Saints Row: The Third – Just in case “buy this game” isn’t specific enough…
If you read my retrospective articles on Volition and THQ’s Saints Row franchise here and here, you know that I have become a pretty huge fan of this series. I was admittedly late to the party, getting the double pack once the hype for the newest installment started to hit in full force. I tore through each massive game in under a week, noting the evolution from a somewhat derivative (although clever and well-acted) sandbox game to a unique world with a style all its own.
On the Internet and in gaming magazines, it was immediately clear that Volition’s intent was to push that style to its tested limits and beyond, to continue to carve their own path well away from the rest of the sandbox crime genre. In a season featuring such heavy hitters as Arkham “Greatest Licensed Game of All Time” City, and the homewreckingly engrossing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Saints Row: The Third easily became my most anticipated game of 2011.
Determined to never again be late to the Saints Row party, I pre-ordered the game and downloaded the “Initiation Station”, an in-depth creation tool allowing users to customize their characters in advance and share them with others on a community site. I spent hours painstakingly crafting multiple unique characters, which were later to be cast aside on release day in favor of an astonishingly accurate Rick Ross clone created by a complete stranger. Because hey, in a game where your necessarily nameless character is referred to only as “The Boss”, you might as well be The Bawsss.
The character creator that Volition has here is really quite good, and any complaints I may have are more than outweighed by the positive aspects. Yes, I do miss the ability to custom-layer my clothes. No, Internet message boards, I do not think that this omission ruined the game. There are plenty of pre-layered options, and it’s nice to finally have the option for realistically baggy clothing in a game. This is also one of the only character creators I’ve ever used where clothes and body parts are not constantly clipping through each other, so if custom layers had to go to make that happen, I say good riddance. Bring them back when they are ready. The options that are here are astonishing. You can play not only as the giant hot dog whose absence I lamented in the original game, but also numerous other oversized product and animal mascots. Your skin can be virtually any color in the crayon box, and if you choose to play without clothes you may do so. This has led to Saints Row: The Third setting a world’s record for most topless She-Hulks created by an online community. Or it would have, if anyone kept track of that.
Reading a few things in advance about the over-the-top mission structure fans could expect from this game, I was led to believe that the opening sequence would involve some sort of crazy skydiving gunfight. This was inaccurate. The opening mission is a gigantic bank heist set piece that rivals the feel of the climactic final missions to which sandbox crime enthusiasts have become accustomed. The Saints, while still criminals, have become national celebrities with product endorsements and even a movie deal in the works. As you trade thousands of bullets with a veritable army of police, negotiators implore you via megaphone to “Please autograph-and then throw down-your weapons”. Helicopters are called in, the bank vault is airlifted out with you on top of it as endless SWAT teams swarm the rooftops. That whole skydiving gunfight business is actually the second mission.
Another thing that some fans of this series seem to be taking issue with is the decision to remove a beloved franchise icon early on in the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but it happens suddenly and it’s kind of a big deal. But just take a moment and look at the image up there. This is the world that the Third Street Saints occupy now, and there’s really no going back. The controversial character death, in my opinion, serves as an excellent “in with the new, out with the old” moment. I was upset myself, briefly, but I had long stopped caring by the time that I was forcibly taking over the city one neighborhood at a time with a rain of deadly laser fire from my stolen VTOL jet. Volition has a really fun story to tell in this game, but it is by no means the story they were telling in previous installments. To each their own, but I feel like by the time you pre-order a game to receive a mind-controlling octopus launcher, you’ve already agreed to leave behind the notion of serious gangsters doing serious gangster things.
The new gangs you have to contend with reflect this trend as well-most notably Killbane’s team of gigantic heavily armed Luchadores, and the cyberpunk influenced techno-ninja squad called the Deckers. Gangs are aggressively over the top this time around, and casually harassing them on the street can quickly spiral out of control. Current gang notoriety (how much they want you dead) is measured on a scale of one to five stars, and at just three stars “specialists” start to show up, such as deadly-accurate airborne snipers or impossibly fast, shock hammer wielding, roller skaters. You can easily reach three stars in a matter of seconds. After the specialists you’ll be introduced to the other new tier of gang members in Saints Row-the brutes.
Brutes are mini-boss caliber, Incredible Hulk-sized enemies, and early on in the game they will completely ruin your day. They might come at you with a flamethrower, or they might just run around flipping over cars, but either way they’re no joke to take down. This might lead you to believe that the game could be too difficult, and at first it kind of is. Thankfully though, there is a weapon upgrade system. Four upgrades in and you have a pistol with bullets that explode with enough force to launch standard enemies helplessly into the air, or an SMG that comes with the added bonus of setting guys on fire. Your character can also be upgraded, and as you level up you’ll unlock the ability to purchase anything from enhanced sprinting duration to increased bullet resistance. You are meant to rise to the challenge presented by these difficult enemies, and the systems in place give you more than the necessary means to do so. It isn’t long at all before every fight in the game becomes a source of joy rather than frustration.
Similarly, missions are designed to be exhilarating and epic, and the abilities you gain are never taken away or toned down for the sake of adding a forced challenge. Checkpoints are numerous, and any time limits given are well thought out to add a sense urgency without feeling unfair. In a mission with an AI driver as a partner, and they keep getting the provided vehicle blown up? Next time grab an armored-up custom job from your garage and bring that to the mission start. They’ll be more than happy to drive that one instead. Every single mission in the game left me with the sense that Volition was far more concerned with making a fun game than with making a challenging one. They’ve done a great job here with providing the appearance of overwhelming odds while making sure you rarely actually get overwhelmed.
The story missions here are so much fun, in fact, that I was playing everything twice, often on the same night. Everything in the story was tackled first with my co-op buddy Mike, and then again later in a separate solo game. There was literally nothing here that I didn’t look forward to doing a second time, which might be the first time I’ve said that for this type of game. And speaking of the co-op, it’s nothing less than perfectly executed. Dropping into a friend’s game is quick and seamless. There’s none of the usual story progress confusion or mission lockouts, actual game progress is saved on the host’s game while the client’s save file retains only character data. This means you can play as many games with as many friends as you want, and never have to make a new character if you so choose.
Many missions in the game conclude with choices that reward the player or affect the story in different ways. This adds to the replay value, as does the series’ usual excellent voice acting. There are six voice options available to the player character (three male, three female), each with their own accents, personality traits, and varying cutscene dialogue-impressive dedication since many players will unfortunately experience only one. The supporting cast is well-acted and engaging with very few exceptions, and the writing is entertaining enough that I found myself wanting to replay the game just like I’d rewatch a good movie. There are even two different final missions with very divergent story consequences and gameplay, really cool to see when so many player choices in games are simply “please turn the knob to ‘good’ or ‘evil’ when prompted”.
I’ve come so far in this review and at the end of every paragraph I think of two more things I want to write about. I’m not sure “review” is the right word for what I’m writing here, and I’m not sure I can break this down into bullet points or numerical grading systems. What I want, after playing this game twice, is to sit you down in person and tell you about it. Ideally there would be sound effects and hand gestures, like C-3PO explaining galactic conflict to a room full of enthralled Ewoks. I want to tell you that I too am excited by a ton of games coming out during this exceptional release season, but that I as your friend would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t urge you to buy and play this one as soon as possible. Even if you haven’t played the series up until this point, there is nothing stopping you from jumping on here…unless you have an unfortunate aversion to things that are awesome. And even if that is the case, this game may well be the cure.
Posted on November 28, 2011, in Video Games and tagged Killbane, Professor Genki, Recommended Games, Saints, Saints Row The Third, Third Street, THQ, Top Games of 2011, Volition. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.