Let’s get this out of the way upfront; if you’re a fan of the Saints Row series, it’s probably because they’re really dumb. That’s not an insult – since the release of Saints Row 2 in 2008, the series has been marketed as the ludicrous alternative to GTA, with porn star stunt casting, missions that require you to spray sewage to lower property values, and ludicrous cockney accents all being part of the Saints Row package.
Well, the good news is – it’s all still there (not the cockney accent – there’s a zombie voice instead), and most of the rough edges of the previous games have been smoothed away. Even the biggest fan of Saints Row 2 would have to admit that it looks like an absolute dog of a game. Graphics aren’t everything of course – gameplay must always be king, but it’s still nice to have both. It’s not suddenly perfect – the frame rate is choppy, animations are stilted, and the pop-in can be pretty extreme – but it’s a massive step up in production values for the series.
One of the most infuriating aspects of earlier games was having to accrue respect before you could unlock the story missions, often leaving you obliged to plow through the same activities repeatedly or play side missions you really didn’t want to play. While respect is still part of the game, it now controls your abilities in the game – the more respect you have, the more abilities you can buy. It makes progression through the game far smoother than before. You can still grind through the side quests if you want, and it will help you, but they’re optional now.
The opening scene sees the Saints transplanted from their native Stillwater to a brand new city of Steelport, which comes with the massive graphical upgrade. Production values in general are a lot higher – Steelport doesn’t have the character and attention to detail of Liberty City, but it’s closer than ever. The soundtrack and radio stations are much improved over previous games too, with a great range of music. Customisation is as expansive as ever; if you want to make a character that looks like Danny Trejo with a Salvidor Dali moustache and a habit of whooping like Ric Flair, you can (and I did). Any car you steal you can keep, any customisations you make to cars and weapons are permanent – this is a game that wants you to have as much stupid fun as possible.
Bizarrely, for something that promises so much fun, it takes a long time to get started. The opening hour of the game is incredibly stilted, as you’re thrown from set piece to set piece without ever really getting much control. The breakout into the sandbox parts of the game is slow and painful, but once you’re there you have so much to play around with that it’s only your lack of imagination that could make the game dull. As well as the optional sidequests, there are assassination and other missions that can be triggered from your phone at any time, but you can always just take the helicopter gunship out for a spin.
It has to be said that while it is frequently very funny in an unceasingly puerile sort of way, Saints Row the Third does overstep the mark from bad taste into outright misogyny with annoying frequency. With mission titles like ‘Trojan Whores’ (waves of heavily-armed prostitutes invade your penthouse), there’s an unfortunate willingness to play childish hatred of women for laughs. It’s sad to say that it’s expected – but Saints Row the Third could easily have sidestepped it and not lost anything.
It’s rough around the edges, but the best in the series. It’s clever, yet stupid. It’s funny, but sometimes just too offensive to be worth laughing at. It’s a lot of fun – and there’s no caveat there. Get past its flaws and it’s a daft, mostly well-meaning game with a lot of care and attention behind it. It almost challenges the massive-budgeted GTA games on their own turf, but still stands alone as its own game.
Xbox 360 version reviewed. A review copy was provided by THQ. Co-op mode was unavailable at time of review, but will be covered with the DLC.