The Third Time's not the Charm
HIGH One of the best extended opening sequences I've played in some time.
LOW The game fails to maintain that quality past the opening.
WTF No booty size slider—again?!? And Burt Reynolds?
In a world where Grand Theft Auto became too wrapped up in its own head, Saints Row saw an opportunity and took it. By sticking to the formula that brought Rockstar to the fore and then continuing when they bailed, Volition turned what could have been a cheap me-too into a favorite of fans who were estranged when GTA got serious. It is ironic, then, that this third iteration of Saints Row fails by repeating itself one time too many. For a series that won the day by keeping the faith, it's now time to move on...
Technically speaking, this third-person open-world "crime simulator" should be the best that Saints Row has ever been. The graphics are better, a number of improvements have been made to the structure of play (earning Respect isn't necessary to progress the story anymore, hooray!) and there's a ton of perks and customization options to fiddle with. However, the developers have underestimated the value of coherent narrative and campaigns that are held together with more than spit and baling wire.
During the most balls-out, over-the-top opening sequence I've seen in years, it's explained that the Saints gang has become popular to the point of inspiring a legion of fans, bobblehead dolls and an energy drink. Soon after, a rival gang moves in and tries to take a cut of their success. Things happen, and... well, the specifics aren't important since the real takeaway is that game fails to carry the humorous writing and energy of that first hour into the campaign.
Instead of more outrageous activities and sing-along moments like the kind at the start, Saints Row: The Third vomits a neverending string of disconnected missions into the player's lap, too many of which do nothing but introduce repetitive optional activities.
Since the bulk of The Third's action is simplistic drive here/shoot there with minor twists, such a pace-change is a massive wrong turn. The controls and driving are certainly better than what's found in Grand Theft Auto, but it wasn't until several hours after the first mission that I finally hit scenarios that remembered how goes-to-eleven the game was supposed to be.
When hijacking an enemy VTOL, transforming into a demon, or doing some luchador-style wrestling in the squared circle, Saints Row comes alive. Such bursts of vigor are few and far between, though. Mostly, it's a hell of a lot of shooting enemies and blowing stuff up in different ways. Too much of The Third is gameplay that's been done by this series twice before, not to mention by all the others in the open-world genre. It's good for a few giggles, but it lacks meatiness and staying power. It feels outdated, even.
Making a dull situation worse, The Third has the weakest writing and characters of the series. The player's homies are flat, the villains lack presence, and the rival gangs feel generic. The story events that the player goes through? They hardly make sense from one mission to the next, and I often couldn't remember why I was doing them besides the fact that they were on my quest list.
Don't get me wrong—I don't come to the Saints Row games for deep examinations of the human condition, but the first two Rows were clearer and gave solid (and irreverent) setups for the player to feel invested in while taking over the local turf. They delivered the satisfying sensation of growing an empire. Without strong characters or strong humor, I felt little motivation to sit through Saints for a third time. Frankly, it was just boring and came off like a waste of my time.
With the PR campaign for The Third repeatedly saying that things are bigger, crazier and more unbelievable this time around, the tired play and bland characters are surprising in their inadequacy. Besides those disappointments, many instances of weirdness do pop up—S&M clubs, fisting machines, the famous purple dildo—but it's just cheap gimmickry intended as shock value. The game's so interested in rushing the player through the tissue-thin story and opening up tiresome peripheral activities that the "questionable content" is reduced to white noise that's easily ignored. No amount of pony play or blurred-out genitals can mask the fact that The Third is a checklist of shallow minigames lacking character, cohesion and purpose. Volition's developers and writers can do better—and in fact, they've done better twice before.
For players new to Saints Row, I would imagine the experience to be more positive than mine if for no reason other than sheer novelty. However, as someone who's now been through all three games, the formula and content in The Third is dreadfully stale, and well past its expiration date. I'd personally take either of the first two Saints titles over this one, and with so much competition from a huge number of top-shelf games this holiday season, Saints Row: The Third's choice of quantity over quality is not a winning formula.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. No time was spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, and strong language. Not to belabor the obvious here, but seeing as how one of the biggest components of this game's advertising campaign is a massive purple dildo, I think it's safe to say that parents should steer their children clear. There is a ton of shooting and killing, some gory scenes, a boatload of naked or suggestively-dressed people, and a dictionary's worth of salty language. I don't personally object to this kind of content, but make no mistake—this game is aimed squarely at adult players. No kids allowed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: While most of the game's dialogue is subtitled, I noticed that certain portions (specifically some phone calls and some radio information) were missing the text. None of it was crucial to gameplay, but I did notice it. Otherwise, the game provides all important information visually, and I did not find any auditory cues that were significant to gameplay. In my opinion, it's very accessible.