This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Saints Row: The Third.
You know what? I think the little worm of excitement lying neglected on the floor of my flinty, emotionless belly is the closest it's ever come to coughing up a lung with glee. A sequel to Saints Row 2? A game that I thought was more fun than an entire swimming pool full of disembodied tits because it was smart enough to remember what Grand Theft Auto forgot: that when we drive at full speed into an old lady, it's not because we want to see her sobbing in the gutter because she can't afford both a new hip and her grandchildrens' Christmas presents; we want to see her rocket into the sky and concuss an albatross.
Saints Row: The Third is set in a whole new city, Steelport, which in bold contrast to the previous city of Stilwater is called something different. Perhaps it's time to relearn the other thing Grand Theft Auto forgot: that you could always set your sandbox city somewhere other than New York. Like Coventry, perhaps, although in that case when you inevitably get bored and want to commit suicide from the tallest building you'd probably have to join a queue.
So in the time since Saints Row 2, the 3rd Street Saints have become pop culture celebrities, with their own clothing range and energy drink. But being corporate whores has caused them to lose touch with all the wholesome murdering, theft, and regular ol' whores that got them to where they are today. But then circumstances conspire to trap the Saints in the city of Steelport and force them to start again from square one. And by "square one," I mean "seemingly unlimited access to attack helicopters."
Now, the first Saints Row game was comparatively straight. It wasn't exactly Homicide: Life on the Street, but you weren't gonna climb aboard any rocket-powered jet bikes, either. Saints Row 2 leaned wackier, with a slightly unhealthy fascination with spraying poo at things other people would rather you didn't spray poo at, but was still somewhat grounded in reality at least. Saints Row: The Third drinks Wackozade from a clown shoe. This is a trilogy progression we academics call Evil Dead syndrome, and I'm not sure I like it. The funny parts of Saints Row 2 shone all the brighter alongside its more po-faced aspects. It's when you're wearing full lucha libre gear thwacking at zombies with a big floppy dildo is part of the everyday routine that it starts to feel less special.
Saints Row Three disappoints right out of the gate by reducing the trademark psychotic levels of character customization. I know a lot of transsexuals will be disappointed that gender is now a binary male or female switch rather than the slider of previous games, so you can't recreate David Bowie anymore. The range of male body types is reduced to something between "three protein shakes for lunch" and "twelve protein shakes for lunch" and the clothing options are reduced, too. You can no longer pick-and-mix undershirts, overshirts, and jackets to your heart's content; now they're all under the blanket heading of "upper body". And most crushingly of all, you can't choose your fucking socks! So I can't wear fishnet stockings under a sensible business suit and roleplay as a conservative MP. The return of the Cockney voice is small comfort, for in remaking my color-coordinated Batman villain from Saints Row 2 I could no longer have a jaunty hat tilted at the angle of my choose. It doesn't seem like it would have been hard to copy-paste all of this from Saints Row 2. They could have done it while they were copy-pasting every other bloody thing.
Yes, if all that sock business seemed unusually inconsequential even for me, it's because there's a limit to what one can say about Saints Row 3 that won't just turn into talking about Saints Row 2. The city's pretty much the same except for the specific street layout, and they didn't make the hilarious costume shop really hard to find this time, because taking over the city dressed as Ronald McDonald is now the rule rather than the exception. And a lot of the side missions are the same. The main difference is that now there's no little cutscene at the start in which a character explains why blasting liquid feces all over someone's property is an any way rational. No, you just press the button to start the activity, and then you're driving around with a tiger in your passenger seat or pouring banana milkshakes down people's trousers or something equally wacky.
The big new side mission is a high-larious Japanese-style game show where you run around shooting dudes like you always do, but in an atmosphere of such dense wackiness that if you breathe it in too much then your lungs turn into balloon animals. But again, there's no explanation of how you got there. Maybe they're trying to make things more arcadey, but part of the joy in Saints Row is in watching your constructed character play straight man to an ever wackier world. And I feel an opportunity was missed to show our hero meeting the organizers of the game and giving them Chinese burns until they agree to stop being twats.
As for the main story thread, my issue with it is that there's not a great sense of progression, how your sandbox crime game is traditionally supposed to work, so that you wash up in the lowliest gutter of whatever today's thinly-disguised version of New York is and from holding up liquor stores with sharpened lollipop sticks you gradually gain better resources and climb the ladder until you're gazing down at the city from your penthouse apartment, swirling brandy around the skull of a rival gang leader's favorite clarinet teacher. In Saints Row 3, you're given access to helicopters, a penthouse H.Q., and Modern Warfare-style guided missiles in the first few missions of the game.
I feel it could have been paced better. I won't appreciate my jet plane if you haven't forced me to navigate the city slums in a shopping trolley for a while. I never get the sense that the 3rd Street Saints are in a position of difficulty when they appear to employ wizards who can conjure helicopters from the void of time and space. Flying a helicopter over my destination marker and bailing out to let it crash spectacularly into someone's gran should be a rare pleasure, not the main means by which I get around. And if I were the helicopter wizard, I'd be feeling a little taken for granted.
The eternal concluding question of "Is it fun?" must grudgingly be answered with a yes, but with a whopping great pulsating asterisk next to it. It's fun because it plays deliberately to visceral masturbatory gratification, but this is done at the sacrifice of context and challenge. As I've been writing the script for this review, something has occurred to me. The story deals with the 3rd Street Saints having sold out and become media celebrities reduced to cartoonish, marketable parodies of their former selves, and one could draw a very clear parallel between that and this game as a whole, waving its multicolored top hat in farewell to whatever seriousness remained in the property. Could this perhaps have been an intentional subtext?
No, of course it wasn't. To assume sophistication on the part of a game that would have you smack passersby into trees with a giant, wobbling dick is like assuming a birthday party stripper is trying to get you to check her for breast cancer. It's not impossible, but why would she be wearing a policewoman's helmet?
- Why *wouldn't* she be wearing a policewoman's helmet: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
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