The Saints Row franchise, despite its multiple differences and gaudy exterior, has always been dogged by GTA clone accusations and criticism that it doesn’t truly innovate the sandbox genre that it sets its madcap antics in.
With a third game released now, the time to boldly go into a signature direction is now or never, but can the gangstars of the Saints Row universe finally shake the GTA monkey from its back, once and for all?
Since the events of the first sequel, the Third Street Saints have managed to propel themselves into the international spotlight, landing all kinds of movie deals and endorsements. With the world finally recognising them, and no real competition on the streets to challenge them, the Saints grow predictably soft and complacent, allowing for a Belgian banker and the rest of his Syndicate to move in and usurp their territory, while crashing the Saints empire all the way back to a small street level gang.
Much like in Saints Row 2, players will have to once again work their way up the food chain, as events quickly escalate from simple engagements into recovering territory, into full time wars that pits gangster against gangster, with genetically grown human tanks and clones thrown into the mix.
It’s a story that is predictable and hovers on B-grade gangster film stereotypes, that doesn’t take itself seriously, keeping the action notched up to 11 during the main campaign, as events easily spiral out of control and into full-on lunacy.
Grim and gritty are two themes that you’ll struggle to find in Saints Row 3, as the franchise fully embraces insanity in this eclectic sequel. With a cast of characters that includes everyone from an auto-tuned voice obsessed pimp, to a gangster with a lucha libra Mexican wrestling theme, so expect cheap jokes and laughs, with no plot twists in sight.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that goofy setup, but Saints Row 3 does tend to take it a bit too far at times, which results in a story that is as cheesy as it obnoxious from time to time.
With the streets of Stillwater an open buffet of mayhem and chaos, you’ll find all the usual Saints Row hallmarks and gimmicks have remained intact, from insurance fraud and prostitution rackets, to new activities which sees players take part in a demented Japanese-style game show where murder is on the menu, or even motorcycle races which have been blatantly stolen from the Tron films.
The core gameplay of Saints Row is still around however, which sees players earn cash, buy properties and gain discounts, while causing enough chaos in order to build up your reputation meter so that you can engage in more story missions and grow your character abilities, all accessible from your handy cell phone.
Choice plays as important a role as ever, starting with player customization that can be tweaked at any time you feel unsatisfied with your in-game avatar, while an upgrade option allows for customisation that makes survival on the mean streets of Stillwater much more possible.
As you grow and become more powerful, more influential in Stillwater, so too does your gang, which means even more customisation options are at your fingertips. Arm them, dress them, organize them, the choices are there and a subtle method in rebuilding an empire that rewards players with a sandbox environment that allows you to truly explore your inner psychopath efficiently.
Numerous set pieces and scripted events keep the game fresh, and they range from the fun and diverting to the truly spectacular, while also giving the gameplay a much needed boost when events become a bit too similar to the previous Saints Row game.
A new co-op mode further compounds the craziness as you and a friend cruise around Stillwater delivering all kinds of carnage, while “Whored Mode” pits you against waves of attackers while asking you to do so with some gameplay gags that limit or enhance your experience. It’s a decent mode, but it doesn’t truly add anything to the experience, and could have done with a little more polish.
Gunplay hasn’t really evolved at all in the interim since the last Saints Row game, so don’t expect any sort of cover system for when fire fights quickly escalate into small skirmishes between well armed militias on either side. Instead, you’ve got ample, regenerative health that can be upgraded, plenty of unlockable weapons and enemies who will throw themselves at you hoping that you’ll run out of ammo before they run out of body parts to blast off, while a few enemy variants are thrown in to the mix to keep things interesting.
Gunplay navigation is rather sluggish at the beginning of the game, but it’s nothing that a quick rejiggering in the menu can’t fix, making it a small, but easily rectified complaint.
Saints Row 3 still has an irritatingly awkward weapon selection menu mapped to a button and analogue stick, making combat a somewhat stilted affair when a situation demands a quick change of death-dealing ordinance. Melee moves are back, alternating between light and heavy strikes, as well as some quick-time event combos, but these prompts fly way too quick to be implemented appropriately, requiring a lot of practice before players can use them properly.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Saints Row game without some decent vehicles making a turn, and there are plenty to choose from. In addition to being durable, exotic and just plain futuristic at times, the handling has been modified as well.
Don’t worry, you won’t be driving a car that has the handling of a bathtub on sausages, but instead, the arcade-style driving controls have been tweaked to present a tighter, grippier way of driving, without losing the fun factor, with different vehicles handling appropriately on the road.
The easy to use and understand GPS system is still present, making anticipated turns and shortcuts much easier to use, and is so effective, other games in the genre could pick up a few tips on how to implement such a feature properly from Saints Row 3.
On the visual side, Saints Row 3 swops realism for a more expressive canvas, painting the city of Stillwater in a swathe of neon and bright colours, but it doesn’t always work out for the best. There’s a lot of pop-up buildings and streaming textures happening all at once, while quite a few glitches make themselves known, but none of these will break a game fortunately.
On the vocal front, the casting and implementation of voices is done brilliantly, with the characters fully selling the B-grade plot and driving the story forward, while a selection of tunes on the radio make drive-by shootings a more musical experience.
It’s the meat and potatoes of Saints Row 3, and it doesn’t disappoint. From all out gun battles to melee combat that utilises QTE’s and odd camera angles in order to deliver some epic kicks to the nads, the entire system is a more polished and better implemented affair.
Driving has become more responsive and less sluggish, while new options for all out mayhem make themselves heard in the outlandish scenarios present in Stillwater. An irritating weapon selection keeps things from being truly perfect, but get past, and you’ll find yourself having oodles of fun as you take out everything from scantily-clad gangsters to hordes of mutant freaks.
Design and Presentation: 7/10
Saints Row 3 isn’t a bad looking game, but it’s not a truly fantastic looking title either. Without that much of an emphasis on realistic graphics, its odd how the game occasionally chugs along, dropping textures and having buildings pop up during a rampage.
Still, the characters sell their parts convincingly, combined with an impressive vocal cast, actors who are obviously relishing their role.
The beauty of the gameplay mechanics in Saints Row 3, is that it asks players to experience everything that it has before carrying on with the main story. Fun diversions keep the hours ticking away, while main campaign missions are varied and plentiful, with numerous options available after the end credits have rolled to keep the action sizzling.
They may not all be blockbuster options however, but at least there are quite a few present for players to choose from.
At first glance, there’s not much that sets Saints Row 3 apart from the first sequel. But when you truly experience it, you’ll find a game that doesn’t set out to innovate, but rather polishes and enhances what made it so great to a much higher level, even if that content can be highly immature and off-putting at the same time.
It’s not a sandbox genre game that redefines everything that came before it, or sets a new benchmark for future games, but instead represents itself as a guilty slice of fun, wrapped up in audacious events and tuned experiences.
Reviewed on PS3
Last Updated: November 22, 2011