The Saints Row series has often been labelled as a straight GTA clone, a label which in the past has been relatively justifiable. But with the release of the third instalment in the series, appropriately titled Saints Row: The Third, Volition has developed a game in which the shackles of comparison can now finally be discarded. If GTA IV gave you the blues with its turn towards realism and more overt social commentary, then Saints Row: The Third could well be the remedy. But be warned, while there is a genuine desire here for juvenile absurdity and self-aware wackiness, at its heart The Third’s gameplay remains very conventional and at times even a little dull.
The Third, like previous Saints Row games, provides the player with an open world city which you are free to run, drive and fly around. While the first two games took place in the city of Stilwater, The Third uproots the Saints and literally drops them into the new, and visually impressive, metropolis of Steelport. But if the city is a new sight to followers of the series then the fundamental gameplay remains the same. The aim, aside from beating the main narrative, is to eventually conquer Steelport by expanding your gang’s territory, either through buying property or completing activities.
These activities are quite numerous and often great fun. From causing destruction with a tank to throwing yourself into traffic to gain compensation, these tasks provide simple, mindless distractions from the main arch of the narrative (though how throwing yourself into traffic acquires you territory or ‘respect’ is baffling). But it’s the Professor Genki activities which really present the challenge. Here you have to work your way through rooms of rifle wielding men in animal costumes, avoiding walls of fire and electricity, to acquire money and prizes. These challenges nearly trump the main game in terms of the skill required and often make the story missions seem like episodes from a dreary corridor shooter.
This is not to say the main story is utterly bereft of excitement. Once past the initial set of standard missions the game finally loses its grip on reality and we find ourselves negotiating some pretty crazy situations. One high point is a somewhat incongruous boss battle which manages to reference both TRON and God of War in one ridiculous swoop. It’s when the game pitches these absurd curve balls that it’s truly at its best. It’s unfortunate, then, that most of the ‘craziness’ utterly misses the target. An early low finds our anti-heroes gunning down swaths of scantily clad prostitutes; a moment which is not only slightly worrying but also entirely unimaginative.
Yet, despite all this clichéd chaff, Saints Row: The Third is still, at times, good fun to play – even if it never really offers anything new. For a start the level of customisation available for your character is commendable. Not only is there an extensive wardrobe available (including a massive cat head!), but at any moment in the game you can pop down the plastic surgeons and completely change your physical appearance – be it a sudden desire for golden skin or a complete reversal of gender. As in previous Saints Row games, you can also pimp the vehicles which you pick up along the way. This level of customisation adds to the general enjoyment which comes from clowning around the city. Driving half-naked in a pimped-up hearse, covered head to toe in tattoos, wearing a steam-punk top hat, is undoubtedly a good laugh.
It’s a shame that these moments of joyful silliness are fleeting, often giving way to the same more conventional gameplay of shooting baddies and racing to the next location on the map. It’s commendable that Volition has tried at least to avoid the obsession with realism which dominates mainstream gaming, but the question we should be asking is: Is Saints Row silly enough? When it is, The Third is an enjoyable, funny and exciting game. But when it’s too happy giving us another room of hired goons to kill (whether they are prostitutes or faceless baddies) it reveals a more conservative game reluctant to fully embrace its absurdist side.
Words > Joe Smith