Saints Row 3 (or Saints Row: The Third, as I’d call it if I didn’t abhor having more than one colon in my post titles) is concrete proof, if any were needed, that expectations are everything.
Coming to Saints Row 3 eight or nine months after it was released had shaped my expectations accordingly. I avoid prerelease publicity material for games that are still in development because it tends to create unrealistic expectations that sour my ultimate enjoyment of a title when it is eventually released into the wild, but it’s impossible to avoid a little bit of information bleeding through after launch day. What I’d heard had led me to expect something completely insane; a game that revelled in its absurdity — which flaunted it – and so after playing through the first few missions and activities I was kind of disappointed in what Saints Row had to offer. It was over-the-top, sure (the game starts with a sequence where you skydive through a plane so you can assassinate somebody inside), but over the top was what I had been expecting. For a game like Saints Row 3, which trades on its off-the-wall nature, simply meeting my expectations wasn’t good enough. It had to surpass them. It had to surprise me. And after those relatively underwhelming first few hours, the biggest surprise of all was that it did.
You play the unnamed leader of the Saints, a street gang from Stillwater which has made it big and is now at the centre of a global media empire. The tutorial sees you being captured by a consortium of rival gangs called the Syndicate and given an ultimatum to cut them in on the Saints’ profits; the Saints’ reply is to break free and mount the aforementioned aerial assassination attempt, after which they land in the Syndicate-controlled city of Steelport. They promptly decide to take it over as payback for the Syndicate’s strongarming, and from this point onwards you’re cut loose into the freeform world to do whatever you want. And mark my words, you can do whatever you want. Eventually.
The beginning of Saints Row 3 isn’t bad so much as it is depressingly conventional. The opening third of the game is obsessed with muscling in on the Sydnicate’s humdrum crime activities and as such resembles a very cartoony GTA. This is not what Saints Row 3 wants to be doing, especially since the last couple of GTA games have been rather mediocre, but for those first few hours you’re stuck doing stuff straight out of a GTA game – fetch quests, escort quests, answering your phone to help out your “homies”,; it’s all here, and the best that can be said about it is that Saints cuts straight through the bullshit and hands you a attack chopper to do escort missions with right off the bat. It’s still something I’ve done in roughly eleventy billion other games, and it’s still tedious. This is not what I bought Saints Row 3 for, and I was honestly starting to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Happily the game didn’t spend too long in the fedex doldrums, and after those first two or three hours Saints began to flutter its eyes at me coquettishly with the introduction of the Trail Blazing, Insurance Fraud and Escort missions. Trail Blazing involved either trying to pilot a flaming quad bike through a series of timed checkpoints while trying to hit as many pedestrians as possible (the why behind this is never explained, which is awesome), or else racing through a Tron-style virtual environment on a cyber-bike. Insurance Fraud had me throwing myself into the path of speeding traffic for money, with an amusingly unrealistic amount of air control allowing plentiful bonus points for being hit by multiple vehicles. And Escort, well, the escort in question…
…is a tiger. In the passenger seat. Who you have to keep calm by driving fast, and safe, while being pursued by animal rights activists.
These missions mark the point where the overriding design ethos of Saints Row finally breaks the surface of the game, and that ethos is “Because we can.” Why am I chauffeuring this tiger through Steelport? Because the developers thought it would be fun (it is) and because they could. Why am I storming a gang-held brothel armed with a pistol in each hand and nothing else on my body? Because the developers thought it would be fun, and because they could. Why is there a chase sequence involving carriages pulled by human horses in fetish wear? Because… oh, you get the idea. Saints Row 3 showed dangerous signs of flatlining from the outset, but after a while it gets into gear and really begins ramping the crazy up to a fever pitch. If they’d started the game at this point I think I would have taken this stuff for granted, so the boring first third actually works in SR 3’s favour, to a point; by grounding the game in the stilted criminal reality that GTA is so enamoured with, it makes the subsequent invasion of the city by government paramilitaries and the Saints’ battle against high-tech goons armed with lasers and VTOL aircraft seem that much barmier in contrast.
Of course, the best thing about the game playing with my expectations in this way is that it manages to pull off the same trick twice. About halfway through the storyline SR 3 plateaus and I thought it couldn’t get any sillier than it already was without throwing established rules of game narrative and reality out of the window. Saints Row 3 may be a cartoon, but even cartoons have a twisted set of physical laws governing what happens within them, right? I was expecting a crazy game, and after pulling the old Christmas morning switcheroo (you probably don’t know what this is if you had parents who loved you) Saints Row 3 had delivered. I’d gotten what I wanted. I was happy. The game didn’t need to do anything more to win my affection.
Which made this the perfect point for SR 3 to up the crazy ante even further. I don’t want to spoil it but the final third of Saints Row 3 is a masterpiece. That skydiving sequence at the start of the game I mentioned earlier? The one that seemed like SR 3 was trying just a little bit too hard to nail its crazy colours to the mast? Volition do it again later on, only this time it is absolutely, genuinely ridiculous in a way that’s only reinforced by your earlier experience with it. There was a point shortly afterwards (and you’ll know it if you’ve played the game) where I broke down live on Teamspeak, only managing to choke out the words “I don’t even know what I’m playing any more!” in between strangled fits of insane giggling. If this was where the game had started it would have shot its load far too early; I’m forced to concede that while it wasn’t too much fun to begin with, Volition really did know what they were doing with SR 3’s pacing.
Saints Row 3 is well worth playing just for that final third of the game. Unfortunately I do have some problems with the rest of it. First, from a game design perspective, Saints Row 3 isn’t the sort of game where I particularly want to be investing several hours before I’m really having any fun, no matter how good the payoff is. Second, by setting conventional criminal activities in the cartoon world of Saints, Volition have created a rather unsavoury contrast between the jokes and real-world things that are straight-up abhorrent. I don’t care how good your game is, you do not get to present the trafficking of women for sex in a “humourous” manner. I may be the very definition of a privileged observer, but despite being trumpeted as a good example for depictions of women in games (and the strong female characters + genuine equality between male/female gender options for the main character are definitely things to be admired here) I think it falls into the trap common to many games in this genre vis-a-vis making all the women in non-speaking roles scantily-clad prostitutes. Again, tossing in a few guys in gimp suits doesn’t make this okay either. It’s mainly prevalent in the first third of the game and it goes away after a while, but it still left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.
Still, if there’s one thing to be said in Saints’ favour here it’s that it really doesn’t care who it offends. It offended me, sure, but it’ll also offend the homophobe who is repulsed by the thought of dressing up in women’s clothing and the repressed middle-class Daily Mail reader who thinks any non-vanilla sexual activity is perversion1, so there’s at least some upside to it. I mean, if you had access to a multi-million pound budget and used it to tailor-make a game whose sole purpose was to piss off the Daily Mail as much as possible, the final product would bear a striking resemblance to Saints Row 3. With that in mind I have to say that I may not have liked some of the things I saw, but I can’t hate the game for it. Saints Row 3 is so egalitarian in its particular brand of intelligent immaturity that it’d be stupid to attribute it to malice on the part of the developers; instead it’s merely indicative of the industry and genre the game occupies. While it is certainly disappointing that Volition fell into that particular trap given how self-aware the rest of the game is, it’s not the fatal misstep it could have been.
The non-mission gameplay of Saints is fairly standard GTA stuff – hijack cars, run over pedestrians, get the police after you, watch the alert level increase, run into roadblock, crash and explode car in ball of flame, wake up miraculously unscathed outside local hospital etc etc. There are shops and properties scattered around the city that you can buy (including, inexplicably, your own Planet Saints franchise stores) which give you an hourly income and increase your control over the various districts in the city. Control doesn’t appear to get you anything – it didn’t get me anything – functioning more as a barometer of how much of the game you’ve finished. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but the one thing that I did find interesting and is probably worth talking about in a little more detail was the rudimentary XP and levelling system and the perks they’ve bolted on to it.
Each mission and activity you complete awards “Respect” (XP points). You also get Respect for chaining together headshots, combo kills, stunt jumps, driving the wrong way down a one-way road for extended periods – just about everything in the game. Get enough Respect and you level up, but this doesn’t give you any new abilities you didn’t have before; it just unlocks the option to buy them with your hourly income. This gives you something to do with your money and thus makes the city control metagame something worth doing, especially given the vast range of perks and abilities you can buy. It goes from simple stuff – more health, more ammo, longer sprinting – to useful call-in abilities like having cars and helicopters delivered to your current locations, to perks that would count as cheat modes in any other game: no damage from bullets/falling/explosions, no reloading and infinite ammo. This latter category only becomes available at the very highest Respect levels so they pretty much are Saints’ cheat mode, but I thought it was still a fairly neat way of tying it into the game structure. It gives you something to work towards, although I doubt it’ll keep you playing for too long after you complete the game.
Speaking of completing the game, Saints Row 3 took me 15 hours from start to finish, with about 90% completion. I think that’s a bit on the short side in comparison to something like GTA or Assassin’s Creed, but I also think those games are unnecessarily long-winded and have too much filler content, making Saints Row 3 pretty much the perfect length for what it is. 15 hours is still longer than 95% of AAA titles released onto the market these days and it ensures SR 3 doesn’t outstay its welcome. Knowing when to stop can be just as important for a game as making sure the player feels like they’ve gotten their money’s worth out of it, and I think Saints Row 3 manages to find the sweet spot in the middle. At £10 it was a bit pricier than most of my budget purchases but – considering I’ve actually physically shouted at my monitor whilst playing some of the worse sub-£4 offerings this year – on this occasion I feel it was money well-spent. Saints Row 3 is hardly ambiguous in its intent and I doubt this review will change any minds one way or the other, but if you were on the fence about buying it at all then I recommend you take the plunge and pick it up next time it’s on sale. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a GTA-alike since Mercenaries. And considering how much I liked Mercenaries? That’s saying a lot.
1. Note: I am aware that these two categories are likely to have significant overlap.