I'll confess. When I found out that I would be reviewing the latest installment in this buck-wild send-up of 'gangsta' games, there was a bit of eye-rolling. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the first two, but they did little to have me wanting more. Saints Row: The Third promises a bigger, crazier experience, but is it better than its predecessors?
From Saints Row: The Third's opening helicopter bank heist, all the way through to both of its gob-smacking dual-endings, I had an absolute blast. Though a good number of the early missions serve to introduce the host of optional side-mission types, the majority of the campaign missions are grand-scale, multi-objective affairs that span the entire city and culminate in a jaw-dropping, laugh-out-loud set-piece moment. Seeing what the game was going to throw at me next created a strong case of "just one more mission" syndrome.
Best of all, while the main story campaign is plenty fun by itself, you can play through the game cooperatively with two players.
Whereas previous Saints Row games struck me as a bit too crass, The Third's tone is much improved; it's like a big-budget action flick meets vintage MAD magazine in an adult bookstore. The humor is still incredibly low-brow (with weapons including an absurdly-large purple sex toy, for example), but any residual mean-spiritedness is handily trumped by dialed-up-to-eleven ridiculousness. The fact that Killbane--one of the rival gang-leader bosses--is a masked, WWE-style wrestler, says it all.
Fictional host city Steelport's varied islands and locales--which include towering skyscrapers, industrial, and suburban areas--make up a great playground that's far more compelling than the previous setting of Stillwater. And just about everything I did in Steelport earned cash and respect, allowing me to burn through a dizzying list of upgrades and unlockables. The in-game economy, unlike so many other open-world games, remained meaningful throughout my experience. I never felt like I was "too rich." As a result I was primed to explore the side-missions all the more.
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While Saints Row has generally been labeled a "GTA clone," it also adds meaningful progression to the genre. For example, the game's GPS feature easily bests Rockstar's efforts. When active, virtual arrows appeared, in racing-game fashion, to direct the next turn en route to the objective. It's an utterly brilliant design choice that allowed me to keep my eyes trained on the game world, instead of a mini-map on the corner of the screen. Driving vehicles takes the arcade approach favoring fun over strict simulation, making it easy to tear up the city streets like a Hollywood stuntman. And some of the game's aircraft are a particular joy to pilot, given their Harrier-like abilities to hover or soar. Not many open-world games can claim to have a variety of such fun, easily accessible vehicles.
Saints Row: The Third is a surprisingly fun ride, and really shouldn't be missed by fans of open-world mayhem. It takes the concept of subtlety, sets it ablaze, stuffs it in a cannon, and then fires it into a pile of blow-up sex dolls while nuking it from orbit. The all-out insanity and variety of the experience far outshines its minor shortcomings. The Third time's the charm, and raucous good fun.
[This Saints Row: The Third review is based on the retail PlayStation 3 and PC versions of the game, provided by THQ.]