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Monday
Feb062012

Saints Row the Third Review - Outrageous Brilliance

Saints Row the Third revels in being a video game in a way that most modern titles seem afraid to. In our obsession with gritty realism and complexity, we seem to have forgotten the simple fun of the insane. Volition has crafted a game that is the heir apparent to the days of cheat codes and craziness. Not a second of this game takes itself seriously and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Saints Row began years ago as little more than a lazy clone of Grand Theft Auto, albeit one with an amusingly in-depth character creator. I got bored of its stale antics quickly, but my friend managed to create a startlingly accurate portrayal of George W. Bush as his avatar and squeezed quite a bit more fun out of the game as a result. Perhaps this could be seen as an early testament to the game’s true strength - outrageous, unbridled fun. 

With the third installment, Saints Row has truly become its own beast. Hover bikes, VTOL jets, fluffy pink game show mascots going on murderous rampages through the streets, a streaking minigame, and more goodies that would be a shame to spoil here are densely packed onto this disc. The core mechanics of gang rivalry and taking over the city that the franchise was founded on are here in spirit, but they feel almost vestigial. The story has grander plans in mind and mechanically this structure serves as little more than a way to generate income for the upgrade system.

The game’s amazing package makes for quite an appealing wrapper, but its best feature comes in the form of those upgrades. By injecting a small dose of RPG into the open world insanity, Saints Row the Third manages to create an intense hook, as if the humorous story and entertaining missions weren’t enough. It’s actually kind of amazing how perfect the balance is. Unless you’re actively trying to break the system and make yourself super rich - which you can certainly do if you choose - you’ll have enough upgrades to last you beyond your entire playthrough and scarce enough funding that you’ll have to think about what you want to buy. It’s a compelling dynamic few games manage to get this right. 

Once you do hit those high levels though, the game is transformed into a maniacal playground to rival the days of the GameShark. You can essentially make yourself invincible, remove reload times and the need for ammo, call in jets to fly anywhere in the city on a whim, phone the mayor for personal combat assistance, and more. It’s stupid fun in the best way.

The game’s biggest shortcoming is that by the time you get to this point you won’t have much of note left to do. You’ll have long since tired of the game’s slate of random minigames and without a new game plus option to replay the story with your hard-earned goodies you’ll be all powered up with no place to go. DLC mission packs that add substantial post-game content would really perfect the experience. Still, all told you can easily get 20 to 30 hours out of one go and the pull to play through the game again with a new character is strong. There are seven entirely different voices to choose from (including a hilarious zombie option) and different choices to make at key points in the campaign, making a second play feel fresh. Not that the brilliant main missions need any help being fun a second time.

There’s a reason I’ve gotten this far in without going into specifics about the story or any missions. The story isn’t the point here - the dialog is brilliant but the plot is a throwaway excuse for crazy things to happen. As for the missions, well, if you’ve managed to go this long without spoiling the surprises the game has in store for you I won’t be the one to do it. Not knowing what’s around the next corner makes the unbelievable twists the game takes that much more fun and I regret reading and watching as much about the game as I did before actually playing it. Take my word for it that the game really nails it. Aside from a bit of a slow start that uses a few too many of the side activities as main story missions, once the game really gets going you’ll never be doing the same thing twice and you’ll never believe what you’re doing either. If you don’t have a shit-eating grin on your face the entire time you’re playing Saints Row the Third, you’re doing it wrong. 

Are there problems? Sure. The setting is entirely forgettable, for one. I spent 30 hours in Steelport and couldn’t tell you a damn thing about it. It’s as generic as they come, an all too common problem in open world games. The aforementioned overuse of side activities is a bummer. The radio stations don’t come close to matching the heyday of Grand Theft Auto in variety or quality. 

None of those things ultimately matter. Saints Row the Third is an astoundingly entertaining parade of insanity. It has brilliant writing, humor that’s actually funny (as long as you’re a fan of the provocative and the absurd, of course), great mission design, satisfying upgrades, and shooting mechanics that are a great deal of fun to top it all off. There’s even a co-op mode so you can screw around with a friend online should you so choose. You might be left wanting more at the end of it, but that will only be because what’s there is so good. 

It’s probably for the best that Saints Row the Third represents an abnormality rather than the norm in modern game design because it wouldn’t seem as remarkable if it wasn’t so out of place. Let’s just be thankful that we have it to turn to as a breath of dildo-filled, curse-spewing, absurdly violent fresh air. 

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