There are parts of Saints Row: The Third that couldn’t escape the tell-tale traits of a criminal sandbox game. I don’t know why, but when I threw the driver out of a moving truck and the camera swiveled around it as I gained control, I knew this game – and its predecessors for that matter – wouldn’t exist without the success of Grand Theft Auto 3. In many ways, this takes the groan-worthy design elements of Rockstar’s franchise and twists them to ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…’ angles. What if every car you jacked could be stored at your garage, modified to the nth degree and coated in a candy pink paint, then retrieved from any of your safe houses? At any time? What if you got achievements for running over hundreds of people and driving in the wrong lane and doing powerslides like Project Gotham Racing? What if the narrative was insane? That, my friends, is Saints Row: The Third in a nutshell.
Huh? What Is This Thing?
The story here won’t have much emotional resonance (using the strictest air quotes possible) if you haven’t played previous games,
so why bother explaining but it starts as your gang, the 3rd Street Saints, have become a household name and taken over the world with crappy merchandise. When your bank robbery goes wrong (with hostages gleefully lining up to get photographs with you mid-deed), you wind up face to face with the Belgian maestro of The Syndicate who offers you a portion of your own assets in exchange for not being completely rolled. You reject these terms and begin your march, ounce by ounce, to unravel his evil empire, bringing your gang back to the basics of extreme run-and-gun violence, rather than movie production.
One cool way that the Saints Row series distinguishes itself from similar sandbox games is territorial acquisition. You have access to the entire city from the start and as you complete a variety of missions and activities, your map soon becomes painted over in the Saints’ trademark purple. Some points are properties that net you discounts and an hourly income to spur all the leveling you do through the game. Others are more clever (Insurance Fraud, in which you throw your ragdoll’ed body at incoming traffic to rack up huge insurance claims) or… mundane (escort missions, c’mon now, even with a LITERAL TIGER IN THE PASSENGER SEAT) activities that help you advance the plot. Honestly, the idea of rolling from neighborhood to neighborhood and watching your reign extend through your acts of madness is an awesome way to see your progress.
The amount of customization is incredible, almost paralytic. If you’re the person who will spend an hour sculpting a character in Skyrim, a game in which you never see your character, you get a similarly deep experience and get to see your avatar all the time. You also have a variety of skill upgrades to your character and summonable homies, including dual wielding guns to health and more. The cars don’t get the Forza treatment as far as add-ons and mods, but considering the wide variety of vehicles available to you, from street sweepers to Prius-likes to large trucks, you’re not going to be bored by how much pink (or, well, any other color I suppose) you can hose down on your methods of conveyance. Most of these upgrades are superficial, but when you see your customized character animating in the game’s cutscenes, you start to feel like you’re the boss here… because you are. (Or you’ll simply vomit to death because of how you destroyed your once-human appearance. Either way.)
That Smooth Lack Of Polish
Volition is a cabal of brilliant engineers who have brought us some crazy stuff before like the GeoMod tech that allowed us to destroy buildings with hammers wall by wall in Red Faction: Guerrilla, but it’s difficult to see here. There’s definitely some crazy action from time to time, but the game can delve into ‘chuggy frame’ territory super quick while nothing’s going on. The points where the game has a smooth, steady pace are rare and while it doesn’t debilitate the game, it can be distracting. For some strange reason shooting always feels ‘loose’ in Volition games. It’s sort of an intangible feeling, but running around shooting dudes doesn’t have that ‘hardy’ feeling that it does in other games. The same technical prowess that allows your big truck’s tires to pop when you take turns too hard turns thugs into balloons escaping from an innocent child. The art direction actually feels cohesive here, whereas it felt like a smorgasbord of a thousand different directions in previous games, which works well with the chaotic everything that happens in this game.
The game can be played alone with absolutely no issues, but the cooperative mode is legendary. Everything you can accomplish alone can be played with a friend in a seamless mode that is one of the most integrated examples I’ve ever seen. The other multiplayer modes are the same, obligatory modes, but it adds up to a whole lot of content. My one disappointment was that the game just didn’t have enough instances of the fun modes I really wanted to play (Tank Assault, Insurance Fraud) or even tiers of achievements to go back and try to improve my performances. Playing on Normal, I breezed through much of the content, while the harder stuff is inherently so because of the jank inherent with this genre, like clipping a corner of something and stopping abruptly during a chase and other, similar malarkey.
Just Buy It
Saints Row: The Third is a stupidly fun game that banks on a large amount of ‘insane batshittery’ to break the mold. It’s difficult to explain what all they accomplished here and aside from some presentation issues, they manage to pull it off pretty well. It’s unfortunate that the pure zaniness might scare off some potential owners who want a more “conservative” game that apes Scorsese’s gangster films to the point of pretentiousness, but you just can’t pass this up. If you’re truly on the fence, you need to go find someone who has it (or grab the demo) and try it out: at worst you wasted your time, at best, you’ll probably be headed down to the store immediately to pick it up.