The Saints Row series began with a solid but fairly obvious attempt to provide a next-gen open world gangster game two years before Grand Theft Auto IV hit store shelves. However, Saints Row 2 brought its own distinct personality - an over-the-top, explosive spoof of open-world games with hilarious activities and a sense of fun. Now, Saints Row: The Third is here, and it's taking this philosophy and amping it up to the next degree, with the most outrageous game you're likely to play this year.
Saints Row: The Third starts with the 3rd Street Saints gang on the top of the world. Rich, powerful, and so popular that they now have their own chain of clothing stores and a movie in the works about them, they own the city of Stilwater and love it. This all changes when the criminal Syndicate organisation edges in on their territory, demanding tribute and inflicting some lasting damage to their homies and their bank account. Taking the fight to the Syndicate, the Saints move to Steelport, a new city in the series, facing its new gangs - the wrestling-themed Luchadores, the Tron-inspired Deckers and the refined Morningstar.
The campaign can be played in either single player or co-op, the latter of which doesn't change the gameplay too much, except allowing either player to be revived if you're able to get to them in time. The story is relatively unimportant and simply serves as a backdrop against which awesome things can happen. The game is seemingly intended to make the male teenage mind explode, with every possible thing that could excite them included - rocket launchers, sex jokes, scantily-clad women, tanks, skydiving, skydiving in a tank, jet planes, clones, air strikes, remote controlled cars, zombies, Mega Man's buster gun, interplanetary warfare, celebrity cameos... the list goes on. Saints Row: The Third relishes going as over-the-top as it does, and while this may make the game seem far too juvenile to some, for others it will be a dream come true. At certain points in the game, you will be asked to make decisions, for instance choosing to blow up enemy headquarters for respect, or keeping it for yourself as a new crib. While these decisions may be construed as a weak kind of morality system, they really aren't, and mostly boil down to which choice will give you the rewards you want.
Everything in the campaign simply feels over-exaggerated, for better or worse. Why go on an escort mission protecting a car, when you can do so in a helicopter with an infinite ammo-equipped rocket launcher? Why steal a helicopter to fly to your next destination when the game provides you with a jet-powered VTOL with missiles and a laser cannon? You're still using a shotgun? Why not have this sonic rifle that literally disintegrates anything its path? At one point the player character (the nameless boss of the Saints) is freefalling in the sky when they encounter a plane. Without a second thought, the boss shoots out the cockpit's windows and proceeds to fly into the cockpit, through the plane and out the cargo door safely to continue their fall. This is not a game that exists in any kind of reality that we know, but it's more all the more fun because of it.
The game falters when the player is relegated to simply following a car, or engaging in the all-too-familiar gunfights, of which there are many. Most enemies pose little-to-no threat if you take advantage of the many overpowered weapons in the game and plow through them, which means the game increases the difficulty by either throwing a lot of opponents at you, giving one of them a special gun (like a grenade launcher) or by throwing brutes into the mix. These brutes can take several grenades, rockets or hits from the devastating Apoca-Fist, and as there's no cover system in place, you just have to try and avoid them among the heavy fire. It's at moments like these when there's an army of enemies and brutes to fight, with homies needing to be revived and your health running low that the game can get a little challenging and frustrating.
There are a large number of side-missions or 'activities' you can complete, most if not all of which are introduced during the campaign. Some of these activities are fun, while others are not so much. Trying to cause as much destruction within a set time limit is always pleasing, as is the insurance fraud (even if the physics are hilariously broken as you bounce between cars) and motorcycling through a Tron-world. Other activities such as Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax gameshow aren't quite as fun or weird as they sound, or stealing hookers in Snatch which is relatively simple compared to the rest of the game. There's plenty to do, and certainly enough to keep you occupied long after the campaign's finished, if you should choose to stick around.
There's plenty of options for character customisation, as you can completely customise your protagonist's appearance, gender, personality, clothes and mannerisms. It is entirely possible to make a silver-skinned freak of nature with the sex appeal slider (read: breast or crotch size) turned all the way up, and force everyone in the game to interact normally with it, which in itself is entertaining. You can even change their voice actor, and your character does have a lot of dialogue, so choosing one that suits you is quite important. For our money, the female Russian voice was far and away the most hilarious and memorable.
There's also an extensive upgrade system tied into your character's Respect level. As you complete missions and participate in activities, you level up and gain access to a variety of upgrades from increasing your health regeneration or sprinting speed to some really awesome ones like adding a nitrous boost to every car you get into. This last one is especially cool, since there are already Burnout-style respect bonuses for driving dangerously. Both guns and cars can also be upgraded in a variety of ways, and while it's not essential for you to do this to finish the game (there are plenty of overpowered weapons and methods of transport) the option is always there and it's reasonably deep.
Saints Row: The Third's interface has been streamlined with many smart additions, at the forefront of which is a smartphone that can be brought up with a push of a button, giving you access to your GPS map, missions, stats, upgrades and more. Rather than having to drive to a location to meet with someone who'll give you a mission, you're able to just call them up and start the mission immediately, which is fast and easy. Another cool feature are the holographic markers that appear on-screen to guide you to your set destination.
In addition to all of this is the 'Whored' mode, a sophisticated play on words on 'Horde' mode. Taking the place of competitive multiplayer, this allows one or more players to survive wave upon wave of enemies with whatever strange weapons it can throw at you. Fighting nurses and zombies with sex dolls and phalluses makes for some surreal, if silly, imagery and while we didn't find it as compelling as the main campaign, it is a nice extra.
There's a pretty nice selection of music to cruise along to, with a small range of radio stations to choose from including a rap station, pop music, classical music and old hits. There are some famous songs and big names on the soundtrack including Kanye West, and some old classics like 'You're the Best' and 'Holding Out For a Hero' appear at appropriate moments. Weirdly, there's an Adult Swim station as well that features a remix of the Aqua Team Hunger Force theme. The best feature is that you can create a mixtape with your personal favourite tracks, which can be selected as a station at any time.
Graphically, Saints Row: The Third is solid. Character models are pleasingly cartoonish and cars crumple in realistic ways, but the star of the show is the city of Steelport itself. With neon-lit megalithic skyscrapers showcasing giant advertising screens and its own Statue of Liberty-esque monument out to sea, not to mention the way it gradually accumulates damage and wreckage throughout your activities in the game, the city impresses even if the draw distance occasionally fails you.
Saints Row: The Third is absolutely worth your time if you're a fan of open-world games. It takes joy in overpowering your character, or throwing ridiculous situations at you constantly. We haven't even mentioned half of the insane stuff that's in this game, so it's one crazy fruitcake of an experience. While the campaign feels short, and you'll be done with it in about 10 hours, there is plenty of content in the activities and Whored mode to keep you playing for longer, or the co-op may even entice you to give the game a second playthrough. It's not a perfect experience, but it's an extremely fun one, and even though this holiday season we've been flooded with incredible games, this is one more you simply have to pick up and try.