I didn’t really want to write this review, not out of some laziness or indifference about the series but more-so that after a few hours of playing Saints Row: The Third it became apparent that words would not suffice. It felt more apt that merely having this page filled with a single picture of me smiling ear to ear would say more about the game than I could hope to write, but with review conventions being what they are I’ll try my best to do justice to my marvelous and insane trip to Steelport.
Picking up after the events of Saints Row 2 our lovable gang of ne’er-do-wells have gained media exposure and have become a facet of the world’s pop culture, with the Saints even television marketing their own energy drink 'Saints Flow'. This new found fame hasn’t stopped the Saint’s need for the criminal and neither has it taken them off the radar for rival gangs, and after an opening sequence that riffs off Star Wars, 2001 A Space Odyssey and any modern television advertisement we are back into business as usual. An international crime organisation known as The Syndicate are after a large share of the Saints assets in Stillwater, suffice to say the Saints do not take kindly to the offer and after an explosive start The Saints move to Steelport to wrestle the control of the city from The Syndicate. The Syndicate itself uses three different gangs to control Steelport; the Morningstar, the Luchadores and the Deckers. Each of these gangs come with their own area of criminality and also with a very vivid and distinguishable look, from the boob busting basques of the Morningstar to the Tron-esque neon look of the Deckers, each gang is instantly recognisable.
The overall arc of the gameplay will be of no surprise to you if you have played any of the Saints Row games or even to a large degree Crackdown. You will work your way through each of the gangs, fighting for control of their areas and on the way you will garner friends that you can call on when in need and open up various side missions or ‘activities’. How you choose to take on these missions will affect a variety of things such as side missions that open up, the way the other gangs handle you and also how the game will end. The inevitable Grand Theft Auto comparisons will be bandied around as they have been for the history of the Saints Row franchise but it’s a bit of a false comparison this time around. If Grand Theft Auto is fine dining that must be savoured and critiqued then Saints Row:The Third is an all you can eat buffet with unlimited ice-cream; pure gluttonous gaming pleasure.
Saints Row:The Third is very much about freedom and Volition have done a marvellous job at giving the player all the room they need to breathe, if you can think it then it’s probably in here somewhere. The first element of this freedom you will encounter will be when you decide how your character will look, the sheer wealth of customisable options will allow you to have characters as diverse as a Lady GaGa lookalike to Watchmen’s Dr Manhattan (with digitised naughty bits). You will choose everything from your characters eye width to their sex appeal, a customisable option that will either see your female characters breasts enlarge to an improbable level or for your male character package increasing to proportions that would embarrass a horse. You can actually try out the character creator without buying the game with ‘The Initiation Station’ which is available for free at all good online console stores, and if you do buy the game you will be able to load that character straight into your game.
Throughout the game there is also a levelling system that will aide you in progressing your character and customising them as you see fit. You will get the chance to do this in a variety of ways, the main way to advance your character is through ‘respect’ which you earn from things as far ranging as completing a mission to choosing the right clothes to wear. When you gather enough respect and level up you will be afforded the opportunity to unlock new attributes, in a similar vein to the standard development trees of most RPG/RTS games. Secondly you can upgrade weapons and purchase territory with money, this will help raise your respect and also unlock some serious weaponry. The one thing that Volition cannot be blamed for is lack of ambition, the variety of options on how to customise your character is staggering and even though they know their game is pure silly entertainment they have made more effort than most will probably expect.
Alongside the main story there are a series of ‘activities’ that will unlock as you recruit new members to your crew, once you have completed one of these it opens up other instances all across the map with which you are free to distract yourself to earn money and gain respect. There is the return of some familiar activities such as ‘Mayhem’ where you have to cause as much damage to the surrounding area in a limited time and the ever hilarious ‘Insurance Fraud’ which sees you having to injure yourself as much as possible within the time limit. However, with these familiar faces enter a new activity and it’s absolutely sublime, prepare yourself for ‘Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax’. Pitched as a Takeshi’s Castle meets Running Man style game show you have to make it through a gauntlet of hazards while offing bad guys for time bonuses and trying not to shoot the panda targets as that’s deemed unethical. This is a mini masterpiece by Volition and resembles the ill-fated and criminally overlooked The Club. As you race against time through the gauntlets scoring bonuses for head-shots and kill combos the proceedings are voiced by two commentators who are doing their best to give Cave Johnson a run for his money; this feels more like a standalone game than a distraction from the plot. It’s fast, it’s funny and it’s absolutely addictive and personally for me it has been the highlight of my play-through.
It’s not all plain sailing however and inevitably a game as ambitious as this in terms of sheer in-game fun there has to be a trade off and depending on your leanings this may be a trade off you aren’t willing to accept. Firstly it’s not the prettiest game you’ll see and while it’s significantly prettier than Saints Row 2 you feel that the Geo-Mod engine is just about keeping up with everything that’s going on, which to be fair is an awful lot. You will find the draw distance at times a bit unpredictable and jarring at times; even cars and people seem to pop in and out of existence like some digital version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. On the plus side you will get a lot of unscripted brilliance thanks to the temperamental engine, with bodies floating off after you’ve killed them and your motor bike sinking into the ground as you try an amazing high speed, long distance wheelie. Your character also feels a little light on their feet, gliding over the surfaces with an ease usually only reserved for the paranormal but mid-firefight you’ll be glad of the unnatural speed that you seem to possess. Special frustration must be reserved for the weapon selection with two separate load-outs, one for weapons and one for projectiles. Having to hold a button and then moving the analog stick to one of the eight clock-face selections mid-battle can prove frustrating and it will on a great number of occasions lead to you accidentally selecting your fists leaving you vulnerable. This is borne purely out of Volition wanting to give you too much, they want you to be able to carry eight weapons and four projectiles but in some cases restraint is no bad thing and very much so in this instance.
Beyond the main story and its wealth of content there are also a few extra welcome additions for those wanting to eke more life out of Johnny Gat and his crew. We have an online co-op mode which allow you and a friend to play through the game’s campaign, there is now a focus on teamwork rather than the previous competitive edge lending for a much more focused experience. Also there is the ‘Whored Mode’, obviously a less than subtle take on Gears of War’s ‘Horde mode'. It is a wave based mode where you will battle ever increasing waves of bad guys with increasingly bizarre criteria for passing the waves. You can play this mode cooperatively as you and a friend battle through 30 waves of gimps, hotdog mascots and the diminutive undead. Once again it’s hats off to Volition for actually making the effort here, there is a great wealth of content and even the co-op campaign is thoughtful enough to give both players individual tasks during activities rather than repeating the same task twice. There will also be a substantial amount of downloadable content becoming available over the next handful of months so it seems we are far from done with Steelport as our playground.
When all is said and done with a game you tend to judge it not by the mechanics of the game or the bugs that made you have to restart a mission but rather by the individual moments that stood out for you. These are the game equivalent of water-cooler stories and Saints Row:The Third has them in spades. I never thought I’d be in a very slow rickshaw 'car chase' with ball-gag wearing gimps pulling the cart with the rickshaws inexplicably exploding when shot. Neither did I think that I’d have played a game this year were I had to escort a tiger in my passenger seat and driving really fast to soothe it so it doesn't eat me, or that I’d be battering hot-dog mascots with a dildo-sword. This is what Saints Row gives you and it gives it consistently and breathlessly, for any crazy scenario the player can think of Volition have given you three more. My gaming heart has been telling me that this is a ‘Ten’ but my critical head is telling me it’s an ‘Eight’ so I am going to come to some sort of compromise and meet the two elements halfway.I don’t think that I’ll be done with my trips to Steelport anytime soon and I guess whether you want to play Saints Row: The Third will boil down to your answer to the following question: Does the idea of jumping out of your hover-jet, parachuting onto a car and then doing a handstand before jumping off and hitting a granny with a dildo sword before escpaing the fuzz in a street-sweeper with ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ blasting on the radio all while wearing a hot-dog costume appeal to you?