Saints Row: The Third
14th Nov 2011 | 12:06
At its best, Saints Row is funny, imaginative and gleefully entertaining. At its worst, it's lazy, generic and a technical mess. If it struck a consistent balance between the two, you could forgive its shortcomings, but the bad all too often outweighs the good.
For every moment of pure joy - and it has its fair share - there are hours of repetitive mini-games and lacklustre combat to endure.
You play as the nameless leader of the Saints, a street gang who have become a global phenomenon. They have armies of fans, tacky merchandise, movie deals, and their own branded energy drink, 'Saints Flow'. The game takes frequent swipes at contemporary culture, and although it doesn't have the sardonic bite of Grand Theft Auto's lethal satire, it's still pretty clever in places.
Many regard Saints Row as the 'anti-GTA', and it really is. While Rockstar left the chaos and jetpacks behind to tell an adult story in a sophisticated, believable world, Saints Row has gone in the opposite direction. It has none of the class, style or production values of Rockstar's game, but it is, arguably, more dedicated to providing shameless entertainment.
There are very few limitations. You can fly any plane and leap off any building. You have infinite parachutes, and can warp instantly to the shore if you get stranded in the water. You don't even have to drag someone out of their car to steal it; you just inexplicably jump straight through the windshield into the driver's seat. If it's an immersive, cinematic 'experience' you seek, look elsewhere. This is, in the purest sense, a game - and unashamedly so.
The appearance and personality of the Saints' leader is completely up to you, thanks to a brilliantly powerful character editor. You can make him or her look genuinely cool, or a complete abomination. The latter is often the most amusing, as your creation appears in cut-scenes, which are all rendered in-game.
If you get bored of your look, or even your sex, visit a plastic surgeon in the city and change it. If you want a new outfit, there are shops full of every type of fashion imaginable, as well as ludicrous costumes (we spent the final hours of the game dressed as a pirate).
This gives you a great feeling of ownership: your character will be completely different to anyone else's, and you can upload them to be rated, and downloaded, by other players.
Mid-game sex changes might sound ridiculous, but that's Saints Row's buzzword. This is a game where you can call up Burt Reynolds during a firefight and he'll come and lend a hand (and a shotgun). It's a game where you run around a wrestling ring with a chainsaw, slicing up masked luchadores while 'You're the Best' from The Karate Kid plays. It's a game where you flee from the gun-toting owners of an S&M club on a gimp-pulled chariot.
Volition's sense of humour is, of course, completely infantile. You won't be slapping your knee and howling with laughter; just grinning at the absurdity of it all, and letting out the odd audible snigger. What makes it so endearing is that it knows it's crass and tasteless - yet, you can't help but admire their dedication to stupidity.
The open world structure is instantly familiar, and unchanged from previous games. This time, however, you're in a brand new city: Steelport. The downtown area is visually impressive, with gargantuan skyscrapers and blazing neon lights, but the surrounding suburbs are unimaginative and bland.
It doesn't have the irresistible allure of Batman's Arkham City or Assassin's Creed's Constantinople, but its vertical scale does, at least, make it the perfect playground for the game's bulging hangar of air vehicles.
But, perhaps surprisingly given the sandbox on offer, it's when you're following the story of the Saints and their efforts to take over Steelport, that the game is at its best.
Missions place you in increasingly unpredictable situations. It starts out fairly low-key with a raid on a military base to steal weapons for the gang, but it finishes with an explosive finale involving tanks, jets and city-levelling explosions. In between, there's a zombie outbreak, a trip inside a Tron-like computer world and... well, we won't spoil the surprise. But it gets wilder and more varied.
There's also an element of choice to the decisions you make. Certain missions see you choosing between two options that will affect the story, sometimes in quite dramatic ways. One example - and we'll keep it vague to avoid spoilers - gives you the option of destroying a skyscraper, or saving it for yourself. Impressively, decisions are tough, and never black and white: there'll always be a negative for every positive. It gives the story some flavour, and adds an incentive to replay the game.
Ultimately, though, even the missions have a problem: they're fun initially, but then the joke wears thin. They almost always devolve into tiresome bouts of endless, boring shooting.
Volition are full of ideas, but few that last beyond that initial burst of creativity. A few are an absolute triumph - usually the ones involving large environments and skipping between vehicles - but most are tediously linear, and no more interesting than a very basic corridor shooter.
And, before we get back to the good stuff, there's more sadness.
In most open world games, there are endless 'filler' side-missions blinking on the map that you try your best to ignore, and usually can. Saints Row, instead, makes you do them.
These 'activities' range from mildly amusing, to utterly mind-numbing, and you have to do all of them at least once, and sometimes twice, to advance the story. In one of the best, there's a tiger in your car and you have to keep your speed up to stop it mauling you. But most of the others are infuriating escort missions and wearisome on-rails shooting sections.
Similar problems eventually hinder the sandbox too. The play area is full of things to do and mayhem to cause. Some elements are more entertaining, and worthwhile, than others, but there are a lot of distractions. One of the biggest is being able to build your empire. Stores and buildings can be purchased, increasing your hourly income (that's game hours, not real ones).
By becoming a property mogul, you can have thousands of dollars spilling into your account; perfect for buying weapons and upgrades. It's optional, but very useful. You can even add additional floors to some buildings, turning them into skyscrapers and allowing you to reshape the city.
Character upgrades include being able to recruit more gang members, take more damage, and carry more ammunition. Weapon upgrades give you more power and accuracy, and other effects like armour-piercing bullets for your SMG: useful when the anti-gang 'STAG' military unit show up in Steelport.
Other distractions are more instant. Jump on the roof of a car and you'll start a 'car surfing' mini-game, seeing how long you can hang on without falling off. The insurance fraud mini-game, an old Saints Row favourite, sees you throwing your floppy, ragdoll body into oncoming traffic to try and injure yourself as horrifically as possible.
Then there's Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, a game show that sees you battling through an arena killing guys in animal suits for money.
But then the problems begin. Because the gameplay at the core of the side content is all so rudimentary, the imagination of the developers seems wasted. It's as if Saints Row has more ambition than the technology can handle. The engine is vastly improved over previous games, but it's still unreliable and glitchy.
Vehicles sink into the ground, bits of scenery get lodged in your car as you ride around, and the collision detection is sloppy. In its favour, the animation is smooth, the characters look great (the main ones, that is - the NPCs are hideous), and a few set-pieces are impressively huge in scale.
But the combat needed a bit more depth to it, to make those long firefights feel less of a chore - because, even when you're mixing up weapons, calling in air strikes and fighting alongside Burt Reynolds, it feels weirdly limp and old-fashioned. A critical flaw considering the game is 80% shootouts.
So, in a reflection of Saints Row itself, the negatives outnumber the positives. There's definitely a lot to love here, and it's infinitely more fun when you're playing with a buddy in co-op mode, but its tired gunplay, and its lack of technical polish, is a let-down.
If you can steel yourself for the low points, you'll find a stupidly entertaining game dedicated to making you smile, full of moments you'll excitedly recount to anyone who'll listen. But then, just as you're starting to fall for it, it wipes the smile away by smacking you in the face with a big, dick-shaped baseball bat.