By John Walker on November 14th, 2011 at 5:16 pm.
Having completed Saints Row: The Third, I’m the Earth’s most qualified person to tell you all about it. Having already detailed a great many elements of the game in two recent previews, below I take on the task of explaining why such an excessively immature game is in fact quite so very mature. The game is out tomorrow in the Americas, before a team of dedicated THQ staff begin frantically rowing across the vast ocean of the internet to release it in the UK on Friday. Read on to see Wot I think.
I really bloody love Saints Row: The Third. It is, on so very many levels, an exceptional game. Its multiple layers of irony are coated in thick layers of idiocy and bombast, creating a game that’s simultaneously wickedly smart and phenomenally stupid. It’s a big, ridiculous thing that’s bulging at the edges with nonsensical things to do, yet rigidly structured and extremely well crafted. It’s a strong linear narrative precariously laid down within a deranged playground. And I feel immensely guilty for not being nearly bothered enough by how grotesquely offensive it is.
Where Saints Row was a naff GTA copycat with added foulness, Saints Row 2 was a splendid mass of noise and substance, brutally murdered by a lazy PC conversion that saw it running more like a flick-book than game. I am pleased to report that with Volition taking over the PC coding duties for their own game this time out, it runs like an absolutely dream. Well, the pop-up is awful, but I mean, it runs.
That’s pretty important. I mean, it’s good when a game works at all. But I think more important is that everything that SR2 did so brilliantly, SR3 does better. That’s fairly crucial. (Apart from spraying shit, but we’ll get to that.) You’ve got your open city, your side missions, and a central storyline of gang warfare. So let’s do each in turn.
The open city isn’t perhaps the game’s most special feature. It’s huge, it’s incredibly well built, but it’s peculiarly samey. I could never tell which province of the sprawling town I was in without loading the map. It’s a weird situation – it would be a special kind of madness to describe the game as lacking detail, but it seems to have achieved this at the microscopic level, slightly forgetting the macroscopic. Everywhere you go looks amazing, but it all looks amazing in the same way. I’ve said that three different ways now, and I still feel a bit bad about it. I guess it’s true to real life – I mean, you could drop me anywhere in That London and I’d not have the faintest idea which bit I was in without looking at my phone.
But what does make it such a joyful place to be is the scale to which you can raise trouble. As all good gangs are, all the baddies are conveniently colour-coded, whether they’re Lycra-clad green wrestlers, purple fancies, or blue futuristic technos. So easily picked out from the crowds (after you’re done needlessly picking out the crowds), shooting one of them will gather attention from their buddies. Kill them and you’ll likely see the police turn up. Their heads pop just as nicely, which will see SWAT get interested, and later in the game even more heavy duty forces. As well as more from the gang, as they bring in their armoured vehicles, perhaps helicopters. Until eventually it’s you (and any other Saints you may have asked to help) versus a couple of different armies, seeing just how long you can make the madness last.
But crucially, unlike Just Cause 2 and other similar games, it doesn’t inevitably end in your death. Not only is it possible to take on these ludicrous crowds for a surprising amount of time, getting away is always possible. Stealing a car and driving like a lunatic to the nearest building you own will clear your notoriety with everyone who’s angry with you. And buildings you own are pretty frequent, if you’ve been going around buying them to up your control of a district. District control doesn’t really change the core game significantly, but it gives you a further incentive for doing all those extra bits the game has to offer.
Which brings us to all those extra bits the game has to offer. In a slightly confused move, SR3 chooses to introduce all its side missions as if they were missions to do with the central plot. To an extent, they are, a bit. A key character will ask you to help out with something, loosely tied to the larger goals, which turns out to be a repeatable activity, later iterations displaced to being stumbled upon as you explore the city. I mentioned a few of them in a recent preview, and I’ve no desire to give them all away, so you can read about them there. But are they good? Mostly.
The big exception is the strange cyber-motorbike game. It has you riding a bike in a cylindrical tube, and the mechanics really don’t seem to be up for this. Get turned around and pointing your bike back in the correct direction becomes miserably difficult. And, really, in the end you’re just playing a crappy arcade driving game that offers no glimmer of originality. And while the familiar missions that ask you to cause as much destruction as you can are fun when the game equips your appropriately, for some reason it thinks the “Hard” version should not require more damage in the time period, but rather more damage with crappy weapons that don’t cause much damage. That’s under-fun.
The rest, and the latter above to the larger extent, provide modest fun. Prof Genki’s lunatic gameshow is I think the best, with so much dedicated nonsense accompanying. But weirdly lacking is anything to match or outdo the shit-spraying of SR2. So grotesque and so fun, its absence is odd to start with, let alone there being no attempt to put in something even more extreme or unpleasant. A weird gap, certainly.
And now to the core of the game, the plot. And I think that’s worth underlining – SR3 is unquestionably driven by its story, again writing an enormous, convoluted, and mostly utterly ludicrous tale to propel you through a pretty huge game. (I didn’t count, but it was at least 15 hours, possibly 8 million, I don’t remember.) Quite what that story was actually about, on completion, I’m not entirely sure, but I know that I wanted to keep ploughing through the mission list to keep it moving forward.
That’s not to say its incoherence is always welcome. When it’s because it’s about a gang of thugs believing they have some sort of unidentified moral superiority to other gangs of thugs, seemingly based purely on the fact that you’re playing as one of this gang, then it’s fun. When it’s because the end of one cutscene seems to have little to do with the beginning of the next, it’s a touch irritating. I’m not quite sure what’s happening there, but I did have trouble keeping track with it all in places.
I’m not really going to say what the story is, because it’s constantly changing madness is a good chunk of reason for playing, and if I do that, “And then your whole gang gets transmuted into butterflies, which I can tell you took me by surprise!” crap that reviewers love so much, then, well, it’s not nearly as much fun for you. But be told, that silly made up example isn’t entirely improbable. Because Saints Row: The Third doesn’t let anything so dull as reality get in the way of what it delivers. Okay, look, one example to convince you that this isn’t my hyperbole, and skip below the next picture if you don’t want to know anything… At one point the game turns into a text adventure. Yeah.
Car driving is immensely fun. It’s gloriously balanced, meaning it’s more about going really, really fast than worrying about skill. Master a handbrake turn and you’re pretty much sweet for the whole game. Add on nitro to a car, when playing around with the car optimisations and tweaks that you can apply to any vehicle you take to a garage, and then you can do this at such crazy speeds that hitting other cars causes them to explode in a fireball as you plough straight through. Then there’s lorries, ambulances, tanks, helicopters, V-TOL jets… Flying machines can be tweaked in the menu to be more or less realistic, just in case you’re mad enough to want that to be a challenge, rather than just a source for further uninterrupted mayhem.
On foot shooting, enhanced with a mouse, is also enormously pleasurable. Headshots are fantastically rewarding (although somewhat spoiled by the armour-headed bads of the game’s second half), and the variety of weapons is as enormous as it is silly. You can tweak just about everything, from your face, clothes and floppy cat bags to cars, and even weapons. Each can be augmented in various ways, letting you focus on those you love best with the money you earn. Along with buying buildings, including shops (which has the rather strange effect of reducing prices, rather than making the stuff free – although I guess Simon WH Smiths probably can’t walk in and just take a Twix).
I’ve mentioned the city detail already. But special mention needs to go to the character detail. I dressed my slightly overweight character up in slobbiest jeans and jumper I could find for the most part, augmented by a floppy cat backpack, whose paws and head flap and loll about as I run with the sort of intricate detail that’s usually reserved for showing off a graphics card’s latest features. Such a small thing, but it makes such a big difference. Later running around in a bra, smart trousers and giant wolf head, I couldn’t bear to remove the catpack. (Although it’s worth noting that the game will reward you with a bonus if you charge about in the pixelated nude.) I don’t mean to sound insanely obsessed with that catbackpack detail, but I am. Also my hair looked great.
So that brings me to that guilt I feel. It’s nothing to do with the violence, the sweariness, the generally amoral attitude (or maybe it is). It’s the representation of women throughout. Which is confusing. Because, okay, I’m playing as a girl. And that’s not just a box I ticked at the start. It means that my on-screen character is clearly female, but more-so, is treated by the world as female. There are a few exceptions – some narration during a wrestling incident doesn’t recognise the player gender, for instance – but mostly the dialogue is written and recorded to recognise your sex. There are damn few games that can claim that. Then it’s packed with strong female characters. And girly ones. And dorky ones. And not all of them have their boobs flapping around. Women are as much a part of the gang as men, and play no secondary roles. (And, importantly, for once men are portrayed with variety, again mixing up thugs with geeks, smart and dumb.) Which is good, right?
And, well, then there are the rest of the women in the game. Who invariably are wearing bras, and probably lap dancing or prostituting themselves. You rescue “hos” from shipping containers, in which they huddle uselessly, chirping rubbish about how terrified they are. Characters refer to women as “bitches” throughout. It’s gross. And I think you could get some distance justifying it as parody, or perhaps arguing that it genuinely does seem to be the most affectionate use of “bitches” I’ve ever heard. But, well, it’s still pretty foul, isn’t it? So why does this not dampen my enthusiasm for such a tremendously fun game?
I have no idea, quite honestly. I asked Kieron, and he began a fantastic lecture on Ellen Willis, The Sex Revolts, and admiring the majesty of a descending missile. So yeah – that. What he said. But the reality is, Saints Row: The Third is a world in which that shit happens, and it’s honest about that. And there’s something about that honesty of yuckiness that, well, I don’t know. I just don’t know. Maybe it is that general amorality after all. Hell, the game doesn’t care about anything else – why should it with this?
Right, so I’ve got that out of my system, but I’m buggered if that’s going to be anyone’s focus of this review. It’s an astonishing game. It’s vast, idiotic, and brilliantly made. The pop-up on cars and the like is poor, and instantly needs fixing, but that’s really the only thing that excessively bothered me throughout. You’re so constantly rewarded with levelling up, new weapons, gang customisations, insanely powerful hovering aircraft that fire lasers, surprise mayors (that they insanely gave away in a trailer, despite its not being revealed until the last fifth of the game), ridiculous novelty hats and giant dildos.
This is a game in which you play one section as a toilet. Not making that up. It has a bonus mode called “Whored Mode” (because how could they resist that pun) in which you take on waves of enemies with certain weapons, including heavily armed sentient question marks. You can drive tanks from videogames in the real world – their explosions are in cubes. Yes. And rather importantly, I’m keen to play it through again, to see what happens if I make different choices at key moments.
It’s so fundamentally dedicated to being fun that its prehensile penile puerility ends up feeling redundant in the midst of the blaze of silliness and action, and barely noticeable. Car mechanics being called “Rim Jobs” doesn’t register as you play, and I do wonder if by SR4 they’ll have dropped the puns-for-eleven-year-olds entirely. Because what they’ve created doesn’t rely on that background hum of childishness – it’s got a foreground explosion of grotesquely violent entertainment to keep you constantly busy.