|System: Xbox 360, PS3, PC|
|Dev: Volition, Inc.|
|Release: November 15, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs|
by Shelby Reiches
What stood out to me the most during my time with Saints Row: The Third wasn't the excessive violence of the title; the previous two entries in the series and decades as a gamer have long since desensitized me to even the most over-the-top displays thereof. No, it was a moment of lucidity during a low-speed rickshaw chase, each being pulled by mostly-naked "submissive" individuals from an S&M club. My brain, which had checked out for the sheer insanity of the sequence, came rushing back in with a question: why are these person-drawn carriages exploding when I shoot them?
Maybe they're soaked in gasoline. They're fetishists, after all—are some of them into that?
Regardless, this anecdote more or less sets the tone for the entire Saints Row: The Third experience, which is bound to appeal to anyone who feels that the Grand Theft Auto series—and its Rockstar shepherds—has gone soft of late. Saints Row: The Third is carnage, utter carnage, and if that's what you're seeking, it can be a glorious experience.
From the opening bell, the game hits you over the head with its attitude. The 3rd Street Saints reside in a world in which larcenous thugs and sociopathic murderers can be international superstars. They're starring in Japanese commercials, have merchandise (manufactured and distributed by Ultor Corporation, in a nod to the series' history), and there's a movie in the works. One of the actors for that movie tags along on a bank heist, for which the Saints disguise themselves with masks of Saints member Johnny Gat, including Johnny Gat himself.
When the robbery begins, the tellers initially want photographs with and autographs from you and your posse. It's surreal and humorous, but soon gives way to a firefight that culminates in the Saints attempting to air-lift the entire vault out of the building while under fire from enemies with military-grade hardware. One of the great things about Saints Row: The Third is that it ups the value of its cinematic action from its predecessors, but works these blockbuster events into the action. It doesn't take control away from you during those most badass of moments, instead putting you at the head of the action, whether you're taking on enemies while skydiving beside them or defending a massive metal globe as it plummets from the top floor of a skyscraper with you atop it.
The core gameplay, however, hasn't changed much from the last game. Melee introduces new heavy attacks that provoke beat-down cutscenes. They have button-prompts to increase the damage you deal and the respect you receive from the beat-down, but don't impact whether or not the attack is successful. The guns are still satisfying to fire, and maybe slightly less absurdly accurate than they were in Saints Row 2. Some of the new explosive weapons and launchers are over the top, though, including a remote-controlled missile drone and a squid launcher that mind-controls its targets. That's tied into the Dr. Genki content, which also includes a flashy and violent obstacle-course game show, in which one shoots both targets and mascots to earn money while under the pressure of a time limit and without recharging health (there are boards to shoot that refill it). As with most such missions in the game, rather than design that structure for a one-off experience and then move on, playing through the first mission unlocks increasingly difficult side missions of that type. For those who've played previous Saints Row games, it's a familiar process.
What's actually changed most in Saints Row: The Third is the story. The tone is darker than the previous entries, and the Saints begin at the top of their game with a new city to conquer. While the means is similar to previous entries, the reasoning behind it is somewhat more personal, with a tale of revenge spurring the Saints to go on the offensive in the city of Steelport, as opposed to simply reclaiming what they'd lost, as in Saints Row 2. Most tellingly, a significant early portion of the game is mostly linear. Previous games allowed players to tackle the gangs in whatever order they wished, more or less from the get-go. Here, almost a fifth of the game (judging by the completion percentage) is spent on a straight, one-track story. The developers have stated that their intent with this entry is to intertwine the various threads of the story more, so once the game does open up, how and in what order missions are tackled can make a difference, building up to multiple endings. Also contributing to those multiple endings: missions with either/or decisions.
Saints Row: The Third is part of a series that doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the morality of players' actions. As such, it would be a disservice to call the choices it offers "moral choices," because the two options are generally going to be on even keel in that regard. The decisions are almost entirely pragmatic, and do come with tangible benefits, such as increased income or increased respect. Respect, which is used for upgrading your character, feels more useful in this game than before. Money does too, though, since players can still buy properties or weapons and even upgrade their vehicles at auto body shops.
The choices one makes begin even earlier though, with an expanded character creation system (which includes a "zombie" voice for your character, completely unintelligible, except to the other characters in the world. Don't use it if you care about the story). If you decide you don't like your look, there are, of course, places to get haircuts, clothes and even plastic surgery to alter it later. There are gang gatherings one can stumble upon that, once conquered, will tighten the Saints' grip on a territory and, as always, both a lot of side missions and random mayhem in which to engage. (However, the greater focus of the story seems to extend to these as well: I didn't see anything like the septic tank side-missions of the last game.)
Then there's multiplayer. The competitive play is gone, but I popped into co-op for a couple of missions (some of the side missions are clearly geared toward co-op play, almost impossible to complete on your own), which is just as free-form as ever. Both players can adventure alone in the city, do whatever they wish, and, if one decides to take on a mission, the other is given a prompt where they can choose whether to join in. Additionally, Saints Row: The Third has Whored Mode, which can be played either alone or with a partner, taking on wave after wave of ridiculous enemies with various special conditions. It was entertaining, but sort of wore thin after a dozen waves or so.
And that was something I noticed about the game in general. In the very beginning, it did a great job of keeping me focused on moving forward through the story. Once it opened up more, though, and continued to spread missions out across the map (it's also worth noting that one can take on a mission with a phone call from the menu, now, reducing players' footwork), I found myself spending more time causing general mayhem and mischief than pursuing the story. I'd also been playing for almost six hours straight at that point, though, and it's incredible that the game could keep me engaged and focused that long before fatigue started to set in.
Saints Row: The Third is a ludicrous game. It's a title in which one's retinue includes a Russian behemoth who's the blueprint for a clone army, a professional wrestler voiced by Hulk Hogan, an absent-minded ex-FBI agent, and a barely-clothed fetishist who speaks only in auto-tune. Though the characters take it seriously, it's clear that the developers followed the philosophy that if they were having fun making it, you'd have fun playing it. The build I played was nearly final, and besides some slight frame rate hiccups, it felt extremely polished. Which is good, since it's coming out in less than a month.
CCC Contributing Writer