canuckeh's Saints Row: The Third (Xbox 360) review

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Energy drinks and so forth

Not to get my melodrama on, but there’s a problem with seriousness. So many games try their damnedest to play the straightest of laces with material that isn’t especially well worth the investment in dignity. It’s hard to get particularly invested in a major war game where the solution to Russia’s invasion of the American heartland is to detonate a nuclear bomb in space. Or about the secret cult of Italian assassins as depicted through the genetic memory of a clueless bartender. How about that green elven ninja rescuing a princess from a talking pig monster? Yup, please take us seriously pretty please we are grown-ups too!

I always felt betrayed by the Saint’s Row games. For all their talk about being the silly, lap-slapping joyride that the Grand Theft Auto series were all too mature to up, all of that glee was evaporated the moment plot needed advancing. There were some appallingly dramatic moments in Saint’s Row 2, moments that were too poorly written to earn any kind of emotional impact. It’s hard to mourn for the loss of a gang member when sitting next to a comrade-in-arms named Johnny Gat. Also, the comedic moments felt like they were spawned out of a sense of teenage rebellion designed to spite Grand Theft Auto’s sudden grounding in reality. The response to GTA 4’s humbled story of poor Niko Bellic was to drive around downtown in a sewage truck spraying anal produce. Little immature, yes, but at least more adult than most of the online players shooting you on the Halo servers.

Everything in purple
Everything in purple

So Saint’s Row the Third works by virtue of largely abandoning any pretenses of drama. Actually, there are moments of drama here and there, but they tend to exist to highlight a subversive joke. Like how the underdog high-flying luchador is voiced by Hulk Hogan. The game spends less time trying to engage you in a dramatic story or remind you of how snobby a certain other crime franchise has become, and more time establishing it’s own dumb, dumb identity. One of the earlier missions has the player leaping and skydiving from one plane to another, gunning down enemies who are too busy shooting at you to notice they’re free-falling to their imminent deaths.

In fact, most missions have some kind of “I can’t believe they’re doing that” moment in them. The subsequent issue that I face is that the more I describe what happens within the main storyline, the more juicy moments of ridiculousness I ruin for the player to discover. Just trust me when I say that shits will hit the fans in manners most appropriate and inappropriate.

You do get to revel in the inexplicable nature of the world. You are once again the leader of the Third Street Saints, who are popular enough to have their own energy drink (amongst other dumb memorabilia.) Your said protagonist is also your own creation, be it male, female, zombie-voiced, emerald-coated skin or otherwise. Your said character can still achieve plastic surgery and change genders or facial features as casually as one changes bed sheets. Your character also just happens to have infinite parachutes for casual skydiving, a willingness to surf on cars and a phonebook filled with gangstas waiting to chill with you and get work their energy drink promotion on.

There’s no attempt to disguise this game as anything but a total male power fantasy. Rather, it aims to be the campiest male power fantasy possible. Your cribs will come to have casual pole-dancers and your choice of customizable gangsters (early options include a gang of strippers and ninjas.) Soon, you get the ability to generate assorted unlocked vehicles at your behest, be them cars, trucks, tanks, copters, jets and things more illogical than those. You can purchase upgrades that range from ragdoll-fueled exploding bullets to straight-up being immune to damage. Yep. The highest plausible unlocks in the game are akin to god mode.

Uh huh
Uh huh

It’s all fueled by a gameplay system that feels about as loose and flexible as the game’s ladies. The gunplay is still based on dual-joystick third person shooting that was once cutting-edge in, say, the original Tomb Raider. But by virtue of not changing with the times, Saint’s Row comes across as more fast and frantic in contrast to the more controlled and sluggish pace of modern cover-based shooters. Vehicles also have very quick and forgiving controls, designed less to simulate driving a giant piece of scrap metal than a mobile lawnmower of pedestrians. All of this is punctuated by a run button that, when held down, adds accelerated abilities to your standard attacks. Amongst then include casually dropkicking civilians or the game’s greatest innovation, the ability to torpedo yourself instantly to the driver’s seat of any vehicle.

This is also a game littered with all of the side-quests and collectibles you imagine a sandbox game to contain. There are assassinations, vehicle thefts, copter flights, hooker-rescuing and other tasks. Many of them involve taking territory from rival gangs of luchadores, emo hackers and Swiss seductresses, and these plot threads have the natural (i.e. ridiculous) story conclusions you expect them to. The sidequests are largely a mixed bag of quality; they’re at their best when they involve wanton destruction in, say, a tank. They’re at their worst when they involve some kind of escorting in which the target you are escorting are vulnerable to being caught in your flurry of missiles. Still, I was compelled enough to complete most of the side missions.

The only thing keeping me from 100%ing the game is that a glitch of some kind is preventing me from finishing one of the assassinations. I’m supposed to bug a rival pimp’s effeminate employees, but by virtue of taking over all territory in the area, there are no rival concubines for which to pester. The game has other technical faults, but they’re loony enough to enhance the experience more than harm. I did not find anything particularly odd about, say, a semi sticking vertically out of the ground. Nope. Not at all.

Finally, there are multiplayer options. The more attractive of which is the ability to just straight-up jump into a friend’s single player game and help a broski in need. Why are there two people claiming to be leader of the Saints? Not the most concerning thing going on in that game. There’s a Horde Mode imitation, called Whored Mode (laugh please) that throws in random gimmicks to each round ranging from “shoot everyone who is now 9 feet tall” to “beat everyone to death with your blow-up doll” but alas, the novelty is limited and you can’t use your campaign character in it.

Alas, the allure of Saint’s Row the Third is twofold. Part of it is just witnessing the lunacy and spectacle of the game’s events. The other is that the gameplay meets its own ridiculousness and provides a quick, exciting sandbox game to boot. This game embraces its sandbox roots whole hog and gives you the best set of options for razing the citizens and pestering the cops. Remember how much fun getting the elusive 5-star wanted level in Grand Theft Auto 3 was? Saint’s Row the Third matches that, and does it wearing a luchadore mask.

4 ½ stars


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