Review: Saints Row: The Third

While the GTA series has struggled with its identity, Saints Row 3 knows exactly what it wants to be, and what that is, is pure, unadulterated, wacky fun.  It presents a sandbox world you can easily find tons of fun things to do in and an interesting if absolutely off-the-wall story arc.  If there's any problems to be had here it's mostly in that while a vastly superior PC port to 2, its still rough around the edges, and flying, as in GTA, may as well be pointless.  Nonetheless one of the most solid recommendations I could give.  A great game and a lot of fun to be had.
Review: Saints Row: The Third
Date published: Apr 23, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Saints Row: The Third is the titular third installment in the Saints Row sandbox crime series developed by Volition and published by Deep Silver.  The Saints Row series had an uneven ride up to this entry, with the original being a plain and uninspired Grand Theft Auto clone without much shame, and the second on the other hand being a brilliantly irreverent roast of both that source material and more importantly itself, but suffered from a rushed and technically-incompetent 

The Third's art direction seethes style

Character is likewise happily smothered across SR3 - Whether it be the ridiculous poses struck in the take-down animations such as pictured above or the various supporting character’s chariactured parodies of a variety of “criminal” stereotypes commonly employed within more “serious” crime serials, Saints Row: The Third bars no holds nor pulls any punches in its decadent pursuit of that fun it so easily seems to come into.  It was full of memorable moments.

There's a saying that the first bite you take is with the eye, and if that's the case then the art direction that lavishes Saints Row: The Third in an absolutely pervasive and over-the-top style of it's own, flush with so much "bling" that if it was a gangster rapper it would have diamonds embedded in the diamonds on its teeth.  It is a game that smacks of it's own self-confidence, so assured of it's dominance in the field and it's quality that it has absolutely no problem taking shots at itself as well as it's bigger-grossing peer.

The game is very tight in it's visual design and presentation, presenting a cohesive visual style all of its own - this is a game if you're familiar with it, you'll see the style to and know, "Yeah, that's Saints Row".  In this, Saints Row has cracked the fundamental problem Grand Theft Auto has always had (yeah those comparisons are going to come fast and furious, sit down and take a shot).  Grand Theft Auto struggled with its identity, every instalment trying to find some take on the "gritty" take on the American dream that wasn't utterly incongruous with the shooting old ladies you do in the sandbox gameplay.  Saints Row: The Third knows exactly what it wants to be, and that's dildo-bat-wieldly, lead-paint-hat-wearing stupid.  And I wouldn't have it any way.

Whereas the gritty take of Grand Theft Auto felt incongruent, the over-the-top, balls-to-the-walls parody of the bling fashion culture surrounding that pop phenom of "criminal" celebrity, and there's nothing that Saints Row: The Third really leaves behind in that aspect, from it's jabs at corporatisation of that kind of thing to the sequence where you're riding a gimp pretending to be a horse to chase down another person riding another such gimp.  The game is ridiculous, and it thrives in every cringe-laugh-inducing moment of it.

Moreover, while the visual fidelity wasn't the greatest for the time, being a console port, it's a game whose visual style has helped carry it across the years.  It's help up very well, where other games of the time are starting to look ragged around the edges.

Steelport presents a brand new sandbox to explore, and an interesting one at that

While I'm cognizant of Yahtzee's jab that the city seems the same as Stilwater, I don't really agree; whereas Stilwater still had the sprawl to a fault going that characterised Grand Theft auto, Steelport is tighter than a corset, with no space truly feeling empty, and more importantly, it seems laid out in a fashion that a city logically would be laid out, not a random mish mash of the clone button in what I like to call the Bethesda approach.

Most importantly to both game mechanics and the thematic element of the city, the different districts of the city stand out from one another while still feeling cohesive as a whole, and navigation by landmarks is entirely possible, which was a problem of many sandbox games - it all blends together in one homogeneous mass and the navigation in many comes down to following the map radar.  You can get around in Steelport just the same as you would in real life, just knowing where you're going, and with ease, and given my usual sense of direction, that's saying something.

The chink in the armor of those production values is assuredly the soundtrack

Don't get me wrong, the actual original music on offer as the background themes are brilliant and catchy, what I'm talking about here is the same problem Grand Theft Auto has always had - the music selection for the radio stations.  It hasn't gotten any better from Saints Row 2 in my opinion, which I do concede is subjective, with a single track from Amon Amarth and a few classical compositions being all I really found attractive in the anemic offering here.  Yeah, I get it, it costs a lot to license big name music and to be honest, I don't expect it.

(Okay, perhaps saying just Amon Amarth is the only thing I liked is a bit hyperbole, exaggerating the problem, but the percentage of songs I like is very low)

What I'd love to see there, rather, is some great unknowns; it would have been a brilliant opportunity for Volition to be something of a patron of the arts and put some solid indie musicians out there.  And indeed while I can't say I even know half of the names on offer in the pop station playlist, they ain't great, I'll say that much.  it feels like a missed opportunity to nail down that theming even tighter to me.

SR3 carries on the tradition of great customisation,
albeit with a mildly lesser selection of items and modifiers

“Houston, we have a problem.” - While normally the game is quite solid, when it fucks up, it fucks up good, such as this example when I  entered the vehicle customisation screen.  That part of the customisation is buggy indeed, and can be scummed with an exploit to upgrade and customise vehicles otherwise flagged as unable to be customised such as the military tanks and transports.

Easily one of the biggest assets of Saints Row 2 beyond how it embraced that wackiness that has characterised The Third as well has got to be the character customisation, which has always outdone many RPGs, let alone the dismal offering in GTA 4's online mode.  There are a variety of all the expected sliders, but more importantly, they actually mean something (whereas often they don't in aforementioned RPGs), allowing a variety of different looks, body shapes, and appearances, and even in a game with many friends we all looked fairly different, except those times where someone decided to be a scamp and copy people's looks - something that took some actual skill and memory, given the sheer head-crushing depth that the customisation system offers.

That's not without a few very mild misgivings however - say what you will about the DLC, since most of the stuff in it I found entirely forgettable and I find purely-cosmetic DLC harmless anyways - what I do have problem with is the fair reduction in the amount of available clothing styles.  While I might not expect Saints Row: The Third to have as big a selection as SR2 given the next generation consoles' limitations and the greater, graphical fidelity, it feels like there could have been more here if Volition so deigned, and indeed given the dearth of cosmetic DLC that does indeed seem to have been the case.

Irrespective of that complaint however, there is still a large selection of different styles of fully-colour-customisable clothing to suit any given style and the number of combinations available there is mind-boggling all the same, even with the cutbacks.  From the mundane suit to the ridiculous mascot costumes and everything in between, I couldn't really think of anything I'd say I felt was missing without calling specifically back to things cut from Saints Row 2.

A minor complaint for me but perhaps a much bigger one for others is the change of the gender selection from a slider bar (something I really liked in Saints Row 2) to a binary choice, so you're left with a more feminine or more masculine character without the middle ground you had before.  A little thing to many perhaps, but as I said, perhaps not to others.

The mechanics of Saints Row: The Third are absolutely solid

While there are definitely some parts of the activities on offer, there isn't any I would say are lacking in any appreciable way.  The game progresses through gaining respect, but the slower pace of Saints Row 2 has been tuned for The Third and finds a very good balance I find, neither too slow nor too fast, with appreciable unlocks throughout that seem pertinent to the rising challenges that you face over the span of the game.  Shooting feels great and with the appropriate weightiness, with ragdolls gaily flying across the screen in an appropriately hilarious manner but not so often it feels old and not in any contrived "lets fill the wackiness quota" sort of way either, and the melee system keeps a great clip as well, not too deep but fairly impactful as well, with execution style finishing moves that offer a variety of "money shots" indeed with them such as the one in the first boxout above.  Cheeky, funny, and acutely aware of itself, they never cross the line into being too pretentious.

The next level is the activities, and they indeed do take it to the next level, from the return of the Insurance Fraud minigame literally having you play in traffic and further capitalise on those ragdolls to make a bloody minigame out of it, to the take on Japanese game shows with the Running Man-esque Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax which pits you in a game show obstacle course with hazards and enemies to beat as well as a variety of things to shoot - or avoid shooting (UNETHICAL! the game chides you if you hit the pandas!) there's something for everyone in the activities and a great coverage of them dotted through the city, as well as more organic "gang operations" simply happening in the over-world for you to crash, smash, and loot.

The one standout amidst the otherwise stellar mechanics is the helicopters, and flight in general.  Why is is that sandbox games as a whole just can't find a way to implement flying controls that don't make the vehicle handle like a brick of steel on a tether flopping about everywhere or a luger desperately hoping they can pull out of a death slide, I will never know.  To it's credit Saints Row The Third has done a very admirable job of cleaning up the driving controls, both on keyboard and on game-pad, though the former was certainly in much more dire of a need for it, and the PC port benefits tremendously for that improvement, but in a way it hurts the game in that it makes the lack of iterative improvement on the helicopter and airplane controls much more notable, and make no mistake my dear reader: they're bad.  Compounding this all the more is that most of the aircraft in the game appear to be made of out saltine crackers and break apart if you so much as gently brush them, so they are pretty much pointless even if the controls were more competently-executed, excepting perhaps as slightly faster transit.  To be honest though, the city of Steelport isn't so large as to need transit that's much faster than the high-end sports cars you can grab, and it's just as quick if you want the less circuitous route to just take a boat, which handle much better.

Story is a strength as well,
though its let down by a few missions

I won't spoil the story of Saints Row The Third if you happen to be the owner of a particularly comfortable rock under which you live a comfortable life as a proverbial troglodyte of fantastical myth, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that the story is as strong in its presentation as the art direction and the user interface, although perhaps not as tight.  While the vast majority of missions are extremely enjoyable and do an admirable job indeed of ferrying you between a dearth of different scenarios, each different than the last, a fleeting glimpse in the rear-view mirror was given to gambler's fallacy when a couple of them fell flat for me, such a mission where you basically chauffer a secondary character to a variety of business drops in a sequence that started giving me flashbacks to having to drive my fat cousin around in Grand Theft Auto.

That dull spot aside though, Saints Row: The Third is simply one of the tightest and well-polished games I've played; as I alluded to and somewhat touched upon previously, this is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be, but not just in the presentation as I mentioned, but also in the mechanics, in the activities, in the city, and in the characters.  Start to finish the game is not only well-wrought, but well-edited, and there's not an inch of wasted room or discarded potential.  This game had some very strong direction in the classical sense, and it not only shows, but shines for it.

While the GTA series has struggled with its identity, Saints Row 3 knows <em>exactly</em> what it wants to be, and what that is, is pure, unadulterated, wacky fun.  It presents a sandbox world you can easily find tons of fun things to do in and an interesting if absolutely off-the-wall story arc.  If there's any problems to be had here it's mostly in that while a vastly superior PC port to 2, its still rough around the edges, and flying, as in GTA, may as well be pointless.  Nonetheless one of the most solid recommendations I could give.  A great game and a lot of fun to be had.