Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Saints Row: The Third (video game)

Platform: Playstation 3, X-Box 360
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Genre: Action Adventure, Sandbox
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: November 15th, 2011

You are the boss of the Third Street Saints. Once a gang stuggling to gain control of a single city, the Saints have become a powerful multi-media empire. They have it all; comics, TV shows, an upcoming film and even their own crappy energy drink. But all good things come to an end.

On a fairly routine bank robbery, you're ambushed by suspiciously well armed bank tellers. From there, the heist goes bad, the cops show up and everything spirals out of control. You end up captured and threatened by a crime syndicate. Escape comes at the cost of a friends life*. Now you're stranded in a new city.

What the hell, you might as well take over, right?

Prior to this game, I had completely written off the Saints Row games. While I now know they came about by sheer coincidence, at the time the similarities to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - one of my all time favorite games - left me dismissing the franchise as a copycat. My initial assessment wasn't exactly wrong, but Saints Row the Third caught my attention with an intelligent reversal in the dynamic between it and its competition.

I've played Grand Theft Auto since the first one and part of the fun is that as time went on, they ended up throwing any and everything at the wall. The height of that was San Andreas, where you could do almost anything from taking over territory to flying a jetpack straight out of a James Bond flick. Grand Theft Auto IV featured a complete reversal, eschewing the silly or campy in favor of a serious take on an illegal immigrant attempting to make it in America. As a story it was an achievement, but as a game it was nowhere near as fun as any installment of the PS2 trilogy save III.

Saints Row, on the other hand, started as a fairly serious attempt at showing gang warfare. Arguably, they dropped that pretense with II, any remaining attempt to ground Saints Row in realism is out the window here. Grand Theft Auto has shunned its former bombast, leaving an opening Saints Row is now all too happy to fill. This game is over the top in every respect, surpassing even GTA's most outrageous moments in a varied experience that is never once dull.

Seriously, this game starts out with a bank heist turning into a massive shootout, with a helicopter forcibly pulling the safe from the building, while you're still on it. Eventually you are forced to leap out a plane, smash through the windshield of another plane and go out the back before catching a team member - dodging debris all the way down - so you can both parachute to safety. This is the tutorial level. It is not even the craziest thing to happen in this game.

Every time you think it cannot take you by surprise, it will introduce a plot twist or throw in a cameo that can only leave you smiling. Saints Row the Third is not concerned with telling a mature, serious story. Rather, it's content to toss luchadors, cyberpunk hackers, zombies, tigers and hoverbikes at you in a wild attempt to be the coolest game ever. It comes pretty damn close, too.

They even manage to throw something new in the side missions. While I realize that it's not a first for the series, the Insurance Fraud activities are still a pretty unique, fun diversion no other game has attempted. Others will see you driving around with a pissed off tiger in the backseat, hang with a luchador voiced by Hulk Hogan and participate in a murder based game show that I assume was inspired by The Running Man.

A gang territory dynamic is also in place, which is something I wish more sandbox games did more often, since it helps give a sense of reward to each activity you embark on when it has a tangible benefit, even if it's just a piece of territory.

One other thing in this games favor; the developers were clearly thinking of ways to alleviate player frustration and give them more options. Do you know how long I've wanted one of these sandbox games to let me to choose songs I like from the soundtrack and make a custom "station"**? The option's here with the "mixtape" function. Do you want to disable stations that cater to genres you hate? You can. Hate falling in water and wasting a good five minutes trying to get to shore? You're covered; a simple button press will warp you back.

Hell, cars don't even spontaneously explode upon hitting a tank! The car will be crushed in the area hit by the treads. It's the little things that count. Or kill, if you ask Bush.

I spoke of the soundtrack and this game has a pretty decent one. I suppose you could argue that the selection quality is not exactly on par with the distinguished competition, but there are several smart choices. Hell, there are at least three different rock stations, catering to different audiences. I can't say anything bad about a game that won't force me to listen to soft rock as I wait for something harder to come up.

Even better, money actually has its uses here. Rather than just give you a bunch of static weapons, you can upgrade just about anything you pick up. You can also buy property, another feature a certain other series saw fit to drop. All come with tangible benefits that will aid you in gameplay. There are in-game reasons to complete tasks in this game; as opposed to only getting a trophy for your trouble.

There is very little here to criticize. If I had to point to anything, it would be that the game feels a little short for one of its type. Even with generous amounts of dicking around I finished the main story in under twenty hours. Granted, that's twenty hours of the most fun I've had with a video game, but it still felt like it was over too soon.

The Score: 9 out of 10

Buy it now. There is nothing else that need be said. It is well, well worth the money.

* This kind of annoyed me a bit. He's easily one of the coolest characters in the game and he's dropped within the first twenty minutes. He's also the only asian I can think of in the game, which is pretty glaring in a game that includes a bunch of characters of different ethnicity. I guess they chose him for the role because he was a long standing member of the series cast - he was in both of this games predecessors - but geez, that's a cheap attempt to garner player involvement in the fight against the enemies. Especially when you've killed his murderer at the end of the first act.

** I'm pretty sure that this was an advertised feature for Grand Theft Auto IV at one point. Obviously, it didn't make the cut.

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