Saints Row the Third Review – Far More Than Just A Grand Theft Auto Clone
“You think we have enough guns?”
“That was a rhetorical question I hope.”
Let’s get it out of the way: when people think Saints Row, they think “Oh, it’s that Grand Theft Auto knock-off”. It’s an inevitable comparison the likes of Modern Warfare and Battlefield, and of course there’s enough parallels to see why. But let me say that after a week and a half of playing, Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto start and end their similarities with guns, carjacking and foul language.
If Grand Theft Auto were a movie, it’d be the type to straddle the line between attempting an Oscar and delivering some hardcore dialogue and action. In turn, Saints Row is like the adrenaline filled, humorous tongue-in-cheek movie that delivers high octane action while providing satire on the very genre it masks itself as. All this while maintaining a generous dose of entertainment and story the likes of a good summer movie.
I have to start with the gameplay simply because it’s too good to put off any longer.
Like, there’s a Manapult that captures bystanders and launches them into the air. There’s a Mollusk Launcher that allows you to shoot singing, muttering, crazy mind-controlling octopuses at enemies and control them. There’s the Penetrator, a giant purple dildo bat that does crazy melee damage while humiliating your enemies.
And there’s a fricking Shark Gun, a shotgun that sprays enemies with shark bait and, in seconds, lures a shark from the sewers of Steelport to devour your enemy.
Yeah, a Shark Gun. You heard me.
Or, in fact, let me just start from the beginning: my first hour of gameplay involved me robbing a bank in giant Johnny Gat masks and voice changers (a clever way to hide the appearance of the main character—your player—until they give you a chance to customize him or her to your specifications) and eventually shooting dozens of armed foes while desperately clinging onto a vault attached to a helicopter. Soon after, I fought my way off an airplane, killed enemies in midair, got back onto the plane with an insane maneuver, killed some more enemies, jumped back out, and saved teammate Shaundi before hitting the ground. A little later I was robbing a military weapons storage facility and then escaping in a helicopter while shooting down enemy helicopters with an RPG. This all, and more, in just the first few missions. Wait til you get to later missions, like the one where you fight the Dekkers gang inside their Tron-like digital reality.
The story missions are just the beginning, too: like any sandbox game, there are tons of side missions to dive into. Insurance Fraud, for example, is a lot like Burnout’s Crash or Showtime modes, but instead of destroying your car and causing tons of havoc for cash, you’re getting your body thrashed about by ongoing cars to earn cash. Guardian Angel has you flying in a copter following a partner (usually Pierce) as he makes stops in a car below while you cover his ass from enemies above with an RPG. Professor Genki, an insane scientist in a cat suit and labcoat, provides missions to his Genki’s Murdertime deathmatch game show, where you fight other contestants to the death for money and prizes. There’s even a Streaking mission where, well, you run around naked and try to disturb as many innocent bystanders as possible.
My personal favorite so far are Assassionations, where a target and instructions on how to find and kill them lead you to doing all kinds of things to get cash. One mission, for example, had a DJ hiring you to kill an enemy DJ who played horrible music. You had to drive around their neighborhood blasting different music to lure them out for a kill. Another had you robbing stores to draw out a self-styled superhero so you could get rid of him once and for all. Another needed me to draw out an annoying religious fanatic by streaking around her church. Sacriligeous? Yes. Entertaining and extreme randomness? Oh hell yeah.
And that’s just the beginning.
Driving is the best yet in a sandbox game, boasting great handling and a drifting handbrake mechanic that’s worked wonders for weaving in and out of traffic during car chases and getaways. Coupled with a great GPS that makes you feel like you’re in a racing game, and it gets even better.
There is also a Perk system that gives you Respect points for just about everything you do, so that during driving, for example, you get points for driving against traffic while doing a wheelie while doing “near misses” when coming close to other cars and then powersliding around corners. You get points for nutchecking a pedestrian or taunting an enemy game member. You even get points for using a parachute and landing in makeshift base-jumping targets as close to the center as possible. All of this happens seemlessly during gameplay, and all of it can be tracked through your menu via your phone.
Respect and cash can earn you everything from better weapons and cars, to a tougher gang, to abilities like Pickpocket and Dual-Weilding, and much, much more. It’s a system that rewards you for getting crazy and having as much fun as possible.
The graphics are great, especially for everything Saints Row incorporates and achieves so well. But occasionally you will see there’s a specific draw distance, where certain things like textures (less frequent) and cars and people (more frequent) will pop in and out depending on how far away you are from them. When chaos erupts on the screen, there can be some frame-rate drops, but generally not enough to detract from the fun.
The game goes through great pains to give you variety, giving you enemies from three different gangs with three different motifs. The Syndicate are the top gang, dressed in red, often sporting men in black and red suits and women in leather and trenchcoats with machineguns. There are the Luchadors, a gang of Mexican wrestler-themed hoodlums who often have small and large men alike using heavy guns and driving tough green vehicles. Then there’s the aforementioned Dekkers, the Tron-like gang with glowing blue neon costumes, who somehow inexplicably have in their employ both Asian speedster chicks (who seriously can run around you at high speeds like the Flash) and Brutes (one of the new enemy types of the game—think Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Titans) who carry huge gatling guns and armor and can toss your car around like a volleyball.
There’s also a strong online community at Saints Row’s official community page, where for weeks even before the release they were encouraging the sharing of creations through the “Initiation Station” (where, seriously, I had more fun creating a character than any game recently, even WWE ’12) and afterwards you can do everything from tracking stats to uploading screenshots through the game’s camera, to sharing how your map of Steelport looks to finding unique personal challenges that will supposedly lead to extra content in the future.
This game is not without its downsides. If you don’t like sandbox action game mechanics, if you prefer a stronger story, if you don’t like insanity, this game is not the game for you. Doing crazy stuff is great for a while, but it can get monotonous, especially after doing it for dozens of hours. But Saints Row the Third does what most games nowadays forget to do: to entertain. Seriously, there was a point when I was so enthralled that I couldn’t wait to get home just to keep going through the missions and helping the Saints in their quest to reclaim their goal in life and look good while doing it. Its philosophy is purely to make fun of itself and let you take advantage of a game that isn’t trying to be preachy and serious.
And in a fantastic year of gaming that may have been overrun with terrorist plots to overthrow the free world and space marines trying to prevent an alien Armageddon, it’s fun to finally play as a crazy guy or gal in a crazy world filled with crazy people, and just have a crazy good time.
And then get crazy!!!