Review: Saints Row: The Third

SaintsRowTheThird.jpg

It’s not 2004 anymore.  I know it might be a little difficult to hear for some people, but that was eight years ago.  Two presidential terms ago.  Thirty-two changes of the seasons, enough time for a human being to be conceived and develop an independent desire to “catch ’em all” and ask embarrassing questions about the birds and the bees.  No matter how you look at it, that was a long time ago.

The reason I point this out is that 2004 is when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released.  The scope of that game was impressive, as was the range of customization options that were available to players to make it so that your Carl Johnson looked nothing like my CJ.  One person might have created a silly looking guy to contrast with the hardcore gangsta shit and create a perpetual joke or an obese man with poor clothing choices not fit for the streets. Others might have taken the narrative and setting more seriously.  This is quite a step in customization from GTA3‘s “silent dude in leather jacket” tooling around Liberty City.  (Historian’s note:  It was revealed some time later that this character’s name was actually Claude.  What was not revealed was what mind-erasing, Stygian horror caused him to lose his voice from shock.  Maybe he’s Black Bolt’s clone.)

Since that time, Rockstar has taken a step in GTAIV towards the realm of the slightly more realistic, grittier crime game.  That left a void for an unrealistic, over the top, almost cartoonish, open-world crime game.  The first Saints Row filled that gap as well as the gap of no open-world crime games on the then new Xbox 360.  The second game introduced the ability to play as a lady and upped the crazy, a lot.  While Volition, Inc. has not introduced a strange and oddly-alluring new third gender in the latest Saints Row (a missed opportunity) they have continued the tradition of making things even more over the top and have actually managed to increase the immersion in the game.  It is the most impressive game of its kind, and by kind I mean the kind of game for which your 2004, just-cleared-everything-in-San Andreas self pines.

Like the other games in the series, players will again take up the role of the nameless leader of the Third Street Saints.  Since the end of the second game, the Saints have become a decadent, multinational, fully branded set of celebrities.  Not like Al Capone or even Charles Manson levels of celebrity, they have stores called Planet Saints which sell purple, Saints-branded threads and bobble-head dolls of the iconic Johnny Gatt and the few other Saints that make it from game to game unchanged.  This is a clue to let players know that absolutely nothing in this game can be taken seriously.  The Third Street Saints are a street gang known, as it was widely reported in the first two games, to regularly murder hundreds of people in public.  Innocents, cops, gang members, cops, people in the armed forces; they’ve killed scores of each and it was reported on the news.  The idea that they could make a media appearance and not be immediately killed or have all of their store’s assets seized to pay for all the damage they’ve caused over the years is beyond all belief.  It’d be like in the real world buying officially branded red t-shirts and bandanas, in a store labeled Bloods Empire. 

While totally implausible, it does make for a good set up for the game.  The primary antagonists are a group of entrenched, international crime lords known as the Syndicate.  These bad guys run the town of Steelport where the game takes place.  Through no real fault of their own, our hapless posse of thugz is tossed into town with nothing but a few hundred dollars, the clothes on their backs, a 9mm, and the toughness born of a thousand street shootouts.  Do they use cell phones to call their legions of fans and homies to come transport them back to their home of Stilwater to regroup?  Hell, no!  They run with that football and decide to take over Steelport from a crappy one bedroom apartment!  It is as good an excuse to kill luchador cartel members and dominatrix gang-bangers as any.

There are several stock male and female character options, and throughout the game players will be given the opportunity to customize their gangsta.  The range of options is overwhelming.  On the most basic level there is gender, with the ever popular Sex Appeal slider which changes some of the more visible bulges on men and women.  From there we go to skin color which can be picked from any number of realistic flesh tones to bright neon colors and metallic Silver Surfer-like options.  There is a Race option, but it seems to only preselect skin tone and facial features.  A black man could look like a flat-chested white woman if the person at the controls wanted him to and had a basic understanding of the character creator.  A trifecta of skinny, fat and muscled options can further sculpt the player’s crime lord to be.  From there it’s on to dozens of hair styles — sadly only sculpted for the head — and a hundred sample cases of Maybelline’s best as well.  It’s not quite Champions Online or Spore levels of customization, but it’s close.  For an amount of money which might as well be zero, a trip can be paid to Image as Designed to get plastic surgery to alter appearance in between missions.  It is hard to resist the pull of making an even more artistic or strange thug.  For most of the game I was running around as either a green-skinned, musclebound, angry Bruce Banner in a bathrobe or a shiny, golden-skinned (not tan, Academy Award statue gold), rose-haired goddess with preposterously big – ahem – guns.  I guess one could always make the leader of the Saints look vaguely human, but where is the fun in that?  There is an option to upload your guy online to THQ’s “Initiation Station” to compare other players’ toons as well as download other’s stylin’ creations, if you’re into that sort of thing.

(Interesting side note: Since the player character is the same in this game as the main character from the first game, who was only ever male, technically you’d be making a transsexual not a woman if you go down that route.  If viewed from this lens, the crazy, widely inappropriate and misogynistic things regularly said by at least one of the female main character voices – “Lets get some bitches up in here.” – make a little more sense and manage to make the game even goofier.  Which is apparently possible.)

Then there are the clothes to buy in the game’s stores to show off in the streets of the fictional city.  The range of options and clothing slots seems to have gone down from Saints Row 2.  Even so, there are a plenty of clothing options, from the predictable gang banger puffy coats and board room suits to the strange super hero spandex and furry suits complete with cartoon animal heads.  Gender makes no difference as to clothes, so any number of inappropriate options are at your disposal.  Tattoos can also be put on and removed for a fee.  As much fun as it is to fool around with all of the clothing options, I wish that after one visits all of the stores, it was not required to go to them to change appearance.  Really, the stores are places to be held up as well as access a menu.  It would be nice to be able to do that on the fly.  As it is, if a shirt is unlocked or one grows tired with a look, the tedium of actually going to the clothing store that has the right set of options to change is encountered.  And then if a tattoo doesn’t work with those new duds, a trip to a tattoo parlor is required.  It is tiresome and it should be either an on the fly menu or an unlockable feature.

The most meaningful thing that can be changed is the voice of the main character.  In addition to hearing the main character yell things like “I own this city!” or “Told you I wasn’t just another pretty face” as he/she blows up half a dozen cop cars, they also speak in the mission briefings or banter with the other characters while driving to the action.  They can all be used regardless of gender or body type and might have been the only consistent part of my guy after trying out a few voices.  The most unusual option is the Zombie voice.  This makes the protagonist sound like an undead Chewbacca who wheezes, shrieks, gurgles and wetly laughs in response to whatever the other characters say.  It’s kind of funny at first, but I got tired with it after a while and then headed back to the plastic surgeon to get the undead flesh scrapped off my dude’s larynx.  This novelty aside, it is impressive just how much dialogue each of the voices has.  It really adds to the immersion to have the game’s dumb story — and it is seriously dumb — have all the banter go between the voice picked and the Saints and other characters.  This and the inclusion of a messed up player creation in all of the appropriate cut scenes leads to everyone having a unique experience when the game is played.

Once a character is created, and hours can be spent doing this, fine-tuning every little detail, he/she can actually be used to play a game.  In this the game delivers just about everything one could want in an open world crime game, so long as what one wants is to drive or fly around a city and shoot people.  In a classic rags to bitches story arc, the Saints start out as a small, albeit world-famous, crew and go on to take over the numerous boroughs of Steelport.  What actually happens in the game’s mission is not structurally varied, it is all driving and shooting cop cars and gang-owned helicopters with no cover mechanic.  After a few missions elite gang members will appear along with their commonplace brethren.  These include cyber ninjas ripped out of a Japanese cartoon as well as more brutish, two ton, humanoid monsters that can run into cars and cause them to bounce all over the place.  Fighting these creatures is occasionally broken up with Quick Time Events where buttons must be pressed to avoid an earth quaking, two-hand slam or to finish the beast by pointing a gun at his face and pulling the trigger half a dozen times.  The settings of the shooting also spice things up.  From the streets, to sex clubs, to zombie hell-scapes, and even to Tron-inspired computer worlds, the Saints will have many bizarre and silly adventures in their quest to own the city (whatever that means).  It’s sort of like Captain N: The Game Master, but with more dick jokes.

For every mission accomplished money will be funded out to a seemingly random amount.  There is no way to know before a mission how much money will be awarded until it is complete.  While that might make it difficult to plan things, it is worth noting that money is eventually a meaningless commodity.  At first it is difficult to afford the ammunition to fill even a common gat, let alone the funds to upgrade said heater, and players are forced to scrounge around dead opponents for lead to throw at their surviving brethren.  Then, after completing a few missions and buying a couple of buildings, the passive hourly income rate will go up.  So, oddly, here where there is mo’ money, there are less problems.  In the first few hours a couple weapon upgrades can be purchased, then later it will become difficult to actually spend all of the money available because everything will already be bought.  In addition to cash, Respect is earned for random mayhem and completing the structured chaos of the missions.  These gangsta experience points build into levels, which in turn unlock the ability to access various upgrades.  In the beginning they are cheap and are simple passive bonuses, such as the ability to carry more ammo, take less damage, or have more Saints in a running crew.  Towards the end they get kind of dumb and are really cheat codes as it is possible to spawn a jet or not take certain kinds of damage.  Towards the end the News reports do make reference to a super hero fighting criminals; that is not too far off from the level of power that is available for purchase.

Between Saints Row 1 and 2, there was not nearly as large a step in the graphics department as there is when The Third is compared to ‘The Second’.  The character models are more complex and display a high amount of detail and even soft physics.  The city is filled with a fair number of objects in it at anytime and I never noticed any slowdown.  When flying around town, the skyline comes into a clearer view and the massive, neon skyscrapers of the city add a sense that this is a place where a lot of things can happen.  On the ground, a lot of the locales, outside of missions, are generic and only evoke a normal kind of neighborhood without having any real personality.  Which is a shame given the personality of all the characters in the game.  Cars and motorcycles, while no Forza, look decent and handle well.  Most vehicles do have a lot of momentum and will crash through just about everything if they are going fast enough, so the game moves at a decent clip.  An effective “Warp to Mission” feature would have been nice, but as the missions are check pointed and death just means losing a little progress, it’s not a massive deal to have to drive or fly all over the place as it will only have to be done once per mission.  To give a sense of the city’s size, in a fast car it takes about seven minutes to drive from the end of one island to the end of the connected island that is furthest away.  Perhaps three or four in a helicopter.

The licensed soundtrack on the various radio stations is best described as OK to good.  All of the DJs are different enough but there does not seem like there is a very long series of songs as the same intros and fake commercials are heard a lot.  This seems like a step down from the rather fantastic stations in the second game.  Electronica, contemporary, classical, hip hop, Spanish hip hop, even a death metal station, are all selectable.  The lack of a retro station is noticeable.  Obviously any game is going to have a hard time holding a candle to the licensed tracks available in GTA: Vice City, but Saints Row 3 has a wide range of songs and usually funny things to listen to between them.  Of note is a weird station that consists of all Cartoon Network Adult Swim themed music and content.  There is probably a substantial cross section of people that enjoy the fifteen minute cartoon shows on basic cable and those that will enjoy the humor in Saints Row, so it kind of makes sense.  Still, it’s a strange feature.

In addition to the lengthy campaign, there are dozens of side activities to take on, multiple iterations of about six or seven mission types.  In GTA3 it was a big deal to get a tank.  There were only a few places where they spawned and if he didn’t know where they were, Claude had to kill a whole lot of FBI agents to get them to show up.  Rather than go for all the build up, in Saints Row there is a mode called “Tank Mayhem” where a tank is just given out at the start and the goal is to cause a specific amount of property damage and death within a given amount of time, opposition and the amount of carnage needed as the levels of that activity increase.  Returning is the Saints Row original joint “Insurance Fraud”, where the Saints Cappo has to go to a busy intersection and flop down in front of oncoming traffic in rapid secession to get a high score of fraudulent insurance claims.  There are other modes as well, but nothing that hasn’t been seen before. It probably hasn’t been seen with the same silly narrative justifications seen here, but an escort mission is still just an escort mission.  Even though it is really just an enclosed shooting range, Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax is transformed from a dull affair to a delight with its Japanese game show trappings and offensively Asian background music (an inappropriate mix of generic anime fight songs and Chinese plucked strings).

It is actually a little surprising that there is nothing as generic as a race with a stock car versus others with a stock car.  Given the smooth arcade controls, I would have enjoyed playing a mode like that.  It would not have been particularly creative, and the world might have had to have been made empty for these segments, but it would have been fun.  With the robust amount of cars and set pieces, there should have been more ways to play the game.  I found that I ran out of side content before the last third of the game.

While the side missions are fun and varied, there are also the same obligatory things that have to be done in every one of these kinds of games.  There is a list of cars to steal.  Hoping into any of these once found will trigger a three star rating and cops or gang members will attempt to destroy the car before it can be returned to the chop shop.  Players are also tasked with assassinating several people to earn respect and cash.  These tasks come with a little mission description that shows how to get the target to spawn in the world.  For example, a man is playing a super hero and in order to make him show up and get Superman Vol 2. No.75ed, the Saint needs to go to the right district and rob a store.  Then he’ll show up, a target will appear above his head and he can quickly be murdered for money.  These activities are basically a checklist from a menu, and in addition to never being satisfying, it’s not very fun.  Luckily, players that don’t care about achievements will have no reason or compulsion to finish any of these lists.

Strewn throughout the world are static collectibles of which there are a finite amount.  It was kind of funny to hear the sounds of someone fornicate with an inflatable sex doll the first time I found a pallet of them, not so much the tenth.  There are a few other Big Jump points to find and the like, but actually locating them and hitting them seems to have no impact on anything other than making a stat increase on one of the eleven stat pages.  Like the lists, these can all be pleasantly ignored.

The campaign can be tackled co-op style if you want.  For other multiplayer gaming there is also a wave-based survival mode called Whored Mode, one of several references to other video game franchises to be found.  Like the name suggests this mode forces the player to pick a premade character and then confront wave after wave of AI opponents.  Actually the name suggests a Hot Coffee-esque mod where a pixelated playa has to endure wave after wave of hungry bitches, trying to give up as little of his sweet street essence as possible before he tosses one hoe after another to the curb.  But most reasonable persons, or maybe just those that saw the game is only rated M, can just see the gag for what it is and not be disgusted, or disappointed.  Every wave has a joke or theme that is sort of funny, but it is not very entertaining as it is just killing tons of people.  Semi-naked lady people with bludgeoning giant rubber dongs or giants dressed as a can of soda with rocket launcher people, but people nonetheless.  It can be played co-op or solo, waves may be retried if failed and, most importantly of all, it is not very fun.

If I had anything bad to say about the game, other than that Whored mode is lame, it is that there doesn’t seem like there is enough of it.  This feeling may just be reflection of how entertaining all of it is, perhaps the good parts just flew by.  Because looking at that Stats screen, it looks like I did about 100 missions and side activities and am still thirsting for more.   If blown through, the main story could be completed in ten hours or less.  Thirty hours is a good estimate for the amount of time it will take to do just about everything.  There are a few points in the game where the story can play out differently, but it is nothing significant.  It is usually more a function of whether an object will continue to appear in the world or whether or not a passive bonus to respect or cash is gained.  It is not a game that one would call “narrative focused”. 

A season pass is available for twenty bucks which unlocks future content.  The first DLC pack, Genkibowl VII, appears to only throw in a bunch of new side activities, and a few new items.  If the bar is set by GTA IV as to what DLC needs to be, this pack is sorely lacking.  But if you just want some more Saints Row, it looks like the DLC will give a little more.  Albeit more after players have finished the main campaign, at which point new items aren’t really going to be of use to them.

Whether or not anyone is going to like this game comes down to a matter of taste.  Mechanically and with the amount of content available, there would be no problem recommending the game to anyone if it was generic action.  But the game is not generic; it’s crass, silly, over the top and completely unbelievable.  The systems in place also seem to dare you to make the dumbest looking character you can and tool around with him or her.  Completing missions as a pink skinned leather-boy with a giant pig head mask makes other protagonists in other games look bland.  To gauge whether Saints Row: The Third is for you, if this review isn’t helpful, just play the first level as it is fairly representative of the whole experience.  It’s a bank robbery gone awry where all of the Saints dress up in bobble head masks, of one of the Saints.  Even playing the level might not be necessary.  The description alone ought to be enough to tell you what this game is all about.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Fantastic amount of character customization options
+ Amusing, wacky and dumb things happen a lot
+ Solid driving and shooting

Cons:
– Not enough side missions
– Different areas are not very diverse
– The humor is not for everyone

Affiliate Links:
Buy from Amazon or eStarland

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Volition Inc.
Release Date: 11/15/2011
Genre: Open World Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

[nggallery id=2154]

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.