Review: Saints Row: The Third
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.
One of the things that really pushes this game over the line into near-perfection for me is its soundtrack. I’ll admit that I’m the sort of person who will give anything a lot of credit if it manages to use its soundtrack well, but Saints Row: The Third contains, without a doubt, the best usage of a licensed soundtrack I’ve ever seen in any videogame. The best non-major-spoiler example of this I can mention is a sequence early in the game where you leap down from a helicopter onto a giant penthouse apartment and brutally kill everyone inside to claim it as your own. During the entire sequence, Kanye West’s “Power” is blaring in the background, turning what would otherwise be a standard mission into yet another one of the most brilliantly-directed sequences I’ve encountered in a game. The Third is loaded with those, if you couldn’t tell already.
Outside of the scripted events, the soundtrack is still quite good. There’s a lot of variety, and most stations have at least one song that’ll grab you (excluding the reggae/latin station but that’s not my sort of thing). The pop punk/alt rock station is nice, featuring stuff from Deftones, Sleigh Bells, and Black Keys; the hip-hop channel has Kanye West, Mos Def, and Tyler The Creator; the electronic channel has deadmau5, Digitalism, and Ratatat; the classical station is full of songs appropriate for your mayhem (“Ride of the Valkyries” anyone?); “The Blood” is full of post-hardcore and screamo, but it has some good stuff from KMFDM and Dillinger Escape Plan; and “The Mix” has an, appropriately, good mix of genres, from Bonnie Tyler to Butthole Surfers, from Faith No More to Adam and the Ants, and from Tone-Loc to Talk Talk.
But the best station on here is easily “WDDT CPDG The Swim”, which is the Adult Swim channel. Yup, Adult Swim, the late-night block on Cartoon Newtork, if you’re unaware, has their own station in this game, and it’s marvelous. The station plays songs both from Adult Swim’s shows (like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Bros., and Tim & Eric) and from Williams Street Records, Adult Swim’s music label (including Danger Doom, Cerebral Ballzy, and Wavves). And, to top it all off, the radio station is hosted by none other than “Jon”, from Delocated, with his signature dry sense of humor and pitched-down voice. He recorded a lot of material for the station, and almost all of it is hilarious, especially the advertisement spots.
And, making this game’s radio system even better, is the mixtape system, which allows you to take the songs you like from all of the radio stations and put them into their own station. With this, you won’t have to listen to ads or commentary when you just want music, but, at the same time, you’ll be missing out on the good commentary a few stations have. It’s excellent for when you just want to listen to certain songs though.
The co-op works about the same as it did in SR2, just with the new systems in place. They adjust for all of the activities with them well, and most (especially Heli Assault) are improved due to it. Tiger Escort is especially interesting; the co-op partner has to keep the tiger in line the whole time while the player drives, which is pretty fun. Like with SR2, I can’t recommend the co-op enough, if you have someone to play it with; it’s double the people, double the fun, and it’s already ridiculously fun as is.
The Third also adds a spin on the Gears of War Horde mode idea, this time referred to as “Whored Mode”. (Yeah, not the best pun there.) In it, you choose a character and one of the three maps, and you go up against forty waves of enemies. Each is divided into their own little segment, and they save after each wave. Sounds like a cool place to show more silly, over-the-top stuff, right? Unfortunately, it’s mostly dry and dull, even when you’re batting away an army of gimps with a giant, purple dildo. It’s a shame, really; there is a ton of potential there for an awesome mode, but it’s just not fun, unlike almost everything else in this game. This doesn’t really detract anything from my overall enjoyment of the game though, since it’s so external from the main campaign.
The game does mess up here and there, mostly in the stability department. I never experienced a crash or any glitch that impeded my progress, but I encountered a good amount of clipping issues with some vehicles and NPCs. Luckily, most of these can be laughed off due to The Third‘s embrace of open-world jankiness, but they can be somewhat annoying at times. I also encountered (at random, generally during combat) this error where my character would go into the arms-to-the-side, legs-straight-down pose that you tend to see when things bug out. (If there’s a term for that pose, I’d really like to know, honestly.) But these were never major flaws, and the game’s ridiculous tone makes most of them laughable.
There are also some issues with pacing in the main story. At the end, even after going through yet another amazing sequence, it didn’t feel like much of an ending. I still felt like things would keep going, like there was so much more that needed to happen, even after putting twenty-five hours into the game. Instead, it just cuts off. The epilogue sequence is awesome, but it’s still not a very satisfactory ending to a game that, otherwise, does an exceptionally good job of being satisfying.
From the start, Saints Row: The Third had a lot to live up to. Volition promised that they’d make it even more ridiculous, even more fun than its predecessors. And they came through on it.
I can say, without a doubt, that this is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year, hell, the most fun I’ve had with a game in several years. Despite everything else, this game is fun, plain and simple, and if you want to play a fun game, then you should go out and buy this as soon as possible.
In a world of hype and broken promises, Saints Row: The Third is a game that delivers.