Originally developed to cash in on the market that Rockstar had carved thanks to the monstrous success of GTA, Saints Row‘s initial outing was about as derivative as it gets. It was an inferior game to GTA, but still attempted to emulate the successful series. Some liked it, some didn’t, but you couldn’t deny that, although rough around the edges and a little glitchy, THQ and Volition had given it a good shot.
Then, as if to silence the haters, Saints Row 2 arrived, ditching any pretence of seriousness and dropping the GTA emulation to become its own brand of ultra-violent sandbox entertainment. The second game was, quite simply, crazy.
With OTT violence, Jackass-style side missions, crude humour and a fare more comic book approach, it was a far better game than its predecessor, and carved out its own niche, separating it from the far more serious and gritty GTA4.
Well, if you thought the second Saints outing was off its head, wait until you see the third in action. This time the gloves are off, and have been replaced by a dildo-fingered purple boxing mitt that’s ready to punch you right in the balls, then run away laughing.
With a story as outrageous as the content on offer, Saints Row The Third depicts a world in which the Saints have become media megastars, with movies, soft drinks, clothing brands and autograph-hunting groupies gathering around the scenes of their crimes. It’s a clear satire on today’s increasingly repulsive reality TV shows and the rise of the talentless superstar, but here it’s taken to the extreme.
As the leader of the Saints, the game opens without any slow-burn intro (save for a Star Wars-riffing star field synopsis) and within a few minutes you’re robbing a bank, killing countless guards and riding on a bank vault that’s being hitched away via heavy-lift chopper, all while escorting a famous actor who’s ‘researching’ his role in the upcoming Saints movie. Soon after, you’re escaping an airplane, skydiving while fighting off foes and crashing through said plane from bow to stern. Yes, this is just the opening mission, and it’s already got more action than a good deal of GTA4. What’s more, it’s a blast, and the improved controls, smooth and fairly tight aiming and fast-paced action is a breath of fresh air for a genre that’s become a little too serious for many.
Once the explosive intro is over, the Saints are dropped into their new home of Steelport, a fresh urban playground that boasts even more in the way of ridiculous side missions than before. It’s in this city that, as with previous games in the series, you start with nothing, and have to take over in order to defeat rival gangs, including an Asian syndicate, luchador gang and other, equally weird and wonderful assailants. You’ll conquer territory, buy businesses, recruit gang members and make a whole ton of cash, all whilst indulging in copious amounts of violence and vice.
Before you begin the game proper, you have to create your avatar using the new character creation system (you know, the one featured in the Saints Row The Third ‘demo’). As with the first two games, here you ca use the impressive character tools to create some of the most freakish and stupid anti-heroes your mind can come up with. Want a transsexual Incredible Hulk? You got it. Fancy playing as a overweight geisha? Alright then. Whatever your particular taste, you can probably craft it here. Of course, you can create a normal character, but this is no normal game, so you may as well make the most of it.
Character in hand, it’s off into the city and its plethora of missions, activities and diversions, many of which return from the previous games, joined by some new arrivals.
Quickly you’ll discover some of the game’s tweaks and refinements, including a tighter and more polished car handling. Whilst this isn’t perfect, and is still a little iffy at times (especially when it comes to physics), it’s a big improvement over the twitchy controls of Saints Row 2, and the general character control is better, allowing for some loony antics. The inventory system is the same as before (and as fiddly), but melee and contextual action are more accessible, even in the midst of hectic battles.
A major change is the new phone menu system. From here you can access the map as you could before, along with stats and the ability to call in homies, but you now also access new story missions from here too, instead of searching from them on the map (although there’s plenty of the normal on-map activities as well). You can also access the upgrade system, in which you can purchase abilities like dual wielding, more health, fast aggro meter reduction and more. The ‘Saintsbook’ section details challenges you can fulfil, car theft requests and assassination missions, a fan favourite, also catered for here in the third act. It’s a good system, and means that you can always access a main mission or diversion wherever you are.
Another welcome improvement is the new GPS system that places Burnout-style neon arrows at junctions, so you can easily race around without having to stare at the rotating mini-map to find your way. There are other subtle changes made to returning features, like the car pimping garages and shops, and once again you can access your cribs to customise your character, grab weapons and vehicles.
The story progression has also been tweaked. Instead of tackling each rival gang separately, as in the first two games, here the missions are intertwined, and, depending on how you handle these, you can affect following missions to some degree by making important decisions.
Doing, not talking
The selection of missions in Saints Row The Third, and their off-the-wall craziness, is without a doubt the game’s strongest point. And, with a great selection of varied and high-octane campaign story outings, all of which pack in the action and extreme sequences, most would be more than happy. That’s not all, though, and there’s also the wide variety of extra-curricular activities to go at, something that series veterans will be very familiar with.
Returning diversions include the aforementioned hitman targets, escort missions, snatch, heli Assault and the popular insurance fraud. These are joined by some new outings like trafficking, which sees you guard a drug dealer as he makes his drops and Tank Mayhem, which, as you may have already guessed, involves blowing things up in a tank. There’s even a mission that, wait for it, sees you driving around with a tiger in the backseat that you have to keep calm, lest it maul you to death. Yep, that’s right. One of my favouites, though, has to be the Professor Genki game show. Complete with commentary, this is a great little activity.
Always present alongside this wide range of missions is the still very crude and often childish humour. Sure to put off some, this is luckily tempered by some genuinely fun gameplay. Yes, you spend a lot of time shot gunning scantily-clad women and beating people up with sex toys, but it’s all so strangely enjoyable you can’t help but keep playing. Rickshaw racing leather mask-clad gimps, human-launching cannon trucks and the ability to call in air strikes are all bordering on the insane, but they work here, such is the overall tone.
In fact, one of the most enjoyable times I had with the game wasn’t even a mission or activity. I spent ages simply running through the streets hitting innocent bystanders with DDTs, face plants and all manner of kicks and punches, randomly stealing cars and avoiding the police. It’s puerile, it’s wrong, but funny nonetheless, and that’s really why Saints Row The Third works. Although you know you really should be more mature, it’s too much fun, and a guilty pleasure to let rip and go at it.
As much fun as the game is, though, it doesn’t save it from a few glaring issues, most notably a wide range of bugs and glitches. The physics system often freaks out, causing more than a few unfair mission failures and deaths. Enemy AI is laughable, especially when driving, as cars crash into other vehicles, walls and even their own ranks. Graphics glitches abound, with poor clipping and pop up, and there’s a strange audio mix that makes engine noises and some other SFX far too quiet, so much so that without music, driving around the city is almost silent.
There’s also the occasional slow down. This isn’t anywhere near as bad as the horrific slowdown that plagued Saints 2, but it’s still irritating given that the game is hardly a showcase title visually. It looks pretty good, sure, but it’s not going to win any technical achievement awards.
There’s also the omission of some now expected game mechanics, most notably the lack of a cover system. It’s not a game breaker, and a cover system isn’t essential here, but it would add more depth to combat.
I should also mention the extra ‘whored’ mode (groan). This is a simple spoof of the Gears of War staple, and sees you fighting off waves of attacking prostitutes. Not only is it not all that funny, but after a few minutes it’s more than a little boring, and feels like nothing more than a last minute shoe in.
Saints Row The Third is a classic example of a game that knows what it wants to do, and has little pretence. Here, the goal is to simply be a mindless, OTT and ridiculous title that never takes itself seriously and is the antithesis of GTA. It’s a sandbox, single player experience that’s an enjoyable ride from start to finish. Yes, it’s still flawed, with plenty of technical issues, but it’s always entertaining, and it achieves what it’s set out to do. Add in the return of the co-op mode, which is every bit as much fun as you expect, and this is certainly the best outing the Saints have had yet.