Anti-crime rhetoric took a turn for the extreme in the 30's with J. Edgar Hoover at the helm of the FBI. Part of a legacy list of directives, Hoover's “war on crime” steered law enforcement in a hardline direction, reinforcing exactly who bad guys were. There wasn't any honor in lawlessness; being an upright citizen meant following the rules.
Nonetheless, these days, sometimes it's the villains who seem to create the biggest celebrity, for one reason or another. Then again, are all law breakers really bad guys, or is it just a matter of perspective? Consider the legend of Robin Hood—you know, the guy who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” The folklore is mixed, but the general themes stay the same, and we tend to accept them: breaking laws for a good cause is okay. So, when 'criminals' go head-to-head, is there a right and wrong to the conflict? Volition have an idea, using Saints Row: The Third as hypothetical, interactive documentation. Their conclusion: purely over-the-top, crazy [expletive deleted] goes down and to the victor go the spoils, public perception included.
In their world, the Third Street Saints are beloved and commercially marketed public personae. No matter how you mold your unnamed “Boss” character—be her a buxom geriatric, or he an overweight, balding, alien-looking creature—they and their entourage hold up a bank in the opening scene of the game with bystanders in awe of their presence. Not everyone is pro-Saints though, as they learn the bank they're heisting belongs to another, multi-group crime syndicate called...well, The Syndicate.
Yet, like any well-maintained competitive enterprise, The Syndicate don't want to quash their rivals, they just want a piece of the pie: a majority portion of the Saints' net worth. With a reluctance punctuated by a killing spree, the Saints decline the offer and thus begins Saints Row: The Third in earnest. It's a three-act, open-world, anything-goes game where you play as the antihero, the ringleader of a street gang who's cushy lives have been marked by a megalomaniac coalition.
It doesn't sound all that dissimilar to the second game of the series, and for all intents and purposes, contextually, it's not. Though, this time it's not about fighting to regain control of Stilwater, it's about taking down the mega-gang from the inside, on their own turf of Steelport. To accomplish this, Volition incorporate a more refined system of story progression and side-mission integration that doesn't come off as two distinctly separate games to play. The three acts can be initiated via an easy-to-use smartphone interface and unfold in an order: Act 1 introduces the player to core gameplay, characters, and mission types; 2 builds on established game modes and assembles a cast; 3 opens a can.
For the most part, the first two acts spend their time orienting you to the kinds of missions to be played and things to do in Steelport. Old hat for any who've played an open-world game, The Third's side-tasks don't carry any real, critical weight in the outcome of the story, as they stick with convention and just give you activities to distract yourself with while not pressing through the campaign. Still, since they gradually populate the world and are playable in quick enough order, they're not overly repetitive or a burden, even if they're standard fare. There was a lot to do in Saints Row 2, it was just a bit overwhelming from the onset. This time, that isn't a problem.
However fun blowing stuff up in missions of “Tank Mayhem” in the tracked vehicle might be, or how outrageous your character's rag doll body bouncing around traffic in “Insurance Fraud” looks, the real attraction is in the directed moments of the campaign. The game opens with the shootout with your character atop a vault being airlifted from the Syndicate's bank, and it closes in one of two equally as action-heavy endings. All along the way, other overblown instances resolve themselves with some either-or decisions to be made, rewarding you no matter the choice. Most of these takeaway moments are basically references to the really cool bits of various media, re-envisioned a cut together—but they're done tastefully and aren't any less awesome despite the fact.
Really, there's a lot to like about Saints Row: The Third's playability. The key moments involve entertainingly preposterous action, the arsenal of weapons at your disposal can cause big explosions and quick destruction, and it's an open-world game that doesn't get bogged down by its design. Getting from one end of the map to the other doesn't take forever when trying to complete tasks, and a wealth of flying machines are quickly and easily accessible to make use of a vertical landscape and unlimited parachutes (a la Just Cause 2). Tack on a character leveling system that unlocks ever-better enhancements and cheats (like infinite ammo or immunity to specific kinds of damage) and you have a sandbox experience that's free to roam while not being extremely tedious to navigate, giving you reason to play every mission. Time isn't even wasted hijacking vehicles with the "Awesome" button (right bumber) making it a breeze to kick your way into the driver's seat.
There might not be a New Game Plus option, but the ambition is to take your maxed out character into a friend's Steelport. Drop-in, drop-out two-player co-op is where Saints Row shines. Though much of the game is almost too manageable for any dedicated action adventure gamer, completing activities and story missions with friends, or just messing around with them, in a game without debilitating technical quirks can be shameless fun. Depending on the stranger, even their joining your game can result in some spontaneous hilarity. Admittedly, those without a way of connecting with others would be missing out on exploiting the virtual playground.
That said, it's unfortunate The Third relies too heavily on its shooter element. There's a point in the second Act when the trip stales a bit, and the enjoyment plateaus. The pace recovers somewhat towards the last third of the story, when an advanced militarized law enforcement unit, STAG, comes more into play with their full complement of vehicular toys. Yet, it becomes obvious that when the scene isn't set with some kind of whacky premise, a fairly run-of-the-mill run-and-gunner takes the stage. That striking visual flair of seeing things like gimps wielding dildo-sheathed baseball bats and popcorn flick setpieces carry the game well enough, but there aren't a enough of them, and there isn't exploration into other ways of getting things done in Steelport besides shooting or beating everyone up. “Violence is the answer” seems to be the mantra in which the game works, but Saints Row could only be that much better if Volition could exercise only a little more variety in their mission objectives.
The same argument extends to “Whored Mode.” A riff on the favorite Gears feature, Saints' option is also survival gameplay against waves of enemies. In this case, those waves don't necessarily get harder—just weirder. It's pretty dry survival gaming where a quick dive in is all that's needed, but it's execution doesn't suggest it's trying to amount to much anyway. It's more of a bonus featurette and compilation of “Hey look at this s...” rather than a meaningful addition.
When all has been blown up and collected, Saints Row: The Third is a fun romp that doesn't take itself too seriously, made up with memorable extrusions of pop-culture. Sometimes it can look dated and flat, and other times it can surprise you by emulating a screenful of mayhem. The programmable soundtrack is fitting, and character dialogue is often amusing. It's these effects that come together to create an overall experience that doesn't melt the mind with completely inspired gameplay, but the absurdity of the situations in which you find yourself participating in, and a viewer of, make for enjoyable guilty pleasures. It's hard to overlook an underlying reality however: if more than unprejudiced violence and shootouts had wormed their way into the mix of tightly knit open world gameplay and irreverent humor, Saints Row: The Third could've been exceptional.
Nevertheless, in the example of the Saints, they might be the 'bad guys' by real world definitions, but assuming the role of their leader involves too much raunchy fun to pass up.
Have fond memories from your time in Stilwater? Have plans to wreak havoc in Steelport with a buddy? Let us know over Twitter @gamers_hell