I’ve decided to kick off 2012 with something different for my blog. I’m turning over a new leaf this year. What exactly? Well, here it goes. I spent much of 2011 both playing and writing about all the big budget, highly anticipated video games on the scene. Hardly a crime, but as the year came to a close, I felt like I got way too swept up in the hoopla of mainstream titles, media buzz and the would-be Game of the Year contenders. For that, I had this “genius” notion to play every single big time console release this year; passing on several lesser known or underappreciated video games that I really wanted in order to have a proper perspective on the bigger fish. I made it a point to be well-versed in the mainstream gaming scene, and I paid for it by making most of my year feel very unsatisfying. I’m about to break some hearts here, friends -- I never wanted Batman: Arkham City, I had absolutely no interest in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was endlessly cautious about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and I stomached all of Skyrim’s fallacies just long enough to have an opinion of merit. Tally it up and that’s 240 U.S. dollars, people. $240 spent on games that I had little to no aspirations to see to the end. I played the role of a highbrowed journo with a finger on the hot button stories, and that wasn’t me. As cardinal of a rule as it is, I broke the rule of playing the games that I wanted to play. There comes a time when every gamer loses his or her way, but you brush it off and move forward. Therefore, this blog is going to be an adjusted take on my usual antics. Instead of babbling about the games getting the headlines, I’m going to talk about the games I want to talk about. If those games happen to be a heavy hitter, then fine, but if I get a few less clicks for talking about a less relevant subject, then it is what it is.
Now that I have that self-congratulatory epiphany out of the way, I’m ready to hit the ground runnin’. With this new-ish change of direction of mine, I decided to pick up a video game that I kept telling myself I couldn’t have given the time of day to. That game is… Saints Row: The Third. I’m sure a few acquaintances and close friends of mine are thinking “really, Marco? REALLY?!” Don’t make me bring the owl out. I’m going to sidetrack for a minute so I can be brutally honest about something. So far, I think Rockstar Games has sucked during this generation. Bu-bu-bu-but what about Red Dead Redemption? Silence, peasants. Look, I’m not knocking Rockstar’s ability to create amazing, fully realized worlds – they’re geniuses when it comes to that. Regardless of the location, era or theme, those guys bring it every time. Rockstar’s problem is two-fold: they can’t seem to get gameplay/controls right and they’re a victim of their own brilliance. I’m pretty sure the first reason speaks for itself, so I’ll fast travel on down to my second point. Red Dead Redemption? Quite possibly one of their best depictions of a time period; however, some of the missions and things to do fit the Wild West theme a little too accurately. By that I mean herding cattle back to the daggum pasture and shootin’ down them there coyotes before they gee’yit to the chickens. Them Wranglers were fittin’ a little too snug, if you pilgrims are catchin' muh wayward breeze. Yes, those two examples do add to the immersion of the era, but at the grave cost of tampering with fun factor. And that, my friends, is the problem. I can go on down the line and toss in a few more examples from Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV (taking a friend to a comedy club? That’s fun?) or even the fingerprints they left in LA Noire, but I’ll digress for now. I’ll save my ammo for when Grand Theft Auto V gets here. Underneath all of the flash and flair of their games lies a lot of problems that, in my opinion, have harmed their ability to make intricate, yet fun experiences anymore.
Saints Row fans need not hoot and holler, because up until now, the Saints Row series has been nothing short of a ‘me too’ GTA clone. Volition seemed to be content with copy & pasting every pro and con that present day GTA games have, which gave them back-to-back “second fiddle” awards. With that in mind, I had plenty of reasons to scoff at Saints Row: The Third. If anything, it looked like a batshit version of Grand Theft Auto, which didn’t seem like enough to get moist over. It was yesterday’s news before it hit the stands, and I was on to the next super duper holiday release. Soon, the year was nearly over and like many of you, I tuned in to every gaming media outlet to check out everyone’s favorites from 2011. I was quietly intrigued at how many reputable people in the industry ranked SR3 in their top fives… sometimes higher, sometimes top honors. Yet even after hearing countless people praise Saints Row: The Third as one of the year’s best, I still wasn’t compelled to play it. It’s one of those games that make you cringe when it’s explained to you. Man, if I hear one more person brag about being able to use a giant purple dildo as a weapon I swear I’ll jam a lit cigarette in my eye. I get it. Saints Row: The Third is a crazy, crazy game. Ignoring all of the examples of the wacky “slapdick” humor, I keyed in on something else instead… something far more important -- fun factor. Saints Row’s most cynical of cynics were having a blast with the game, which caught me off guard. With games as cuckoo as Saints Row, you can’t help but take the game at face value. Saints Row: The Third looked like it was all about shock value; whether it was dressing up as a furry, streaking through the city butt-boon naked or spraying doodoo all over pedestrians. It’s an over-the-top game without any real context for why. To me, it was a series tailor made for immaturity, but fun? Hmm.
On January 31st, OnLive had a promotion that allowed us to play a gracious five hour trial of Saints Row: The Third, as well as having the full game on sale. It was my one shot to try the game out, so I figured I’d take advantage of the offer and see what all the fuss was about. I laughed at the thought of playing Saints Row for five hours, but I still fired up the game and predicted I’d make it through about ten minutes and be done with it. Five hours later… I was cursing symbols like Barrett in Final Fantasy VII. The trial was over, and I wanted more. I was ready to sell a limb and a future first round draft pick to get this game. I frantically called every GameStop within my proximity to see if anyone had a used copy to spare. No luck. I tried again the next day – still nothing. After a few more days of excruciating trial and error, I finally found a store that had received a copy. I hopped in my car with a few games to trade (since GameStop had a 50% trade-in bonus when purchasing a used game) and I was back home an hour later with my crack on a disc.
If you have the slightest ounce of reservation about this game, I’d urge you to find a way to play through the first mission. Hell, OnLive still has a thirty minute trial for the game, so download the program for free and try it out. I’m not a betting man, but I can guarantee that by the time you finish the bombastic opening sequences of the campaign, you and your e-boner will be aching for more. The great thing about Saints Row: The Third is that it never lets up. Nearly every mission I’ve played so far has been insane fun, with hardly any lulls in between the action. That isn’t necessarily what won me over, though. It was the fact that Volition finally found a way to give these silly thrills proper context to the story and structure. Every single outlandish thing you can do has a rhyme or reason behind it. Those reasons are still very comical in nature, but they’re integrated into the game a senselessly sensible way. There’s a method to the madness. Now, all of this would mean nothing if SR3 played like shit, but in an odd twist, Saints Row: The Third has the best gameplay in the GTA-styled sandbox genre, hands down.
It’s almost ironic that Rockstar Games is taking us back to San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto V, because it honestly feels like Saints Row: The Third is the true spiritual successor to the old PS2 classic. It makes you wish that Rockstar Games still had the balls to make the loony, yet engaging sandbox experiences from a generation ago. They’ve long since dismissed imagination for overlyrealistic depictions of past and present day worlds. All signs point to GTA V using our current recession and economic woes as a central theme. My question is why? Seriously, people play games like GTA to escape reality and wreak havoc in a fictitious city… not to be reminded of everything that’s fucked up in the world. I don’t need foreclosures and high gas prices in my GTA, thanks. It’s this ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach that transformed 2008's GTA IV into a stiffer, downtempo experience with an occasional flicker of what the series used to be, and I don’t ever want to see that again.
Saints Row: The Third doesn’t bog you down with things like this. This game is all about plopping you into a city and making it your playground. Not since the original Crackdown have I felt such a feeling, which for me is quite a compliment. There’s no leaping from building to building to collect agility orbs or anything, but I can take me and my “up to no good” attitude and run amuck in Steelport, constantly finding new hijinks to partake and new toys to tinker with. As I started to mention before, the gameplay and controls really shine, so pulling off all of these reckless deeds are delightfully easy to pull off. The controls are strikingly accessible, which makes piloting choppers, airstrikes (yes, airstrikes), base jumping and simple gunplay fit like a glove. You just jump in and have at it. It’s hard to knock a game that doesn’t have you flipping through a manual to figure out how to wipe your ass. Travis Touchdown approves this message.
If we’re strictly looking at the evolution of the Saints Row series, one of the other major improvements was made to the presentation department. Menus are slick and straight forward, with bangin’ in-house tracks keeping the mood upbeat while navigating through your micro-managerial options. Speaking of music, SR3 features a very commendable soundtrack. Some of their selections for licensed music will have you thinking “damn, how did Rockstar miss that one?” I’m talking about shit like this: http://youtu.be/MwPb7g_BlXQ?hd=1&t=3s. Each radio station features an eclectic list of artists and genres – classical, thrash metal, hip-hop, reggaeton, dubstep, house, 80’s synth and others. Cutscenes also pack a bigger punch, in terms of accentuating the strengths of the outlandish characters and tongue and cheek plot. Volition’s cutscenes and dialogue frequently break the fourth wall and in a smart, self-aware, “we know about archetypes” kind of way that will give you a good laugh. For example, you’re on a mission to take out a Syndicate leader in his humongous, 50 story building. As you and your homies are driving to his base, one of the characters say something to the effect of “I’ll bet you anything that his office is on the top floor! It’s always the top floor, isn’t it?” I think it’s genius that this game can poke fun at itself about something as predictable as mowing down enemies floor by floor until you reach the top where the boss fight awaits. It’s refreshing – many games enforce you to take those archetypes seriously, but not Saints Row: The Third. The presentation is flashy, funny and succeeds at pushing you to keep playing. My character and a few of the main characters were talking about an upcoming mission, and the way it was explained at our home base and during the car drive there were awesome. We were to go out and rescue a pimp named Zimos who speaks in autotune who was taken hostage as a servant in an underground S&M sex club. Ku-fucking-dos to Volition for getting me to say “Oh shit, I gotta see this” and them actually delivering on that one. Nothing beats having someone yell at me to pick up a gatling gun in full T-Pain styled autotune… NOTHING.
Saints Row: The Third may straddle the line of gratuitousness, but at no point has it ever felt obnoxious to me. It’s a lighthearted game hell bent on being fun, so if you have it in you to match that premise with a parallel mentality, you’ll have a much better time. Wind your life-clock back to 2001 and let this be your new GTA 3. Allow Saints Row: The Third to seep into your mind and bring out your inner douche. If you can harness such a power, all of the flying motorcycles, fighter jets, S&M, autotune, anime spoofs, energy drink commercials and incomprehensible weapons will make your day. It’s quite rare, but Saints Row: The third is one of those “wouldn’t it be awesome if…” projects that actually work. My gaudy pimp cap goes off to Volition for reawakening the rambunctious rebel in me. Those old nostalgic feelings from the GTA 3 days are back, and you’d be lying to yourself if you think that you’re too old for that. It’s clear that Rockstar Games wants to move on from the days of controversial, ball busting mayhem, but you’ve got to wonder if they just gift wrapped their successful formula of yesteryear to Volition. Volition didn’t just take the ball and run with it; they took the ball, ran it over, hocked a loogie on it and pelted it at Rockstar’s ovaries.
At this point, it’s still unclear what Grand Theft Auto V will become. If it’s anywhere near as lethargic as Niko Bellic’s “rags to slightly nicer rags” tale, the series could be in a lot of trouble. Critically? No. In terms of sales? Not a chance. But in the eyes of the fans with the rose-colored remembrance of what the GTA series used to be, there’s a big void that might go unfilled again. I’m not worried about GTA V’s setting. I’m not worried about GTA V’s depiction of the modern day. I’m not worried about GTA V’s impeccable cultural references. I am worried about equipping an RPG and blasting down a police chopper without it feeling weird or out of place. I am worried about picking up my controller and feeling like I’m playing with two left hands and carpal tunnel. I am worried about a brilliant backdrop and genius narrative serving as a smoke and mirror effect to hide the core game. Luckily, I have Saints Row: The Third’s delicious schizophrenia to remind me that Grand Theft Auto as we knew it isn’t dead after all. You can have your recession – I’ll be busy dropkicking someone through their windshield, stealing their car and riding off into the sunset. Let’s pop some blowup dolls, baby. It’s just you and me… and the sixteen cop cars behind us.
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