Saints Row 3: Parody Achieves Parity
I have played a lot of games this year, and some of them have been truly great. Games like Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City, and most recently The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim come to mind. When we start to talk about Game of the Year awards later next month, these titles and those like them will absolutely come up, as well they should. Even so, it’s come as a bit of a shock to me that my experience with Saints Row: The Third has been one of the most enjoyable of the entire year. While it is, by no means, a perfect game, Saints Row: The Third is a great example of how comedic games can still stand up to their more traditional counterparts.
When The Saints Came Marching In
Saints Row dates back to 2006, when the first game in the series was released. Developed by Volition (of Red Faction fame) and published by THQ, the game was, frankly, a Grand Theft Auto clone. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing. After all, Grand Theft Auto games are few and far between, and Saints Row handled itself better than most imitators. The game had ambition, featuring an over-the-top style and storyline. Unfortunately, the game was also pretty flawed. In addition to failing to differentiate itself enough from GTA, the game featuring an unfortunate combination of an irritating mission structure and poor controls.
In 2008, Volition returned with Saints Row 2, significantly improving upon the formula and starting to move away from the GTA-light feel of the first game. The game got more absurd and extreme. While Rockstar was busy toning down the GTA franchise, introducing dark and brooding characters and storylines and removing some of the more absurd smissions, Saints Row 2 went in the exact opposite direction, featuring a ridiculous and comedic storyline, allowing players a huge amount of freedom and power, and tasking players with diversions such as driving sewage trucks, spraying buildings with feces to lower property values. The game was bigger and more ambitious than the first title, and generally played better.
Now, at the tail end of 2011, Volition and THQ are back with Saints Row: The Third. In short, this game takes the most successful elements from the first two, adds a wonderful layer of complexity and persistence, and offers players one of the most entertaining main storylines of any game I have played this year. This was do-or-die for Volition as well, as they just recently had a significant failure with Red Faction: Armageddon, a game so poorly received that it killed off the entire franchise. Well, there are worse things than being known as the Saints Row developers, especially after this game, because Volition fucking nailed it.
Highly Entertaining Insanity
There is a lot to enjoy about Saints Row: The Third, not the least of which is the ownership that the game allows players to have over their main character. A fully featured character creator allows gamers to create just about any kind of character they want, including seven different voices: three male, three female, and zombie. That’s right, a game with a large amount of main character dialogue has seven completely different voices and personalities, and one of them is a zombie. Why? Because it’s funny and, after all, why the hell not? This is very much the philosophy behind the entire game.
I really cannot stress this enough: allowing me to really flesh out my own design, choosing a voice that I liked, and providing a vast variety of in-game customization options, really made me connect to my character.
This is all just icing on the intensely insane cake that is Saints Row: The Third. The real fun comes with what you will be doing with that character. In the first two games, the player took charge of the Third Street Saints as they conquered the city of Stillwater. Saints Row: The Third takes place after that conquering is complete. The Saints are now media darlings and dubious national heroes. Of course, an international criminal organization known as The Syndicate is intent on co-opting the Saints and through a series of catastrophic events, the main players in the gang end up in Steelport, a new city, intent on regaining their power and enacting revenge upon the Syndicate.
This all sounds pretty typical of an open world crime game, but this is just scene dressing. Instead of throwing you into the typical and played out open world mélange of timed races and boring gun battles, Saints Row: The Third shakes things up with nearly every mission. Without resorting to specific spoilers, players will experience the following scenarios:
- Skydiving through multiple airplanes, and inside tanks.
- Outracing animal rights activists with a tiger sitting in your passenger seat.
- Fighting in cyberspace, complete with multiple avatars, a text adventure and an epic sword-wielding boss fight.
- A naked, drug fueled rampage through a sex club in order to rescue an auto-tuned pimp.
- Playing out one of the best wrestling matches ever displayed in a videogame.
These are just a few of the main missions and the game gets even crazier from there. I am not even mentioning the ending, which is possibly one of the best ending sequences I have ever played in any game, ever.
Likewise, the side missions are a lot of fun. Series fans will remember a few of these, including Snatch, which has the player abducting hookers, and Insurance Fraud, which plays with the game’s physics, tasking players to fling themselves in front of traffic. There are also a series of new missions, most of which are fantastic, including competing on a psychotic Japanese game show where your goal is to massacre furries and survive traps, complete with color commentary.
All of these, combined with property purchasing, play in to the city takeover meta-game. For each side mission you complete, you conquer a small section of the city and get an increased periodic income. Completing a series of these missions not only nets you more cash, but also provides bonuses such as new weapons, vehicles, outfits, or different gang members to provide you backup. This concept has been used in a variety of different games, including the Assassins Creed and Fable series, but Saints Row: The Third does it better than most.
While I enjoyed most of these missions, and appreciated how the developers had even worked in a good amount of dialogue and story into them, I also appreciated that they were almost entirely optional. Whereas Saints Row 2 required that players finish side missions to earn “Respect” to allow them to progress the story, Saints Row: The Third enforces no such encumbrance. So, if you hate playing in traffic, you never actually need to play the Insurance Fraud missions and you won’t miss out on too much except for some extra income.
Speaking of money, I also appreciated how Saints Row: The Third handles cash. I find in most open world games like this, money tends to become irrelevant about 1/3 into the game. By then you typically find most of the weapons you need, and there is never anything good or relevant to spend the money on. Here, money is tied in to upgrading your character, your weapons, your gang and your hideouts, and these can have big effects on gameplay. Even at the very end of the game, I always had something else to spend cash on, be it upgrading my rocket launcher to lock on to targets, upgrading my character to take 50% less bullet damage, or purchasing the ability to call on a “homie” to drop off a tank at any time.
There are other things to discuss about the game, but I will try to be brief. The controls are decent and the shooting generally felt good. Saints Row: The Third eschews the typical lock-on targeting of open-world shooters for a more action-oriented free cursor. Think Uncharted instead of Grand Theft Auto, except better than Uncharted 3, though that’s not saying much.
The driving also feels good, though very arcadey. If you were like me and disliked the way cars felt in GTA IV, you will probably dig what Saints Row: The Third is dishing out. Driving, and flying for that matter, is easy and fun. Further, there is a good amount of car customization, as nearly any car in the game can be stored in your garage and modified with a good variety of options, colors, and abilities. About an hour into the game I was habitually driving around in a extra-reinforced black and purple modified police cruiser complete with neon under lighting and tire-spikes. It was kind of awesome.
Trouble in Paradise
I said before that the game isn’t perfect, and I meant it. Saints Row: The Third lacks the kind of polish that gamers have come to expect in their AAA titles. The sound quality is low, so low in fact that I initially thought something was wrong with my speakers. Everything is clearly just compressed to the point that it is very noticeable. The game also has some physics issues and the typical sort of open-world jank that should be familiar to fans of the genre. The game even seems to expect physics problems, as it tends to automatically detect when the player has gotten stuck and will reload immediately with the player in a new position. Also, while the combat is decent, some of the later battles can become tiresome, as late-game enemies can become bullet sponges.
Further, the actual narrative is good but not great. The real point of the game is the moment to moment gameplay and not so much the narrative arc. You are really meant to enjoy the humorous dialogue or the vast amount of WTF moments the game throws at you (some of which you will NEVER see coming). The scene editing does leave a bit to be desired, with some scenes beginning and ending at awkward moments, and the story has a number of plot holes that may bother some picky players.
Finally, while the game does have a significant amount of replay value, including a 10+ hour campaign (I took 15 to finish), the aforementioned six other main voices and a full campaign co-op mode, there is no New Game + nor is there a way to replay story missions. Upon finishing the game you are allowed to replay the final mission again (as it can play out in two different ways), or you can fully restart the game, with none of your abilities, weapons or cash carrying over. This feels like a missed opportunity, and kind of a strange decision on the part of Volition.
Long Live The Saints
Still, none of this is a deal breaker, and the game, at its core, remains a highly entertaining experience throughout. Games typically have a hard time being both funny and fun to play. Generally speaking, funny games usually kind of suck. Saints Row: The Third achieves what these other games failed to do. It is genuinely hilarious, managing to be both tremendously offensive and intelligent, and it is a blast to play.
To really hammer the point home I will end on this: I received Saints Row: The Third on the same day as Assassins Creed: Revelations, and have played both almost equally. I love the Assassins Creed series, and Revelations is very much in the same vein as the previous game. Even so, I have enjoyed my time far more with Saints Row than Assassins Creed, and this is something I never thought I would say.
Saints Row: The Third, is a great game. I highly recommend it without reservation.