Saints Row: The Third Review

By Adam Rosenberg - Posted Nov 11, 2011

Saints Row: The Third is juvenile, crass, frequently offensive and always over-the-top. The ESRB rating on the back of the game's case is filled with so many content descriptors that they scrape the edges of the logo. This game is aggressive about earning its M-rating. It's also one of the most entertaining rides I've taken this year.

The Pros
  • Redefines "over-the-top" with every new twist and turn
  • Surprisingly likable characters complement a compelling narrative
  • Filled with clever nods to pop culture and geek culture
  • Whored Mode is insanely fun
The Cons
  • Attempts at humor occasionally fall flat
  • Easily offended gamers are going to crucify this game

Saints Row: The Third Review

The Saints Row series sure has come a long way since its 2006 beginnings. The series started as little more than a Grand Theft Auto knockoff for the current console generation. That first game gave Xbox 360 players an open-world urban landscape to explore and commit horrible crimes in. It went places that GTA hadn't before -- the ability to buy and use drugs is a memorable one -- and it improved on the Rockstar series' formula with now-standard game mechanics like minimap GPS.

With Saints Row: The Third, Volition, Inc. isn't content to simply knock on Rockstar's door anymore. The series has developed its own voice, and this new game embraces that so completely it's like you're playing a different game sometimes. You're not though. Fan-favorite activities like Insurance Fraud are back, but they're given a whole new context thanks to the game's surprisingly compelling story. You're still playing as and dealing with a bunch of extremely colorful sociopaths, but dammit if they're not all likable sociopaths.

Michael Bay On Speed-Laced Steroids

The story in Saints Row 3 isn't the only reason to play, but it's a surprisingly compelling one. The Saints Row plots have always been entertaining, but this one has a little bit of added oomph thanks to what appears to be a completely re-written cast of characters. Everyone you meet in the game is a killer, but a playful one. Saints Row: The Third is a gross-out comedy with a body count.

The story picks up some amount of time after the events of Saints Row 2. The 3rd Street Saints are now celebrity heroes, a criminal organization that has branded itself into franchise status. Unfortunately, that level of celebrity has inspired other criminal outfits to strive toward similar goals. One of those, the Syndicate, pulls a stunt at the beginning of the game that brings our gang of Saints into a new city for the first time: Steelport.

The story unfolds over a series of acts, starting with the familiar rise to power over the local toughs. You arrive in Steelport to find three rival gangs waiting to be picked apart: the Deckers, Morningstar, and Luchadores. The urban warfare eventually becomes fierce enough that the government organization STAG -- Special Tactical Anti-Gang unit -- into the city to restore order. Then that goes awry and -- I crap you not -- the zombies arrive.

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It's all completely ridiculous. You reach a milestone in the story that feels like the end of all things, only to watch as a bigger picture presents itself. By the time the walking dead show up, you'll be too busy figuring out how to create a bigger explosion to be speechless. Saints Row 3 doesn't so much desensitize you to the madness as it does hit you with so much insanity at such regular intervals that the crazy starts to seem normal.

There's also a very conscious nod to pop culture in general and geek culture in particular. If the first Saints Row is looking pointedly at Grand Theft Auto then Saints Row: The Third is doing the same with hyperbolic fanboy culture. There's a surprising amount of subtext and tongue-in-cheek humor inserted throughout the 15-hour story. The game is constantly poking fun at the very things it also embraces.
Occasionally this leads to a misstep. A few of the game's bolder stabs at humor are noteworthy simply for "going there," but they fail to deliver on the laughs. One of my fellow reviewers felt outright discomfort about certain plot points because he chose to play as a female character.

Saints Row: The Third is rarely subtle and never politically correct; suffice to say, if you're an easily offended firebrand, you're going to find a lot of content to shout about from your soapbox. So there's that too. Overall though, the game's story hits all of the right beats and keeps you invested the whole way through.

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It's All In The Pacing

In the previous two Saints Row games, the unfolding narrative followed a relatively simple formula: advancement in the story is hindered by how much respect you've earned, meaning that in order to play through the whole story, you'd have to also keep coming back to the assorted minigame missions, like Mayhem or Insurance Fraud, and then proceed through Stronghold missions to root out rival gangs.

All of that is gone in Saints 3. The structure is much more like that of an RPG in a lot of ways. Your available missions -- story missions, that is -- are always accessible from your PDA. The big plot-advancing task is always at the top, but there are usually one or more items listed below it that further flesh things out. I can't say what would happen if you skip any of those, largely because I didn't want to.

The story is incredibly varied. In one mission you might be jumping out of a plane a shooting bad guys in mid-air during your lengthy freefall. In another you might be posing as a drugged out sex slave to [SPOLER REDACTED]. The amount of variety at work in this game's story will surprise you again and again, and almost always in entertaining ways.

Saints Row 3

It all seems so straightforward in the early going, too, though even that serves a purpose. Your first side missions are there to walk you through Saints 3's various Diversions. You'll get to try out all of the secondary activities you can participate in as the game progresses to earn additional money and Respect, which is back to fill a different role this time around.

Respect is synonymous with experience points in this game. As you rise to higher levels, you'll unlock a wider array of tools and abilities that you can play with. Emphasis on can. Unlocking an ability in Saints Row: The Third isn't enough; you'll also have to buy it. Some boosts help your gang as a whole and some boost just your character. Then there are weapon upgrades and ammo capacity upgrades, all the way up to an Infinite Ammo unlock.

Sitting next to all of this story and character progression stuff is the assortment of ridiculous Diversions that fans have come to expect from the series. Your favorites are back of course. There are new ones too. The Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax game show is a highlight, a high-speed murder run through an enemy-filled obstacle course. What's important to note is, you don't really have to do any of these. They're available, and they're fun, but they live up to their Diversions name more than they have in the series' two previous games.

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Murder Is More Fun With A Friend

Co-op returns in Saints Row: The Third, and it's everything it needs to be. Two players. Follows the story. Double the human input, double the mayhem. It works, and it works well. But it's nothing when compared to the out-and-out insanity that is Whored Mode. As you've probably guessed, Whored is the Saints take on the downright trendy, wave-based, survival game type that every other new release seems to offer these days. I can guarantee you this: none of them are doing it like Saints Row is doing it.

Whored Mode offers up three maps, each with 30 waves of enemies to plow through. The Saints twist is that each wave comes with a different and ever-changing set of rules. It starts out innocently enough, giving you some guns and a bunch of enemies to shoot. Pickups are scattered around that add to your ammo or give you boosts like 30 seconds of weapons fire from a bottomless clip.

Things start to get weird after that first wave. Maybe you're fighting only women. Maybe your character shrinks down to tiny proportions. Or your enemies. In one particularly ridiculous wave, I was given the game's Penetrator weapon -- a floppy, purple dildo-shaped baseball bat -- and forced to bludgeon to death an entire wave of social miscreants dressed like the Gimp from Pulp Fiction. The pre-wave hint text even makes reference to "Marcellus."

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Holy Glory

This is a game that hits on every level. The story is sharp and funny, despite the occasional misstep. The humor is ridiculously, deliciously over-the-top, perhaps borderline offensive at times, but the best creative works always are. The gameplay is as tight as it's always been but even more fun than ever thanks to the varied set of tasks placed in front of you. This series is a knockoff no more; Saints Row: The Third is, in a word, brilliant.