grand Theft Auto with superpowers. The ability to run at super speeds, throw vehicles around using telekinesis, and fire bolts of energy at the enemy made for an exhilarating experience. For its sheer player empowerment, Saints Row IV was loved by fans and critics alike.
Saints Row IV and the Gat out of Hell expansion seemed like a natural endpoint for the series, as there aren't many other places to go after aliens and time travel. Yet, a new Saints Row game has been announced, but no information about the game has been revealed just yet. The question of where the series could go next is a good one, as dialing things back seems pointless in a world ruled by Grand Theft Auto V, and there isn't much of a deep end left for the series to plunge into.