One of the problems with describing things that happen in Saints Row the Third is that everything you write just starts to sound like a demented Mad Lib. The green man in the gimp suit hit the luchador gang member in the crotch with an anime squid cannon. And we swear we’re not making any of that up.
Welcome to Steelport
As in the previous games, you play as the leader of the Saints, a purple clad gang looking to take over the city by crushing rival gangs, cops and anyone else who gets in their way. Saints Row 2 ended with the gang taking over the city of Stillwater and making themselves superstars in the process. The Saints are now as much a brand as a gang, hocking sponsored bobbleheads and energy drinks to the public.
After a bank heist gone wrong, the Saints find themselves in Steelport, butting heads with a local crime group known as the Syndicate. From there it’s the classic rise to power story, as you take out the rival gangs, and eventually a paramilitary force, one by one. As far as story goes, SR3 isn’t reinventing the wheel, but the dialogue between the characters is consistently hilarious. The game is packed with in-jokes, meta humor and constantly swerves into almost surreal territory.
Over the top ASAP
Usually, the problem with giving the player the best weapons and vehicles in a game immediately is that they won’t have anything to look forward to. SR3 overcomes that issue by constantly setting the bar ever higher in terms of fun, insanity and unpredictability. Getting a rocket launcher in GTA was a big deal because it usually only showed up later in the game and in limited quantities. Getting a rocket launcher in SR3 is like finding a dollar on the side walk, cool, but not exciting, because in the world of SR3, rocket launchers are only the tip of the iceberg.
As with most sandbox games, the sandbox itself is the city, but the toys are the vehicles and the weapons. SR3’s weapons start off innocently enough with the standard pistols, SMGs and shotguns, but before long it’s UAV drones, hover bikes and meg- uh I mean “Cyber” Busters.
The self described “Awesome button” is just that, a button that makes all of your moves more ridiculous. While it’s technically just the sprint button, it speeds up actions like stealing a car or attacking an enemy, making the little things faster and more exciting. In fact one of the more fun things about SR3 is how between taking human shields and hitting enemies in the crotch, you can actually do a lot of damage with melee attacks in this game. Sprint towards an enemy and attack, and you’ll perform running DDTs and other moves that leave the enemy knocked down. Running into a room full of armed goons and meleeing everyone to death is endlessly entertaining.
On a mission
One of the biggest complaints people have about sandbox games is that when playing actual missions it’s all essentially variations on “drive to this point on your GPS and kill this guy”. While that remains the nature of the sandbox beast, SR3 does its best to swerve violently off the path of what you expect.
One mission finds you trying to drive a car smoothly with a tiger in the passenger seat batting at you, while another has you travelling the city in a hover jet, dogfighting other hover jets and taking out tanks with your heat ray. Volition really manages to break the mold with some of their later missions, notably "http://decker.die", a mission so insanely creative and funny that it single handedly makes the game worth playing. We won’t spoil it, but it takes place inside a computer, so be prepared for anything.
Like any good sandbox game, SR3 includes a bunch of optional side missions to pad out the roughly 13 hour campaign. While some of the side missions, like Escort and Trafficking are a little dull, the vast majority of them are a blast. Mayhem, Trailblazer, and Heli Assault are loaded with big explosions and destruction, while classics like Insurance Fraud have your character hurling themselves into traffic while ragdolling into as many other cars as possible. The much touted "Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax" is particularly fun.
Many players were a little saddened to see the lack of customization options in GTA IV, and for them SR3 will be a welcome change of pace. Your character is fully customizable and can be completely changed at plastic surgeons located around the city whenever you want. Want a 400 pound metallic blue drag queen in a catsuit with Russian accent to be your main character? Go for it. Created characters can then be shared and swapped online via the game's community functionality.
Your vehicles can also be upgraded and fully customized, and best of all the game automatically saves them to your garage, meaning that if you accidentally drop your creation into the ocean, you can still get it back. Unlike GTA IV, SR's driving is totally unrealistic, and as a result, totally fun. Crib customization is also available, though if you’re playing SR3, interior design is probably quite low on the list of things you’ll want to do.
Leveling up, ganging up
As in previous Saints Row games, performing stunts, killing enemies and generally being a jerk earns you respect which lets you level up. Perks and abilities become available for purchase from your in-game phone as you level up, letting you do simple things like taking less damage, all the way to being able to call a homie to come deliver you a tank or wipe your wanted rating. Weapons can also be upgraded via cash and offer huge bonuses, it’s a classic Saints Row move that a fully upgraded disorienting flashbang grenade becomes a literal “Fart in a Jar”.
The perks get more and more drastic as you level up, so that by the time you’ve completed the main game you’ll be able to cheat with a simple phone call. Of course for those of you too impatient for even that, the game has the standard cheat codes available as well. A lot of the late game content really is worth earning though. For example:
In addition to the endless kind of chaotic fun you can have just messing around in a sandbox game, SR3 provides drop in drop out co-op in the campaign, and Whored mode for gamers looking for multiplayer options. Some of the missions we played in the campaign were different during co-op, adding additional elements to the mission exclusively for the second player.
Whored Mode is a traditional hoard co-op mode where you fend off waves of attacking enemies with (or without) the help of some friends. And by “fend off attacking enemies” I mean you whack strippers and BDSM gimps with a purple dildo bat and shoot furries with a tank. Note that the game requires an online pass for these modes, so if you buy the game used be prepared to shell out a few bucks.
A Gangster’s Paradise?
While some of the character’s face models are still a bit homely, Saints Row has never looked better. The cartoony style makes ridiculous things seem possible, while at the same time keeping the game’s Itchy and Scratchy level of violence more funny than offensive. The framerate is also impressive, running smoothly even in the middle of enormous 10 car explosions and flamethrowers. We played the game on both consoles and the PC and experienced no crashes or bugs. The game actually automatically teleports you if you ever get stuck in an object or the trapped somewhere on the map, which is a nice touch.
SR3’s only substantial flaw is that the city of Steelport isn’t terribly interesting. It’s a big industrial town with a few residential areas and lots of big neon lights and skyscrapers. It doesn’t look bad, but we can’t wait for Volition to expand the next game into more diverse territory.
Saints Row has always been seen as something of an also-ran, but The Third finally says, in no uncertain terms, that it’s just as big and even more fun than its more serious competition. Some might be tempted to dismiss the game because of its extreme wackiness, but know that at its core, the game is incredibly well crafted and ceaselessly fun. While the comedies typically lose out to the dramas come awards time, none of it changes the fact that Saints Row: The Third is one of the best games of the year, and given this year’s competition, that’s no small compliment.
Is it better than...
GTA IV? Tie. Where GTA IV’s strengths come from its character driven story and it’s amazing mini-New York, SR3 only serves to highlight how dour and stale a lot of its gameplay is. Only the Ballad of Gay Tony comes close to matching the fun of SR3, and even then it’s really no contest.
Just Cause 2? Yes. Just Cause is a close runner up for pure fun, and the island of Panau is still the most beautiful sandbox out there, but SR3 puts JC2’s story missions to shame. While JC2 definitely has some ridiculously fun action movie elements to it, it pales in comparison to the endless insanity of SR3.
Saints Row 2? Absolutely. Saints Row 2 set the groundwork for three, going further off the rails than the original, but still clinging to some of the sandbox genre’s more boring ideas. If you enjoyed Saints Row 2 at all, you will absolutely love SR3, it’s everything that made 2 fun minus almost all of the boring bits.
For those who skipped straight to the end
Saints Row: The Third is the complete realization of everything this franchise has set out to do. Yes it's ludicrous and lewd, but it's also a joy to play, a streamlined sandbox that hooks the fun directly into your veins.