Saints Row the Third is second to Pokémon Black in the amount of hours I have devoted into its madness this year, closing in on about 50 now. I don’t know if that says more about my devotion to Pokémon Black (click here for more on that) or how much I enjoy engaging in combat against rival gangs and making civilian lives as miserable as possible while simultaneously entertaining them by dancing like Carlton Banks.
It has been five years since the first game in THQ’s sandbox crime game series debuted. I can’t help but think back to where I was five years ago in this world in conjunction with where my character has been these past years. In five years I went from being a college sophomore to a college graduate with few job prospects in a nation protesting financial irresponsibility by the collective “one percent.” In those same five years, my character went from being “the playa” to “the boss.” The Saints went from being a rival gang to a record company and a mess of manipulated suburban kids to a syndicate to a freakin’ BRAND NAME with MERCHANDISING. That includes bobbleheads! It leaves me so flabbergasted in a near exhilarating way. It brings this strange sense of joy, as if me, myself and I made all of this happen!
I think Saints Row the Third finally strays away from the “It’s like Grand Theft Auto” mantra. Is there a big, explorable map? Yes. Are there side activities and is there mission-based gameplay? Yes. Do you steal cars? Duh. However, Rockstar spends every new Grand Theft Auto game building to its new protagonist’s personal tragedies over the course of its story, effectively starting from scratch, as well as creating worlds to admire by looking like famous cities as much as possible and appealing to our familiarities. Saints Row continues the story of a group of people we met years back and their goal is clear from the beginning, a rise to power with no hidden agendas. It may sound simplistic but this is not a bad thing at all. Rockstar Games gives us worlds and Volition, Inc. gives us playgrounds with almost no end in sight.
The Saints continue their desire to conquer all and getting in their way this time is a group simply called The Syndicate: the Morningstar crew, made up of snappily-dressed Belgians, The Deckers, kids who just walked off the set of Tron: Legacy, and luchadore wrestlers, well, the Luchadores. The big difference is that a botched operation at the start of the game brings our Saints to the city of Steelport, changing the setting from Stilwater. The quest begins to take over the city through missions and making some new friends along the way. For just about every little thing you do, you earn experience points through the “Respect” system. Volition, Inc. tweaked this system to finally make us feel like we’re earning our keep. Earlier in the series, Respect was gained to simply unlock new missions and side activities. Respect now unlocks bonuses and customization options, like resistance to bullets and fire. By the time you’ve spent your hard-earned cash on said upgrades, you are a walking god or goddess, chaos incarnate. I really enjoy how the game teaches you to be financially responsible, even after the fact that you earn money on an hourly basis through the purchase of stores and real estate properties. Which will you buy next? Will you give your fellow “homies” a health boost, or will you unlock the ability to wield two pistols and submachine guns?
The familiar side activities return, like Mayhem, Snatch, Escort, and my favorite Insurance Fraud. They’re also few and far in between, perhaps for the better. There aren’t six levels of every activity anymore, but merely spread out and vary in difficulty. Newcomers include Tank Mayhem, Guardian Angel where you snipe approaching enemies to protect your crew, and perhaps the biggest one is Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax: a Running Man-style game show where you must eliminate fellow contestants, dodge traps, and simply make your way to the exit and survive. It would be a simple battle in its core were it not for the wacky visuals akin to Japanese ‘humiliation’ game shows complete with color commentary. It is easily the most memorable of all activities. One thing that personally bugs me is the removal of Fuzz, where you dressed as a police officer and attacked criminals with an accompanying cameraman. It was my favorite activity from Saints Row 2, and not only is it gone but one of the NEW side missions is just an alternate take on Escort but with a tiger replacing a prostitute. Personally I would have just kept the tiger and taken out the hookers.
Most of Steelport isn’t particularly unique, but alongside its suburbs, its industrial zone and harbors you will find a very festive downtown area that is not so much Vegas Strip as it is Los Angeles in the film Blade Runner (amusingly enough this territory is home to the Morningstar and not the Deckers gang). It doesn’t stop it from being a fun place to explore, especially on foot as you come across alleys and corners that hide a number of hidden collectibles that reward you in some extra cash. The best way to explore the city by far is by air, whether it’s in a regular propeller plane, a passenger jet, or a VTOL aircraft, and admire the city lights and skyline (which only grows as you upgrade certain territories) at night. The vehicles from the first two games have returned and can now be customized to be much more resistant to damage and tire blowouts. Best of all is that you can get a fellow Saint to deliver one to you without needing to visit a safehouse or an auto shop.
I really enjoyed Saints Row the Third, despite some hiccups here and there, like some technical bugs, clothing is way less varied than the second game but are a tad more stylish, and a significant number of the main story missions simply teach you how the side activities work. Listen, if I wanted to learn how Insurance Fraud works, or play Snatch, I would simply find their respective icons and get to it. In fact, I wished there were more story missions than what was ultimately delivered. This is not to say Volition skimped on that aspect of the game, but this studio was able to craft some incredibly hilarious and likable characters and place them in hilarious scenarios who see every ounce of destruction unleashed on their rivals as just another good time to be had. This is why Saints Row works. It’s simply about having a good time, and doubly so if you and a friend join forces online.
As I continue on reflecting on these games, I also think about how the game has almost veered away from the whole hip hop subculture lampoon that felt rather ambiguous in part one and now seems to completely play it straight and just shoot for style out of a magazine ad. The Saints still have “cribs,” now they have penthouses. There are still hoodies and baggy jeans, but their default wardrobe are stylish suits now. The Saints have moved on up from 3rd Street, and I’m hoping they go even higher.