Let’s get it out of the way, shall we? I’ll say it now so nobody’s left wondering where it is. It’s going to be impossible to do a review about Saints Row 3 without mentioning it, so here goes: Grand Theft Auto IV. There, done. I hereby commit to never mentioning said game in this review again.
Saints Row 3 begins a few years after the events of Saints Row 2. The Saints are now a flourishing brand and business, selling energy drinks and a clothing range. The opening scene is set during a by-the-numbers bank robbery that goes terribly awry as it is owned and protected by a powerful criminal organisation known as The Syndicate. One disaster leads to another and before we know it, our protagonist finds him/herself on the streets of Steelport, a new city ripe for the taking.
From here, it’s a journey quite familiar to anybody who’s played Saints Row 2: complete various missions, mini-games, and other sanguinary activities. Each success increases your control of the city by a small amount, slowly extending your reach over the citizens of Steelport. Unlike SR2 however, you’ll not need to complete a main-story mission for each sector; mini-games and other minor activities have replaced much of this. It’s a shame and it detracts from the game’s story – but more on this later.
Much in the vein of the, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy, developers Volition Inc have carried over much of the material from SR3’s predecessor. The minimap and control interfaces are almost identical. Most of the mini-games are the same, including the heli-assault, mayhem, trail blazing, snatch and insurance fraud activities just to name a few. The difficulty seems a little toned-down though, and the brilliant Fuzz activity of SR2 is notably absent, replaced with the rather average Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax.
There’s still plenty of mayhem to be had however, and although there are significantly fewer main-story missions in SR3, there are certainly more laugh out loud moments. The insanity dial is firmly set to 11 and you’ll find yourself playing through a variety of very bizarre scenarios: fighting luchadores in a wrestling ring, exchanging fire with dozens of enemy tanks as you plummet out of the sky sans parachute, fighting enemy gangsters on gimp-drawn carriages, and fighting enemies in a virtual reality scenario as a toilet. That isn’t a typo by the way; you really do play as an actual commode. Heck, there’s even a mission where Burt Reynolds asks you to save the city from hordes of zombies.
While much of the humour could have come off as childish attention-seeking, SR3’s witty writing and dialogue really do make it genuinely funny. Banter between characters both in cut-scenes and during the game is brilliant, and the top-notch voice acting adds genuine lustre. The game’s opening sequence bank robbery really sets the scene, and within minutes of booting the game up you know you’re in for a very well-polished treat replete with great direction and pulse-setting music.
SR3’s graphics are likewise polished to a (quite literal) gleaming shine, but the apple underlying the shimmer is a bit questionable. Post-processing effects such as lighting, anti-aliasing and high distance level of detail make it a beautiful game to watch, but up close characters appear to have fewer polygons than in the prequel. Character customisation is also noticeably limited too; layering clothing on your character for a unique look is no longer possible, nor is the choice of open/buttoned or tucked/loose clothing. Facial and body customisation also appears to be more limited, meaning your character will always look fairly similar to the default for your sex/race, except for extreme changes such as making your skin bright green or moving the facial-shape sliders to grotesque extremes. For a game played entirely in third-person view, this is a real shame. On the up side however, the game has been well optimised and I’ve had a constantly high framerate at full detail running on a fairly standard gaming rig.
Whereas SR2 had an engaging story with interesting gangs and bosses, SR3 seems to be more of a rush-job. While the gangs are all visually distinct, there’s not enough focus on their individual cultures to make them feel unique. A surprising number of main characters die very early in the game, making it hard to feel any dread over the prospect of facing gang bosses. While the cut-scenes are without doubt both clever and witty, they’re fewer in number and contain no gravitas like SR2’s excellent graveyard scene with Shogo of the Ronin or the mercy-killing scene with Carlos. SR3 is firmly geared towards the zany and the story does regrettably suffer for it.
Arguably SR3 makes up for this with better core mechanics and flair. Controls for driving, flying and shooting are intuitive and accurate. Ragdoll physics have improved and fights are more exhilarating, thanks to greater numbers of enemies and tweaks that allow stolen cars to take a lot more punishment; you’ll spend more time driving and exchanging gunfire, and less time being run over while trying to find a new car. An improved GPS system makes finding objectives quicker and easier. Early access to armed aircraft grants greater firepower and gameplay choice as well.
SR3 is a game made for violent, mindless entertainment. Is it violent? Certainly. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Is it mindless? More than you could possibly imagine. As a successor to Saints Row 2, it does have a few flaws, but it’s honest about what it does, and it does it very well. Like a new puppy, it displays some frustrating behaviours like chewing your shoes and piddling on the carpet, but you can’t help but love it for all its charm and enthusiasm. Its unrelenting gusto is the perfect panacea to the nihilistic, lifeless and pessimistic “realistic” sandbox games available such as Grand Theft Auto IV. Aw darnit.
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