Saints Row The Third Remastered Review: Ugly on the Inside
In my years away from Saints Row series, I remembered Saints Row The Third as my favorite in the franchise.
While the first two games weren't yet free from their GTA-clone shackles and the fourth went overboard with some mechanics like superpowers, I thought the third game was the sweet spot for Volition's outlandish series. In 2011, it established its own personality and carried the series to new heights.
Replaying it with fresh eyes nine years later as Saints Row The Third Remastered has had an unexpected effect on me. It looks prettier than ever, but the series' always sophomoric writing has never been more skippable.
Saints Row The Third Remastered Review: Ugly on the Inside
In Saints Row The Third, the Third Street Saints gang has risen to remarkable fame and fortune. Not yet seated in the Oval Office as they will be in later games, 2011's Saints Row The Third still makes it clear that the titular anti-heroes are a household name. They even have their own energy drink.
Moving the series from Stilwater to Steelport was a wise choice nearly a decade ago, and with this remaster, it's never looked better. But that's not to say it looks great. Saints Row has never been a series chasing high fidelity and lifelike characters, and the new coat of paint Sperasoft puts on this years-old sandbox is well done, if in traditional remaster form.
This isn't one of those remasters that borders on a remake. Instead, this is Saints Row The Third made prettier. That's not a high bar to clear in 2020. Most noticeable is the skybox, which benefits from one of this generation's greatest advancements: natural light. Gone are the overcast greys of the original game; now, evenings and mornings look marvelous as they soak the open city streets in gold.
Nighttime looks better too, with reflections coming off of puddles like a current-gen game should allow, but there's also a lack of contrast when the sun goes down which makes some of the darker scenes too dark at times. Textures have been improved across the board, but characters still look like rubbery Dreamworks rejects.
In the city of Steelport, there are plenty of activities to do and much of the first two acts are interspersed with mandatory missions that act as introductions to these repeatable side quests. Saints Row The Third offers the best bundle of side attractions in the series, with stuff like Professor Genki's mascot-beating obstacle course, Super Ethical Reality Climax, or the fan-favorite insurance fraud, which has players sprint into traffic to get run over and rack up money from the drivers you're scamming.
Combined with this, there's a fun city takeover mechanic which will take place in the post-game for most players. This turf war plays out more like Monopoly: Gangland Edition, where you buy properties that give you control over districts and pay dividends as you go. This is a better post-credits mop-up directive than many sandbox games offer and works well in tandem with the game's many activities, giving players lots more to complete and unlock after the story is beaten.
As this is a remaster, you're right to assume all previous DLC is included. Like Saints Row 4, this causes some balancing issues by giving players some of the best vehicles early, like more than one type of hovercraft vehicle which immediately makes driving obsolete for any player who doesn't restrict themselves from using them.
It also unlocks three story chapters that do more absurd things with the Saints, like film their low budget sci-fi movie. There's nothing about these extra chapters that is especially different from the main game in mission variety or mechanics, so they're to be taken as more of what you already got, only now you can do them whenever you want as the missions start in your quest log right away.
It was interesting to see just how much of a foundation the third game provided for the fourth, which originally came two years later in 2013. Playing the games backward as I did over the last six weeks, I still came away from the pair believing Saints Row The Third is the better game mechanically as it governs itself just a bit, still allowing for ridiculousness at every turn, like dropkicking into hijacked cars.
But it never rises to the absurdity of the skyscraper-leaping, flying, and superpunching abilities you get in Saints Row 4. Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling like something was off with Saints Row The Third Remastered.
Plenty of fans are likely on board for a modest makeover of a game they liked before, but I wonder how many will find they've outgrown this series over the years. To my surprise, this remaster's script left a sour taste in my mouth, and I say this as someone who found the story dumb in 2011.
The writing in this series has always been bad, the kind of bad that seems deliberate, like no fart joke would be shot down in the writers' room. But I now see that the series didn't just find its gameplay sweet spot in 2011, it delivered its most immature brand of humor ever.
In Saints Row 4, most of the "nutshots" and slaps with dildo bats are inflicted on silly-looking alien enemies that are meant to embody evil. There is no nuance to be seen, and though the story is a lowpoint in the series, at least you can rely on the understanding that your severely flawed delinquent of a protagonist is always punching up, literally and figuratively, to take on their alien overlords.
But in Saints Row The Third, you spend most of your days fighting gang turf wars with three other crews all joined by their apparent shared interest in pimping women.
Saints Row The Third has an especially ugly outlook on women. Other than two of your crew members (and maybe your created character), the game's countless woman characters nearly always serve one of two roles: sex workers and exotic dancers. What's worse, these nameless, naked redshirts are typically used as fodder in shootouts, literal human shields, or otherwise locked in cages, getting beaten, or being put down with dialogue that I didn't find funny in 2011.
Nine years later, it really stands out as puerile and out of touch. I struggled to find the joke when one character called a woman "a useless whore."
Now, there can be games that depict violence against women in some poignant context. There can be games where a character is portrayed as the villainous cautionary tale for saying this sort of thing. Or there can even be games where the humor is regressive and irreverent but still clever.
Saints Row The Third is none of these things. I expect the series' biggest fans and maybe even its writers would scoff, "You came to Saints Row expecting profundity?" But that's not it. I just think if you're going to depict women the way Saints Row does, you should either have a point to make, tell better jokes, or admit your sense of humor is more poorly tuned than a radio broadcasting only static.
I didn't anticipate this kind of big-picture concern over Saints Row The Third. I know not to expect smart writing, certainly not even humorous writing. But this time around, SR3 gave me a gross feeling. In my previous review for a game in this series, I hoped Volition would share more on the sequel they have planned. After revisiting Saints Row The Third, I'd rather see evidence of an improved writers' room first.
Saints Row The Third Remastered Review — The Bottom Line
- The best side activities in the series
- Remastered visuals make Steelport pretty for the first time
- Mechanically, SR3 is the sweet spot for the series
- Terribly written with jokes that would only land at a middle school lunch table
- A remarkable distaste for women
- Feels late in an industry that is moving past remasters to fully blown remakes
Saints Row The Third is a conundrum. The things I like best about it feel like series highpoints. Things like the side missions and the absurd but slightly reined-in mechanics are vital and well done in SR3, but this project feels born too late in an industry that has largely moved past middling makeovers in favor of true, gorgeous remakes.
On top of that, Saints Row has never had writing that would impress even a high schooler, but in Saints Row The Third, it's downright ugly at times with its outlook on women in particular. I do expect I can continue to enjoy Saints Row in the future, provided the writers hit puberty first.
[Note: A copy of Saints Row The Third Remastered was provided by Deep Silver for the purpose of this review.]