I sit in the driver’s seat of my fully-upgraded Attrazione sports car, blazing through the streets of the city as herds of neo-cyberpunk gang members in SUVs give chase. I turn on the mixtape I made specifically for this situation, and the radio blares, “MY NAME IS SHAKE ZULA THE MIKE RULA THE OLD SCHOOLAH YOU WANT A TRIP I’LL BRING IT TO YA,” as it starts. The car slides around the corners smoothly, drifting on a dime with a touch of the X button. A few SUVs have caught up to me, so I lay down some fire from the window with my fully-upgraded pistol. The exploding bullets destroy the cars after a few rounds to the hood, churning fountains of flame into the air, scattering debris to destroy the remaining SUVs.
Satisfied with the carnage, I leave my car to observe the surrounding area, exposing my giant wolf mask, purple bathrobe, and jet-black garters (barely covering up my 100%-sex-appeal-enhanced bulge). A few more SUVs show up, creating a perfect opportunity to “drop the hammer”. After a ping with the laser, five missiles drop from the sky, covering the punks in a swath of flame and gunpowder. The few stragglers are blessed with a giant, purple, floppy schlong to the face while I laugh in a ludicrous Cockney accent.
And that’s not even scratching the surface of what you’ll be getting into in Steelport.
The Saints Row series is one of the few series this generation I can think of that’s shifted so dramatically from one release to the next. The original Saints Row was somewhat grounded, going for a very “suburban gangster” vibe, not doing too many outlandish things that hadn’t already been touched on in previous GTA games. The second game upped the ante on the outlandishness, making it the game’s hallmark feature and crafting the story and gameplay around their bizarre, over-the-top sense of humor.
The Third feels like that same progression at work, though it feels like their progression is working in degrees of magnitude this time. They bring back a lot of the old activities from the original games (though they’re not necessary anymore) and a lot of the systems aren’t new, but they give you so much more awesome stuff to do within those previously established systems. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants, but it’s much bigger than what it’s sitting on top of.
In Saints Row: The Third, the Third Street Saints have become a multinational corporation and pop culture icons, with Pierce advertising Saints Flow (“It doesn’t taste that bad, actually,” remarks the main character) and the gang becoming “sell-outs”. After getting shaken up in a failed bank robbery (in one of the greatest videogame intros I’ve ever experienced), they meet The Syndicate, a group of rival gangs looking to cut into their corporation. After this, you’re left in Steelport, a new city, with nothing to your name but some guns and helicopters, trying to take down the gangs and rule the town.
Despite starting the game in a somewhat low status (well, low for pop cultural icons such as yourselves), you never feel that you’re really missing anything; your starter weapons are solid enough to last you the whole game, and they’re still fun to use by the end. Despite having this, the game never feels “broken”; it’s not really a game that can be broken as it’s more about just having fun, and being more powerful than everyone else (which you are, even at the beginning) enhances that.
Saints Row: The Third‘s main ante-upping is within the story’s moments. While the protagonist is much more subdued than in Saints Row 2 (i.e. he’s a likable anti-hero rather than a likable ludicrous psychopath), and the story feels less impactful overall than the previous game’s, this series has always been about set pieces, and man, this game knows how to do set pieces well. I’d list off examples, but they’re so good that I urge everyone, everyone, looking into this game to avoid the subject as much as possible. Though I think the sequence where the main character and Pierce, a fellow Third Street Saint, sing Sublime’s “What I Got” in full has been around enough that it bears mentioning. There are also a few sequences based around binary choices that change the story, but they do a good job of not forcing a good versus bad morality onto it (you’re a bastard anyway), instead focusing on the gameplay benefits of the choices. This game does (almost) every moment to the fullest, and that’s an excellent example of how far they go out of their way to do that. They’re completely committed.
This sense of commitment carries over into almost every part of the game, the writing especially. It’s got some of the most funny writing I’ve seen this year (I’d say I found it funnier than Portal 2 but those games are so vastly different in terms of tone that it’s not the best comparison), and they always commit to every joke. Nothing’s ever really thrown away or shoved to the side. And it’s, surprisingly, not very offensive, despite its subject matter. At least to me, anyway. Yeah, you’re attacking gimps and mascots throughout the game for little justifiable reason, but this game knows that what it’s doing is stupid, that what it’s doing is amoral, and it revels in it, creating some amazingly funny moments.
As for the main gameplay, they’ve done a good job of fixing up some elements of SR2; the shooting handles better, and the cars are very enjoyable to drive, mostly because they can stop/drift on a dime. Activities are back, with many returning ones that didn’t really need to return, but they’re not necessary (outside of a few story missions that unlock the activities) for the main story, so that’s not an issue unless you’re going for 100% completion. Insurance Fraud, Escort, Heli Assault, Mayhem, Snatch, and Trail Blazing all make returns, and they make up about half of the total missions, since the new mission types get twice as many. They still feel unnecessary despite that; Heli Assault and Escort just aren’t fun, and they weren’t ever especially fun, and the other ones are just okay.
The new activities are, mostly, not all that great either. Trafficking, where a friend drives you around and you protect him while he sells wares, is boring on the whole, and it gets rather annoying on higher difficulties due to the game’s equally not-all-that-great AI. Guardian Angel missions are all done as part of the story, and they’re just Heli Assault but you’re hanging out of a chopper with a sniper rifle or RPG instead. Tank Mayhem is fun, but at its core, it’s just Mayhem where you roll around in a tank.
Tiger Escort, a new spin on the Escort missions, is quite enjoyable. In it, you’re in a convertible with a tiger in the passenger seat. The tiger (for some reason) likes it when you drive fast, but hates it when you crash into things, so you have to drive fast and safe while keeping the tiger’s claw attacks from distracting you from the road. It can get somewhat frustrating, but it’s never too difficult, and driving around town, being chased by Animal Control while a tiger claws at you, ranks somewhat well on the game’s list of ridiculous events.
But there is one new activity that shines above all of the rest: Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, a parody of Japanese game shows where you run through pre-designed levels, shooting up dudes in animal and soda pop outfits to rack up combos and make money. The levels are generally fun, and pulling off combos is immensely satisfying. Your health also doesn’t regenerate during these levels, which makes them even more exhilarating; there’s nothing like running through the gates to the exit with a sliver of health left, dodging gunfire from men in giant, green tiger costumes. There are six of these activities throughout the entire game, which feels too small to me; they were easily the most fun of any of them, and I hope that they add some more in the ensuing DLC packs (which seems likely, what with one being called Genkibowl VII).
Despite the lack of new content in the activities, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of doing most of them. You’d be surprised how much the game’s excellent controls and explosion modeling can do to keep that stuff interesting, three games on. It helps that, directly after finishing the game’s last activity and controlling 100% of Steelport, my radio played Joe Esposito’s classic hit “You’re The Best” to celebrate my victory. I’m not sure if that was just a coincidence or if it was intentional, but either way it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a game, no joke.