SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD Review

     November 14, 2011

A dildo bat does not a great video game make.  Video game developer Volition landed a cult hit with Saints Row 2.  Rather than try to emulate the dark-and-gritty nature of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Saints Row 2 wisely went in another direction and turned your character into a garish supervillain.  There was a deep level of character customization when it came to your appearance, and the gameplay and design was solid and immersive.  There were glitches (including one that would unforgivably corrupt your saved game), and the controls and driving needed to be tightened, but it played well enough.  More importantly, the game design was terrific and offered a diverse world filled with various landscapes and fun activities like spraying buildings with poop and throwing unruly celebrity hounds into jet engines.

Saints Row: The Third improves the character customization and the controls, but it loses almost everything else in a major step backwards for the franchise.

After dominating the city of Stillwater in Saints Row 2, the 3rd Street Saints have become international celebrities.  They have their own line of energy drinks, clothing stores, and have become more popular than any group of murderous psychopaths have any right to be.  Trying to hold onto their cred and help out an obnoxious method actor for no reason, the Saints rob a bank, but the bank belongs to a crime ring known as The Syndicate, which is comprised of three street gangs. The Saints are kidnapped, managed to escape from an airplane, and land in the new city of Steelport where all of their power means nothing and they have to start from scratch.  The new objective is to take over Steelport by taking down the Syndicate, which is comprised of the meathead Luchadores, the TRON­­-style hacker gang Deckers, and the sophisticated Morning Star.

Saints Row 2 shared the same structure of amassing power by bringing down competing gangs, and like in the previous game, you’ll be offered missions to further storyline, and activities including “Snatch” (stealing prostitutes from pimps), “Tank Mayhem” (destroy as much as you can with a tank and reach a point total before time runs out), “Insurance Fraud” (destroy yourself as much as you can by running into traffic and reach a point total before time runs out), “Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax”, (try to kill a certain amount of mascots—mainly furries— while trying to survive and reach a point total before time runs out) and a few others.  However, Saints Row: The Third drops fan favorites like “Septic Avenger” and “Crowd Control”, while offering almost nothing new in return (even worse, the irritating activity “Heli Assault” remains).

It’s a problem that carries throughout the entire game.  Saints Row: The Third smacks of a smaller budget.  Steelport is technically larger than Stillwater in terms of area, but it’s far less diverse.  The city is mainly compromised of a commercial district in the center surrounded by factories and a small suburban zone plus an airport.  When compared to Saints Row 2, which had a university, a Chinatown, a suburbia that actually felt like a suburban environment (complete with strip malls), a gigantic underground mall, a marina and casino district, and much more, Steelport is a bore.  You always feel like you’re going to the same three places and none of them seem to be brimming with life.

The game tries to make up for its shortcomings in the environment and in the mini-games by offering up more comedy and bigger set pieces, and on the set pieces it comes through.  You have characters offering quips as they jump out of planes, move through a TRON-inspired landscape, and use a terrific new vehicle called the TKOL, which, as your character points out, “is like if a helicopter fucked a fighter jet.”  But most of the humor lacks a punch.  The writing isn’t as sharp, and the game is afraid to offer anything dramatic until the final mission (provided you choose one of the two endings).  Saints Row 2 wasn’t afraid to have your character put a friend out of his misery or carry over a grace note of revenge to the man from the first Saints Row who betrayed you.  Saints Row: The Third forgets almost everything from the first two games other than a couple supporting characters who come with you to Steelport.  Zimos, a kinky pimp with an auto-tune voice, is a fun newcomer, but there’s hardly any comedy or creativity to fellow new characters Kinzy Kinsington and Angel de la Muerte.

This cutback on story and character puts an even heavier burden on the small things like your appearance and weapons.  Every weapon, whether it’s the dildo bat, the “Apocafists” (which punch people into a blood explosion), the Fart in a Jar, or anything else creative, loses its appeal after a while.  You can go streaking (with pixelated junk) and it will get old after two minutes.  Doing a mix and match on your character’s outfit is fun, but if you want to play Wacky Dress Up, then you should just download the Saints Imitation Station, which is free.  The only new addition that never gets old is how you hijack cars.  If you sprint at a vehicle and press the button normally reserved for hijacking, you’ll crash in through the window and kick out the current driver in one motion.  It’s called the “Bo-Duk-En” (in honor of Dukes of Hazzard) and you’ll never choose another way to enter a car.

And driving is fun this time around.  Driving in Saints Row 2 was a bit of a nightmare since your car never seemed to grip the road and had almost no handling.  Saints Row: The Third absolutely nails the driving, and every sandbox game should aspire to reach this level of control.  The shooting has also been improved and while I miss my health-aid snacks (they’ve been replaced with four thrown weapons, which is useless since you’ll always use grenades), you’ll need them less since you can now upgrade your weapons and they respond far better to your aim.

Unfortunately, another overhaul offers mixed results.  In Saints Row 2, your special abilities—like reduced gang notoriety or faster sprint—resulted in finishing activities.  It was a balanced give and take.  If you wanted Special Ability X to make the game easier, then you needed to accomplish Activity Y.  Saints Row: The Third tries to streamline the process by tying cash and experience together.  “Respect” is your experience points, and leveling up unlocks more special abilities that you can buy with the cash you earn from missions, owning property, activities, and diversions.

But here’s the issue: Because you can eventually buy invincibility and unlimited ammo, you’ll simply avoid endurance missions and anything unnecessary that would test your health or firepower.  Once you’re invulnerable, almost everything becomes a cakewalk, and since you can earn respect from almost anything, it’s simply a matter of waiting till you get to the necessary level.  The problem is compounded by giving you the ability to get all of your property money via your phone.  Go to your crib, leave the game running for a few hours, come back, and you’ll be flush with cash to buy all the abilities you want.

I don’t mind that shortcoming so much.  Volition tried out a different approach and it didn’t work, but it wasn’t a bad idea in theory.  Neither is giving you choices at various points in the game where you can change events and receive different bonuses depending on the option you choose.  However, most of the choices are so clear cut that there’s really no need to think twice if you’re playing to win.  Offering you a choice between respect and cash is a balanced option, but giving you the choice between an entire district take over and a useless new homie is a no-brainer.

I desperately wanted Saints Row: The Third to be a glorious evolution of one of my favorite games.  Unfortunately, it looks like Volition couldn’t deliver.  Again, I believe part of that goes to budget.  The series had to drop down from B-list level voice talent like Eliza Dushku and Neil Patrick Harris to (charitably) D-listers like pornstar Sasha Grey and retired wrestler Hulk Hogan (however, there’s one celebrity cameo that’s downright brilliant).  But there’s no excusing the lack of creativity.  Even with a pared-down cityscape, there’s no reason the plot and writing should be so uneven, and a mission involving a zombie outbreak reeks of desperation.  I could at least respect the new Saints Row if it took the series in a radically different direction and that direction didn’t pan out.  I would have been perfectly happy with a Saints Row 2.5 that brought in the tighter controls, updated graphics, the Professor Genki activity, and handful of new weapons.  Instead, Saints Row: The Third is a massive disappointment to everyone who demands more from a sequel, which is, well, everyone.

Rating: C-

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