When ranking the great surprises of this past generation, I would have to stick both Saint’s Row 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV somewhere near the top, for completely opposite reasons. GTA IV was heralded as the savior of all fun things ever, but turned out to be a game that I found soulless and dull. On the other hand, Saint’s Row 2 was dismissed as nothing more than a Grand Theft Auto clone — yet it found a way to make its sandbox a true chaotic playground in nearly every sense, offering up scores of hilarious rabbit holes, lots of customization and a decent story to boot.
Enter Saint’s Row: The Third, Volition’s follow-up to the mayhem manager and one of my most anticipated games for 2011. This entry into the bombastic franchise promised even larger scales of destruction, more violence, greater levels of absurdity (there’s a dildo bat, for goodness’ sake) and an all around hilarious time. But does it deliver the goods? One thing’s for certain, Steelport and the Saints will never be the same.
It should go without saying that the most important part of any open world game is the world itself – the playground, if you will. The playground in this Saint’s Row scenario is Steelport, as opposed to Stillwater from the previous title, which unsurprisingly ties into the game’s narrative. In Stillwater, the Saints have become household celebrities after all of their gang-related exploits. The game starts with a bank heist gone wrong back in Stillwater, which lands the gang in prison. However, they’re released by the Syndicate, the organization that runs local Steeport — and given a demand to hand over their profits or die. Naturally, the Saints fight their way out (of a flying jet), only to find themselves in Steelport, which is run by the Syndicate, a collection of luchador mobsters, Tron-looking cycle thugs and European suit gangsters.
Steelport as a playground is gorgeous to behold. Not only is the city visually interesting at ground level, but it opens up vertically once you nab some helicopters, fighter jets and even, yes, hover bikes. Traveling across the city is as fun as ever, and there are a number of ways to engage in destructive urban warfare. You can blow things up with a tank to collect money, jump into insurance fraud by making yourself a human ragdoll and even find yourself as a contestant on a reality shoot-em-up show with giant rabbits. Yes, Steelport is a ludicrous place to call home, and that’s what makes it a blast. Heck, part of the city even becomes infested with zombies. Better yet — you can tackle all of this in co-op with a buddy.
My one complaint with this fantastic playground would be that it at times feels empty in comparison to Saint’s Row 2. Yes, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, for sure – but there were moments where I ran around for a minute or so before I could find other cars to steal. Part of what makes the playground is having some other kids to beat up, right?
Every sandbox needs a set of tools. Whether they exist to give you ways to create a world of your own or cause utter mayhem, these tools help define the open-world experience in a game like Saint’s Row: The Third. And trust me, this game practically gives you a Batman-esque utility belt with which to unleash pure terror on the masses.
Beyond the aforementioned hover bikes, futuristic fighter jets and insane weaponry, Saint’s Row: The Third gives you nearly everything you can imagine to become the gang lord of Steelport. Buy skyscrapers and whorehouses and customize them to your liking, roll around town with a Hummer full of ninjas and strippers or just kill random passersby with a variety of wrestling moves. There’s even a giant ball of yarn that you can roll around the city, Katamari-style, crushing police cars and gang members alike.
I think one of the additions that I like the best is the ability to purchase more property than ever before. Beyond just headquarters for the Saints, you can also grab clothing shops, tattoo parlors, weapon stores and local landmarks. It gives the game an Assassin’s Creed kind of feel, but with an extra bonus — run into any property that you own to remove your warrant level, whether it’s cops or rival gangs. This makes buying property a strategic part of the tool set, as you want to be sure and own as many pieces of land within rival gang territory.
Sadly, this is where Saint’s Row: The Third falters the most. While Saint’s Row: The Third is an initial blast, it starts to falter around the halfway mark and never really picks up steam again. The playground and the tools are all there, but somehow it didn’t manage to keep me hooked, especially as the story missions got more tedious. Part of that might be the fact that Saint’s Row: The Third shows its full hand too early, in an attempt to get you to the good stuff. The problem is, by the end of the game, you feel like there is nothing left worth doing in Steelport, even if you haven’t finished all of the diversions.
And while Saint’s Row 2 managed to have a surprisingly engaging and roller-coaster ride kind of story, Saint’s Row: The Third’s story makes almost no sense. But not in a good way. No, I’m not expecting War and Peace from a game with dildo bats and the auto-tuned pimp Zimos, but it felt like most of the experience here was a bit soulless. Crazy things happened just for the sake of them happening, but never in a way that felt inspired, especially given the amazing tools at your disposal. Most story missions were escort types or fetch quests, with lots of enemies thrown at you along the way.
The notable story missions, however, always involved massive setpieces that really utilized the playground of Steelport. For instance, free-falling from a jet while shooting at gang members that were tumbling out of the back. Or parachuting onto a highrise to the tune of Kanye’s “Power”. Or attacking a sky fortress and then having to jump to safety. The missions do have their moments, yes, but overall, it just feels a bit lacking in comparison to the game that came before it. The game just sings at these moments — but for most of the latter half, it’s merely humming.
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