It is with great regret after playing Saints Row: The Third that I never played the two original Saints Row titles. If those games are even half as fun, hilarious, and outright insane as this little gem of an open world title is, then I fully admit that I have been missing out on something special.
As SR3 begins, your character, and holdovers from SR2; Johnny Gat and Shaundi are robbing a bank alongside a method actor who will be playing in a movie about the Third Street Saints gang. The Saints, having taken over the town of Stilwater in SR2 and having become celebrities for it, are so famous that they have people in the bank alternate firing bullets in their direction and asking them for autographs and photos. It turns out that the Saints chose to rob the wrong bank, one owned by a shadowy conglomerate known as the Syndicate. This launches an outright gang war between the Saints and the Syndicate. The Syndicate essentially owns the city of Steelport, maintaining control through a trio of gangs, each with their own distinct theme and bizarre dress code. Of course, the Saints won't share control of the town, so it's up to you to build up your own gang of purple clad Saints in the town of Steelport and take the city back for yourself. The Syndicate has a few surprises up their sleeves for the Saints however, not the least of which are scientific experiments turning normal men into hulking, mini-gun toting abominations.
While the writing in the game is sharp, witty, and frankly outright hilarious, the story never really evolves much beyond the description above, but it really doesn't need to either. The plot in Saints Row is what a plot is to your average Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It's simply a vehicle to get your from ridiculous point A to the insane point B. The plot may not be anything to write home about, but who even writes home these days, what with skype and facebook and all? But I digress.
Being a crime oriented open world title, you'd think the obvious competition for SR3 would be Rockstar's venerable Grand Theft Auto series, but that description doesn't really do SR3 justice. While the GTA series seems to have taken a more serious, realistic tone since the fourth instalment, SR3 plays somewhat like the PS2 classic Vice City while on a particularly nasty acid trip.
I'm not mincing words when I say this game is simply guano, balls-to-the-wall insanity. Name me another game that allows you to perform wrestling moves on innocent civilians after beating them a six foot long floppy sex toy. Name me another game that allows you launch yourself down four city blocks from a cannon mounted on the back of a truck while wearing a BDSM outfit. Name me another game that allows you jump into a harrier jet, perform a strafing fun on ten city blocks, jump out onto the tallest rooftop in the game, and then base jump off the rooftop to a target you designate yourself. You can't, because this is a game that has no rules and a ridiculous level on freedom in a crime filled play ground.
The lack of rules extends to the insane level of customization in the game. The character creation tool is as powerful as the ones found in THQ's WWE series. You can adjust everything from body proportions, "sex appeal" (which is in game language for package and breast size, depending on gender), scars, eye colour, clothing, items, tattoos, one of six voice actors for your character, taunts, dance moves, and much more. My original character was a 75 year old fat woman with blue dreadlocks and a perpetually bloody nose. But it doesn't end there. Within the game, you can customize vehicles for both yourself and your crew (make sure to put the tire puncturing retractable spikes on your car!), with up to four separate models for recruited gang members (including ninjas!). You truly can make the Saints your own in this game, and the game is all the richer for the easy, yet powerful customization options. You can also share your created characters online, and can change your appearance in game anytime by visiting a plastic surgeon.
SR3 grants you experience in the form of respect. Doing story missions, side missions, or even just acting or driving like a lunatic gain you respect points. Even going on crazy rampages throughout the city gains you respect. I found lately in open world games that you're usually punished for testing the outer limits of what the developers wanted you to do. SR3 promotes experimentation and wanton destruction, and challenges you to test the waters in any way you see fit.
As you move up in respect levels, you'll unlock a plethora of upgrades for your character in terms of health, vehicle bonuses, weapon proficiencies, and more. Upgrades, when unlocked, cost money to equip. The game is pretty balanced at the outset in granting you plenty of money to play around with, but not so much that you become an invincible killing machine until the latter parts of the lengthy campaign. A major object of the game is exerting the Saints' influence over the town of Steelport. You can do this by buying up businesses and real estate, just like in Vice City, or doing side missions like taking out gang operations. Buying up properties allows you to get better discounts in addition to adding to your empire. Each island of Steelport takes hours to get to 100 per cent control, giving lots of incentive to go off the beaten path and ignore the main story missions for a while.
With so many options, it was nice of developer Volition to streamline everything within your character's smartphone. It's a total snap to jump into the next story mission, find side missions or other items in the game world, or even play around with the music in the game. You're always able to do exactly what you want, when you want to.
As far as gameplay mechanics, SR3 shines. The on foot sections control beautifully, particularly the sprint modifier system. By holding down the sprit button, you'll be able to do special melee moves, drive out of the way of bullets and obstacles, and even steal cars by literally jumping through the windshield or passenger window. Melee combat is handled well, and the shooting mechanics are second to none in an open world title. You'll have access to tons of weapons from standard pistols to satellite based reaper missiles, and a ton of creative options in between. The game eschews the current standard of cover based shooting, encouraging you to take cover on your own, or running head first into a crowd of bad guys. The shooting sections also control tightly, making head shots easy without sacrificing too much challenge, which is great considering the game's myriad shootouts.
The driving mechanics are just as fun and over the top. Instead of the standard e-brake, you're given a drift button to navigate tight corners. Like in the Need for Speed series, you're granted respect points for driving on the wrong side of the road, powersliding, and near-misses. In other words, the game completely encourages you to drive like an absolute lunatic. You can also aim and fire weapons from your car easily. Different cars handle noticeably different from one another, which is to be expected in a game like this. Airborne vehicles like helicopters and jets control beautifully too.
As fun as it all is, it's not entirely perfect. Your co-operative AI, while usually helpful, can be downright idiotic at times. They'll sometimes refuse to get into a car with you, charge headfirst into twenty bad guys, or commonly walk in the way of your shots. At least when they get killed you'll have 30 seconds to revive them before the mission fails. This is a good thing, because it happens really often, and an instant mission fail would have been infuriating. I also encountered some nasty clipping errors and a few other minor graphical glitches. There are also some minor hit detection issues while shooting, but certainly nothing game breaking. Also, if you're uptight about things like misogyny and anything resembling good taste, you'll want to stay far away from this one.
Rounding out the package is a fun (albeit online only) co-op mode, and the even more ridiculous "Whored mode." As you could expect from the title, Whored mode is a crazy take on the standard Horde mode found in many shooters these days. You're tasked with surviving wave after wave of enemies, ranging from scantily clad females, hot-dog and energy drink mascots, zombies, and more. Each wave is completely different from the last, giving you different vehicles, weapons, and enemies each time. One wave you'll be beating down guys in hot dog suits with a giant purple dildo, the next you'll be blowing up zombies from behind the wheel of a tank. Fail a wave, and the game gives you the option to restart, which reduces frustration but limits the longevity of the mode.
Considering that the game is essentially Bugs Bunny coupled with Grand Theft Auto, the game's look is cartoonishly appropriate. Features are exaggerated stylishly, and the game is bright and colourful. The frame rate almost never hitches up, even with the huge draw distance on display. Aside from the aforementioned clipping errors, SR3 is a mighty fine looking game with a perfectly suited visual style.
The soundtrack to SR3 is simply phenomenal. Varied radio stations of the Rock, Alternative, Classical, Rap, and Techno persuasions are available, each featuring loads of well known artists. The musical acts in the game range the gamut from Sublime, Run DMC, Marilyn Manson, Mozart, and loads in between. The radio stations also feature hilarious DJ commentary, goofy commercials, and breaking news describing your latest endeavours. If you don't want to mess with the radio stations, the game also gives you the option to make an in-game mix tape, right from the smartphone. The soundtrack is so good that even the characters sing along in the game from time to time, a fantastic touch. Speaking of the characters, the voice acting is appropriately over the top, just like the rest of the game, and suits the aesthetic nicely.
There are lots of words to be used to describe Saints Row the Third, some of which can't be printed on a family website like ours. You could call it crazy, insane, over the top, ridiculous, offensive, warped, and twisted. I choose to simply call it fun. You will too if you give this hilarious and brilliantly twisted gem of a game a test drive.