Saints Row: The Third
Saints Row: The Third out “GTAs” GTA–but is far from being a Grand Theft Auto clone. Let me be more specific; GTA is known for a lot of things such as controversy, sandbox gameplay and excellent social satire, but when most gamers think of GTA they don’t think of the story or the design so much as they think of over the top chaotic rampages through places like Liberty City. These cities that always fall somewhere perfectly balanced between reality and the often disturbing mirror of it. Saints Row: The Third takes that one foot in planted in reality, steps over into the other side of it and then takes one giant stride into balls-out-crazy-town.
"It feels like the developers used the questions “Is that completely insane? Is that funny?” and “Would it be fun to play?” as a rubric for every design choice."
When I first played Saints Row 2 I was intrigued by its signature mechanics, such as cruise control that made drive-bys and other vehicle-based antics a breeze and the crazy physics that would launch the residents of the city off the hood of my car and flailing absurdly into the air. I liked the raunchy sense of humor, but felt it tried too hard to be taken seriously–which is hard when your selling points are dildo-based, or feces-spraying weapons– in that weird middle ground I enjoyed what was there but the experience felt stale all too quickly. This iteration in the series seems to say “Hey, we are ribald and goofy as hell, and maybe we should just embrace it!” Volition embraces the absurdist and openly playful nature of Saints Row and it succeeds. It creating not only a great experience, but one that is strikingly distinct in it’s approach to both humor and open-world gameplay.
"Volition embraces the absurdist and openly playful nature of Saints Row and it succeeds"
Presentation and Graphics
While the graphics are a step up from it’s predecessors, Saints Row: The Third is no Battlefield 3–and it doesn’t need to be. I’m finding myself at almost a loss writing about the graphics because despite not being top shelf, they’re not bottom shelf either–and more importantly; what should look good, does, and in the places where the graphics let slide a bit, it doesn’t really matter anyway.
"this game finds a perfect middle-ground between a believable, realistic world and a caricaturistic mirror of it."
The character models for instance look great and while I wouldn’t say I spend more than a few minutes admiring the posterior of the She-Satan character I’ve created upon every time I start up the game, let’s just say that if I did, everything looks great. The textures on characters are actually quite good and although those on vehicles slip-up on occasion, they look great most of the time and you’re usually driving way too fast to admire the shiny exteriors of the game’s plethora of vehicles. In short, the graphics look great with only minor and occasional flaws that never detract from the experience--especially with the rampant chaos that is usually on screen.
More important than the graphics themselves is how they’re actually presented to you and that’s something that The Third does very well. While GTAIV was reaching for realism and held back by things like it’s Anti-Aliasing issues, this game finds a perfect middle-ground between a believable, realistic world and a caricaturistic mirror of it. I’ve heard the game referred to as cel-shaded before and I’m not so sure that’s entirely true. While it certainly maintains a cartoony style of design throughout, a lot of the world (character models especially) stand out as being far too detailed and just realistic enough to not feel like cartoons.
I can’t stress enough how well Volition placed this game into a space right between photo-realism and cartoon-style animation, and how effectively it carries along through every facet of the game. You can take the world seriously enough to immerse yourself in it but it’s far enough from real and serious that you can go absolutely wild in it; it gives you just enough from either side of the spectrum to appreciate both sides without making one or the other less believable or engaging.
The biggest strength of Saints Row: The Third is found in the gameplay itself. It is right out of the box sticking as a high point of this game throughout. You’re taught the basic mechanics in the opening of the game; a hilarious bank heist followed by an epic skydiving sequence during the longest free fall ever. These opening scenes set the tone wonderfully for the goofy adventure to follow.
The immense absurdity makes everything in this game feel like a small set piece in the way that the over-the-top sense everything is executed with. Although I think it could have benefited from even more grandiose set pieces like the aforementioned skydiving-shootout, the ones that are there are spectacular spectacles of absurdity. If I overuse the word absurd in this review, it’s because no word in the English language is more apt to describe this game.
While the approach to humor in this game is modicum as sharp of social satire we’ve seen in the GTA series, the rest is just an absolutely explosive sense of hilarity. It feels like the developers used the questions “Is that completely insane? Is that funny?” and “Would it be fun to play?” as a rubric for every design choice.
Sure, this game is immature in it’s humor but by no means should children play it; this game is meant for mature audiences. Despite the raunchiness of it’s content, it never feels like too cheap of a laugh. Everything in this game is funny simply because it is. You can’t ride a rickshaw pulled by a man in a leather gimp suit who speaks only through an auto-tuned necklace, while shooting at your pursuers and not laugh–and if you can, this game is not for you. I was constantly slapping my knee, laughing and exclaiming “WHAT? WHAAAT?” throughout the entire experience and whenever I come back, there’s always something new to incite the very same reactions. In the way it adopts such low brow humor and simply chaotic gameplay, you could call this a dumb game–but it’s the smartest dumb game I’ve ever played.
I won’t say too much about the story–not because I’m worried about spoiling it–but because the grand story arc doesn’t leave nearly the lasting impression that the moment-to-moment pieces of it do. You are the leader of The Saints, a gang that is more popular in it’s fictional world than any sports teams, celebrities or other public figures. It seems that almost everyone in Steelport is a fan of the Saints, which is made even more ridiculous by the fact that you are constantly destroying the city, beating and murdering it’s residents, and generally creating grand-scale chaos everywhere you go.
"Everything from pure running and gunning to more complex lines of actions like hijacking a plane, bailing in mid-air, pulling your chute, and landing only to get up and punch an old lady in the face controls easily and smoothly."
The gameplay mechanics themselves are very sound, albeit not very complex. The shooting is some of the best third-person shooting I’ve seen in a game in the way that it is intuitive and easy to simultaneously shoot accurately while moving around the world. Everything from pure running and gunning to more complex lines of actions like hijacking a plane, bailing in mid-air, pulling your chute, and landing only to get up and punch an old lady in the face controls easily and smoothly. I’m never a fan of radial weapon select menus that don’t pause the game but because you can soak up so many bullets without dying, taking a few hits while you switch to a new weapon is no problem–even at the start of the game before you’ve upgraded how much damage you can take.
"you could call this a dumb game–but it’s the smartest dumb game I’ve ever played."
Ohh the upgrades. There are a staggering amount of them and they all make sense, become available to you at a good pace, and consistently serve to better the experience. I’ve finished the story and most of the side quests and although I’ve upgraded my character significantly since I started, I still have quite a few more to snag. I’ve upgraded my ammo capacity for my favorite guns to the point where I hardly even use any others, and although fire still makes me dance around like an idiot, I take little damage from it. Not only do I not take no damage from explosions but I’ve upgraded my explosive damage resistance to the point of never “ragdolling” from explosions which allows for badass “slow walks” away from explosions without even flinching in classic action movie fashion.
After writing the above, I’ve since upgraded even further to the point of invincibility; not fire, explosions, bullets or even a 5 minute free fall into concrete phases me. I can’t think of many other games that allow you to become essentially a god within the game through ranking up. It doesn’t make the game less fun, it feels deserved and with so many upgrades (I STILL have so many to go) to master, you can choose based on your interests which to get. I went for invincibility but you could have held off on those expensive upgrades and instead upgraded all of your weapon skills first, or upgraded your gang members, or maybe just collected all of your favorite cars from the world, customizing them with them with the long list of colors, body kits, rims and and the over-the-top must-haves such as “kneecappers” (those spikes that come out of your wheels, shredding everyone else’s), underglow lights,decals and nitrous. Some of the modifcations are specific to only certain cars but the customization system never feels lacking and although it makes sense that you can’t put a tree pusher the game’s smart car facsimile–I wish I could.
The story starts off strong and is absolutely a blast throughout, but ends a bit disappointingly. Despite that, I loved the story and not only am I looking forward to a second playthrough, but there is just so much else to do that it’s flaws don’t really bother me. The story is surprisingly good for what is essentially a crazy sandbox experience that barely needs one and along the way are some memorable and absolutely fantastic satires of gaming tropes such zombies, modern warfare references and Zork/text-based adventure parody that had me laughing hysterically; as with most of the highlights of this game, my only gripe there is that there weren’t more of them–and that’s something I hope to see more of in downloadable content. Another shining feature of the story is the voice acting, which apart from being consistently impressive, has some particularly impressive performances from the more recognizable actors like Hulk Holgan.
Yes, Sasha Grey is in the game and she does a great job–but it’s not like Sasha Grey is a recognizable voice in games or anywhere else. If no one had told me she was in the game (or raved about it leading up to the game as if it was a selling point) then I would have thought to myself that the voice actor for Viola did a great job, but it wasn’t any kind of performance that stood out among the rest. Hulk Holgan does a great job voicing Angel, though I think part of that is him just being so recognizable and having such a strong personality to his voice.
I’ve been too busy to do all of the wacky side missions–which are great but in the end could have used a few more categories, which I expect so see in the form of DLC–hunting down collectibles, doing assassination and car theft missions and generally causing chaos. There are moments throughout the story that easily make up for the ending; those I’ve mentioned above as well as a fantastic scene where while driving, you and another character sloppily but humorously sing along to Sublime’s classic “What I Got” á la my favorite scene from Mafia II.
I’ve heard people say that Saints Row is meant to be played cooperatively with a friend and while I did have a blast playing all the way through the story entirely on my own, co-op is full of non-stop hilarity and will always be providing you and your friends with plenty of crazy stories about your experiences. Dropping in or out of a game is seamless and the ability to keep any progress or rewards you’ve earned playing online in your save file makes the experience even more streamlined. I was a little bit worried after realizing that you can’t set waypoints for each other online but it turns out that although you can’t see each other’s on the mini-map, you can see any custom waypoints players have set when you look at the map screen; making it easy to organize your adventures with a friend online.
"Saints Row: The Third dominates the middle-ground where crazy fantasies meet a goofy albeit believable reality, where endless fun reigns supreme."
Now for an aspect of The Third that I feel really conflicted about–the sound. Don’t get me wrong, the voice acting is solid and especially strong from the more well known actors and some of the soundtrack is not just awesome–but downright perfect. I’ll never forget the first time Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” came on as I plowed through dozens of pedestrians at top speed, but in the end it felt like there could be more tracks like that.
It’s nice to have so much diversity in the genres–that range from easy listening, hip hop and classical to death metal, 80′s-90′s hits, reggae, punk and alternative rock– and more importantly, it’s great to have a “mixtape” feature, where you simply choose any songs from any stations in the game to add to a custom “mixtape” radio station so you have all your favorites in one place.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim host their own radio station that plays some fantastic tracks (a remix of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force theme song and the Tim and Eric classic “Sports” among them) in between some hilarious dialogue. As a big fan of Tim and Eric (and their hilarious Saints Row: The Third commercial and the even more bizarre Professor Genki special promoting the game) my only criticism is that their radio station has easily the smallest selection; I would have loved to see more Tim and Eric classics included (hint hint DLC).
That’s all great but my conflict here finds itself not so much in the music, as it it does within the sound design itself. I found a great looking muscle car last night, upgraded it to the max and pulled out of my garage to hear not a beastly muscle car, but what sounded more like a vaccum. A small vacuum, like a DustBuster®. While the weapons don’t hold a candle to the epic, thundering realism of those in Battlefield 3, they sound good and I’ve had no problems with them, but the cars are downright pitiful. I was going to hold off on criticizing this in hopes it would be patched before my review went up but there isn’t a single car in the game that sounds like it has an engine in it.
The consistency in the sound’s design itself is even a little off as you constantly sound like you’re revving your engine while flying around at top speed or hear absolutely nothing when using cruise control.
Like the aforementioned muscle cars, vehicles that should roar don’t even purr and it makes all of the vehicles sound pitiful. The jets and helicopters are better–but still, all of the vehicle’s sounds leave something to be desired…well, a lot to be desired–like sound! I’ll admit that after a while this hasn’t bothered me enough to detract too much enjoyment from the experience but it’s still a disappointment and there is one other major sound design flaw that is to this day killing me: the lack of balance between SFX and radio music.
"The sound–particularly the frustrating engine sounds, general sound effects and radio music–NEVER have a sense of equilibrium."
Saints Row: The Third dominates the middle-ground where crazy fantasies meet a goofy albeit believable reality, where endless fun reigns supreme. Is it perfect? Of course not, but is it near-perfect in what it aims for? Absolutely. I can’t stop playing this game and while I’m a GTA fanboy at heart and put this game back up on the shelf come GTAV, it is such a fantastic experience that knows so well how to make you laugh and let you have so much damn fun playing that it’s really rose into a league of it’s own.
If there’s one thing this title truly has in spades, it’s replay value. I’ve still been playing it almost a full month after finishing it and I know I’ll be sinking hours and hours more into this game whether I’m working on getting the platinum trophy, customizing new characters to play as, or simply having fun with a friend in co-op. This isn’t a GTA clone, this is Saints Row, and it’s a franchise that’s here to stay. I’ll be looking forward to the DLC and if the first round of it is substantial and as wacky and fun as the rest of the game, I’ll be paying for a season’s pass of content.