If you enjoy games anywhere near as much as me, you’re probably about to break down under the stress of ridiculous amounts of huge releases in the final months of 2011. Almost every major publisher has turned up with a release of mammoth proportions (and some with multiple ones) for the holiday. The good news is things are starting to wrap up. As the year’s last few major releases trickle out, Saints Row: The Third blasts through with an experience unlike anything else this year.
The game begins with the Saints on top of the world. They are a massive media conglomerate now, with legions of fans, their own brand of clothes and energy drinks, and a major motion picture on the way. All that goes to hell when they rob the wrong bank; one belonging to the Steelport Syndicate. After a massive confrontation between the two organizations, a few of the Saints wind up stranded in Steelport (this game’s version of New York), where they begin plans to take over the city and put the Syndicate out of business once and for all.
It’s a pretty thin plot, but it gives a solid excuse to romp around the new city. More important, the characters of the game are among the most insane and entertaining I’ve ever seen. Aside from a few classic Saints characters, most of the cast is new for this entry, and are picked up and added to the gang in Steelport. These ridiculously over-the-top characters include a humiliated ex-Luchador, a pimp who intones every word he speaks, and a nerdy social inept former FBI agent, among others. Every conversation is light and entertaining, and the game never takes itself remotely seriously. Self-deprecating and genre savvy, Saints Row: The Third adds a refreshingly light tone to the incredibly violent and twisted game, and it’s hard to not love it for it. You’ll find pop culture references for everything from The Three Amigos to Power Rangers, and the nerdier you are the more of the off-beat humor you’ll pick up. That’s not to say you have to get the millions of pop culture references to enjoy the game. The general ridiculousness of everything is sure to put a smile on your face regardless.
And as ridiculous as the narrative is, the gameplay ratchets things up even further. Most of the game is a series of missions, ranging from standard GTA-style driving and gunfights to trying to drive really fast while not hitting anything with a tiger in your car. Luckily, the game leans toward the more ridiculous style of the latter. The main quest tends to have more of the standard firefights, but usually with some sort of odd deviation to make it more interesting, such as sending you into a Tron-style digital world or fighting off a zombie apocalypse.
The side missions are a variety of tasks you can perform around the city to conquer more territory and earn money, both for completing the mission and as hourly income. There are maybe a dozen such activities. The quality in them can vary to some extent, but they are generally fun distractions and worth your time. My personal favorite is Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax; a faux-Japanese reality show in which you must run through a crazy obstacle course while killing gun-wielding mascots for cash. Series staples such as Insurance Fraud and Tank Mayhem return, and there’s enough variety to the activities that you can complete them all without them getting too repetitive.
To complete your quest, Saints Row offers an arsenal of weapons, both standard and ridiculous. In a refreshing change for shooting games everywhere, all weapons are viable during all levels of the game due to an extensive upgrade system. A simple, boring pistol becomes a fast-firing, dual-wielding pistol with huge clip sizes and explosive bullets. Each weapon in the game fills a “slot” on your inventory based on its type, and you can only carry one weapon in each slot at a time. There are generally two or three weapons of each type (melee, pistol, SMG, shotgun, and assault rifle), plus a rocket launcher and a specialty weapon, all of which are upgradeable.
The real fun comes in the specialty weapons. This is where the game’s core insanity really manifests itself in your armory. Special weapons include things like a Mega Man-style Mega Buster, a Sonic Boom gun that vaporizes your enemies, a UAV drone, and a gun that lets you remotely control any vehicle. Many of these are upgradeable as well, further increasing their ridiculous and explosive nature. If you get tired of every gun in shooting games feeling like they’re cut from the same cloth, Saints Row’s armory may be just what the doctor ordered.
Outside of the quests, Saints Row: The Third offers a few other distractions around the world. There are a solid variety of cars to find and drive, and each of these can be taken to a Rim Jobs to be customized, upgraded, and stored for easy use. Fitting with the general high-energy nature of the game, there are far more armed vehicles in The Third than in your average open world shooting game. Military vehicles get pretty creative in this entry, jumping into some pretty crazy sci-fi tech like laser guns and jet bikes, and there are multiple types of tanks, helicopters, and jets to be found.
Shops can be bought as well, which is part of taking over territory from the syndicate to earn money. Rusty’s Needle tattoo parlors will let you deck out your character in a decent variety of ink, and Image as Designed will allow you to change your entire appearance, voice, and sex through the game’s pretty good customizable character creator. There are also a number of locations for changing your clothes in various styles, each defined by a different store. Money earned is spent on new abilities and upgrades for your own character and gang. The variety of total customization options is outstanding, and unheard of in this style of game.
Of course the world itself is an important piece of any sandbox game. The world of Saints Row: The Third doesn’t meet the highest of standards here. There’s not a lot of variety in NPCs, and outside of the specific sidequest locations and collectibles there’s not a lot to do in it. It’s not the most interactive digital city you’ve ever visited. That said, much of the game is about making your own fun, and the crazy weapons and vehicles plus repeatable side missions give you plenty of opportunity to do just that.
In the controls department, Saints Row: The Third is easily the most well-refined in its franchise. Shooting is smooth and driving is easy and fun. That said, there’s definitely room for improvement. Shooting could still use a cover system, and driving is actually too easy. Cars have traction so insane that it feels like you’re being babied by the controls. While realism is never something Saints Row should strive for, some of the fun of driving in any game comes from the wildness of trying to control a car at high speeds, and if you make that too easy it takes away the panic of it and the activity becomes too humdrum. Unfortunately this is one of the biggest issues in Saints Row: The Third, and you feel no pride in completing what should be a difficult driving mission because it simply lacks challenge.
Graphics in Saints Row: The Third will not impress. On a technical level they are decent enough, and the cartoony art fits well with the general absurdity of the game’s design, but nothing in it really stands out. That said it’s bright and fun to look at, and with all the customization options you can’t hit it too hard for the visual shortcomings. Audio fares a good deal better. Voice acting is good throughout, and the soundtrack is great. There are dozens of licensed tracks in the game played across many in-game radio stations. Individual stations which you don’t want to hear (death metal and rap for me) can be turned off, and individual songs can be put into a mix tape. Much of the music isn’t from huge mega-hit artists, but that’s not entirely a bad thing, and most of it is a good example of its genre.
There’s a decent amount of time to be spent in Saints Row: The Third. I put in 17 hours completing the main quest and over half of the side missions. Completing all side missions, the main quest, and finding all the collectables will run you a good 20+ hours. In addition, co-op is available in the campaign and the new Whored Mode. Whored Mode, similar to its namesake, is a co-op wave enemy game with some Saints Row flare added. Of course, much of what you will be killing will in fact be whores. The campaign as a whole could stand to be a bit larger, but overall Saints Row: The Third is a great value for your money.
It’s easy to overlook a game like Saints Row in a holiday filled with massive epics like Skyward Sword, Skyrim, and Uncharted 3, but that would absolutely be a mistake. It is a genuinely different experience, which in many has surpassed its source material in sheer quantities of ridiculous over-the-top fun. Saints Row: The Third isn’t meant to be high art, or an epic narrative. It’s made to be ridiculous, balls-to-the-wall, stupid fun, and in spite of a few missteps, it absolutely succeeds.