By Chris Matel
Here's a joke for you: A large, bald brute of a man, with an affinity for slitted sunglasses and outrageous face paint, and complimenting a full arsenal of murderous weapons with only mumbles and unintelligible groans, is riding on the back of a crotch-rocket, clutching a naked woman whose pixelated censorship obscure most of her comparatively slender frame. There isn't any punchline, because the picture itself is the gag. Okay, maybe it's one of those “had to be there” situations, but you'll see what I mean and be able to reenact the setup—or make an equally ridiculous scene—soon enough when Saints Row: The Third launches in November.
While the push to dramatize videogame plots and create dynamic characters is an appreciable endeavor, there's still room in the industry for outlandish parody, caricature and unadulterated, over-the-top absurdity. It's the most latter of that list where The Third happily falls. The series has found success in portraying itself as the no-holds-barred alternative to the Grand Theft Auto franchise, doing things just 'cause. The Third is no different. This time, however, Volition look to tackle the whacky and outrageous in a more streamlined formula: a batsh*t-crazy, action-heavy story with 'structure' is backed up by an absolutely out-of-context, random mix-up survival counterpart.
There isn't much to speculate on when it comes to Saints Row: The Third. Though I might not have finished the game in the uninhibited hours we were allowed to play, from start to whenever, what took place in the first act and a half gave away what to expect throughout. Played in a Hollywood nightclub turned LAN center, The Third showcased Volition's effort to purposely blend an enjoyable B-rate story with stupid-fun action.
In this world, lawlessness is celebrated and commodified. With the Saints becoming the dominant gang of Stilwater in 2, The Third picks things up by re-introducing the core characters as they ready a method actor researching his role for an upcoming “Saints” movie by—wait for it—participating in a bank heist. Fitted with jumpsuits and oversized Johnny Gat heads, the troupe find aggressive resistance in the bank, with an ensuing firefight acting as the tutorial for basic controls and weapons. (There's also a chance for Gat, the celebrity, to sign an autograph for an adoring fan.)
The gang doesn't intend to leave the bank empty handed however, even when an attack helicopter blows out part of the building's facade. The casual run-and-gun shootouts unfolds into the first big set piece of the game when Gat and co. airlift the entire vault from the building with their own cargo 'copter. With endless clips, you go Rambo against the well-armed security firing from the roof you just escaped. It's not particularly challenging, but it sets the tone—The Third isn't going to be a corridor shooter.
Gat doesn't get away however. The story builds off of his capture, and this is where character creation begins. Like past Saints game, creating The Boss isn't a “him” or “her” choice. Gender characteristics can be blended together, and recognizable jigs assigned. In my case, my zombie-voiced bully favored the “Go ninja, go ninja, go” fist pump and vogue poses. True, the mutterings didn't make any sense when the next cutscene put my Boss in the jumbo jet of rival mob, The Syndicate (turns out that's who's vault we tried to steal), but it's a choice, and I made it.
Like any good action flick, this meeting doesn't go well and devolves into a scurry of bullets; words and negotiation aren't an option. The Syndicate wants the Saints' majority of Stilwater in exchange for their lives, but this isn't an attractive offer. Soon enough I'm running my Boss and Shaundi through the plane, trying to escape Syndicate thugs. What unfolds next is pure romp that should be played, not explained: free falling pursuits, crashing your character through an airplane cockpit, fighting for a parachute while screaming through the fuselage, and a second free fall firefight. It's a mix of quick-time events and gallery shooting, but it's ludicrous fun.
For the remainder of the opening act the game takes you around the streets and skyline of Steelport, introducing you to the kinds of missions that can be accessed via a smartphone interface. The Saints are down, but they're not out. It takes building up their empire once again, while tearing down a trio of the Syndicate's under-gangs, to reclaim the group's reign. To do so, you have to build “rep” and recruit “homies” (essentially experience points and companions). The missions I played brought me from a BDSM club full of strap-ons and gimps, to a cloning laboratory. Along the way, helicopter assaults, satellite-guided missiles, sniping while hanging from the side of a building, and assassin strippers marked only a few of the highlights from the missions played.
While past Saints games opened up a world early on, giving players free reign in how they went about completing the story, The Third means to tighten the structure up to deliver a more knit narrative. As Scott Phillips, Lead Designer on Saints Row: The Third puts it, “In 2, we dumped too much on the player too quickly. After two missions, you just had icon soup. My feeling is, a lot of players would mess around for a little bit, then quit. I wanted to make it clearer; make that transition forward a little slower, but make those moments bigger.”
He's not saying the third game of the franchise is more cordoned off than the first two. This time around, it just designed to be more accessible. Most of this easier accessibility came from the smartphone UI where mission selection is blatantly selectable, and they don't require going far out of the way to find and initiate. Still, if you just want to play around with activities, the choice is there as Phillips points out, “We pace things out differently, but we allow you jump into things early. It's just not how we direct you. What we found is most players continue to play the story...so we built the game around that goal.”
Doing just that was most enjoyable when a second player was thrown in my game. Like the previous release in the series, with drop-in, drop-out two-player co-op gaming, The Third gets more ridiculous. That picture I painted above was made in part with help from Destructoid's community manager, Hamza Aziz. Though his ideal femme fatale and my overweight jester might have spent most of their time airborne, from crash after crash on the motorcycle, the two-player hilarity was affirmed. We were also told that any progress made (cash and rep earned, etc.) follows each player into their own solo outtings.
Cooperative gameplay also extends into the game's “Whored Mode.” As the play on words alludes to, Whored Mode is survival gameplay that pits you (and a buddy) against waves of oddball enemies. Phillips made sense of it by saying, “[Whored Mode] is kind of like a Director's Cut. They're things that didn't fit into the main game. We wanted to take the 'Best of' and the 'Craziest of' the main game and throw it into this side mode.” Hamza and I played around a dozen waves where things like gun-totting question marks, miniature gimps, and giant naked brutes made up our enemies.
While other games with a survival option use progressively harder patterns of enemies to create the challenge, Phillips informed us each of the 30 waves in the three maps included in Whored Mode is meant to show off something new and different. So it seems its less about struggling to make it to the next challenge, and more about seeing how crazy the setups become.
With so much overblown content, Saints Row: The Third looks to be set as the go-to purge from the real world stresses of the holiday season. Though much of what I played tended to be fairly easy shootouts against somewhat oblivious AI, the big, Hollywood blockbuster effect of the scripted sequences kept the experience entertaining. I don't expect The Third to be a game-changer for the genre or the industry in general, but I expect it to be as satisfying as a do-nothing lounge-about after a hard night of partying—and sometimes that's just what's needed.
Played or still playing any of the Saints games? Prefer the outlandish or the dramatized? Let us know over Twitter @gamers_hell