Review: Saints Row: The Third (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Saints Row: The Third
Genre: Sandbox/Open World
Developer: Volition
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: 11/15/2011

If you read my review of the last Saints Row game, you would know that it was one of my favorite games for the Xbox 360. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but it was the most fun I’ve had with a sandbox type game since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. After hearing that Saints Row: The Third was going to be an even crazier, more over the top experience, it quickly became the game I looked forward to the most of the holiday season.

With giant purple dildo bats, parodies of Japanese reality TV shows, and more, does Saints Row: The Third accomplish the goal of being the craziest sandbox game ever made?

Short answer: Nope. You can feel free now to just skip straight to the scoring section of the review, or stick around for one fan ranting on about being disappointed.

The game starts out with a bang, with a bank job that spirals out of control. This time the game starts with the 3rd Street Saints being not just a gang, but a brand name that uses their sort of anti-hero status to sell products ranging from energy drinks to comic books to even making a Saints Row movie. In fact, riding along on the bank robbery is an actor trying to get a feel for the part. Oddly, the game says they are working with Ultor to produce and distribute the Saints line of products, despite the fact that they were the main antagonist for the last game. I guess dead gang members and employees can’t get in the way of making money.

Turns out that the bank is owned by the Syndicate, a gang triumvirate made up of the three major gangs of the city of Steelport. As things spiral into further insanity, the Saints end up on a mission of revenge in the city of Steelport, and it is when the long ridiculous intro mission wraps up that my problems with the game started.

When I played Saints Row 2 I barely touched the main story missions for a while. There were a ton of activities and other things to do. Actually, in many sandbox games I do some things like the Taxi missions or similar diversions in order to get the hang of the controls for driving and to become used to the city. Imagine my surprise when there were very few activities open to do, and diversions like the taxi, tow truck, ambulance, and fire truck missions were not in Saints Row: The Third.

With nothing else to do except just screw around in the city I started playing through the main story mode. This time around the different activities are not just lying around the city to do, but are first introduced through the story mode of the game. There are problems with doing it this way. One of those is that it drags the pacing of the plot down until what are essentially tutorial activities are complete. Another problem I have is the fact that these takes up about a quarter to a third of the main story. So instead of these being extra things to play around with outside of the story mode, they end up taking up a significant portion of the main game.

Of course, the reason behind some of this is because they’ve completely revamped the respect system. In the prior games you would need to do these side activities in order to earn enough respect to do the main story missions, which I never had a problem with. In the second game, there were so many ways of gaining respect I don’t ever remember it becoming an impediment to progressing the story. There are some that did not like that. This time respect is more of an experience point system, with different levels and perks that you can buy when you’ve attained those levels. The story has no requirements to play any of the side missions aside from doing them the one time they appear in the story missions.

I think this way is worse, personally. At least I could pick and choose which activities I wanted to do to earn respect for. Here I’m forced to play one level of each in order to progress the story missions, and some of them aren’t very fun. In addition to that, I really don’t understand how they’ve scrapped the competitive multiplayer mode in order to focus on the single player when the activity tutorials take up so much of the single player story missions – remove those from the single player and it’s about an eight hour long game.

Outside of the story, there are just less activities to do from the last game as well. Fight Club, Crowd Control, Demo Derby, Fuzz, and Septic Avenger are gone. So are the side job diversions and other diversions such as Ho-ing, Racing, Zombie Uprising, Poker/Blackjack, and Tagging. All gone. In their place we get a couple of new activities: Guardian Angel, a different type of Trail Blazing using a motorcycle in cyberspace, Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, Tank Mayhem, and an activity pulled straight from Talladega Nights where you drive around with a pissed off tiger in the car. Maybe it is because they are no longer requirements and completing them only gives slight respect instead of unlocking new weapons and abilities like the prior game, but these activities feel really tacked onto the game this time.

In Saints Row 2, each activity had six different levels of difficulty per activity location. In Saints Row: The Third, each location only has the one level with other instances of the activities popping up when some are beaten. Of those, some are just poorly designed. Insurance Fraud returns, but without the diving through the windshield aspect, and it is so easy that it feels pointless. The new style of Trail Blazing is just poorly designed – driving a motorcycle in a half pipe in this game is annoying. Tank Mayhem is a cakewalk. The activity with the tiger in the car is frustrating because in it you are supposed to avoid crashes while driving fast or the tiger attacks you. Only the tiger randomly does an attack when you are doing well, and for that moment you lose control of the car. For me this caused occurrences where the car would hit something and flip over, or I’d drive off a bridge into a river, both requiring the activity to restart. Even returning versions such as Snatch feel less thought out. In that one, you drive prostitutes while they entertain johns. At times different challenges like powersliding for X amount of time will pop up. In the past, the game gave a somewhat logical reason to do what the john requested, in The Third there often isn’t a context for it.

Some of the diversions not returning I can kind of understand. They’ve made the melee system simpler in Saints Row: The Third, in favor of nutshots. They’ve removed fighting styles completely. So Fight Club would not work in this game. I preferred having multiple fighting styles, and I liked playing Fight Club so I did not like this change. What I don’t understand is they’ve made driving better and more like a racing game, but they removed racing as an activity. That just doesn’t make any sense.

Since I’m still ranting on what has been changed or removed, other than activities, diversions, fighting styles removed, and the respect system changed, there are also less options for clothes, jewelry, and tattoos. Customization has taken a hit as well; you can no longer make weird mixed gender characters or mix undershirts and jackets this time around. All the clothing is just one layer and you can’t mess around with the layers.

There’s no dynamic day/night cycle, it just randomly chooses a time of day or night when you load and then it will not change unless you do a mission. Crib interiors are repeated. You can no longer pick up random objects to use as weapons. The list of cut or half-assed features is long.

Now that I got some of that off of my chest, instead of focusing on what did not make it into the game let’s talk about what is in the game and how well it does/doesn’t work.

First let’s look at the story. The game starts off with a bang, but as I said it drags when the game focuses on doing tutorials for the different activities. They’ve changed how the missions are activated in an interesting way. Instead of driving to a location, stating the mission and then driving to where the mission is, the game has you activate the missions from the cell phone. Then usually you drive somewhere and a cutscene happens, and instead of driving to the mission it just starts you off where you need to be. Same with when a mission ends, it just abruptly ends sometimes. It’s odd that in a sandbox game there is not one mission outside of the activity tutorials that has a chase scene in it, or really much driving at all. The main story missions feel like it could’ve taken place in a standard third person action game.

In fact, that is one of my biggest problems with Saints Row: The Third. For all that it promised a huge over the top sandbox experience, the missions are mostly linear and a majority of them are just running through corridors shooting enemies. Sometimes these corridors will be in a SMBD club or a penthouse, but it still plays out the same way: walk and shoot.

But back to the story – it isn’t very good. There are small issues, such as times when the mission will begin with a cutscene detailing what is going to happen and then it dumps you into a mission without showing those parts play out. There are also missions where you must escape in a vehicle and when you get to the vehicle the mission just ends, it doesn’t even show you getting away. This is a weird decision too because getting away is often the most enjoyable aspect of games like this to play through. For some reason Shaundi, a recurring character, looks like a different person and has a different voice actress.

Then there are larger issues. The biggest is the game does not remember its own continuity. An area gets blown up in the game that you were using, and right after you can keep using it like nothing happened. The main character refrains from killing someone since it was said it would be better to let them live in shame, only to be told shortly after that killing that character is the most important thing to do. At times the game will have you make decisions, only to completely negate that decision. I chose to take an article of clothing from another character, and shortly after they were wearing it again. I had one mission where the main character states that they would never do something because the Saints aren’t sellouts anymore, then does it anyway in the very next mission. There are some huge plot holes, a couple of extremely unsatisfying resolutions to different plot threads, and things done to characters that end up being pointless.

I don’t expect a Saints Row game to have a great plot, but I do expect it to at the very least not contradict something it just did in the very next scene, and also to have satisfying over the top resolutions. Saints Row: The Third doesn’t do either one right.

Graphically it looks a little better than the last Saints Row. There are more detailed textures, especially on buildings, and clothing doesn’t look so stiff even if there are fewer options for clothes. There is less texture pop-in and better draw distance, though the textures still do pop in, just not as noticeably. V-sync is automatically turned off, which caused screen tearing for me when driving around in a vehicle, but you can turn it on. The downside to that is it causes slowdown – at least, it did for me until I installed the game to the 360 HDD.

The tradeoff is that the city of Steelport is more bland visually than Stilwater. In Stilwater there were numerous sections of the city that looked different. There was a trailer park, a prison, an Asian part of the city, a poor part, a beach area and so on. In Steelport there are two looks, city and industrial. It’s hard to recognize what part of the city you are in at times because it all looks the same. The pedestrians seem to have been downgraded for The Third. While they look better, in the second game they were specific to an area and you could see them doing a variety of activities, like skateboarding, using laptop computers, juggling, etc. In The Third the pedestrians also kind of look the same, don’t do much, and they are not unique to an area. You’ll see guys dressed up in mascot uniforms everywhere. The pedestrians in The Third no longer hold hands or interact aside from standing and talking to each other. All of the small touches that made Stilwater seem like an actual place are gone. Graphically the game still looks dated even with a newer engine, especially if you try to compare it to recent releases.

The audio is amazing though and the best part of the game. The voice acting works well no matter what voice you are using, though the British voice is a little less enthusiastic sounding this time, and there’s even a zombie voice option. The music list is great, though the lack of hair metal this time is a little disappointing to me. They’ve really stepped up their rap selection, and a radio station just full of Adult Swim songs. For wrestling fans Hulk Hogan does the voice of Angel De La Muerte, a wrestling character in the game, and for both Murderbrawl and Professor Genki events one of the announcers is none other than Rob Van Dam. Volition uses the music in the background of missions in a great way that really adds atmosphere to them. Some of the things pedestrians have to say aren’t very interesting this time around though, and the Homies that accompany you on missions spout like the same three lines over and over again. Since this is the first time we’ve met Zimo, no, it is not just like old times. Speaking of Zimo, he’s a pimp that talks only through auto-tune. I thought it was amusing, however his voice is really grating if you listen to the game while wearing headphones.

They’ve made a number of changes to how the game controls. It is much more like a standard third person shooter this time around, with the left trigger being used to zoom into a target and the right trigger for shooting. The left bumper is for running now and the right bumper is for tossing grenades. X and A are switched around from the last game – A now jumps and X now reloads, which will likely be more comfortable for people to get used to. The Y button now does double duty for entering cars and grabbing people to use as shields. B button brings up the radial menu, in that menu the D-pad is now for choosing a type of grenade instead of health items like 40s and burgers. This means that they’ve completely removed Freckle Bitches from the game as well.

The car controls are also mapped to be more like a racing game, with the right trigger for gas, left for brake/reverse and A for powersliding. The left bumper now shoots while driving. Cruise control, a feature that I thought was amazing for Saints Row 2, has been demoted to the down arrow in the D-Pad. The game doesn’t ever really tell you how to use it and it’s in an odd place on the controller. However, since the missions are mostly focused on walking and shooting, I never found the need to use cruise control this time around, which is kind of sad considering how much fun it was to use before.

The controls work well and are responsive. The driving is still arcade style, though this time powersliding is more than just making a 90 degree turn through a corner. The camera is tighter to the car (with no option to change the angle) so it looks and feels more like a racing game, and when you set a waypoint on the map there are even arrows that pop up in the street to guide you so that you aren’t looking at the mini-map every few moment. The driving is so improved that it doesn’t make sense why it is barely used in the game and why there isn’t a racing activity this time.

As mentioned, there is a respect system that is more like leveling. As you gain levels you can buy perks through money you earn from missions or from hourly income earned from things like owning properties. Owning properties was introduced in the last game, but this time around most of the properties are buildings you can’t enter. I’d say owning them was pointless, but you get money from them and you need to own them in order to take over sections of the city. This time around beating the gang in the story doesn’t take over their territory. Instead you need to own the buildings for sale, and complete whatever activity is in the area and beat the gang operations. Beating a gang stronghold was interesting in Saints Row 2, but here gang operations are just an area with around 15 enemy characters just standing around.

Once you have money you can buy perks depending on your respect level. Some of them unlock the ability to dual wield guns, or carry more ammunition for a type of gun. There are health upgrades, and you can unlock abilities like being able to gain more followers. The game is never difficult on the default setting, and these perks just make it even easier. I’d recommend getting the ones that give your Homies more health, because reviving them gets annoying as they don’t do things like seek cover. There are other difficulty settings to play around with, though once you gain enough respect you can also choose to much make yourself nearly invincible.

There are new weapons in the game, like a drone air strike. These make the gang operations easy to defeat since the ammo for the air strikes are so cheap. There are less weapons overall, but most of the weapons can be upgrades to more powerful forms. The pistols can be upgrades to hold exploding ammo, which is fun to watch.

There are decisions that can be made, which might add to the replayability for some. The game also features full co-op and a Whored mode. Whored mode is a play on Horde mode from Gears of War (and all the games that also used such a mode) which pits you and a co-op friend against waves of angry hookers. Whored mode feels like a last minute tacked on feature which doesn’t play into the main game at all, nor are there leaderboards for the mode. It is only interesting if you want to try out some of the different weapons in the game, and some that aren’t in the main game, like Cloud’s sword. There is no multiplayer this time. The ability to replay previous missions is gone (except for one mission), same with watching prior cutscenes.

Our website scores on originality, and I don’t see much of it here. There are a couple of unique weapons, but some of them are DLC (shark gun, Octo-gun) or they are in the game but barely used in the missions (the hover-bike, the sound wave gun). I mean hell, the fart in a jar is only used for like a minute in the game and some of the other interesting weapons are only unlocked depending on the decisions you make. None of these weapons, including the giant purple penis bat, are there as extras and there’s nothing in the game designed around actively using these items, which is a major design flaw in my opinion. When you received new weapons in Saints Row 2 there were objectives designed around them. In The Third they feel like afterthoughts or toys for screwing around with.

For a game that was inspired by the Grand Theft Auto games but has gone a long way to becoming its own franchise, they sure as hell made Steelport look like Liberty City. Seriously, compare the game maps, Steelport looks like Liberty City from GTA IV minus the Broker area. The new respect system is just taking the experience/perk system from the Call of Duty games and applying it to Saints Row. Instead of having challenges to get experience for winning matches, there are challenges to get respect for powersliding for a cumulative 300 seconds.

Normally I’d say that this game would appeal to anyone who missed the off-the-wall fun of the old Grand Theft Auto games, but honestly I was really disappointed in the game, and considering how many games are currently out or coming out this month I don’t see who it might appeal to that wouldn’t be better off served playing something else. If you are someone who doesn’t care about the story at all and wants an open world game were you can run around with a friend hitting people with a dildo bat, and exploding people with giant inflatable fists, than this is your game. As someone who normally would love that kind of thing, I just can’t help feel that it’s been done before, and done better.

To wrap this all up because I’ve gone on for far too long already, Saints Row: The Third promised to be the craziest game out there. There are some flashes of inspiration in the game, the http://deckers.die mission is a great example and Murderbrawl was an awesome moment in the game as well, but it falls short in nearly every other area. In Saints Row 2 you can drive a car shaped like a fast food basket into a group of pedestrians, hop out, smoke a blunt, then revive those pedestrians with a D-fib, and then kill them with a pimp cane that was also a shotgun. If the police showed up you could just give them the Rock Bottom and drive away. One of the activities was pretending to be a reality TV cop and breaking up a large brawl between pirates and ninjas! Saints Row: The Third has a dildo bat and a faux Japanese reality TV show. Saints Row: The Third feels like less of a game, probably because if you consider the large list of things that were cut between the last one to this one, it is less of a game. Take away the missions that are just activity tutorials or just cutscenes and you have nearly half the amount of missions of the prior title.

The game also locks away the co-op mode with a code, and there is a preorder pack with content that is on the disk. Also, they sell a Season Pass separately, which includes specific DLC that you get for free and discounts on other DLC. Problem is the one it unlocked for me already, the Nyght Blayde pack, and the two that are on sale currently (Land Shark Gun and Invincibility Pack) are all 316KB and are already on the disk. Oh, and there’s a glitch with some of the achievements.

For a game that has less content than the previous game to lock out content on the disk as paid DLC (you’d need to pay for some of it even if you have the Season Pass!), is ridiculous. As a fan of Volition’s previous games this feels like a slap in the face with a giant purple dildo.

The Scores
Story: Bad
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Great
Gameplay: Great
Balance: Poor
Replayability: Below Average
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Worthless
Final Score: Mediocre Game

Short Attention Span Summary:
The sequel to one of my favorite Xbox 360 games comes out with a lot of the content I enjoyed gone, the story is terrible, and for the most part feels like a third person corridor shooting game with an open world attached to it. Plus there’s additional DLC content that at 316KB means it is on the disk, and they’re still charging for it even if you buy the game AND the Season Pass. THQ, you’ve lost a fan and a customer. If you must buy it at least buy it on the PS3, as you will get a free digital copy of Saints Row 2, which is a much better game.