One of the better open-ended action games of this generation
After being thoroughly underwhelmed by the mediocre and poorly-ported-to-PC Saints Row 2, I had little interest in playing Saints Row the Third. After hearing about how much better it was than SR2 from just about everyone who played both games, I decided to give this one a try. It looks great, it plays pretty well, and, in general, it is one of the better open-ended action games of this generation. It doesn’t have any big flaws, other than the fact that it doesn’t do any one thing well enough to clearly separate it from the other games of this type. You drive, you explore a big city, you shoot, you listen to music, and you buy stuff. Five years ago, before the explosion of the open world action genre (Assassins Creed, Infamous, Far Cry 2, GTA IV, Prototype, Skyrim, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. etc), Saints Row the Third would have been legitimate Game of the Year material. The intense competition in this genre takes away some of its luster, but it still a very good game.
One of the best features of Saints Row III is not it’s dialog or gunplay and driving mechanics. No, it is a simple feature that, for some reason, has been almost totally absent from games lately. I am talking about a color palette. If you drive around the city for fifteen seconds, you will see something that you almost never see in big budget games – Purple! Red! Green! Blue! Yellow! Stimulation for the cones in your retina. Hallelujah! My real world has color all over the place, which means that, ironically, Saints Row III looks more realistic in this regard than most of the “realistic” games made in the Unreal engine. The game isn’t just colorful, however. It also has a ton of variety in its scenery, breathing life into the game’s city (Steelport) that is also badly lacking in lots of open world action games. Steelport feels a lot like a real city, thanks to a heavy focus on craftsmanship instead of copy-and-paste design. There is a factory here, a power plant there, a boat club here, a night club there, a neon sign district here, a red light district there, a spectacular mural here, a gigantic statue there… there is always something impressive to look at and no two city blocks look quite the same. This is especially important given all of the opportunities that you have to get elevated view points by flying around in helicopters and planes. Technically speaking, the game is at least on par with today’s standards, if not better. It has good view distance and good animations, and I never noticed any pop-in of textures or objects while I was playing. On the whole, Saints Row III is an excellent port to the PC, providing the crisp graphics and numerous control options that you expect in a PC game.
In some ways, Saints Row III is a throwback to the early days of the Grand Theft Auto series. It isn’t “dark” or “gritty”. It is cartoonish and wild. In this game, a general rule applies that the more ridiculous, the better. GTA IV was featured a schizophrenic mix of serious and stupid. One minute, you would be talking about how guilty you felt for all of your past crimes. The next minute, you would be splattering pedestrians on your windshield while running from the cops. Saints Row III, on the other hand, encourages you to check your brain at the door. It fully embraces its silliness, and it is the better game for it. Volition wisely realizes that there is no context in which blowing up cars with rockets in the street can be taken seriously, so they didn’t even try. In this game you can use a massive dildo as a melee weapon. You get a box to control an RAV drone, which you can use to devastating effect on groups of enemies and vehicles. The majority of clothing available in the game isn’t normal shirts, shoes, and pants type stuff. It is crazy outfits, like a medieval suit of armor or gigantic hotdog outfit. It probably comes as no surprise to you that most of the female clothing is hypersexualized. It’s all part of the game’s absurd vibe. Saints Row III has some really good writing, and for the most part, it is a pretty funny game. There is a joke around virtually every corner. Very little of it feels forced, or like the writers tried too hard; the frequent sight gags and zingers simply fit in with what is happening on the screen. The game also has a great soundtrack, which is sort of an unwritten requirement for games of this genre.
Between grenades, Molotov cocktails, uzis, shotguns, pistols, and rocket launchers, there is a massive arsenal of weapons at your disposal. Unfortunately, the weapons highlight one of Saints Row III’s significant flaws. The game makes all kinds of heavy artillery and goodies available right off the bat. You don’t have to earn them. While it’s nice to have a game where I’m not shooting people with a weak-ass pistol for the first two hours, it also would have been nice to have some incentive to earn money or complete side missions. Instead, you get the UAV drone, jet, rocket launcher, and gunship before you are even one fourth of the way through the game. The game also blows its “crazy” wad pretty much immediately. The opening scene is a wild bank robbery, and the scene that follows it immediately is a frenetic shootout on an airplane. Right after that shootout, you shoot a couple dozen guys with uzis while you are plummeting to the Earth. There is no sense of climax in these crazy parts. Volition could learn a thing or two about pacing from the last generation GTA games. San Andreas, in particular, had some missions that were especially fun because you didn’t see them coming.
Another modern trend that Saints Row III eschews is tactical, cover-based shooting. Instead, the game throws wave after wave of enemies at you, which you mow down the by the dozens. Volition seems to have taken the approach that if shooting ten enemies in the face is fun, twenty enemies is even better. You can shoot pretty easily while moving and you find lots and lots of ammo. What you don’t find is pretty easy and cheap to buy. It is all pretty simple – perhaps too simple. The combat gets a bit too repetitive at times, thanks to a lack of variety in the enemies or the situations that you find them in. The controls are tight and that makes it pretty easy to destroy waves of enemies. Perhaps too easy. Saints Row III would have also benefitted from having more challenge. Without it, buying buildings and upgrades isn’t very enticing.
Saints Row III feels very unique around the periphery, but it’s core gameplay is pretty par for the course, which isn’t necessarily bad. Open-ended, driving-based crime games have been around forever, and so have their mission types. Chauffeur missions? Check. Escort missions? Check. Crime scheme gone wrong leads to a huge shootout with law enforcement? Check. Missions that end with a rail shooting escape sequence? Check. There are a few wild cards, but for the most part, you won’t find much original in just the gameplay. Side missions tend to be short, shallow, arcade-like affairs, but at least there are a lot of them. There are also a lot of sim-style customization activities that you can do, like shopping for clothing, getting tattoos, and picking out paint colors for your cars. Don’t take these comments as harsh criticisms though. Sometimes, games can thrive without pushing gameplay boundaries, as long as they have compelling elements elsewhere.
Compared to other open-ended action games of this generation, Saints Row III isn’t revolutionary, but it is still one of the better ones. It is at least decent at everything that it does, it’s very easy on the eyes, and its humor is effective. The gameplay is a bit too simplistic and easy at times, but overall this is a game that is easily worth owning.