Power is one thing no one man should have too much of. A running theme in most open-world games is attaining power and what it does to people. Sometimes it corrupts, sometimes it enfeebles. For the Third Street Saints, it has now become parody. When seemingly there is no longer any other competition, the Saints choose to compete with their own arrogance. Or, well, nevermind; that sounds a bit too deep doesn't it? This is Saint's Row and it's all about going big and being stupid. As a long time fan of the series, I've always enjoyed Saints Row's approach to the genre. You're The Boss: a crazy, sadistic, hopeless sociopath and all you want is to take control of the city. Whether this is accomplished by blowing up police cars or throwing old ladies over bridges is up to you. In many ways this third outing could be considered the best in the series, but it could stand to be even better.
The options are numerous and you're liable to spend quite a long time just playing with all the toys.
As I said earlier, the Third Street Saints have become something of a joke. Granted they've probably never been the type of gang that anyone could take too seriously, but now they're shells of their former selves. They forgot where they came from, and they've traded in their street cred for merchandising. In the opening mission, the Saints attempt a bank heist dressed like bobble-headed mascots of themselves. This leads to not just a shootout in the bank, but also one just outside, another inside a plane, and then yet another taking place thousands of feet in the air. Saints Row: The Third does its best to create this feeling of relentless intensity in the opening act and it really doesn't work. Within moments of arriving in a new city, the Saints have already broken into a military base and stolen millions of dollars worth of equipment. After all that follows a ham-handed scene where the boss and one of his closest associates sing along to Sublime's "What I Got." Just when I thought I was getting comfortable, I turn the camera around to see a couple of guys who are dead silent, as if they were listening to a CD recording from some time in the past. This is more than a little troubling, but thankfully the next thirty or so hours deliver enough of what I enjoy about the series.
Part of the appeal of the open-world genre is that it allows the player to create his identity. This is more than just stealing cars and running over hapless pedestrians. It's all about the clothes, the kinds of cars, the preferred methods of killing, and so on. In short what makes the genre for me is how I go about developing my style. This is why I found the opening bits of this sequel a little disappointing. Even after given time to explore Steelport, I was initially turned off. This is a city whose biggest interest is riding the jock of the Saints. It's not just the billboards and the abundance of Planet Saints stores, but also the general layout of the city. It's like a virtual-reality program with this idea of creating a city intended solely for The Boss to run rampant in. I guess I shouldn't have gone into this game expecting to be the stranger in the strange land.
I don't need a city designed explicitly to my whims to help develop my identity. This game carries over many of the great ideas from the prior entries like the customization. Whether I just want to be myself, a green-skinned troll, or something that defies reason, the customization system makes it very possible. Of course being the 30-going-on-13-year-old boy that I am, it's only natural that I terrorize the streets of Steelport as a massive-breasted woman in a tiny outfit. I'll admit that an unhealthy number of hours in this game were spent on makeovers. With my hair just right and my clothes correct, I need the right vehicle. I'm more than covered here because there are numerous options for modding and upgrading almost every car in the game. If I want to cruise the streets in a cement mixer that somewhat resembles a bee, then it's going to happen.
Further assisting my Saints Row: The Third identity development is the official Web site. I'm aware that a number of other popular games use a system for tracking stats and all that other good stuff, but I never got into them as much as I do here. Along with the important information like how much of the game has been completed and how many people have been killed, Saints Row: The Third also logs every screen shot I take and created characters I've uploaded. There are multiple other aspects to the site and it altogether makes for a very cool way to stay in the game even while not playing it.
Oh right, how about the rest of Saints Row: The Third, huh? More and more, I'm getting distracted by the customization elements in games. Everything about the controls from aiming to driving has been improved, allowing for more exciting shootouts and better handling when situations go awry. The sprint button - also sometimes referred to as the "awesome" button - allows for a number of useful maneuvers like diving into cars and performing takedown attacks on adversaries. The rival gang-members tend to be more than just guys with guns, as there will also be encounters with specialists who have unique weapons, giant brutes who could probably eat a car if they were hungry enough, and zombies, because, hey . . . why not?
In the past, all respect was good for in Saints Row was unlocking missions, and it seemed like you always had far more than you needed. Volition did away with this old system and essentially respect has become something akin to experience. Upon leveling up, you'll unlock new abilities that can then be purchased if you have the dough. There are a great many of these and by the end of the game you could end up almost entirely invincible. In the interest of keeping things challenging, you may want to hold off on unlocking abilities like immunity to bullets. Still the options are there and can lead to some interesting replays of the game depending on your style. The weapons system has also been revamped to include more options for destruction, and they can be upgraded. Genre stalwarts like pistols, SMGs, and shotguns are accounted for. Also expect to acquire predator missiles, a device for remote-controlling vehicles, and even air-strikes. The options are numerous and you're liable to spend quite a long time just playing with all the toys.
The missions are for the most part really good. Quite a few of them are far more than just "drive here and kill so-and-so" and lead to some very inspired scenarios. It's a shame there's no replay function for missions, but I'm hopeful that it'll be added in sometime down the line. Also I like the idea of a revamped system of progression since it intertwines characters from all of the different factions instead of giving them their own separate storylines. However, there is a distinct lack of character development, and memorable cut scenes are few and far between. As expected, activities like Snatch and Insurance Fraud make their return, although this time around they're joined by new ones like Professor Genki's Reality Climax, which combines Smash TV and Japanese game shows. What is surprising and unfortunate is that a number of other activities like Fuzz! didn't make it in. Also the older activities just aren't as much fun as in the prior games. I'm not sure whether this is due to familiarity or the enhanced controls and the design actually working against the nature of the activities. That element of unpredictability and randomness can help in a game like this and when it's not there things can fall flat.
Co-op makes it welcome return as well and it covers the entirety of the main game. Everything is better with a friend or even a complete stranger, and it can make certain activities like stealing vehicles much easier when you have someone covering for you. The competitive multiplayer modes have been done away with and what we get instead is not quite enough. The Whored mode allows for two players to deal with wave after wave of enemies. The goal is to kill everyone, but the rules always change and wackiness is emphasized. It's kind-of unbalanced at times since it's all too easy to fail a wave in seconds due to being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Still it is a fun distraction, though I'd give everything to have something similar to Grand Theft Auto IV's free mode. Sixteen players with no rules or restrictions just tearing into the city and each other should become a standard feature of any open-world game.
One of the questionable decisions concerning this game is its usage of downloadable content. Admittedly, I'm not sure if I've ever been a fan of DLC outside of a handful of notable exceptions. Saints Row: The Third already looks to have an overabundance of this stuff and the fact that the publisher is selling a season pass really rubs me the wrong way. It's a model that I can't imagine will see a lot of success when many of these additions should have been included with the game. Having a new outfit to wear or a new way in which to kill somebody can only stay fresh for so long, and neither does anything to enhance the way the game is played. Also distressing is the DLC that's likely going to have new activities and missions tied to it.
All together, it's frustrating for me. The improvements in everything from art direction to controls to just all-around fun-factor should make Saints Row: The Third the best in the series. Still, I find that I think about the last game far too often, as it had less concerns over what did and did not work. Part 3 is more focused, tighter, and better in all the ways it should matter, but in some ways it lacks the charm and wit of its predecessor. Yes wit is certainly a surprising word when used in reference to Saints Row but I thought the dialogue and jokes were actually really good the last time around. This time it all comes off as rather forced, and the jokes being made are ones I've heard before. All this coupled with the DLC woes worry me, especially as a fan of the series. On the other hand this edition plays so well that I don't think I could ever go back to the earlier games. So while it is a difficult recommendation, it's a recommendation all the same. A visit to Steelport is worth looking into.