I very nearly wrote off Saints Row: The Third after about an hour. Had I not been reviewing the game and possessing the professionalism to play through to the end, it might have been consigned to the shelf of ‘things I might come back to.’
Short version: I’m glad I kept on playing.
Long version: Hit the ‘read the rest of this entry’ button to read on.
Saints Row: The Third sees the Third Street Saints gang elevated to the status of media icons in what I consider to be pretty decent satire whilst explaining how they get away with what they do. With an iron grip over Stillwater, they are caught up in a larger mob war with neighbouring Steelport after a bank heist goes wrong and must build their way up to get vengeance, respect and all that jazz. The story is fairly straight forward with fewer twists and surprises than I’d like to see, considering the previous games were actually capable of some decent story telling, but it’s functional, the dialogue didn’t make me roll my eyes too much and I actually quite liked most of the characters.
The reason I almost gave up on the game altogether though was that the first part of the game was filled with a certain degree of vile crassness that made me feel uncomfortable and a little ashamed to be such a vehement defender of video games. I did however find that this eventually went away and was consigned to an unpleasant memory of the earlier parts of the game.
The problem is that Saints Row: The Third tries to do everything, all the time, at once. While it’s trying its level best to up the ante on every aspect of open world sandbox games of its ilk, you can’t avoid the problem that if you’re given everything, chances are you’re not going to like all of it. The offending first third of the game is misogynistic, objectifying and vile in a way that I can only envisage particularly depraved 14 year olds finding funny. I’m all for listening to that inner adolescent (see my opinions on the Warhammer 40,000 franchise) but in this case, it’s a mentality that I was never in possession of.
That said, it is my responsibility to state that if you find exaggerated rubber sex toys that are wielded like a claymore funny that 1) you will find the parts of Saints Row: The Third that I didn’t like hilarious, and 2) I implore you to stay away from the Skyrim modding scene.
Thankfully, the recurring joke of “hey, prostitutes! Sex trade! Pimps!” does disappear, which makes me feel a little sorry for the demographic that it will have hooked in when it switches it out for rule-of-cool over-the-top absurd action and borderline 50s B-movie style sci-fi.
For me, when this switch came along I could start enjoying the game again. Something that will have frustrated a lot of open-world-sandbox-game players in the past is the effort that you have to go through to get the really amazing hardware, particularly of the airborne variety. Fairly early on, Saints Row: The Thrid gives you a jet/helicopter/awesomeness hybrid that is from then on accessible from your HQ whenever you need it, and is possibly the best thing I have ever driven around in an open world sandbox-like game. For me, you could have just made the game about flying this thing and it would have made me happy.
There are some exceptionally good things about Saints Row: The Third. They have tidied up a lot of weird conventions of the genre, for example streamlining the way you get missions through your phone as opposed to having to slog away to a specific part of the city. With this comes the slight downside that I feel less invested in the city and the area. After playing through the GTA series and even the previous Saints Row games, I have found myself becoming familiar with the city layouts (I was a particularly successful taxi driver in Vice City) whereas with Saints Row: The Third, I was never forced to drive over the same roads enough to learn the city, and considering I spent a lot of the second half of the game flying over the city at speed, trying to dive under bridges without ploughing into the water with my jet/copter/awesome thing, I never felt I truly knew my way around the city. This is a good and bad thing really and I still think the mission delivery system is a stroke of genius.
A second stroke of genius is that at various points during the game you are given a choice of how you end a certain mission, and what you chose will affect your game from there on. There’s also two alternate endings, and depending on which one you pick, you are given the choice to play the other one afterwards, meaning you don’t have to replay through the whole thing or go back to an earlier save or anything like that. The best thing about the choices is that they aren’t cartoonish kill-the-puppy/keep-the-puppy moral choices (everything you do in the game is gloriously immoral) but straight forward choices that even border on making sense.
The set pieces are great and as long as you don’t find yourself having to repeat sections again and again, they can be highly entertaining. Falling through the air to try and catch up with a parachute and a fellow gang member whilst fighting off other falling enemies, only to break off again when you succeed to jump through the windscreen of a nearby enemy plane and then do it all again was a particularly good introduction to the game. Finding myself ringside at a wrestling match with a chainsaw fighting off waves of luchadores with the Rocky theme playing in the background also felt absurdly funny and diving into a Tron-like virtual reality did wonders to break up the pace. Unfortunately, there are missions that offset this variety by being tedious slogs through corridors filled with mooks that take about twenty more bullets to kill than I’d be happy with, and woe betide you if you thought paying to level up your guns wasn’t necessary. That said, the missions didn’t ever really become ‘go-here-do-this-go-here-again’ routines and were pleasantly engaging, even when there were repetitive sections.
There are also far too many ideas in here. I love what they’ve been trying to achieve, but they haven’t fleshed out enough of the areas to make it satisfying. There’s a weird zombie thing that comes out of nowhere, and I realise now that the identity of the mayor of Steelport was probably meant to be a long running joke, but it’s introduced and paid off far too quickly. Plus, the fact that it’s Burt Reynolds (the) would have been a funny reveal and was allegedly embargoed content, despite the fact I saw it on a trailer in a pub the week before I even had the game in front of me.
Little touches that have been present in previous iterations are here again with character customisation being ridiculous. I haven’t played any other game as a cross between a young Richard Branson and the Silver Surfer, and thanks to Saints Row: The Third I have, although his voice did occasionally turn into Christian Bale’s gravel-gargling Batman, which was weird.
I’ve also only really started picking up on this recently, but the sound design is really solid as well. A lot of places will never mention it, but the piercing beep of your laser rifle recharging for example, or the Transformers-style robotic grinding noise that your jet/copter/awesome thing makes when you switch between modes as well as the more mundane weaponry and vehicle noises gives everything a decent weight behind it thanks to these effects. The tone of the game is also beautifully complimented by the sound track, both inside and outside of the car radios. Some missions have a particular track linked to them which in the case of the last mission is actually hilarious.
Saints Row: The Third is the very worst and the very best open world sandbox game that I have ever played. It has elements that drag the whole medium into the gutter, it has elements where it has taken something that someone else has done with subtlety and blown it out of proportion to the point that it’s just unpleasant, and it has elements where it has taken something that someone else has done with subtlety and blown it out of proportion to the point that it is the most fun you are likely to have. It’s loud, it’s crass, it’s immature, but where it works it really works.
I feel Saints Row 2 took everyone by surprise by appearing to offer tedious hardcore gangster rap and then giving you the option to play through it as a cockney super-villain reliving his favourite scenes from Clockwork Orange. There’s nothing as surprising here with Saints Row: The Third, and there are large parts of this review that I could have written before even playing the game, but it’s hard not to recommend this to anyone that fondly remembers the earlier and more arcadey Grand Theft Auto games. If the Grand Theft Auto series is to be seen as Scarface, then Saints Row: The Thrid is Tom and Jerry. But who doesn’t like Tom and Jerry? A little high octane cartoon violence is necessary every now and then.
Saints Row: The Third, developed by Volition and published by THQ, was played to completion on the Playstation 3, although being an open world sandbox game, there is indeed still much more to do. It is also available on Xbox 360 and PC.