Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review // Saints Row: The Third

In Saints Row: The Third, there is a dedicated button to punch people in the groin. Your character's skin can be white, black, orange, green, pink, or metal. His or her voice can be male, female, plain, urban, Cockney, or zombie.

An early mission has you diving from a burning plane and having a shootout with dozens of enemies as you fall. A later mission has you diving from a burning plane in a tank and having a shootout with dozens of tanks as you fall.

The first melee weapon you're given is a giant, flopping dildo bat.

Saints Row: The Third is the dumbest game I have ever played, and I love it.

Like the rest of the world, I wrote off the Saints Row franchise years ago as nothing but a third-rate Grand Theft Auto ripoff, and felt pretty confident in that decision. But as stories began to trickle out of some of the insane things that happen in Saints Row: The Third—things that sounded like people must be making stuff up, frankly—I realized that I just couldn't ignore it any longer. I needed to see it for myself.

Take the screenshot above. In front of what appears to be a casino, a snarling woman with plaid, purple pants and a leather jacket is about to hit a luchadore in combat gear with a big purple dildo bat. But wait! There, on the left side, in the background, is another luchadore, who's clearly still reeling from a particularly righteous groin punch. If all that doesn't at least pique your interest, then I don't know what could.

And that's the appeal of Saints Row: The Third. It's an interactive tour through the deranged minds at Volition Incorporated, and it's more absurd than you can imagine. It's more absurd than I could imagine, either. Even by the end of the game, I still never felt prepared for just how unbelievably stupid things could get.

Let's take a step back.

Remember Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas? At the time, it represented the pinnacle of Rockstar's genre-defining formula first introduced in Grand Theft Auto III. It was the perfect marriage of the silly and the serious, a game where you could still sympathize with the main character and feel for his plight—even when he was working with a conspiracy theorist hippie named "The Truth" to steal a jetpack from "Area 69"—because he was just as bewildered as you by all the crazy stuff happening to him.

Even by the end of the game, I still never felt prepared for just how unbelievably stupid things could get.

Even still, Rockstar had demonstrated clear ambitions of transitioning Grand Theft Auto from being fun and mindless with a dash of biting social satire into a mature and affecting crime drama with real weight behind it. And so, in Grand Theft Auto IV, you started from the very bottom, playing as a poor immigrant fleeing from a vicious cycle of crushing debt and senseless violence. With the darker tale came the Euphoria engine, adding a realistic tinge to your actions to match the shift in tone: your car skidded uncontrollably through turns if you took them too fast, police response was brutal and difficult to shake, and going on random tangents of violence now felt uncomfortably out of place.

It was definitely more engaging, but arguably less fun.

Saints Row: The Third feels like a direct response to that, going as far in the opposite direction as the law will allow. There's an experience system that rewards you for driving dangerously, shooting people in the head or crotch, or just murdering people in quick succession. You'll be thrown into a tank and told to cause as much mayhem as possible in a limited amount of time. You'll play a minigame called "Insurance Fraud" where you intentionally walk through traffic and get hit by cars to earn money.

For God's sake, the cooperative multiplayer is a riff on the Gears of War wave-based survival "Horde Mode," classily titled "Whored Mode" here. The first wave of enemies you fight are prostitutes with guns. It's so dumb, and so awesome.

None of that would matter if it not for the nearly flawless execution of those ideas, though. The game takes a simple premise—the Saints want to take over the city of Steelport—and goes wild with it, keeping the story fresh with ludicrous twists and insane missions the whole way through. It'd be easy to imagine a story filled with dildos, luchadores, and gimps to fall flat due to poor writing, but it's actually refreshingly sharp here.

Your character plays the straight man in a bizarre world, acting as both a good anchor for you to relate to and as the source of most of the jokes. It's not a dissimilar role from the protagonists of the last few Grand Theft Auto games, but the world and tone are so different that it never feels derivative.

It doesn't feel derivative mechanically, either. In fact, in a lot of ways, Saints Row: The Third made me question what I want out of Grand Theft Auto V.

For instance, as amazing as Grand Theft Auto IV was, staring at the little mini-map in the bottom-left corner of the screen to have any idea of where I'm supposed to be going was maybe not the most elegant solution. In Saints Row: The Third, arrows appear directly on the road itself like a racing game. Rockstar would never that in Grand Theft Auto IV—it would've felt like they were making a concession, breaking their painstakingly crafted sense of immersion by slapping arrows all over the world. It would've made a dark, self-serious game feel arcadey. You could almost hear a designer at Rockstar saying, "What's next? High-scores?"

Yeah, Saints Row: The Third has no such ambitions, instead actively embracing anything that makes the game more fun to play, "immersion" be damned. You can drive 100 mph and still turn on a dime, slam into oncoming traffic without worry, and level up enough to have infinite health and ammo.

So naturally, given that the missions in Grand Theft Auto IV were more grounded in reality than they'd been in the past, the missions in Saints Row are goddamn bananas, using the core mechanics of the game in some pretty amazing ways. It almost becomes a problem after a while, setting such a high bar of stimulus that at a certain point, I wasn't playing it to play it anymore; I was just burning through missions to get to the next bit of insanity.

By the end of the game, I'd only done a couple of side missions and didn't much care for them. Removed from the context of the main campaign, I just didn't find it as compelling. The game's mechanics are totally fine on their own—I spent a decent amount of time between missions just dicking around and blowing stuff up, crashing cars and starting gang wars—but it was still really just a mad dash to the next mission to get my next fix.

Once I'd played through both endings, I was left a little hollow. It had been an incredible journey up to that point, but it was over now. The thought of cleaning up all the random side missions I'd ignored just seemed lackluster. So I quit.

Well, I played a few rounds of Whored Mode, and then I quit.

And that seems to be pretty much what Whored Mode is for, like a last gasp before you shelve the game for good. It's decent enough fun with friends, but like the main game, it's really just about seeing what ludicrous thing they'll throw at you next, be it prostitutes with guns, angels with sniper rifles, or tiny zombies and massive hot dog men. It's totally amazing the first time you've seen it, but once you've seen it, there's not much appeal to go back.

Still, this is a game that everyone should play. Don't write it off as just another GTA clone, because it isn't. It's a game willing to do whatever it takes to put a big, dumb grin on your face. Logic never gets in the way of a good time in Saints Row: The Third, and it’s all the better for it.

Saints Row: The Third / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


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