Naked women (and men). Baseball bat-sized dildos. A bondage club. Transforming attack jets. A pimp who speaks via auto-tune. These are just a small sampling of the crazy that awaits within Saints Row: The Third. It's a game that relishes insanity, making full use of the absurd in order to focus on fun. And you know what? It works. Unless you're easily offended, this is a game that is simply fun to play.
The Saints Row franchise started as little more than a slightly over-the-top Grand Theft Auto clone. With the success of the first game, Saints Row 2 went multiplatform, appearing on the PC, PlayStation 3 as well as the Xbox 360. The second game in the series was a brilliant mix of story and insane action, though it tended to stay clear of the truly absurd. With Saints Row: The Third, any reservations are out the window. For better or for worse, the game goes balls-to-the-wall from the very beginning.
Unlike the prior two games, where you start with nothing, in Saints Row: The Third, the Saints start out at the top of the social ladder. They're celebrities in their own right, worshipped by the citizens of Stilwater. As a result, the Saints have attracted the attention of the Syndicate. An international super-gang, the Syndicate wants the Saints to pay tribute. The Saints refuse and then take the battle to Steelport, a brand-new city under Syndicate control.
Like many open-world games, Saints Row: The Third starts out with a tutorial mission, but quickly sets you loose to raise havoc. Players are free to ignore the story missions, explore the city, steal cars, shoot people and generally do whatever you feel like doing.
Players who take on the story missions will find themselves rewarded with weapon and wardrobe upgrades as well as some impressively designed set pieces. In terms of overall story, the plot in Saints Row: The Third isn't quite as compelling as what we saw in the second game, but it provides for a good excuse to see some crazy stuff happen. And when said crazy stuff happens, it leaves an impression.
Two of the most memorable game moments in Saints Row: The Third come from these scripted encounters. The first happens near the start of the story, in a mission that sees you claiming a penthouse apartment. In any other game, you might start your assault on the ground floor and work your way up. Here, you start the mission high in the sky, as you parachute off a hovering helicopter and gain entry by way of the skylights — all while Kanye West's "Power" is blasting in the background. If you don't feel like a badass after that, you're doing it wrong.
The second stand-out moment occurs midway through one of the final missions. You're tasked with rescuing a fellow Saint from certain doom. It's nothing spectacular in terms of mission design until you see the clock counting down and Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" kicks in. It's a juxtaposition that sounds odd on paper, but ends up playing out brilliantly; 1980s pop never sounded so appropriate.
In between these two missions, pretty much anything that can happen does happen. You'll find yourself fighting Mexican luchadores, zapped into a TRON-like computer world and eliminating a zombie outbreak. Oh, you'll also meet Burt Reynolds. Not making this up.
Throughout it all, the music keeps playing. No matter what your preference — classical, electronic, metal, rock, Spanish — there is likely a radio station for you. There's even an Adult Swim channel. All of the tracks are known quantities, with artists like Benny Benassi, Butthole Surfers, Deadmau5, Junkie XL, KMFDM, Marilyn Manson and Pitbull appearing. You can let the music play randomly or customize it to your preferences.
Combat is another high point of Saints Row: The Third, with sharply responsive controls. Whether it's facing down a large group or just trying to survive against a massive brute, you never feel as if you're fighting the game. Weapon switching is mapped to a radial menu, allowing for a quick swap whenever needed. Each weapon has its own feel, along with a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages. There isn't a single "super weapon" that rules the game.
The responsive control extends to the vehicles, especially the cars. Handling in Saints Row: The Third is 100% arcade style, so it looks cool, but it's easy to make the cars do what you want. Want to make a turn at high speed? Just mash the e-brake and go to town. You're pretty much guaranteed to nail the perfect 90-degree turn almost every time.
Character customization has always been a key part of the Saints Row franchise, and that continues here. You have the ability to generate any character you can think up. Create a masterpiece, and you can upload him or her to the community site. You can also download characters created by others. Custom characters are seen in cinema scenes as well as within the game.
Oddly, the customization doesn't extend to player cribs this time around. There are certain cribs, dubbed "strongholds" that can be upgraded; however, this is for the bonuses more than anything else. Upgrading a stronghold doesn't change the interior design like it did in Saints Row 2, and that's a disappointment. It was also odd to see the exact same penthouse layout in different strongholds. Sure, it's just a visual thing, but style has always been a big part of the series, so seeing duplication felt like the developers took a little shortcut.
Another area where Saints Row: The Third falls short is in its overall city design. Perhaps it is the streamlined mission structure, but for better or for worse, Steelport just doesn't feel as "alive" as Stilwater. Exploring Stilwater in the earlier games felt like you were exploring all the nooks and crannies of a city. With Steelport, it feels like you're driving through the city without actually residing in it. The city is more of a backdrop than a character in and of itself this time around. It's a small distinction, but one worth noting.
Getting through all of the core missions in Saints Row: The Third (including the alternate ending) is going to take around 12-14 hours for an average player. You can easily double or triple that time by completing side missions, which are known as activities. These little diversions earn you money and respect as well as offering up more control over the city.
Rounding out the package is the game's stand-alone survival mode, Whored mode. The goal is simply to survive wave after wave of attacking enemies. Each wave outfits you with a different set of weapons, enemies and rules. There are three maps and five characters to use in Whored mode, but even with that, this isn't a mode with a lot of staying power. There is no continuity between the waves and no real draw to keep players engaged. It's a nice diversion, but the Zombie Uprising minigame in Saints Row 2 was a better bonus feature.
Both the campaign and Whored mode can be played in single-player or in co-op via Xbox Live or System Link. Playing co-op requires an online pass, even if you just want to use System Link. A one-time use code is included with new purchases. Co-op works nicely for the campaign, and the drop-in/drop-out ability is a huge plus, but the lack of a core competitive mode was a disappointment. The Cat and Mouse diversion returns, though that's the only flavor of versus we saw, and it wasn't even immediately obvious that you could play it. If you didn't know it was there, it could easily be overlooked.
Co-op in Whored mode makes it more likely you'll survive a wave, as both players can revive the other when one goes down. The downside is the fact that you're always limited to two players, even in Whored mode.
Despite its flaws, Saints Row: The Third succeeds because of its mandate to focus on fun. The story may not be epic and the graphics may not be mind blowing, but when all is said and done, Saints Row: The Third probably has more "holy sh*t!" moments than any other game currently on the market. Combine this with a twisted sense of humor, and you have a recipe for success.
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