Review: Saints Row - The Third (18) / Developer: Volition, Inc / Publisher: THQ / Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC / Release Date: 18/11/11
Rightly or wrongly, Saints Row always felt like the nearly ran to GTA to me. A close approximation of what Rockstar’s juggernaut franchise achieved with its open world environments and sandbox design philosophy, capped with a crass and unpalatable gang war motif that never really felt like it had a direction of its own. Now in its third iteration, Volition’s series is finally capable of stepping out of the imposing shadow cast by Grand Theft Auto instead of feeling like a plucky impersonator. It doesn’t revolutionise the genre, but excels by remembering the things that actually made it enjoyable in the first place, breathing life in to proceedings with a surprisingly well pitched and irreverent brand of humour, in which nothing is safe, nothing is sacred. It’s also one of the most hilariously insane games I’ve ever laid witness to.
The 3rd Street Saints have become pretty successful since their humble beginnings fighting over Steelport street corners. Now international A-List celebrities with movie deals and a lucrative merchandising range, they really are the kings of the crime world. Pulling an entire vault through the roof of a bank via helicopter is just a routine heist for the gang by this point, stopping to sign autographs for starstruck witnesses mid caper, such is the level of their notoriety. Things turns unexpectedly sour however when a shadowy uber-crime syndicate arrives to swallow up the Saints’ operation. Managing to make an escape thanks to a super-human sacrifice by Johnny Gat, the protagonist and Shaundi start the action as it means to go on, with a series of preposterously massive set-peices.
In terms of play mechanics, it really doesn’t bring anything new to the table - its driving and on-foot controls are reliably predictable, nothing remarkable at all. In fact, all of the fundamentals of Saints Row: The Third are mere staples of the genre. What sets it apart is how heightened everything feels. From the opening mission and throughout the games progression, The Third throws you into the middle of the most insane stunt versions of the things other games ask you to do, to the point where using the front door to crash a party just doesn't cut it anymore - you skydive in from your buddies helicopter guns blazing backed by a Kanye track. Just roaming the city leads to some great random moments, where Bane-like steroid mutants will flip your car half way down the block, men dressed in Day-Glo furry mascot costumes will become the most confusingly tragic bystander victims of gunfire ever recorded in videogame form. It ranges from laugh-out-loud funny, to head-shakingly bemusing.
It’s almost impossible to describe just how far the game goes in pushing the limits of hilariously overblown and crazy events - not to avoid spoilers, but its genuinely hard to articulate the head-spinning array of situations you’ll encounter, becoming increasingly inexplicable as the storyline progresses. It’s a gleeful cacophony of sugar rush ideas, weirdly postmodern without the pretentiousness, and carries a real middle-finger attitude in the best way possible. There’s something inescapably enjoyable about rolling away from an assassination contract in a golf cart under heavy enemy fire while Frankie Goes to Hollywood blares from the stereo. Where other games reward you with a rocket launcher at the height of your power, Saints Row: The Third gives you a VTOL Jet to play with. Having a vehicle hand delivered from your garage to pick you up by an actual Ninja valet is pretty cool too.
While GTA tried to be the grown-up of the industry by introducing a heavy-handed narrative structure and wafer thin characterisation in the shape of GTA IV’s Nico Belic, it strayed from the basic principles of what made GTA III such a watershed moment in videogames almost a decade ago. It wasn’t the story, it wasn’t character motives or ethics, it was the knowledge that within the sandbox environment a level of unpredictability and chaos could break out from the most innocuous action. Thankfully for anyone who remembers the joy of persecuting innocent pedestrians with a fire engine hose blast or surfing on the roof of a speeding car, Saint’s Row: The Third brings an unprecedented level of madness played out within a brilliantly gaudy caricature cityscape. Steelport isn't an exact replica of any real locale, just an American any-city that has plenty of unique touches for the insanity to erupt within.
Don’t like how serious and “realistic” games have become in recent times? Then this is probably the break you need.