Open worlds, gangster simulation, stupidification: these are a few of my favourite things. Saints Row: The Third is definitely the craziest action game out there right now. It’s not for everyone (almost certainly not kids), but if you have a fairly open mind you’ll find it a lot of fun.
The first Saints Row gave us a relatively bog-standard GTA clone, but developers Volition followed it up with a stellar sequel that took the open-world format to its more logical (more wrong), conclusion. Saints Row 2 took the minor gangster elements of GTA III and elevated them to an art form: it not only allowed, but encouraged, the anti-social and politically incorrect activities that made Yahtzee wish it were possible to marry a video game.
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Saints Row: The Third is a refinement of the franchise’s milieu and core gameplay. Again we play the unnamed leader of the Third Street Saints in their quest to take over the streets; having been disenfranchised of Stilwater, they now set their sights on Steelport. Three rival gangs and a well-resourced militia provide the cannon fodder, and mayhem ensues. Thankfully there is not too much effort towards sophisticated narrative or character development, which would seem like Justin Bieber reciting Shakespeare. There is, however, a vague attempt to integrate moral choices a la Infamous, but rather than scaling up the goodie-two-shoes-o-meter, they mostly shape resources and perks that carry through the rest of the game.
Action and customisation are at the twisted heart of this game. You can customise your character to your heart’s content, picking gender, race, accent, and even gestures to taunt or compliment passersby. You can also upgrade weapons for more damage and some fun elemental effects like incendiary bullets for your SMG. It is now possible to pimp your ride to the nth degree; the garage offers upgrades to both performance and cosmetics. Speaking of rides, the introduction of a VTOL jet fighter is one of the best improvements; hovering over city streets to rain explosive death upon the masses and then switching mode to literally jet to the next target is one of the most fluid, enjoyable gameplay experiences this season. There is even an awesome button that makes all your actions more – you guessed it. New community options also allow you to share characters and screenshots, which is quite novel.
Aside from a focus on vehicles, the core gameplay is shooting. Lots of it. And explosions, lots of them. Here the mechanics are as smooth and intuitive as you’ll find in any third-person shooter. Eschewing any formal cover mechanics means a much more run-and-gun shooter experience than we’re used to in this age of Gears, and the one-button projectile weapons (watch out for the Fart in a Jar) and weapons wheel make for instant transitions. The lack of food for healing can be frustrating when surrounded by gun-toting goons, though.
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In between capping gangbangers it is necessary to travel, and the driving here is much as you’d expect from its predecessors. There are slight improvements and the mechanic offers very arcadey forgiveness, but somehow to me the driving feels a bit too sharp. Power-slides just don’t feel quite right: the vehicle drifts into them and snaps out too quickly, producing lots of oversteering, so the challenge in nailing the perfect corner is a bit dumbed down. Flying aircraft is much easier than it could be, for which I was thankful, as it allows more death and destruction.
The mission structure is similar to SR2 but again, is refined. There is a sharp distinction between core narrative threads and side-missions (oh how I miss the sewage truck), but it is not necessary to build respect through side-missions to qualify to play the core threads. There are huge mission highlights such as the Tron-inspired virtual reality mission punctuated by a clever parody of a text-based choose-your-own-adventure. Respect still accrues for cool driving and violence, but this time it just allows further upgrades which pretty quickly make you all but invincible. There is a sharp difficulty spike from Normal to Hardcore, but the latter at least provides more challenge than we saw in SR2.
The most original addition is, unfortunately, the thing that worked the least. The multiplayer mode suffers from poor matchmaking and a race to the bottom in using cheats. It feels aimless and uncoordinated, as there are no mechanics for genuine cooperative play, and ends up being about kill steals. It just feels like parallel play: You continue destroying the city, there’s just another person doing it with you. “Whored” mode (get it?) does no justice to its namesake; it’s an all-too-brief slaughter-fest with no strategy or particular skill required. I must admit this judgment is based on limited playtime; I was turned off pretty quickly by the multiplayer experience. It feels tacked-on; Volition could still learn a thing or two from Rockstar about a good open-world multiplayer.
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This game has no shame, as was clear from the marketing at the EB Expo. In the end, if you aren’t put off by borderline misogyny and relentlessly puerile S&M jokes, Saints Row: The Third is one of the most stupid fun shooter experiences going. Everyone has heard about the Penetrator, but just wait for the BDSM club scene or the drugged-up naked brothel shootout. It has action galore and laughs aplenty, but it ain’t a GOTY contender and just don’t show it to Grandma.