Saints Row: The Third: The Kotaku Review

Kanye West's "Power" plays a central, recurring role in Volition's new open-world crime game Saints Row: The Third. The tune has been featured in the game's exhaustive promotional materials, plays regularly on its in-game radio stations, and makes bookending appearances in the single-player campaign. Considering the song's lyrics and the man who wrote them, Volition couldn't have chosen a more appropriate theme song.

No one man should have all that power The clocks tickin' I just count the hours Stop trippin' I'm tripping off the powder Till then, f**k that, the world's ours

Is there a bigger egomaniac in the world than Kanye West? He is practically the embodiment of our cultural obsession with VIP-status, our fantasies of strength and chaotic destruction, of swaggering rage against a fucked-up world that just so happens to revolve entirely around us. And so Saints Row: The Third is a celebration of the player's ego and of his or her power -- it's a joyous, wholehearted embrace of the "you" as it applies to video games. Who is the most important person in the world? You are! Who gets all the toys? You do! Indulge yourself, this game tells us. Stop tripping. The world's ours.

In Saints Row: The Third, players assume the role of the boss of the Third Street Saints, a notorious purple-clad gang of (surprisingly likable) psychopathic killers. The few surviving members of the Saints have blasted through two games and a sizable body count to arrive at the start of the third game, where they must relocate from the almost ironically generic city of Stillwater to the equally generic city of Steelport and claw to the top of yet another criminal empire.

By the time Saints Row: The Third's story begins, the Saints are no longer mere gangsters. They are super-criminal masterminds, amoral, invincible, and essentially unstoppable. This progression towards supervillain status has been happening for a while: Saints Row told an enjoyably soapy but grounded gangster tale, and Saints Row 2 upped the ante in terms of over-the-top antics. This was mainly in an effort to set itself apart from the juggernaut whose template it had stolen, Grand Theft Auto, and to a large extent it worked. Saints Row: The Third, then, is in many ways a perfection of the template set forth in Saints Row 2, often for the better and occasionally for the worse.

Want to play as an overweight Asian man with a lady's voice? Go for it. Want to be an iridescent purple goth chick with a giant tiger tattoo on her face? Make it happen.

The narrative setup is as follows: The Saints have become the biggest celebrities in the world, with energy drinks and reality shows to their names. In other words, they've cashed in and have sucked up as much modern-day ego-fuel as any human being could. But they haven't exactly gone soft -- the opening mission has them robbing a bank by attaching guywires to the ceiling of the a room-sized vault before explosively separating it from the building and flying away with the entire room-sized safe dangling from a helicopter. Skydiving gunfights follow shortly afterwards.

As for your character, he or she is whatever you want him or her to be. At the start of the game, players can choose a character of any ethnicity, sex, size, or shape, and even customise their character's voice from a list of seven options -- three male, three female, and one Zombie. (Here's a video I put up earlier this week detailing the character customisation options). Want to play as an overweight Asian man with a lady's voice? Go for it. Want to be an iridescent purple goth chick with a giant tiger tattoo on her face? Make it happen.

I remain impressed by how generous a game Saints Row: The Third is. Each of the seven voices (even the grunts of the Zombie) are usable throughout the story missions, which means that every line of the protagonists' dialogue has been recorded seven times. That's a hell of a lot of voice recording! I played as a bald dude with a rough British accent (voiced expertly by Mr. Travis Touchdown himself, Robin Atkin Downes), but I could have just as easily played as a haughty Eastern European dominatrix-type, a valley girl, or a grunting member of the undead (voiced, incidentally, by the one and only Steve Blum).

And it's not just the characters -- damn near everything in the game can be customised. Cars have an exhaustive number of appearance and performance options, gang members can be dressed however you please, and for a relative pittance you can even take your character to "Image by Design," the Steelport plastic surgeon, and completely remake him into a her (or vice versa).

Saints Row: The Third'a generosity extends past its customisation options and into its writing. Throughout the story but particularly during the first two thirds, it seems lead writer Steve Jaros and his writing team will do anything to entertain. Time and again the story tops itself until you don't think it can get any more delightfully absurd… and then it does. I laughed more and harder playing this game than I have playing anything this year except for Portal 2.

There are very few "routine" open-world crime missions in Saints Row: The Third, and as a result the game largely avoids the sense of been-there-done-that that can creep up in GTA-style games. After two Saints Row games and years of GTA iterations, it's impressive that people can still come up with interesting things to do within the mostly unchanged parameters of the template set forth 10 years ago in Grand Theft Auto III. And yet Jaros and his writers do so with impressive regularity.

The game's writing also thrives in smaller, tossed-off moments. There are references strewn throughout the game like so much confetti -- for example, there is a grenade launcher called a "GLG20" (a reference which, it must be said, the TV show "Chuck" got to first) as well as a motorcycle named the "Kaneda." The throwaway banter between characters is genuinely funny, particularly in how deadpan the Saints are about the ridiculousness of their antics.

"Let's clear them out quickly and quietly!" instructs your character.

"Quietly?" asks a sidekick with great scepticism, no doubt thinking back to that last mission flying a VTOL in which half the city was razed.

"Quiet…ish?" the boss responds, just before opening fire with a bazooka.

Occasionally the jokes lean a bit too hard on current memes and slang, and it all can wind up feeling a bit on-the-nose. And despite the inclusiveness inherent to its deep respect for player customisation (would you like your gang leader to be a hispanic woman? How about an elderly black man? Sure!), Saints Row: The Third frequently errs into bad taste in how it deals with female characters. Yes, scantily clad women get blown away in this game as often as big buff men do. Yes, there is a horde mode in the menu called "Whored Mode" in which players fight off increasingly difficult waves of attacking sex workers. (Though I should say that many of the "whores" are men, or S&M slaves, or any of a number of other types of oddity.)

But as easy as it would be to get het up about the fact that the game's female NPCs are all either prostitutes or have prostitutional tendencies, I felt like it managed to get away with much of its more outrageous content with pure guile and ridiculousness. I'm not sure why I wasn't more offended by Saints Row: The Third's more offensive content (surely it has something to do with the fact that I am a straight white dude), but I wasn't.

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, I was impressed with the script. The writing in the first two Saints Row games was good (and underrated, I've always thought) but in Saints Row: The Third, Volition's pen-pushers have truly come into their own.

While the main story missions provide the most memorable and watercooler-worthy bits of the game, there is much more to Saints Row: The Third. The Saints Row series has set itself apart from Grand Theft Auto not only in tone and ridiculousness, but in its focus on sidequests called "Diversions", which allow players to rack up respect and cash while taking over the map one district at a time. These diversions take a backseat compared to Saints Row 2, mainly in that it is no longer necessary to amass respect to unlock story missions. It's a welcome change, and a further example of how the game puts the player's experience above all else.

As enjoyable as some of the diversions are, many are returning from past games, and it's probably for the best that they're not as directly tied to the story as they once were. Also, whither the sewage-spraying, Volition? What have you done with my favourite diversion from Saints Row 2? Blowing up vehicles in a radioactive four-wheeler is good fun, but nothing could top SR2's fecal-blasting property damage minigame, which is curiously absent from the new game. Alas.

But enough poop, let's talk cake. There is so much delicious frosting slathered on Saints Row: The Third that at times I found it hard to refocus my tastebuds on the game at its core. Which is fine, OK, frosting is delicious! A game can be all frosting. But as Saints Row ramps up in intensity towards the end, the weaker aspects of its design become increasingly unflattering. The missions mostly just pit players against a small army, fighting their way from checkpoint to checkpoint around the city. And so the game must rely on its combat systems which, while enjoyable, aren't robust enough to hold the weight of the late-campaign missions.

And so there was a moment in the game -- right around the two-thirds mark -- when I realised that a lot of the combat wasn't actually that fun. It's surprising how little that effects my enjoyment the core game, since around 90% of the missions are of the "Go here shoot guys" variety, but as the encounters get bigger and bigger, this shortcoming sticks out more and more.

The weapons aren't a problem, but the enemies are. Guns and bombs are fun to use, and GTA could learn a thing or two about Saints Row's wonderful weapon-wheel and free-aiming. But the enemies are spammy and occasionally infuriating, pouring towards your location in ceaseless, often overwhelming waves.

Somewhere along the line, the game's difficulty spun out of whack -- there are always a few too many enemies attacking at once, they all have a bit too much health, and they're entirely too accurate. To balance things out, Volition seems to have made your character exceptionally, almost comically resilient. My cockney Guy Ritchie thug could absorb 10 times his body weight in lead -- and in a particularly forgiving touch, the final 5% of the player's health drains much slower than the first 95 per cent did, which allows for many a down-to-the-wire escape.

I hereby propose a moratorium on impact animations that steal control from the player in the middle of a firefight.

The end result of all this hitpoint-juicing is that combat feels not so much overstuffed as overinflated. Most battles devolve into frantic sprint and spray-fests, with scads of regular soldiers pegging you with mosquito-powered bullets, huge breserker enemies relentlessly chasing you and throwing you around, flying helicopters and VTOLs blasting you from above, snipers taking potshots from rooftops, rockets flying in from tanks and helicopters, and fast-moving, teleporting enemies knocking you in the face with tech-hammers.

It feels jammed up and confusing, and the final 20 per cent of the story is a real slog. And perhaps most frustrating of all, any time an explosion or large impact hits the player, their character goes limp and flails around before finally climbing back to his feet. At several points during the campaign I bumped the difficulty down to "Casual" after repeated, cheap deaths made me wonder if I would even be able to finish the campaign.

I hereby propose a moratorium on impact animations that steal control from the player in the middle of a firefight. And while we're placing moratoriums, let's also put one on party members who get downed in combat and require rescuing, but whose death results in a "mission failed" screen. Just by removing those two things, Saints Row: The Third's combat could have been a great deal more enjoyable.

The game finally truly overextends itself when zombies enter the picture. Saints Row 2 players will remember the goofy "Zombie Uprising" video game that could be played in-game and put players up against increasingly difficult hordes of zombies. Something similar happens in Saints Row: The Third, and hoo boy, is it a mess. It starts with a funny idea -- where did these zombies come from? -- but quickly turns into a profoundly frustrating mission. In it, you must knock containers out into the sea as hordes of identikit zombies charge you. In order to move the containers, you must switch to a melee weapon… that is terrible at killing zombies. If the undead touch you while you're aiming, you stumble and lose control, unable to shoot or switch weapons for a few seconds. This setup often results in you arriving at a container, switching to the container-mover, and then getting mobbed by zombies and being unable to switch to a weapon that will let you fight back.

On top of this, the zombies are often on fire, and they run as fast as your character is able to sprint. If a flaming zombie touches you, you are engulfed in fire and lose control for a good 10 seconds as your character flails around onscreen, still unable to switch to a goddam usable weapon. Does this sound like a mess yet? Because boy, is it ever one.

I go into such detail because this mission is illustrative of the sometimes-slight, sometimes-large disconnect between Saints Row: The Third's hilarious bright ideas and its often-frustrating execution. "Sudden zombie outbreak!" sounds like just the kind of goofy shenanigan that the story has been getting away with up to this point, but the abject failure of the mission to be any kind of fun prompts a reexamination of what, exactly, is so fun about Saints Row: The Third in the first place.

Those zombie missions, as well as many of the late-game missions, would no doubt be much more managable alongside a friend. And here, another one of Saints Row: The Third's remarkable bits of generosity -- the entire campaign, from start to finish, is playable in co-op via Xbox Live or System Link. I didn't have much of a chance to try it out, but it works well and allows for seamless drop-in/drop-out, and it's not hard to imagine how fun it would be to play through the entire game with a friend. Better, both players progress through the story on their own and earn respect and money in their own single-player game. It's a strong continuation of one of Saints Row's coolest features, though at times it feels like the missions are designed to be handled by two players instead of one. (And no, the generally useless teammate AI does not count as "additional people.")

In Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book "Blink," he discusses snap-decision making as it related to the the Coke/Pepsi rivalry of the 1980s. In Pepsi-sponsored "sip-tests", people were given a sip of Pepsi and a sip of Coke and asked which they preferred. Pepsi won by a landslide, and so for a brief time Pepsi stated that their cola was objectively the better-tasting option. But as Gladwell reveals, the sip-test results were only half the story -- when testers were given an entire can of both cola, they actually preferred Coke. Pepsi's enhanced sweetness gave it the edge in taste-test, but Coke's richer flavour won people over long-term.

In much the same way, 2008's Saints Row 2 was very much the oversweetened Pepsi to Grand Theft Auto IV's richer Coke. While Saints Row 2 was at times an explosively fun game, it lacked the depth and flavour that made GTA IV such an achievement.

In this regard, Saints Row: The Third is a significant step up for the franchise. It has all the flavour of a supercharged Pepsi, but it's also got a lot more Coke to it than its predecessors. This is a good thing, and a sign that for all the willful dumbness of the characters and the story, the people making this game are both smart and truly dedicated to making each of their games better than the last one.

It is difficult not to be won over by Saints Row: The Third's sheer joie de vivre. This game is in love with its own madness, and it was clearly crafted with a lot of heart. Yes, there are some significant tonal problems. Yes, combat is flawed and the story runs out of gas in the final third. But in so many ways, Volition puts the player's comfort and enjoyment above all else, and in doing so their game becomes an unparalleled indulgence, the current pinnacle of the "you"-oriented video game.

No one man should have all that power? Fuck that, says Volition. The world's yours.


Comments

    "perhaps most frustrating of all, any time an explosion or large impact hits the player, their character goes limp and flails around before finally climbing back to his feet"

    This can be turned off in game. It's a character upgrade.

    Also, while I'm normally a console gamer because it's easier, I got this on PC and with a mouse the combat is just fine. (Too bad about the framerate issues though.)

      There is that option, but it takes quite some time to unlock it, since you need level 31 respect.

        I didn't realise that. That's a pretty high level, but still think the review out to have mentioned it if it's one of their key criticisms.

    There is so much I want to say in response to this review. Unfortunately, replying on my phone is ass so I'll do a write up from my PC when I get there.

      Does it include this comment?
      "the juggernaut whose template it had stolen, Grand Theft Auto"

      POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD

      "But the enemies are spammy and occasionally infuriating, pouring towards your location in ceaseless, often overwhelming waves."

      I see this as a necessary counter to the raw power of the weaponry at the players disposal. Late game I found myself armed with dual pistols that could take out cars before the occupants had a chance to exit, the obligatory rocket launcher, and a laser target painter that calls in an air strike to raze everything in the blast area. Oh, and a tank that I could have delivered to my location. Also considering cars are little more than rolling explosives that deliver meat to the grinder, after which they sit around waiting to be detonated in a glorious fireball, the player should have more than enough boom and dakka to ravage the small army that is thrown against them.

      "huge breserker enemies relentlessly chasing you and throwing you around,....snipers taking potshots from rooftops... fast-moving, teleporting enemies knocking you in the face with tech-hammers"

      I saw the brutes and specialists as a welcome challenge in combat. While occasionally I found myself using some select four letter words after encountering them, for the most part they didn't feel overpowered and simply required and on-the-fly change in tactics which was a nice distraction from my one man apocalypse. I really liked the Deckers specialists, ladies on rollerblades with the ability to teleport short distances and armed with a massive 'shock hammer'.

      "At several points during the campaign I bumped the difficulty down to “Casual” after repeated, cheap deaths made me wonder if I would even be able to finish the campaign."

      This is a small surprise to me, perhaps its because I'd played the previous two installments ad nauseum, but I really didn't find combat that difficult, as long as you keep your head, move sensibly and use the environment when you need to recover there really shouldn't be a problem. The points at which I did die were mostly due to my own bad decisions, such as wading eyeballs deep into a cloud of flying lead or letting a brute or specialist survive for too long.

      "I hereby propose a moratorium on impact animations that steal control from the player in the middle of a firefight"

      I would rather ragdoll than facetank explosions. You have a sprint button, use it to remove yourself from harms way.

      "And while we’re placing moratoriums, let’s also put one on party members who get downed in combat and require rescuing, but whose death results in a “mission failed”"

      Again, I didn't feel this was an issue, while at times I wanted to walk over and shoot Pierce in the head myself for being unable to stay out of the way of bullets, most of the time my homies were near enough that I could sprint over, get them up and run back to a more advantageous position. Although the addition of a 'stay the fuck there' button would have been welcome.

      "In order to move the containers, you must switch to a melee weapon… that is terrible at killing zombies."

      This is absolutely incorrect. The Sonic Boom is not a melee weapon, nor is it terrible at killing zeds, in fact it liquidates them at mid-close range with a slight charge up.

      "and they run as fast as your character is able to sprint"

      nope.

      Now before I get accused of fanboy defense, there were some issues that irritated me with the game. Its narrative and characterisation especially. Be warned there will be spoilers coming up here, so look away if you don't want to know some plot points...

      SPOILER ZONE

      Shaundis image change was a big one for me. She went from being a homicidal hippie in Saints Row 2 to being an almost forgettable pretty standard looking female in Saints Row 3. I guess it had something to do with the Saints new media empire, but this isn't covered in the game, and I'm really not sure why they did it.

      I also found the motivation for the story to be weak. The death of Johnny Gat was underplayed and rushed over. I felt almost nothing after the demise of a character who in my view encompasses and personifies Saints Rows over the top but still charming mayhem and violence. The deaths of Lyn and Eesh in SR 1 and 2 respectively had much more of an impact, and Eesh's death still remains one of my most memorable experiences from any game in the series.

      END OF SPOILER ZONE

      The cutscenes in SR3 were not even close to the narrative power they should have been, and were in the predecessors. This wasn't helped by the fact that the gangs felt bland aside from color swaps. I enjoyed the deeper stories of the gangs from the first two games, Los Carnales and their internal power struggle, Benjamin King, the classy sociopath, and his Vice Kings, The Ronin, a triad gang run by Akuji, who is trying to impress his father and make a name for himself. the tribal tattoo sporting Brotherhood, who roll up in huge pickups, and the Sons of Samedi with their Voodoo priest were all memorable for their own reasons. The gangs in SR3 had no such character. It was pretty much a case of 'Kill these guys because they aren't us'.

      The otherwise useless profit generating properties should have been replaced with additional activities, because driving up and pressing Y then A didn't really excite me that much. On the topic of activities, there should have been more of them. Tiger Escort was a fun addition in which the player has to drive around in a convertible with a tiger in the passenger seat, avoiding all the usual pitfalls of driving at high speed through a city. Professor Genkis Super Ethical Reality Climax is a hell of a good time, but with only a handful of levels is over all too quickly. I also lamented the pre activity cutscenes which were always good for a laugh.

      Saints Row the Third is definitely a Saints Row game. Its got all the elements you would expect from the series, but somehow it all felt a bit hollow and empty. The game would have gained a lot more from more fleshing out of the narrative and gangs. Activities, while a fun distraction, needed more levels, and for the love of Johnny Gat where the hell are all my unlockable trophy cars and guns?

      Overall its a very positive experience, but lacks the depth that made Saints Row 2 the masterpiece of the series so far.

        I agree actually, it felt hollow.
        But it can be explained, i'll just quote what the developer said on the Something Awful forums:
        "I get that you really like the game, so I feel it's only fair to help shed some light on something you likely won't hear anywhere else (unless you go bugging V-Singular on the official forums)

        IMO, in terms of the raw resources required to get a game built and out the door, (and Kakesu can chime in if he feels otherwise) SRTT most closely parallels SR1. It's a new engine with all the stuff that comes with wrestling with new technology in a single game cycle. SR2 used the exact same engine and more than less built off the version of Stilwater from SR1.

        That in super boiled down terms means that the city of SR2 had about 6 years of development in it.

        Without going into too much detail, our cinematics manpower on SRTT was much less than it was on SR2 or SR1. I could go into numbers and I would probably be wrong, but my gut estimate is that we had anywhere from 50-75% fewer cinematics artists on SRTT.

        I'm going to leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare exact headcounts between SR2 and SR3, but it's safe to say we did more with less. Because we had to. "

        So i guess blame THQ for not providing enough manpower?

          if that was the case, and they really wanted to kill who they did, I wish they had left it till they could blow me away with it. Such a waste.

          My two cents - I'd much prefer a more convincing playground than more interesting cinematics, Stillwater was a buggy mess - it looks as if they've largely fixed a lot of those problems with this new city so I for one applaud their decision.

    Does anyone know who is selling this cheapest? and not an online store cuz i wanna go buy it today. Thanks

      triggahappi.com has it for $64.90 on UK import (that's the one I've got), or they have the OZ version for $91.95.....cheaper on PC.

        Sorry dude, brain was wandering, forgot you wanted to buy right away! I shop with these guys a lot now. I seem to have become a disciple or something..what is with that. Anyway, beats giving your cash to the big bastards!

    Zombie can be beat using that sonic boomish weapon only. Just strafe, run, charge to full and explode a herd of them when all gathered. I found if you moved the whole mission it wasn't an issue, sure it was a pain but still not as hard as you illustrate it

    I am really enjoying this game, none of the stuff has really offended me or even gotten close. EXCEPT for Zimos' missions. Well, I wasnt so much offended as queasy at the idea of participating in the missions (studiously avoiding spoilers here) also Zimos himself has a voice which physically hurts my ears.

      I hate what the autotune has done to the music industry. BUT. I disagree here.
      Zimos' voice makes me laugh so much whenever he talks.
      Also his missions are supposed to be a little.... interesting. He was a gimp-pimp remember.

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