If you put me on the stop at this very moment and asked me what my favorite franchises are in the realm of video games, I would probably ponder and stutter for a few seconds before spitting out Pokemon, Metal Gear, and Saints Row. The last one is naturally what I’m here to talk about, as while I do adore parts two and four, the first and third parts of this to be pentalogy are far lower on the totem pole of quality in my mind. While part one is the franchise before it really got its own identity, part three was where the franchise was established, became AAA to a certain extent, and had a staff that was 80% people who did not assist in building this franchise up. But that was three years ago, and I feel it is worth revisiting… That, and I was in the mood for a game with character creation, and this was the only one on my list of games I own which I ought to play.
Saints Row: The Third Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Something that struck me as odd and strikes me odder the more I think about it is how the latter half of the Saints Row games have very little connection with one another. As the formerly street level gang, the Third Street Saints, conquered the city of Stillwater in their last appearance, and are now pop culture icons who have somehow avoided thousands of accounts of murder, billions in property damage, and rob banks disguised as themselves for fun. But I can ignore that I as found plenty of gripes in the main plot, which focuses on the Saints being kidnapped by a criminal organization known as the Syndicate, one of their founding members being killed incredibly abruptly, and three of its highest ranking members going on a mission of revenge against a rival super gang.
From there, the story is a very scattered ploy about the Saints trying to take over this new city, Steelport, by weakening and destroying the Syndicate, only for that story then be interrupted by a military organization with futuristic weaponry. If the decision to slice the story of urban gang warfare right before the third act gets started sounds odd to you, it’s because it is, and as a result the conclusion to the Syndicate’s storyline feels very rushed and unfocus. In fact, that’s how I would describe the story as a whole. A collection of ideas and concept that are not gracefully woven together in a fine cloth, but rather stapled and glued together in a haphazard mess.
I feel as if the end of the proclaimed Act 1 shows my issues with the storyline very well, as all of the following happens in the course of thirty or so minutes. The Saints decide to take down one of the three pillars of the Syndicate, despite the fact they’ve been in about… two cutscenes so far. They launch an assault on the tower, recruit a gentle genius giant, kill the antagonist by dropping a big ball on his head after he comes out of an elevator, and then introduce a rather odd mechanic of decision making that is more or less choosing between two presents.
Afterwards, time is sped up to a few days, a character who will exists to introduce the military organization STAG is injected into the story, a new antagonist and gang is shown to the main characters, and another three members of the Saints are introduced. One of which will receive quite a bit of development, one that is a joke, and one that is voiced by Hulk Hogan, but is even more one dimensional than the joke character. Combine that with what I found to be a notable lack of displayed character from much of the cast as a whole, and I wonder what form of development this plot went through before becoming the lopsided mess that it is.
It would be easy to then transition into the shooting side of the title’s gameplay, but while I feel it has problems, I would not describe it with such a term. Instead, the gameplay of Saints Row 3 strikes me as similar to Saints Row 2 without properly understanding why, despite all of its jankiness and often common spikes in challenge, I would not issue a complaint towards it. It has to do with narrative justification, the leader of the Saints was very much still human in part 2, but in part 3 the inclusion of a button that kicks people in the groin or had the protagonist leap over them and then strike a pose. I feel as if this implies, and it is helped by the narrative painting the main character as a badass, that combat should not be very… challenging and that one should not be easily blindsided by an exploding vehicle or need to embed several bullets into targets who respond to bullets by swerving about, as if it is a punishment for not obtaining a clean headshot.
One can say mechanics like human shield and even mugging are trying to balance the game back to a far more reasonable tone, to which I bring up the dildo bat, gun that summons sharks, and side activity wherein the main character shoots people dressed up in animal costumes. Saints Row 3, helped greatly by the marketing, paints itself as a wacky sandbox, when really such things often feel out of place in an otherwise straightly played story about gang violence. It walks the border between the not entirely serious nature of its predecessor, while failing to ever feel truly as wacky as the title likely intends for itself to be.
I will openly say that vehicles fare better, as driving feels incredibly smooth, driving over people and seeing them fly into the air evokes a sense of glee, and collision is often brushed off, and preventable through the use of powersliding across the street while listening to the game’s delightful radio stations. Even entering them evokes a sense of power and control as dashing towards them results in the protagonist breaking through a window and automatically being in control of the vehicle. Yet that is only for the land based ones which, despite being in an environment surrounded by water, is the primary means of transportation. I honestly never freely used watercrafts beyond a single instance as there is nothing for the player to really do with them, resulting in them feeling like something that was copied over from the prior game and barely used.
Air vehicles fare better, even if planes exist purely for crashing into thing, as flying through the city evokes a sense of power and control, heightened when you decide to take advantage of a flying broomstick that can go from one end of the city to another in under five minutes. However, the city of Steelport is one that I was very apathetic towards back when I played the game in 2011, and now in 2014. I had trouble remembering where anything is, and would likely get very lost without the help of a minimap and the series’ GPS system that even includes street laid arrows instructing the player of their destination. Yet, I believe I have formulated a reason, and it is rather simple. Very few areas have a remarkable characteristic towards them.
While the airport is naturally distinct, and all of the skyscrapers are located around the same area, the layout of most buildings in the game feels very arbitrary, especially if you look at the, admittedly very segregated, city of Stillwater from Saints Row 2. The landmarks were very much divided between the docks, airport, project housing, reformed original starting point that was defiled to add motivation to the players of the first game area, downtown, marina, suburb, and college expansion. These helped to give me a far better idea of where I was after a few hours in that game than I did after a second playthrough of this one and exploring the same city in Saints Row IV. Though, some may argue it is notably different in certain aspects of its layout, to which I would agree and then claim that it also looked notably better.
The city of Steelport is rather ugly looking in its color scheme during the daytime, with a lot of washed out colors and murky browns that hardly inspired a sense of fondness towards a city I certainly did not quite get after being in it for an extended period of time. It’s a series of islands that take inspiration from New York, has quite a bit of Americana imagery, possesses a nuclear power plant that has… refineries littered in at least three locations, is devoted to Wrestling above every other sport, and is determined to show the Saints as icons even when hunted by the US government. It simply feels disjointed and while I could certainly dig for characterization by examining the city closely, I know so little about it from the main plot that I have next to no desire to figure out what’s the deal with Joe Cola.
Yet while I find many of the more minor details of the game to be well worth criticizing, that does not change the fact that many of the story missions in Saints Row: The Third are rather wonderful. I recall praising the bits involving chainsawing luchadores as You’re The Best plays. A mission involving cyberspace that turns the main character into a toilet, sex doll, and giant robot. An out of nowhere but incredibly enjoyable rendition of Sublime’s What I Got by the player character and another during a tutorial mission, the list goes on. However, these missions feel very much light, especially if you do count the number of tutorial missions, and likely could be cleared in a dedicated ten hours if one desires to ultimately lessen the experience by making the game far more difficult than it has any right to be. Oh, and they are not replayable, meaning you’d better keep multiple saves if you ever want to revisit a specific mission.
I honestly do feel a lot of the problem with difficulty is the upgrade system, which has the series’s delightful Respect system in place to act as the levels, while having money unlock nearly every substantial upgrade. Comparing this to completing activities to get, say, infinite stamina or having the player spend a few hours working to get infinite pistol ammo, and the reward feels ill gotten. It is made even worse when you consider it feels like cheating to unlock upgrades that remove the damage received from bullets, cars, fire, explosions, and gravity. None of which should ever be viewed as necessary, especially when the only thing that I felt I needed was a healing item as it is so hard to find cover at certain points in the game when you are up against 20+ enemies.
I feel as if I could continue on for quite a bit, but as if I feel as if I’d have said enough after dishing out another bit of praise. Opposed to its ugly looking predecessor, SR3’s character models look very appealing. Possessing a good deal of potential color and an artstyle that I feel gels well with the wackiness the series wishes to evoke. Unfortunately, this results in them looking a bit displaced in much of the environment, particularly the more bland and uninteresting environments. Oddly enough, I felt as if vehicles managed to avoid this entirely, looking right at home in the environment regardless, while simultaneously making it seem a bit richer as the radio stations helped increase my enjoyment of travelling through the game’s world and, based on how I have the title’s soundtrack… at least most of it, my enjoyment as a whole.
Saints Row: The Third is a game where you can play as a toilet, parachute out of a penthouse apartment, pull out a dildo bat and kill a furry, call up Burt Reynolds, drive on a tricked out motorbike with him, use nitrous to make a sick jump off a bridge, find some drugs, and then play a minigame involving the player blowing up as many things as possible. That sounds utterly amazing, but the minor details and lack of attention placed in so many areas is rather alarming and nothing but detrimental to what has every right to be one of the most enjoyably stupid games of all time. That is sadly not the case, and it is a damn shame.
By no means something that must be played, but not entirely worth pushing aside forever. The title is ultimately above average and keeps the good balanced with the bad by a noticeable enough margin to still be worth picking up.