In a year in which sequels were more prevalent than ever before and seemingly creatively bankrupt, Saints Row: The Third could easily have become just another bullet-point in THQ’s end of year financials. Open world, you say? Check. Sequel to a fairly generic franchise that traded off of people’s love for the genre rather than significant innovation? Check. Guaranteed sales from everybody waiting patiently for GTA? Check.
Like I say, it could so easily have been that way, but all credit to Volition for ramming those assumptions down my throat with vigour. Not only is Saints Row: The Third so much more than anybody had any right to expect, it’s also a game that injects a much-needed sense of playfulness back into the genre. It’s something we’ve been missing since San Andreas, and even then Rockstar’s finest pales in comparison to the mayhem spewing forth from the 3rd Street Saints.
Suffice to say, it’s difficult to discuss the finer points as to exactly how batshit-crazy SR3 is without spoiling a whole host of surprises. As an example though, the opening level sees you carrying out a bank heist full of in-jokes dressed as big-headed cartoon members of your own posse, before being airlifted to safety in an attack helicopter and handed a weapon of such scope that it’d normally be placed at the end of every other game. It’s not temporary either, it’s yours to keep, and it’s the first step of an arsenal that goes from the sublime to the utterly, utterly ridiculous in a short space of time.
Push a little further through those opening moments, and you’ll find yourself on a skyliner discussing the finer points of commercialised terrorism with one of several primary antagonists, before a shootout triggers a fully playable sky-diving battle into the heart of Stillwater’s gangland. All of that in the first 45-minutes; and that’s a gentle introduction in comparison to what’s about to occur.
The trick that Volition has successfully pulled with their brand of fourth-wall breaking action is that none of the missions or map-filling diversions stick around for long enough to become repetitive or to call into question their sensibilities. One set piece moves swiftly onto another, and before you can even appreciate the situation that your character finds themselves in, there’s something similarly mental looming on the horizon to take the limelight. It helps that the script is genuinely amusing in all the right places, and no matter which of the voice actors you choose (your character can be male, female, zombie or anything you can conjure with the editing tools) the dialogue is delivered with a consistent level of quality.
In terms of mechanics SR3 borrows much from its forebear, which – it turns out – is no bad thing. Shooting and driving are enjoyably lightweight and responsive, whilst your character still levels with a ‘respect’ meter that gradually fills as you shoot and explode your way around town. Taking over territories via one of the many mini-games awards a cash bonus per hour, which can then be spent on character perks or upgrading the already-devastating weaponry. By the mid-point of the storyline you should have a protagonist that’s virtually indestructible and armed to the teeth, so the challenge then switches to simply causing as much carnage as possible and wiping the floor with your enemies in various inventive ways.
As a game of so many high points then, about the only thing left to say is that you really should play Saints Row: The Third. Although the city may lack the definable art direction and navigable landmarks of a Liberty City (to begin with, at least), and though the framerate and general visual quality can dive-bomb at times (the PC version should rectify all of the above), Volition has to be praised for breathing life into its franchise in the best possible sense. If there is to be a Saints Row 4, it has a heck of a lot to live up to.