Saints Row: The Third Review
What if you took Grand Theft Auto and improved the shooting mechanics, made the cars feel less floaty, and instilled it with the sense of fun it had back in the Vice City days? You'd have Saints Row: The Third, a game that unabashedly revels in all the over-the-top kinds of things that makes gaming such a blast in the first place. But rather than throw a bunch of adjectives and superlatives your way right off of the bat here, I'll simply give you an example of how I spent one fine evening in Steelport...
After arriving at my airport hangar hideout I decided that it was a far too lovely evening for clothing, so I stripped naked and headed back out on the tarmac to enjoy the evening air. I decided to help myself to one of the planes parked by the terminal, but on my way I came upon a rival gang loading contraband into a jetliner. Well, I can't have rival gangs making money on my turf, so I patched into a UAV and guided a couple of missiles into the middle of their little party. That taken care of I found a nice little light plane, hopped in, and took to the skies. I headed straight to the tallest building in the city, enjoying the view of the lights of the city sprawled out beneath me. As I brought the plane low and slow over its roof, I hopped out and tucked and rolled my way across the rooftop helipad. I then ran to the edge and made a flying leap over it, enjoying the adrenaline rush of diving headfirst towards the street below. As the ground approached I opened my chute and landed gently on my feet. Next I decided to entertain the local citizenry with some good old fashioned streaking, with a naked taunt of a rival gang member thrown in for good measure. A cop showed up to end my fun, so I hijacked his cruiser Bo Duke style and raced to a clothing shop I owned to duck into and cool the heat. While there I browsed their selection and picked out a nice steampunk outfit complete with top hat and goggles to wear, headed back out to the street, and checked my cell phone to see what my homies needed my help with next...
I did indeed actually do all that the other night while playing the game, and hopefully it gives you an idea of the scope of possibilities Saints Row: The Third gives you within Steelport's enormous sandbox. You can literally spend hours with the game just having fun on your own without bothering to start the next story mission. Yes, there is a story to the game, and that too is pretty extensive and features branch points that will encourage some gamers to play through it all again a few times to see it all (or at least to grab all of the achievements). In Saints Row's world, gangsters are celebrities, and no gang is as celebrated as (or as well merchandised as) The Saints. Saints Row: The Third begins with The Saints descending (literally) on a new city, the aforementioned Steelport. Steelport is run by The Syndicate, and they want in on The Saints' financial empire. The Syndicate manages to cut off The Saints' access to their finances, leaving them broke and stranded in the new city. The Saints are down but not out, and they set out to take down The Syndicate and make Steelport their own.
After the game's opening level, which certainly sets the game's tone right from the beginning, you'll have the opportunity to create your character for your role as The Saints' leader. The character editor is very impressive, giving you the option to tweak dozens of facial attributes to your liking. It's rare to see a game that's not a top-tier RPG give you this amount of control over the form your character will take. Want to lead The Saints as an emo boy with eyeliner smeared from tears? Or as an overweight middle-aged housewife with her hair in curlers? Or a zombie with a nosebleed? You can do all of that and more. It's pretty easy to spend your first half hour or so with the game just playing with the character editor. If you're particularly proud of your creation you can even upload it to the game's website to share with the world ... or you can just go with the default creation or download somebody else's custom character and import it into your game.
Once your character is ready it's time for Act 2 of the opening level and then once you catch your breath you'll find yourself on the streets of Steelport. Steelport is a virtual city of the living breathing persuasion, with several square miles of virtual real estate, roads filled with traffic, and pedestrians strolling along the sidewalks, and where you decide to begin exploring it is completely up to you. Your guide to the city is your cellphone, which serves as your map, available story mission list, stat-tracker, challenge progress meter, and more. You can roam the streets exploring or creating mayhem, and when you're ready for some more directed activities you can just open your phone and take your pick. However, you don't need to kick-off a story mission to make some progress in the game; even just having fun on the streets of the city helps get you closer to your goal of total control.
The game has three important things that are necessary for you to take over Steelport: cash, respect, and control. Cash is used to buy weapon upgrades, ammunition, upgrade the vehicles in your garage, and buy property. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, as is the third, but the car upgrades do deserve an extra mention since the game lets you do a lot more than just repaint your cars. You can also upgrade components like the engine and tires through several levels, as well as add enhancements like nitro and hubcap blades. Buying property is important for several reasons. First, it generates income for you; spend a little money, make a lot more. Second, properties help you to cement your control over a neighborhood, and you're going to be taking over the city a neighborhood at a time. And if the property is a store, you get both an owner's discount and a place to duck into to cool any police or gang heat you've accumulated.
Respect acts as experience in the game. As you earn respect you level up and unlock perks for purchase. These include some of the basic things that you'd expect like health increases and damage resistance, but also included are perks like respect and cash bonus multipliers, car delivery, and extra gang members to help you out as backup.
Respect is earned by completing missions, but in addition to that just about everything that you can do to impress the locals with your general badness will earn you a little more respect. Drive down the wrong side of the road - the farther the better, string together consecutive near misses on the streets, steal a motorcycle and race down the street holding a wheelie, ... all this and more will add to your respect total. It adds an extra element of fun to the game because you're never really stuck just driving from Point A to Point B. Even a mission on the other side of town means an opportunity to accumulate a lot of respect on your drive over there. In addition to the instant bonus respect you get from doing these things, the game tracks your cumulative totals in a long list of challenge categories, the aforementioned vehicle stunts such as hitting a distance milestone driving on the wrong side of the road, costumed mascots killed, time spent streaking, ... the full list is pretty long and the game keeps adding new ones as you progress. Complete one of these challenges and you'll get a nice respect and cash bonus.
The game's story missions are pretty varied, both in terms of your objectives and in their length. The mission's general category is noted in your available mission list which gives you a little guide to what to expect, but there's no real way to tell how much time one of them will take you. Sometimes you're in for a multistage major story mission, sometimes it's a short activity, and occasionally it can be a short cutscene showing a conversation with one of the characters in the story. Because of this the story progresses by both leaps and lurches, and with all of the distractions in the game piecing the narrative together can be a bit of a disjoint process. Overall, though, the story is enjoyable in a decidedly over-the-top kind of way, and even features alternate endings based on your decisions at major crossroads in the story. I like the way that the game lets you know what the immediate impact of your decision at these points will be, without making it obvious where the fork you decide to take will ultimately lead you.
In addition to the story missions there are side missions tied to a particular type of activity. Mayhem missions challenge you to use a tank to cause a set amount of property damage, insurance fraud has you acting as a human ragdoll in busy intersections, and Professor Genki, well, think Japanese-style game show meets funhouse of horrors as you must fight your way through warehouses filled with deadly traps and costumed characters trying to kill you. Like every other aspect of the game touched on in this review, there are simply too many different kinds of side missions to list here, and part of the fun in the game is seeing what it throws at you next. Completing a side mission brings you rewards in the form of respect, cash, and an increase in your control of the local neighborhood. In addition to the fact that they're all pretty much flat-out fun, I like that the game helps you locate the available side missions and rates them as easy, medium, or hard so that you know what you're getting into.
As you play the game you'll have to face more than your share of gun battles with police, rival gangs, and even the military. The gun battles are fun, not just because of the variety of weapons and explosives at your disposal, but also because the controls don't get in your way. The controls are tight and responsive, and you'll be able to take on hordes of enemies without taking on the controls as well. If a battle has you overmatched, you can call for backup from either random flunkies from The Saints' rank and file or from some of the NPCs you've forged alliances with. The NPCs each have their own special skill, so calling in the right person to back you up in a pinch can make your job easier for you. The AI of your allies is pretty good and they're there for more than show, doing their fair share of the work in taking out the enemies. The enemy AI isn't quite as good - their attacks tend to fall into patterns that you quickly learn to recognize and it's pretty easy to flank and take out an enemy hiding behind cover. Most of the challenge you'll face will come from the sheer number of enemies the game can throw at you at once. This can sometimes be frustrating as a near endless stream of enemy reinforcements can come streaming at you until you're overwhelmed. Luckily, death just means a trip to the hospital and some medical fees conveniently deducted from your bank account.
Saints Row: The Third does a phenomenal job of keeping you active all the time. This is not one of those open world game's that's too big for itself, forcing you to spend most of your time driving from one location to another across town with a whole lot of nothing interesting in between (I'm looking at you Mafia II). I can't say that I was ever bored with the game, and rather would find myself playing it for longer than expected because there were always one or two last things I wanted to do before I quit. I had a great time uncovering secrets, discovering new things that the game would allow me to do, and moving from one "I can't believe that just happened" moment to the next. I do have to warn you, though, that the game's humor tends towards the perverse, so if you find things like large purple marital aids used as weapons or chariot races in rickshaws pulled by leather-clad gimps as offensive you will want to stay well clear of this game (on the other hand, I think that I may have just sold some of you on the game with that last line). I do have to say that while the humor is decidedly colored a deep shade of blue, it's actually more clever than it is juvenile, and you'll quite probably find yourself enjoying the current of social and pop culture satire that runs beneath the whole experience.
The game's multiplayer support comes in two forms. The first is co-op play, which allows you to play the entire game with a friend. The second is Whored Mode (horde mode, get it?), which can also be played with a single player. This mode pits you against one wave after another of enemies that must all be eliminated before they can kill you. The twist is that each round changes up the enemies, weapons, and modifiers in crazy ways. One round you may have to fight while drunk, with an out of focus screen and lurching, off-balance motion controls, and the next you might be shrunk to the size of a small dog trying to fend off enemies that tower over you, only to begin the next round in a tank. The Whored Mode is primarily fun because of the variety of the action in each wave, and I do like the clever name pinned to each one (the drunken level is dubbed Coyote Ugly, for example). Will it be something that you keep coming back to? Probably not, but it's fun while it lasts and there's still a whole heck of a lot of gameplay to get through in the campaign.
Final Rating: 95%. Saints Row: The Third is a game that takes everything that's fun about gaming and turns it up to eleven.