It’s been three years since The 3rd Street Saints conquered the city of Stillwater in their second outing, but instead of letting them enjoy their victory, developer Volition, Inc has thrown them into Steelport; a buzzing metropolis filled with drugs, sex and violence. Although this may seem pretty standard for a game focusing on gang warfare and over the top action, the sheer craziness of the place sets it apart from every other fictional location out there.
As you may expect, the absurdity of this game is the first thing you’ll notice. The opening missions ask you to rob a bank wearing over-sized masks styled on one of your fellow gang members and sky dive out of a unmanned plane, in order to save a falling friend. Twice.
It’s during this time that the game first introduces you to its character creator, which seems almost unnecessarily in-depth. A few things have been removed in order to streamline the system, such as the ability to unbutton or button your jacket at free will, buy you can adjust almost every feature of the human body, from nostril width, chin depth and eye spacing, to muscle size, personality and voice. There’s also a ‘sex appeal’ slider, which adjusts the size of your character’s bulge. The only thing missing is the ability to name your character. Instead, good guys refer to you as Boss for the entirety of the game and the bad guys just call you really rude names, if anything at all. Oh well, that’s how gang life goes I suppose.
Once you’ve shot, kicked and punched your way through the first 15 or so minutes of the game, you’ll be let loose on the streets of Steelport, which is where the Volition’s hard work really becomes obvious. Some major improvements have been made to the game’s engine and whilst it isn’t the best looking game out there, the visuals and animations are certainly leagues above its predecessor. The glow of the lights on skyscrapers and the tinted shine of water and rubbish on the floor of the back alleys makes the city a lively and varied, place to be.
There’s also been some changes to the way the story progresses. Gone are the days of completing activities in order to advance through three separate narratives, which have been removed in favour of a single, more streamlined story. Story missions are now activated through your character’s mobile phone, which also plays host to the game’s map, upgrade system and bank, amongst other things. Whilst most people will appreciate the ease of being able to start a mission from anywhere in the world at anytime, I found that it was one of many unnecessary tweaks and didn’t encourage exploration in the way the old system did.
The length of the story has also suffered as a result of this change, although this can be forgiven thanks to the brilliant characters, such as a pimp that only ever speaks in auto tune, extravagant set pieces, genuinely funny dialogue and ridiculous scenarios. One mission involves you visiting a plastic surgeon, before infiltrating an enemy base disguised as your arch-nemesis, whilst another features the weirdest ‘car’ chase you’ll ever witness. There’s also an amazing celebrity appearance towards the game’s end, but I won’t say any more about that.During the course of the game, you’ll be taking on three different gangs; The Morning Star, a group of European business men who own Steelport’s prostitution ring, The Luchadores, a gang of masked wrestlers and The Deckers, an army of hackers with a world of tech at their disposal. Each of these is lead by a caricature of their stereotype, who you’ll want to thank later as its their unique set of vehicles, weaponry and outfits that provide most of the fun throughout the game. For example, the leader of The Luchadores, Killbane, will give you the secret to the apocafists; a pair of deadly boxing gloves with the apocalypse trapped inside them. As fun as it all sounds, I did find myself getting extremely frustrated with the story missions at times. Almost every single one of them provides explosive thrills and laughs, but the difficulty is all over the place. You’ll be participating in insultingly easy activities one minute, then fighting off seemingly impossible numbers of enemies the next. This is only a minor drawback, but it did make the story feel a little disjointed and should be a very easy problem to avoid.
Needless to say, you’ll have a blast playing through the story, which you’ll probably want to replay from start as soon you’ve finished the final mission. There’s extra encouragement to do so as well, with the addition of player choices, which will reward you with different weapons or benefits depending on which option you go for.
Although you won’t need to complete activities to progress through the story, they’re not totally useless and they’re as fun as ever. If you’ve played a Saints Row game before, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of most of the game’s activities; Escort involves you driving a client around town, whilst avoiding the paparazzi, Trailblazing sets you on fire and lets you loose on an ATV, asking you to cause as much damage as possible and Insurance Fraud requires you to cause as much bodily harm as you can in any way possible. There’s a couple of great additions though and most of the existing activities have been given an extra dose of crazy. For instance, Escort now involves driving tigers around town, Trailblazing has a virtual world counterpart set in the Deckers’ universe and Mayhem, which asks you to cause as much damage to the city as possible, now gives you a tank to do so. One of the biggest additions is Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, an out of this world game show that pits you against fire, electricity and mascots with guns. Get to the end of the maze and you’ll be rewarded with cash, respect, and ownership of the surrounding land, as with any other activity. You can replay the activities you’ve completed later, but you’ll only be rewarded with cash the second time round.
Some of the series’ previous activities, such as chop shop, have been condensed into the Saints Book, a new addition that allows you to choose certain assassination targets, wanted vehicles and challenges, which can be completed for a small cash and respect reward. Although it was nice of Volition to keep these activities in the game, you probably won’t find yourself using the Saints Book much at all. You’ll be having so much fun with the rest of the game, that flicking through the menu system to kill a single, otherwise unimportant, character will just seem like an unnecessary hassle.
Although they’re all sufficient fun alone, the creativity of these activities doesn’t truly shine until you try them out with a friend in co-op. The game’s drop-in drop-out system makes it easy to do so and Insurance Fraud is infinitely better when you’re throwing your friend in front of a car, rather than yourself. The story missions can also be tackled with a friend, but this isn’t nearly as much fun. It’s apparent that the story has been crafted with the single player in mind and most of the missions and areas you have to fight in will just feel clustered with two of you running round. There’s plenty more to do in the sandbox though, with or without a friend. The streaking, base jumping, car surfing and hostage diversion mini games can all be started at the touch of the button and there’s plenty of collectibles to find, from blow up sex dolls, to stunt jumps and barnstorming spots.
There’s definitely a lot to do here, but it wouldn’t be a true sandbox game if you weren’t allowed to use your imagination, would it? Thankfully, Steelport provides a great hub for doing whatever the hell you want, with an array of weapons and vehicles unlike no other at your disposal. One of the very first weapons you receive in the game is a UAV drone control and it doesn’t stop there. The game is constantly rewarding you with new, more powerful weapons, vehicles and costumes, which you can use in or out of missions. VTOLs, hovebikes, light cycles, laser guns, dildo bats and 8-bit tanks; they’re all here and you’ll want to use every single one of them time and time again. You won’t even have to work very hard for the privilege of owning the craziest items. Instead, you’ll be rewarded with them just for playing the game.
The game’s upgrade and abilities system adds an extra level of freedom, that lets you tailor your experience even further. You can spend your cash on upgrading your weapons, vehicles, character’s abilities or even gang customization. The obvious extra health, extra ammo and extended sprint are all here, but they’re also joined by some slightly stranger options, such as an ability that adds unlimited nitrous to any vehicle you drive.
Combat is simple, but fun nonetheless. Shooting is a case of running around pressing the controller’s shoulder button until everyone in the room is dead, whilst brawling is pretty much the same. Run up to a character and tap the game’s dedicated ‘awesome button’ though, and you’ll end their life with a more flamboyant takedown. Similarly, this button can also be used to make a quick getaway, by jumping through a car window or dive onto a motorbike. Driving and Flying can feel a little stale at times though and almost every car will fly round corners at full speed, without a single problem. Thankfully, simple controls make it easier to spice things up a bit by taking shortcuts, jumping from the top of ramps or flying upside down whilst you’re in a plane. The game’s soundtrack also helps here, by providing a huge range of music that’s playable through the in-car radio. From gangster rap, to 80’s pop, you’ll be satisfied no matter what music you listen to in the real world. You may not recognise all the songs that Volition have included, but you’ll all be able to sing a long to something, whether it be Stand and Deliver by Adam Ant or Benny Benassi’s Satisfaction.
A few poor design choices hold it back from being the polished experience it could have been and it certainly isn’t going to be helping in the “video games can be art” argument any time soon, but you’d have to go a long way to find a crazier, more creative open world title. Ultimately, a game’s first job is to show the player a good time and Saints Row: The Third hits the nail on the head, with some of the funniest and most enjoyable content in video game history.
Rating: OutstandingReview Policy
Saints Row: The Third is available now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. You can order a copy here (PS3), here (Xbox 360) or here (PC).