|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
Sandbox games are a strange breed. Traditionally, games have been a linear passage from a starting point to a set endpoint. One path, however jagged or curved it may be, that either culminated in a player's victory or was abandoned early in defeat. Most sandbox games add a meta-game of sorts to this linear structure, allowing one to pick maybe the order of missions and take on optional bonus tasks, but doing little to throw off the shackles of a straightforward canned story. In a game that inundates a player with things to do, that allows him or her to choose activities and missions, doesn't it naturally follow that one's choices should ultimately influence the outcome?
This is the theory on which Saints Row: The Third is predicated. Whereas previous entries told multiple, parallel-yet-distinct stories and then tied them together in an ending sequence, Saints Row: The Third tells one story with a large cast of important characters, intermingled and interspersed. In servicing this story, the game's illusion of choice is severely diminished. There are usually fewer missions from which to choose at any given time than in past games, and many of them are very short offshoots of the main tale. The fact that the game offers more real choice than either of its forebears is just one of the game's many paradoxes.
What do I mean by real choices? Saints Row: The Third gives the player either/or decisions at the ends of some of its grander missions. These choices don't influence an arbitrary morality meter, each instead offering immediate, pragmatic benefits for having chosen it. When I play a "moral choice" RPG, I have trouble taking the renegade/closed fist/dark side route, and will immediately gravitate toward options that are clearly good or neutral. Saints Row: The Third gave me genuine pause, while I considered not only the gameplay benefit of any given choice, but also what that decision would mean to the Saints in the context of the story thus far. They're well-planned choices that have a definite and understandable effect on your relationships with other characters in the world.
That said, there are only a handful of such decisions in the game and, while there are multiple endings, which of them a player gets hinges entirely on one choice made very close to the end of the game. In fact, after finishing the story, the game automatically saves prior to that choice and informs the player that it has done so specifically in case they want to see the alternate ending. It's unfortunate that more wasn't done to create distinct paths through the game based on one's choices, or to create a truly dynamic mission infrastructure based on factors such as these key decisions and city control. That, however, would have run counter to the game's tighter focus on its story.
Saints Row: The Third is primarily a tale of revenge, but one told in the Saints Row fashion: over-the-top and filled to the brim with violence and mayhem. There's a new city—the city of Steelport—for the Third Street Saints to explore, and a new overarching enemy (referred to by the incredibly generic nom de plume of "The Syndicate") to spur the Saints to conquer it. The Syndicate is composed of a stable of three gangs: the Morningstar, the Deckers, and the Luchadores. However, while the game is initially centered around this big baddie and the damage one does to it, the focus softens considerably in the second act as gang activity, as a whole, comes under fire from a government-supported occupying military force. Soon enough, you're not entirely sure which villain you're fighting and why, or even who is working with you or against you. Allegiances shift with little question from the protagonist as to the veracity of his newfound allies' loyalty. It's made all the more disappointing by the sharp writing, which has some incredible gems and does a lot to flesh out the key individuals in the Saints.
The story of the game doesn't have to be superb, though, it only has to provide a framework for the bombastic action, and excuses for some of the most ridiculous set pieces in gaming history. There are multiple instances in which a player is free-falling at thirty-thousand feet after having vacated a jetliner, gunning down incredibly persistent enemies as they all plummet toward the earth in unison. The game opens with a bank heist that culminates in airlifting the vault via chopper, the player hanging from the lines that secure the vault to its conveyance while shooting down SWAT team members and other helicopters . All the while, the SWAT team demands that the Saints surrender, but not without signing their guns. It only escalates from there, though the fame of the Saints is downplayed more over the course of the game, their public image addressed in only a few missions and throwaway lines.
But, I'm sure you're wondering how it plays. Well, it's very similar to the last game in actual gameplay, though the controls have been remapped a bit and the aiming feels a little looser. That may actually be a result of the frame rate, though.
The trimmings of combat have been altered: gone are fighting styles, but heavy, barehanded melee attacks now provoke beatdown sequences. These are accompanied with pseudo-quick time events that increase the Respect—which is used to earn upgrades from an extensive upgrade tree, all of which have the additional cost of cash money—gained from the beatdown, but apparently not its damage. Further, these can't be used against the major new enemy type: Brutes. They're massive, thuggish men who take an obscene amount of punishment, shrug off bullets, and knock you around like a rag doll. Some are outfitted with Gatling guns or flamethrowers, the latter of which are probably the most frustrating enemies in the game, though the Brutes in general simply aren't fun to combat. Since they soak up damage like sponges, only a few of the game's varied weapons actually have a noticeable effect on them other than to bring their life bars down.
That selection of weapons is, by and large, the game's bread and butter. While there are the standard pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns of any good shooter, the special weapons are where Saints Row: The Third truly goes for the absurd. Reaper drones, mind-control squid launchers, a baseball-bat-sized purple "marital aid," and a sonic blaster are just what immediately come to mind. The last, in particular, if charged up, disintegrates enemies immediately in a burst of blood. When the military shows up partway through the game, they bring with them additional vehicles, including a number of VTOL aircraft and powerful tanks that players can hijack and joyride, all of which control tightly (unrealistically so, but that's to the game's benefit).