Saints Row: The Third (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Volition Inc.
Release: November 15, 2011
We can all sense it. Video games are right on the cusp of something important. It's difficult to define, but we'll know when we get there. When we can go on blind dates and not worry when to bring them up, and stuffy aged critics won't be writing columns about what they don't contribute to society.
It's an important time—so we have to ask ourselves: do developers have a duty to roll back their sleeves and really show the world what we're capable of? That's a matter of opinion. More relevant: is Saints Row: The Third the kind of game you'd put on your professional gaming resume? Read on to find out.
THE GAME THAT SOLD THE WORLD
The short answer is, no. But "Ah," you say, "I came here for a review of a video game, not a debate." Well, that's fine, because you'll get that too.
In SR3, you control the leader of an internationally famous criminal organization known as the Third Street Saints. Following the dramatic events of the prologue, you're tasked with leading your droogs ("homies") in conquest of a fictional city battling other, equally eccentric gangs and striving all the time to right several perceived injustices—and possibly make amends along the way. It's a third person shooter that would have benefitted from a cover system, and is more fun for its lack of a target lock-on function (aiming, shooting and connecting can be its own reward). It has co-op, and "Whored Mode," a surprisingly inventive take on Gears of War's Horde Mode.
SR3 is a game that literally rewards players for streaking nude through the streets. It's not appealing to anyone's sensitive side. It's not trying to make a point, or send players on an emotional roller coaster, or transcend our medium to appeal to fans of a different one. There are high scores, combo multipliers and big, flashing arrows that point out objectives. There's a pimp who speaks only in auto-tune. You can lead a gang full of uzi-wielding ninjas or gimps with big purple dildos. In the developers' own words, it's a video game for people who love video games; specifically, those weened on T-Pain and Die Hard 4.
Besides the large range of accessories and mustaches you can outfit your character with, it allows you to customize your protagonist's "sex appeal" (literally, the size of his package/her breasts), and play the entire game with the protagonist's voice replaced by the guttural moans of a zombie if you so choose. Usable throughout are multiple types of each of the following: planes, helicopters, boats, cars, motorcycles, hoverbikes, tanks, armored cars, guided air-to-ground missiles, submachine guns, shotguns, laser guns, grenades, and more. You can skydive, become invincible, gain unlimited ammo, use human shields, street race, get revenge, own property, upgrade everything, phone a friend, skydive in a tank, get tattoos, change your face through surgery, trick out your cars, be a hit man, compete in a deadly reality show called "Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax," and, well, you get the idea.
SR3 pulls out all the stops to drive home the point that this is a game for you to run wild with. You can rack up the numbers of pedestrians you run over with your suped up, spike-adorned car, or wreak havoc in your F-69 VTOL. The fast-paced missions range from causing serious damage to the city of Steelport to shameless homages to Tron, Star Wars, The Walking Dead and countless others. The game pits you against packs of ludicrous-looking gangsters, all armed to the teeth, and lets you terrorize your rivals in any manner you see fit.
There's a lot to do, and there's a lot of incentives to do it all. A game with so much customization is rare, but what makes it even better is the game's ability to forgive you. Everything from your character's skin color and tattoos to the guns and vehicles your gang members use can be changed with a wish and a press of a button. Nothing is permanent. If you leave an ally behind, they'll warp up next to you. If you crash your favorite car, a crony will come pick you up in an identical one; get stranded in water, and you can warp to the shore. If you're unhappy with the ending you chose, you can replay the final mission and see the other one as well. Stop me if I'm gushing.
VIOLENCE LIKE CLOCKWORK
But it's not all spiked milk and eggiwegs. Or rather, it is, but only to us gamers. Taken out of context, it's a nightmare. After thirty minutes it becomes clear that the newscasters and right wing soccer moms have been focusing on the wrong franchise all these years. This is what Grand Theft Auto could have been had Rockstar continued logically from San Andreas, rather than choosing the more subtle, story-driven approach of GTA IV. (The fact we're calling any GTA game subtle should clue you off to the enormity of SR3s senselessness.)
The Saints are a street gang, but they're also a brand. Their celebrity provides the perfect backdrop for the type of wanton destruction these free-roaming crime simulators lend themselves to so well. They can decimate an entire city block or barrel through a military base guns blazing, and the SWAT team's still asking for autographs as they snap on the 'cuffs.
What's probably most disturbing is the game's total indifference to human life. Call of Duty is a war game; everyone knows war is terrible. In Halo you're killing aliens, not people. In GTA IV, even, Niko Bellic's random killing sprees are acts of the player, not part of the story. This isn't about kids—any parent who lets their kid play this game should seriously reconsider their judgment calls. It's a simple matter of violence against innocent people and how that's portrayed in this medium. A Clockwork Orange wrestled with this decades ago, and if you think a film from the '70s isn't relevant to a review of a video game in 2011, you need to read the news more.
LIKE SINGING IN THE RAIN
That said (and it had to be said), nothing should stop you from enjoying this game. It's superbly fun, incredibly gorgeous, and—this may be the best part—it's totally aware of what it is. Simple satire aside, its mindlessness will be seen by many as a virtue. As far as sandboxes go, it's one of the finest ever made. If you can overlook some very slight issues, like bugs, dumb A.I. and some frustrating spikes in difficulty, there should be little else stopping you from having a blast with SR3.
It's one long, explosive caper that doesn't even try to conceal its brazen contempt for reality. It pulls no punches and makes no apologies—and there's nothing wrong with that. It's actually kind of charming. No matter how hard this industry fights for recognition by the wider population, there will always be a place for experiences like this: juvenile, irresponsible, over-the-top, without pretense, and a ton of fun. After all, there's nothing like a bit of the old ultra-violence, right?