Saints Row II surprised everybody by actually by not only good, but pretty damn funny too. Ultimately the process of grinding the same four or five side missions to be able to play the actual story annoyed me so much I gave up about three quarters of the way through so my expectations weren’t particularly high for the third game.
But rest assured, Saints Row The Third is still fun and humorous. It seems to have taken the sequel trope of “go big or go home” a little too much to heart. You begin the game by robbing a bank and firing an assault rifle with infinite ammo at dozens of SWAT troopers and attack helicopters, and ten minutes later you’re dumped in a new city and expected to take on the kinky mafia, a gang of luchadors and one whose design philosophy seems to have been “what if TRON had an anime series.”
There’s pretty much two games going on here, one is an over the top third person shooter that mixes the afformentioned gimps, luchadors, anime cosplayers and army dudes that seem to have been ripped out of Starship Troopers that, while goofy is still fun and the set pieces manage to impress most of the time.
The other is most of Saints Row The Third, the actual sandbox element. Remember how in GTA: Sand Andreas you could get in shootouts with other gangs to take over areas of the city and expand your gang’s influence? Well instead of doing it all in shootouts, The Third lets you buy up properties and take on special Activities as well.
I say “lets”, but “really, really wants you to” is closer to the mark. Some of the missions consists of support characters introducing you to the activity as contrived ways of taking on the different gangs of Steelwater, and earning money is an important task. See, missions and Activities don’t pay that much and money is now used to buy upgrades to your character and gang, as well as guns and ammo. Each chunk of territory you take control of both gives you a higher income and cuts down on the number of enemy gang members on the map.
The economy system actually works quite well. You can’t buy an upgrade until your Respect has reached the appropriate level, and even then the increasing cost means you have to pick and choose the upgrades you want. Even by the end of the game, I’d conquered the entire city and bought some top tier stuff but needed rivers more cash to buy up everything.
That said, the upgrade system is not perfect. Some options are just kinda useless, like decreasing falling damage. Any time you actually fall from high enough to take damage, you can just use your infinite use parachute yo glide to safety. Or the ability to get cash from bumping into people. It never seems to top triple digits, and would take far longer bumping into random people to pay for itself than the game actually is.
As for the combat, the range of weapons is quite small. There’s the usual array of weapon types and some of the Special weapons are hella powerful, but not all that necessary or practical. Melee combat is quite fun, if only for the “groin attack” button and Heavy Melee button which sends you into a quick time event of graphic wrestling moves and physical violence. Combat is most of the game, and while not the Arkham Asylum kind of so fun you can play just that for hours on end it’s perfectly functional.
Driving works a lot better than Grand Theft Auto with cars having something almost approaching steering and being able to stand a few knocks. Strangely, the game provides two types of vehicle entry. One, where your character walks up to the door at an agonising pace and risks getting stuck on stray textures and another where you can you dive kick in through the window for half a street away. I see absolutely no reason why you’d ever use the first one.
The Activities themselves are a mix of wanton destruction, psuedo-racing and a few eclectic odds and ends. Each one gets six different iterations and in some cases, like the Insurance Fraud this is a shame as they’re inventive and fun. In other cases, like Trafficking (which doesn’t actually involve any drugs) are more just chores you’ll slog through. At least you’re often given indestructible vehicles or infinite ammo weapons for them.
While nothing in the gameplay ever really rises above pretty good, The Third is one of those games that’s very playable. I got through it after two and a half days of dedicated playing and still spent most of the next day playing it with a new character. It’s that same comfortable level of being diverse and competent enough to engage but comfortable enough to be able to half zone out and just unwind.
The story and characters are another matter. I was sad that the lack of different walking animations and reduced makeup options meant I couldn’t recreate my British Joker from Saints Row II, so instead I cranked the age up to maximum, gave him floppy hair, a tacky suit and all the facial scars I could and decided I was playing Evil Mick Jagger.
I grew attached to Evil Mick. The Boss has mellowed from II‘s wanton sociopathy into a more level headed character as part of a plot thread about the Saints selling out and becoming celebrities and losing touch with their criminal roots. The male British voice option is very snarky and enjoyable. The other characters don’t endear themselves as much, however.
Your beginning lieutenants are Shaundi, who is angry, and Pierce, who likes selling merchandise and playing chess. Alter on you’re joined by Oleg, who’s pretty much Team Fortress 2‘s Heavy without the gun, Zimos, some kind of ultra-pimp who talks with an obnoxious golden autotuning cane, Kenzie, an ex-FBI computer genius shut in and Angel, a grimly serious ex-Luchador.
The only ones who made an impression on me were Oleg and Kenzie. Knexie especially, seeing as she was a lazy, anti-social shut in who prefers the company of her laptop. Yeah OK, obvious points aside, there were hints of agoraphobia and such that gave her at least a veneer of depth.
Though you don’t strictly have to, you’ll often want to take breaks from the missions to earn cash, conquer territory and upgrade your skills. All sandbox games run this risk, of being unable to tell a cohesive story because of how stop and start players can be about actually doing the missions. The Third falls into it not necessarily by not keeping things episodic enough, but by being too non-linear.
Strange as that may sound for a sandbox game, as soon as you finish Act 1 you gain access to three new lieutenants, each of whom offers missions against one of the three different gangs and while you’re faffing about with them, the actual plot gets put on hold for a few hours. Not only that, but you can have two actual plot threads going on at once depending on which order you play the missions in. Though I’m glad they don’t lock off the islands until you’re done with each one like GTA, it wouldn’t have hurt to lock off the mission threads into a preset order.
The story works best when embracing its silly aspects and just goes for broke, which is a shame because it too often attempts to be serious. It’s a pleasantly coherent silly that plays it so nobody bats an eye when the city’s crime boss is a luchador with ‘roid rage who never removes his mask, or bats an eyebrow when the military start using laser rifles.
Some final points, but the game is bugged up the wazoo. I don’t know if this is just a problem with the XBOX 360 version or because I hadn’t downloaded any patches, but it was certainly a problem. Characters would get stuck inside textures, Follower AI pathfinding was terrible and sometimes Gang Operations would fail to trigger amongst other niggles. But really, niggles is all they were.
Also, the difficulty levels of an Activity is not always truly indicative. Take Mayhem, where the Hard versions are far easier because you get an infinite ammo rocket launcher, or one Medium version of Escort which is by far the hardest because you start at the airport, where all the one lane roads make it much easier for the news vans to hem you in.
Finally, when will a GTA or GTA style game include radio stations that actually cater to a wide range of tastes? Even the stuff in the genres I actually like was boring and forgettable. I know licensing pop culture classics is expensive, but licensing nothing is better than licensing 98% crap, as you can tell by playing any Guitar Hero style game after III.
So that’s Saints Row The Third. A flawed and sometimes infuriating gem. If you can overlook the slightly wonky design choices and disjointed story there’s a lot going for it. I certainly recommend it if you want a timesink.