Review by Vamphaery

"Saints Row The Third is a very, very good game. But it's missing the soul of its predecessor"

DISCLAIMER: As always, my review is the opinion of one individual and will not necessarily reflect the views of others. The best and most important review for you should be your own.

INTRODUCTION: Saints Row The Third is a game I find myself having extremely mixed feelings about. That's usually not a good thing.

The game is fun. It is at times fun to levels of ridiculousness hitherto unapproachable by any other game. It's crazier, more over the top, and more ludicrous than it ever has been. It's also a more polished and intuitive gameplay experience. You're still a complete baddass and the leader of a powerful gang. You can still drive all sorts of crazy vehicles and wield an armory of increasingly insane weaponry. And you'll still have a blast doing it.

And yet... something is missing. Part of it stems from the change of setting (the more industrial and worn city of Steelport as opposed to the bright and urban Stillwater.) Part of it rests in the writing and presentation of the game's story elements. Part of it arises from technical limitations born of the development process. And some of it comes from never quite getting the same feeling of having an enormous buffet of gaming content before you that Saints Row 2 offered. But whatever the case, this Saints game has lost an ephemeral element of its predecessors which, while certainly not the most praised or advertised strength of the series, was most assuredly always there and now - to an extent - is not:

Heart.

GAMEPLAY: 8/10

“The Third” makes strides over its predecessors in almost every area of gameplay. Controls feel tighter. Run and gun play is easier and more precise. Driving still has the same, familiar, arcadey, turn-on-a-dime physics that we all laughed at (and then loved) before. Flying feels about the same, but may be a tad more forgiving.

There are now context-sensitive melee attacks in the game which work great. Start throwing punches, and if your opponent doesn't go down too quickly you'll initiate a quick time event where the correct button presses will result in a satisfying kill animation. Running at an enemy and pull one of the triggers and you'll perform one of several flying melee attacks (up to and including a float over DDT for you pro wrestling fans out there.) Running and holding Y lets you quickly drop kick the driver out of the car you want to nab.

The game is absurdly fun every step of the way. The large variety of optional activities return from the previous game (though fewer in number,) and the inclusion of new ones like Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax (a macabre Japanese-style obstacle course tinged with the gruesome humor only Saints can deliver) are fun and satisfying.

Purchasing property throughout the city, wiping out rival gangs, and conquering safe-houses are all still a par for the course. Yet, the way the game approaches and presents these progress-driven elements makes them feel somehow shallower and hollower than they did in SR2.

Rather than driving to clearly defined missions on the world map and initiating them in any order you choose, thus taking out rival gangs in whatever sequence you please, the main story missions are now presented to you in a linear, fixed fashion. There are a small handful of moments where you'll have to make decisions that ostensibly lead to “branching story paths,” but in actuality these amount to little more than superficial dialogue changes until the game's conclusion, at which point you have a couple of options for the game's climax.

And while “gang operations” that you can find throughout the city can reduce the number of enemies you'll encounter in different neighborhoods and increase your control of those areas, they never feel as satisfying or as much like a gang war (as opposed to just the player fighting waves of enemies with maybe one or two followers in tow) as in SR2, where generic gang members would often show up in larger numbers to help you fight. You can unlock the ability to receive more aid, but it still never quite feels comparable.

Speaking of which, the game now allows you to unlock bonuses, abilities, followers, weapons, ammo upgrades, damage resistances, and more via an RPG-like upgrade system. This means you now use in-game money to buy these things rather than earning them via respect. This is a fun system, but money rapidly becomes so easy to acquire in the game that it deflates the duration of the game considerably. Especially because respect is no longer required to progress the main story missions, either. You can play them whenever you want now. The only role respect seems to play is in leveling your character up so that you can access those purchasable bonuses. The lack of an ability to replay missions (as you could in the past) also further damages the game's duration and replay value.

The world of Steelport is somehow less varied and interesting than Stillwater was, as well. Despite being an island, the city doesn't feature any real beaches or resort areas, which were a great contrast to the more urban parts of Stillwater in SR2. There are seemingly unfinished elements of the city as well, such as the monorail track that never has a functioning train on it, or the islands with nothing particularly interesting featured on them (compared to those with fun little easter eggs in SR2.)

You can still deck your avatar out in a wide variety of clothes, and facial customization is possibly even more functional and detailed than it was in SR2. But the clothing options are definitely more limited than they were before. You can no longer layer clothing (i.e. a specific shirt with a specific jacket over it,) and there are simply far fewer pieces of actual clothing to choose from (despite multiple unique retailers inhabiting the world.)

You can also still upgrade and customize vehicles. This works pretty much the way it did before, with a few changes here and there. The only real drawbacks are that we can't make vehicles quite as crazy in the wheel size department anymore (though we can still make wheels different sizes,) and the lack of bouncing shocks that were so amusing (if impractical) in SR2.

The most fun you'll have, as it should be, is still simply messing around in the open world and playing with all of the toys the game gives you. As a joyous, nonsensical mayhem simulator, Saints Row is still without peer.

All in all, the game is insanely fun and satisfying, and still manages to provide a sense of progression and exploration. But it doesn't do so with the same aplomb that SR2 did, and I was always distracted by the sense that the world I was inhabiting wasn't quite as interesting or long lived as it should be. Everything I did made me say, “Wow, this sure is fun! But I also really wish it had ___________ (insert feature or element from SR2.)”

GRAPHICS: 7/10

The visuals really aren't that much of a departure from SR2. Textures are crisper and more detailed. Animations seem roughly comparable to the previous game. The city itself, in most respects, is fairly similar to Stillwater. However it feels smaller, sports less variety and fewer memorable sights, and seems generally less refined. This is a generic Saints Row world, distilled to only the necessary bits, with nothing extraneous or superfluous. Unfortunately, that also makes for a less visually compelling world.

Rain looks better than it ever did, as do reflections and lighting, but the jarring and complete lack of a day-night cycle is a head-scratcher. To make the game change from day to night, you must complete an activity (or initiate one and then exit,) initiate a mission that takes place specifically during a certain time of day, or reload a save (at which point the game will randomly shift to a different time of day than when you last played.) It's not that big of a deal, but it's somewhat inexplicable seeming.

The frame rate, while not bad or unplayable by any means, is not what I would call silky smooth either. When driving, the frame rate is consistent (and therefore not jarring or disruptive at all,) but visibly lower than 30 frames per second (let alone 60.) This wouldn't matter that much if the game wasn't also fairly jaggy (aliasing.) The combination of the two had me squinting at my HDTV routinely, and actually gave me a headache due to eyestrain more than once.

The game looks good visually, but not particularly distinctive or great, and some baffling flaws are disappointing.

STORY: 6/10

This is, unfortunately, where the game really failed to pull me in. The Saints Row games have never been about telling a compelling, epic story, or about taking themselves seriously. Lets get that out of the way here and now. Saints games are all about over-the-top, raunchy, curse-word-laden, juvenile, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of their own stupidity. And this game most assuredly captures that. In fact, it takes it to another level. But therein lies part of the problem.

While the Saints games have never been serious games, they still always had heart. The loyalty, camaraderie, and affection between these cartoonish thugs was surrounded by buffoonery and humor, but it was always there nonetheless. And somewhere along the way, even if it wasn't intended and even if the marketing analysis doesn't indicate it, we started to care about these characters.

When a character (who I won't ruin SR2 by naming) died, we cared. Sure, the game may have immediately gone back to being irreverent by having us wage a gang war at a funeral, but we still cared. And more to the point, the characters, including our own, cared. The games could be serious when they needed to be.

“The Third” eschews this too often and too carelessly in the name of being the most over-the-top, crazy game it can be. It takes one step too far down the path of the absurd, and doesn't stick close enough to the barely-there but still essential heart of what makes the Third Street Saints work as a gang - and as a family.

Jarring new characterization for one member of the Saints in particular feels unnatural due to a total lack of exposition and character development throughout the game. There was a lot of potential in the game's plot for explanation and compelling (or hell, even just silly) character interactions between the Saints. The game, sadly, wastes almost all of this potential in my view.

When you add to this the lackluster and over-Hollywood-icized presentation of the game's story segments, you end up with a story that just doesn't feel the same. Pivotal plot points are glossed over in the name of brevity, and emotional reactions are threadbare when present at all because the game wants to get us to the next set piece as quickly as possible.

And then there's just the lack of thoroughness, such as when events or cut-scenes in the game don't feel contiguous with the rest of it, due to a lack of explanation of exposition. I won't ruin the plot by pointing out specific examples, but they happen notably often, and you'll know them when you see them.

Sure, on paper, the actions of the Saints in this game make sense and are true to form, as well as being representative of the game's tongue-in-cheek tone. But in practice, something gets lost here. Something that made the previous games matter more to me than they might have otherwise. Saints Row The Third is a Saints game without the soul of a Saints game.

MULTIPLAYER: 8/10

Although the game has done away with competitive multiplayer modes, online co-op in The Third is still one of the most fun experiences to be had in gaming. Everything you loved doing, especially fighting the cops, is back and crazier than ever. If this is your main reason for playing the game, you won't be disappointed. (Except, perhaps, for how quickly the main content exhausts itself. But even then, you still have tens upon tens of hours of messing around and experimenting to occupy yourselves with.)

REPLAY VALUE: 7/10

Although this is a game that you can easily find yourself coming back to repeatedly with friends for co-op madness, the game is disappointingly short when compared to its predecessor.

SR2 was one of the most content-packed games of its generation. After Bethesda RPGs and a handful of other games, SR2 was the game you could look back on and say, “That was a long, meaty game.” There was so much to do and such a vast, varied world to explore, you could literally play it for close to 100 hours if you chose to.

Sadly, this is not the case with The Third. You can do everything the game has to offer (in terms of non-emergent content) in roughly 30 hours. That includes the main story missions, the achievements, maxing our your character, and the optional activities.

And because the option to replay missions has been removed (because Volition ostensibly didn't want us to have access to certain goodies when playing early missions for technical considerations... even though they sell us cheat DLC that renders that point moot... but I digress,) there's even less reason to keep playing unless you want to start all over again from scratch. (Then again, maybe that's the reason for the cheat DLC. If we buy it, we can replay the game with those goodies they said they didn't want us to have early on already unlocked. Well played, Volition and THQ. Well played...)

That this is the case, and yet there are “40 weeks” of DLC packs planned for the game, is admittedly frustrating. While the realities of resource and man hour allocation preclude them from removing all of the DLC content from the core game, it seems clear that some content was at the very least delayed for future release as downloadable revenue... er, I mean, content. And in a game that's already this short and uneven compared to its predecessor, that just doesn't cut it.

AUDIO: 8/10

A superb soundtrack, as was the case with SR2, makes this game one of the more customizable and eclectic to listen to. Regardless of your tastes, you're likely to find something to like here.

Sound effects range from tinny and empty sounding to satisfyingly bombastic. The voice acting is well done and effective. (Though the loss of Eliza Dushku as Shaundi is saddening, her replacement does a fantastic job of capturing the character's attitude.) Dialogue is pretty standard for a Saints game (some of it is even recycled from SR2.)

Overall, the audio is effective and pleasing to the ear.

CONCLUSION/FINAL SCORE: 7/10 (GameFAQs defines 7/10 as, "Good - A few problems, but worth the time to play.")

Saints Row The Third is one of the most purely enjoyable games I've played in a while, and it succeeds in improving on its predecessors on virtually every technical level. But it's this coat of polish and how much fun there is to be had that makes its disappointing flaws all the more noticeable.

THQ at one point stated that SRTT had been “delayed to rebuild tech," and it shows. That the game is so much shorter (arguably by more than 50%) less varied, smaller, a bit less customizable, and feels so oddly unfinished at times, stands in stark contrast to how excellent the game is in general. Hence those aforementioned “mixed feelings.”

The bottom line is that SRTT is a fun game, and a game worth playing. It's also a game that delivers a lot of gameplay that no other game since SR2 has offered. But it's difficult not to feel disappointed when its predecessor was one of the most satisfying and long lived games all generation. Especially when in the pursuit of “newness” and being “bigger and better,” Volition may have jettisoned the soul that lay hidden yet essential at the heart of the series.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/04/12, Updated 01/11/12

Game Release: Saints Row: The Third (US, 11/15/11)


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