Review: Saints Row: The Third
November 28, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan
Saints Row and I have had something of a mixed history. The original game was one of the first that I actually got paid for reviewing (man, I cringe so hard, reading that review back), and without a comparable experience on the system at the time, I adored it. At this time everyone was comparing it to Grand Theft Auto and, to be fair, the comparisons to Rockstar’s games from last-gen were there for all to see.
Since then, the two franchises have taken different directions. GTA matured over its three iterations, leading to a bleaker, grittier piece of social commentary in GTA IV, while Saints Row took no time in filling the void of pure, unadulterated childishness. Volition undeniably ramped that aspect up something chronic in the inevitable sequel, to the degree where the two franchises were no longer competitors.
Somehow, though, despite my best efforts, that sequel just didn’t click for me in the same way it seemingly did for everyone else. My indifference led me to start it, and give up pretty quickly; something that I just wasn’t expecting to happen. There were probably just more interesting games to me at the time and that, coupled with the game’s slow start (who would have thought a prison break would be a slow start?) left me feeling apathetic towards it on every level. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Still, everyone else adored it, and that success has ultimately led to the recent release of Saints Row: The Third. A title expected to skew the series’ sketchy perspective on reality even further.
Silly it might aim to be, but is it a good game?
(Not) keeping it real
In an intro that oddly steals from Star Wars in style, we find out that after taking out all their competitors at the end of the second game, the Saints have turned their criminal organisation into a media empire. They have clothing chains, merchandise, even an energy drink, and their key people, Johnny Gat, Shaundi and you as their boss, are celebrities in their own right. They’re about to find out that you’re never at the top of the food chain for long in the crime game, though, as a shady collaboration of gangs known as The Syndicate aims to knock them down a peg. How they will do this, is detailed over the first mission…
The Saints are about to hit a bank in Stillwater, and they’re going to hit it hard. The boss (again, you!), Shaundi and Gat are there to oversee it, along with a method actor, who is researching his part in an upcoming Saints Row movie. The plan is simple; airlift the vault right out of the building and fly off into the sunset. It wouldn’t be a good opening for a game unless it went awry, though, and at the final hurrah, they’re all caught by the fuzz.
Bribed, the cops hand our trio over to the Syndicate, and aboard a private jet their leader Loren agrees to let them all go, in exchange for a large portion of their stake in Stillwater. Defiant to the end, Johnny manages to attack, which sets their escape from the plane in motion. Guns blazing, you and Shaundi head to the back of the plane, while Johnny heads to the front to open the loading ramp. Johnny dies in the process, while the boss and Shaundi have no option but to free-fall, shoot and eventually parachute their way to safety down to the new city of Steelport, which is, you guessed it; home to Syndicate. Outnumbered, alone and mourning Johnny, your job now is to call in the Saints over from Stillwater to help you take over Steelport, eliminating the Syndicate for good.
It starts big and flashy, then. To its credit, it stays big too. Everything about this game is ridiculous by design, either in its ability to amaze you with well-directed action and set-pieces, or just the way that it’s simply out to offend you for the sake of offending. There lies the one problem I had with it. As well as the story flows and as well as it can be genuinely funny with smart wit and clever cultural references, some of the humour falls flat in its sheer childishness.
Often the ‘comedy’ amounts to things like ‘Look! Here is a mechanical fisting machine! Aren’t we maaaad?’, which, at the very best, is mildly amusing the first time you find one, but by the tenth occurrence you’ll be more than over it. It’s less of ‘oh no, they didn’t?!’ and more ‘really?! This is what counts as funny and shocking these days?’
Don’t let that wholly put you off. For the most part it’s so well presented and takes so much pride in its own adolescent sense of humour, you just can’t help but fall in line with it. It’s fun, but most will find the odd moment where it’ll test their boundaries of moral comfort. Still, you’ll overlook these moments because of the confidence in which the game carries itself.
‘Smashing people in the face with a giant, purple dildo is a lot more fun than I’m comfortable with!’
This time around, the mission system is handled a little differently. In prior games, you’d have to perform activities to boost your respect level so that new story missions would turn up. Here, the ones you’ll need to do are very cleverly tied in with the story missions as favours for your nearest and dearest, and you’ll only ever have to do them once. Once you’ve done the story-related one, they’ll appear dotted around the map as they always have been, and are entirely optional.
There are a great variety of activities too, including a lot of the returning favourites. You’ll still be doing insurance fraud by running into cars, pretending to be hit and manipulating the rag-doll physics for maximum payout. There are area takeovers, protections games that involve you sniping or using RPGs to take out cars following your crew, and escort missions where you drive hookers around with their clients, trying to avoid the press.
The new ones include the Professor Genki gameshow, which is like Takeshi’s Castle with guns, complete with piss-take commentators. There’s even one where you’ll have to drive carefully with a fecking tiger in the passenger seat and keep him placated while rival gangs and cops chase you down. They’re all fun little time wasters and worth checking out after you’ve done the story versions, and in some cases, they’re really well fleshed-out.
The main missions, though, are all definitely well fleshed-out and unique, and very over-the-top. Instead of tackling each rival gang separately as before, they’re all working together, though there is a second faction that comes into play at the halfway point. During the game you’ll need to make important decisions that will have an impact on how these factions treat you, and this affects how the game will end.
I don’t want to go into too much detail over the specifics of the missions, but you’ll see action on boats, in planes, and free-falling in mid-air thousands of feet above the city. Hell, you’ll even fight inside the Internet, Tron style. There are tons of cool little moments and other references that are sure to have you smiling, but I really don’t want to spoil them here. Aside from the general dicking around, it’s here where the game really comes into its own with great variety at every turn. You’ll never be bored by following the story missions.
This time, though, rather than driving to a location to activate a story mission, you access them at any time you want through your mobile phone; this means you go straight to the areas of action, instead of driving somewhere else first to find out your objective before heading somewhere else again. In fact, your mobile phone is where most of the game’s management comes in.
You use the mobile to check out the city map and set your waypoints, but you can change the music, check out your stats and even get access to some assassination and vehicle theft missions, right from where you already are.
With respect no longer tied into the mission structure, your respect level now determines what upgrades you’re allowed to purchase with the money you accrue, allowing you to add abilities and improve things like your health, sprint speed and even what your homies and crew will carry with them into combat. You can also unlock the ability to have someone deliver your vehicles to you wherever you are; it’s all about making the game more accessible as you play and taking away the limitations the further you get in. That’s all on top of all the awesome gear, gadgets and vehicles you’ll unlock at your cribs as you finish the main missions. The game works delightfully at rewarding the player for everything they do.
The phone also lets you to enable your camera, allowing you to press down on the D-pad at any time in gameplay and take a screenshot to upload to saintsrow.com. This is a brilliant feature which served me well on this review, with all the adorning screenies entirely my own. The community website functionality is pretty sweet too, hosting all the stats imaginable and allowing you to see how others are getting on. You can even upload your created character for everyone else to download. It’s definitely worth checking out.
The gameplay itself handles pretty much as it has for its lifespan. It’s still a third person affair, and aiming is handled by an ever-present reticule that your line of fire will follow regardless of which direction your created dude is facing. You can, of course, zoom in and steady your aim with a pull of the left trigger. Still, though, the aiming at first will feel very loose, and to its slight detriment the feedback from the guns is pretty minimal, meaning they feel rather empty. This isn’t an entirely new thing, though; it’s easy to adjust to and big fans of the series probably won’t even notice.
The radial wheel for selecting your weapon is problematic at times, though, and quickly changing to a suitable weapon in the heat of combat can be a frustrating affair. Often you’ll bring up the wheel, aim in the direction you want and come away with no weapon at all. It doesn’t pause during this process and you still have to maintain control of your character, leaving you scrambling for cover while at the same time, trying once more to get the weapon you want. It’s every bit as faffy as it sounds.
In spite of those gripes, the core combat remains fun, flowing and varied, but is, more importantly, very easy to get into the swing of. There are improvements too; for example, you can now take a human shield, even run and sprint with them in front of you, before snapping their necks or letting them go.
There are different classes of enemies to lay waste to now, with powerful beserkers and mini-gunners that require heavy fire on them before they’ll fall, allowing you to run in and end the battle with a finishing move. You’ll also get tougher enemies the further in you go, with heavily armoured soldiers and cops with riot shields.
There are a whole host of typical, conventional weapons here, all upgradable in gun-shops. However, Volition (creators of the ‘Magnet Gun’ and ‘Mr Toots’ in Red Faction: Armageddon), are no strangers to the abstract, and the more ‘out-there’ weapons are the stars of the show.
For example, it’s great fun to tag an enemy car with the RC Dart gun, allowing you to control it remotely to wipe out a ton of gangbangers or pedestrians. My personal favourite, however, has to be the Sonic Boom; a very short range weapon that ultimately turns its targeted victim into instant mush. At every turn you’re given a new toy like this, and whether it’s something like the above or just more explosive, like the missile-packing UAV that rains fire down on your victims from above CoD-style, the combat is always larger-than-life.
As you can probably tell, the game manages to keep up this frenetic pace that feels like it’s going 100mph all the time, giving you quick and accessible ways to do fun things. This is highlighted in the inclusion of a quick-hijack move that allows you to steal or break into any vehicle in double-quick time, which sees your character jump up and launch himself through the window, knocking out any pedestrians in the process. It’s brilliant when the heat is on, and you need a change of car to get away safely, negating the painful moments of seeing your character fight animations to walk to the side of the car and slowly pull the driver out, all while getting shot at from every angle.
Talking of the cars, the handling excels, which will see you drive at high-speeds and making good use of your handbrake to take the corners smoothly. Motorbikes don’t fare quite as well, and seemingly the smallest bump can see them nearly undrivable. It’s also worth mentioning that as you find shortcuts down back-streets, they’ll automatically be added to your GPS system so when the cops are on you, you don’t always have to stick to the main roads when making a getaway. As always, you can totally pimp your rides too, tailoring them to your exotic tastes in colour and design.
By now, you already know what type of game this is, and with that you’ll realise that you’ll be driving tanks, flying Harrier-style jets and landing crafts along with standard cars. They all handle as smooth as you like too. It’s rare when flying a jet in a game like this is both smooth and effortless, but it is here. You’ll get some of these specialist vehicles infinitely accessible from your crib after the completion of certain missions too, so you’ll never be hurting for an awesome ride.
Much like the rest of the series’ direction, The Third is colourful, loud, and purple is something you’ll become very accustomed to over the course of the game… almost as if Prince himself was the lead designer! The characters still carry a slight cartoony feel, allowing for excellent, comical characterisation, while Steelport is a wonderfully realised city, if at times a little too familiar to Stillwater in terms of design. One thing that is awesome, is that the major events you have a hand in will have a visual impact on the city, changing areas totally in some respects.
My absolute favourite part (which truth be told has been a series staple), is how your fully customised character appears in the cut-scenes flawlessly and down to the finest, selected detail. It really brings them to life and although, yes, they’ll be performing the same action no matter how you design and dress them; it’s just really cool to see your guy leading the action.
I’m also pleased to say that, unlike my experience with the previous games, I had no technical issues. No slowdown, no screen-tear; it’s a smooth-running experience from start to finish.
Saints Row: The Third comes packed with with an awesome eclectic soundtrack. There’s a great mixture over Steelport’s eight stations, with every taste catered for. If I mention that you’ll hear the likes of Talk Talk, Joe Esposito, Faith No More, Deadmau5, Mos Def and the Deftones, then you’ll get an idea of the kind of vibes you can play along to. It’s a carefully selected track-listing that suits the vibe; nothing seems out of place.
The voice acting is great too, with Daniel Dae Kim reprising his role as your most trusted soldier, while Hulk Hogan and former Porn Star Sasha Grey join the list of new, supporting characters. Everyone performs brilliantly, as it seems they’re all in line with the spirit of the game, and you feel that they’re having fun with their roles.
Special mention has to go to the unsung heroes who do the available voices for the protagonist. There are seven in total; three female, three male and one zombie. All of them are differently characterised, so fans of the cockney English voice will be pleased to hear that he’s back, with his dialogue full of English slang (like ‘Chavs’ for example) that’s sure to confuse the American contingent. My favourite, though? The zombie by veteran voice actor Steve Blum. Although it renders the storyline pointless, you can never tire of conversations like:
Gat: Boss, what do you want to do?
Gat: You’re right!
It’s even funnier when he’s singing along with Pierce while cruising around Steelport in the earlier missions.
This time around, there is no competitive multiplayer element, and given its limited success previously, it’s not really missed. What remains is an excellent co-op mode and the self-explanatory but humorously named Whored mode.
The co-op game is identical to the single-player on nearly every level, allowing you and one other to jump in with your created character and tackle everything that you can do on your own. You can invite someone in from your single-player or start a new one, in an excellently handled co-op experience.
Whored mode is, you guessed it, a horde mode where you tackle waves of enemies that increase in difficulty the longer you survive. Saints Row does things differently, though, by adding a unique twist each round. So, one round you might be in tanks, be restricted to the giant purple dildo or a rocket launcher, while the enemies might be tiny or massive in size. Hell, in some rounds they might get even smaller the more they deplete in numbers. While it’s definite fun on your own and online, these modes have never really been my bag or held my interest for long, but if you’re the opposite, you’ll be more than happy here…
Crass but class…
Playing Saints Row: The Third is like ordering in the greasiest, dirtiest doner kebab from your local takeaway. Sure, it has questionable content that you know is bad for you, and at times you’ll even think less of yourself for tucking in, but at the same time you just can’t help but enjoy every tasty morsel.
Whether it’s seen the advancement it should have since Saints Row 2, I can really only speculate, but for me, The Third succeeded in grabbing my attention right from the off and entertaining me greatly right until the end. This was all thanks to its sheer brazenness, unadulterated action and the ability to let you do nearly everything you’d ever want to.
Put simply, it’s a game that doesn’t give a flying fuck whether you’re comfortable with everything it does, and you’ll just love it all the more for it.