For the first two instalments in the Saints Row franchise, it has been perceived as a kind of low rent pretender to the open world action crime crown. It has historically been difficult for many to see past the similarities with the more successful GTA franchise and find what Saints Row has that makes it unique. With this third in the franchise, Volition has gone all out to make its game memorable, if not always particularly accomplished.
Mechanically, it still retains so many of the conceits which are reminiscent of earlier games in the genre. You take control of a weapon-wielding criminal with a third person viewpoint. There’s health bars, ammunition gauges and a mini map with objective markers. A grand world map shows the city you inhabit and numerous locations to pick up missions and interact with the city. You also have an in-game smartphone which keeps all your status information and allows you to explore the world and contact your allies.[drop]There are other elements, like a light RPG side that sees earned respect levelling up to unlock weapons, vehicles, armour and combat moves. That’s an interesting mechanic which adds some depth and variation to the way the game can be played. But it’s not the mechanics that make Saints Row stand out. It’s the character.
From the very first mission, Saints Row: The Third sets out its stall as a manic, over the top tumble through the most bizarre ideas in modern videogame writing. That first mission sees your gang take a researching movie star, soon to appear in a Saints Row movie, on a bank job. The whole gang dresses up in comedic oversized heads that make them look like life-sized bobbleheads of Johnny Gat, the gang’s primo celebrity – who is also on the bank job.
So you rob a bank disguised as yourself. It doesn’t go so smoothly though, you end up having to helicopter the entire vault out through the roof while starstruck SWAT teams with megaphones politely request that you autograph your weapons before laying them down.
The Saints are celebrities now, a running joke that permeates the whole game. Criminal exploits are explained away during the in-car radio news broadcasts and pedestrians come hunting for autographs. The whole premise is massively over the top and obviously played for laughs, lampooning many aspects of modern, celebrity obsessed culture as it goes.
It is a little unfortunate that so much of the game’s pre-release focus was on how hilarious THQ’s marketers found a three foot long purple dildo because that kind of lazy, cheap shot humour is what ultimately detracts from the other, very intelligent, very funny streak that runs through the game.
Sure, there is something inherently amusing about the perfectly modelled physics of the game’s semi-flaccid “Penetrator” baseball bat variant but it’s a one line joke that stops being funny fairly quickly. There is other humour in the game, though. A kind of self-aware post modernism that shows hints of genuine comic greatness. It’s just a shame that it is punctuated so often by the same pubescent dick joke that Capcom had so recently also made in their Dead Rising 2 marketing.[drop2]Practically from the start, Saints Row: The Third gives you the playground, the vehicles and the firepower to cause havoc and the drop-in-drop-out online cooperative mode encourages more mayhem than you can imagine. The entire city is unlocked from the outset, as expected, and there are tanks and helicopters very early on.
In this way, Saints Row has basically set itself up as the antithesis of the most recent Grand Theft Auto game. There’s no gradual progression, building of tone or carefully paced story beats. Saints Row throws everything it’s got at you as soon as it can get it out of the box. The game is almost childlike in its boundless enthusiasm and that is incredibly endearing at times.
Although it’s not the prettiest game we’ve seen of late, and it does suffer from a certain stock of peculiar glitches that we’ve come to expect from large scale open world games, the art style is smart and captivating. There are a number of stylised rival gangs to fight, with the Luchadores a particular highlight for their appearance and character, each with its own colours and style. The Saints have their familiar purple and fleur de lys motif, of course, but the rival gangs are equally strong in their appearance and that makes up for a slight lack of fidelity in the visual spectacle.
There is significant pop up and draw in of textures, at least in the 360 version (installed to hard disk), but that’s easily forgiven considering the size of the game world and the amount of action taking place. It’s probably worth noting that I never recognised any significant frame rate issues, in spite of the amount of on screen carnage that was occurring. That, in many ways typifies the Saints Row experience: it’s not exquisitely crafted or perfectly polished, it’s not even particularly original, but it just gushes along doing its own thing and is incredible fun in the process.
- Bizarre humour throughout.
- Smart writing that has an underlying intelligence.
- Great styling and design.
- Insane fun.
- Free from any heavy plot or tone considerations.
- Looks slightly dated.
- Has an odd reliance on humour that doesn’t always work.
Saints Row: The Third has no pretence. It’s a hugely enjoyable videogame and seems happy just being that. And so it should be. There are no heavy plots to become embroiled in, each mission is essentially just a method of throwing you into another zany situation and then rewarding you for getting out of it. That’s the strength of this game: that it just wants to make you smile. Sure, occasionally the humour is like something a twelve year old might find hilarious – out of place in this adult-rated title – but there is also a thinly veiled intelligence to a lot of the comedy.
Overall, there are much better creative works available for your chosen console but it’s difficult to imagine there being many that are more fun than Saints Row: The Third.