Johnny Gat is one of the defining elements of the series and the best of the colorful cast of characters. His early death and absence from the rest of the game is an early sign of bed-shitting.

Saints Row The Third is a disappointment. While disappointing sequels are more or less a tradition at this point, as much in games as anywhere else, it’s also the case that Saints Row 2 was such a ridiculous improvement over the first game that it seems pretty fair to have significant hopes for a third entry. The Third is a cartoonish re-imagining of the Saints Row series, focused on what someone must have thought were the defining characteristics of the series to such a degree that most of the good stuff, the stuff that was actually defining for the series is left largely in a lurch, along with the cult audience the first two games developed, most of whom are probably scratching their heads and wondering how in fuck they got this game. Still, the game is mostly pretty fun in spite of its shortcomings and there’s a lot of value to be had in the multiplayer (which is how I played it). Once STAG shows up with their ridiculous super-weapons, most of which you get access too, the game seriously comes into its own though it still leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Unfortunately for THQ/Volition, SR2 remains, in almost every way, the high benchmark for the series and if I were them, I’d go back to what made that game work so well for any future installments. But then again, SR3 is getting pretty decent reviews so I expect that they’re putting this one in the win column. As most people who pay attention to games journalism know, there is a lot of pressure from game publishers and their PR departments to keep negative reviews under wraps, especially in the big “trustworthy” publications. The moral here is, don’t believe everything you see on Metacritic. Evan’s here to give you the straight on this game so pay le attentione.

The city of Steelport has some distinctive features but ultimately not enough to separate it from the Stillwater of  Saints Row 2.

The first thing a player will notice about SR3 is the sharp, updated graphics engine. The game looks pretty good, all things considered, and is able to maintain a lot of fidelity even when there is a lot going on in the frame. I have no complaints about the design of Steelport in itself, and certainly none about the improved textures (many of which are ironically more realistic looking than any in the previous game). Where the graphic update gets confusing and potentially objectionable is in the commitment to creating cartoon characters where there were once Rockstar-style “realistic” in-game models. In my opinion, the character models in SR2 are still very impressive even though the game is three years old. Still, I don’t begrudge Volition for updating the graphics so much as I begrudge them for choosing an entirely different graphical style for the characters, a style that winds up feeling less detailed and less contemporary than even the three-years-old  previous game. It’s the operating decision that I find at fault here. Instead of enhancing the excellent suite of character models and options they had in SR2 they have created something closer to The Sims on PS2 in terms of realism (which, granted, didn’t have to be a priority here at all) and more importantly of quality. For example, the textures of clothing in SR3 have devolved significantly and this is very, very noticeable on the Xbox 360.

So in the end, it’s the fact that updating the graphics engine provided Volition with an excuse to set the other graphics-oriented options for customization back several steps. That’s what really bothers me here. I mean, SR2 took everything present in the first game and stepped it up two or three notches, providing all that fans of the first game loved and giving them much, much more. How is this not the right way to do a sequel? In SR3 it’s one step forward (overall graphics quality) and two steps back (customization options).

Let’s get into that a bit more, shall we?

This series has always been known for its ridiculously high level of customization. First you create a character, your in-game avatar, using a bevy of sliders and options that are fairly robust even in SR3. I can’t complain about the overall character creation system except for on a few fine points, notably that the game has fewer options for things like hair (including color, facial hair styles, etc) than the second game which is just absurd. There’s also the weirdly proportioned skeletons of both female and male character types: they are broad-shouldered no matter what you do.

As you can see, Volition wisely opted not to limit the overall face-modeling available to players in the previous SR games… it’s all the other stuff that’s been simplified to the point of frustration.

Still, it is possible to make a pretty respectable avatar for the game. They also kept the plastic surgeons around so that a player can adjust their character including their voice, sex, and everything else at any point. No complaints there!

The trouble is when you get to one of the core parts of the customization experience of Saints Row. In Saints Row 2 you could create outfits out of the myriad clothing options available in the game using a pretty robust layering system that also allowed many degrees of customization for almost every article of clothing from patterning to adding emblems to setting up colors. This is all stripped down in SR3, trading the layering system in for simplification at every turn. Whats left is more like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas than Saints Row 2 which is a damn shame. At least you can still save outfits but there’s way less point now that the complex layering system is gone making your creations very easy to replicate and thus locking you into the same boring clothes with slightly different color palettes. There are also way fewer stores and thus fewer overall clothing options. If you’re not noticing the trending toward content-gutting on this side of the SR experience, allow me to submit the tertiary customization fields of piercings and tattoos. One of the hilariously weird oversights in SR2 was that the bulk of the tattoo options were really fucking stupid. Still, there were a lot of them. At least twice as many options as in this sequel. Likewise, the combinations of piercings used to be highly customizable with the player able to assign different options to each piercable part of their avatar’s face. Not so in SR3 where, like the clothing, you can only assign one of a handful of options.

Unlike the appearance options for characters, SR3 has mostly kept the variety of options available for customizing cars. The mechanics here are similar to in SR2 but, of course, limited and simplified for some fucking reason. For example, where once you could rotate your car in the customization menu so that you could see the effects of your changes, you’re now locked into a specific angle that doesn’t always give you the best idea. The way you color your cars is also simplified and oddly counter-intuitive, forcing you to choose a color before the paint type, a reordering that often leads to backing through the menus to make a different choice. It’s not a huge flaw or anything but it’s another of the many examples of irksome design deviations (from the previous games) that make no sense for what should be the operative motive of creating a sequel: refine what works, fix what doesn’t.

In the customization section of gameplay, there is very little refinement and even less fixing. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d offered even half of the overall options available in the previous games. To be completely fair, they did add weapon customization which is a nice touch. With so few options, though, it feels superfluous in some ways even though you can greatly boost a weapon’s functionality through these upgrades. They also change appearance which is cool.

A great example of how the graphics have mostly improved and become more realistic… except when you get up close to characters.

Now I have spent a lot of time talking about customization. Mostly this is because customization is my favorite element of playing games. I love creating characters and tampering with the appearance and parameters of things in-game. I generally play and love games that make this a core part of the experience, as Saints Row does. This is why, for me, so much of what is wrong with Saints Row The Third can be hinged on that. Of course, this would be a much more biased review than it is if that was all the game had done poorly.

In SR3 it seems like the main design philosophy became “get out of the player’s way”. This is backed up by the advertising and descriptions of the game which can be boiled down to: do whatever you want, whenever you want to! This is not only a weirdly hypocritical notion as the game, by necessity, presents more barriers contingent on its overall framework than it does options for completely free-style playing. Nothing wrong with that, though, it just leads to some interesting consequences for the way the narrative, such as it is, is allowed to unfold amidst the various activities the player can engage in when not following it. Cut-scenes begin and end abruptly and the very set-up for the Saints presence in Steelport is so rushed that it seems perfunctory and poorly established. Plotting was better in Saints Row 2 and there were never confusing moments where you were unsure what a particular mission was supposed to be accomplishing in terms of overall storyline. Saints Row 3 is full of weird problems and confusing moments where the mission itself eventually gets around to telling you why you’re doing it.

Like the previous games, you have the option to complete parts of the story, relating directly to your lieutenants and the specific gangs they are handling, in whatever order you want. However, in Saints Row 3 this is all accessed via your phone and there is no sense of consistency with this lieutenant and that gang. It’s a hodgepodge, basically, and you’re often left wondering why the story is focusing on this over that but really it’s you making choices between missions without even the guiding influence of whatever faction/section you want to complete first because, honestly, you have no fucking idea half the time which one you’re after.

This is indicative of a problem in game flow as access to new story missions is simplified by using your in-game phone rather than driving to specific points on the map and accessing the content that way. In both prior games, the missions would have an icon for whichever gang they related to. I get that in SR3 all three gangs are part of one overall criminal organization and that the story makes an even split between them sort of nonsensical. Still, it seems to me that a better way of handling this was possible but that Volition threw up their hands, said fuck it, and treated it like choosing stages in an arcade game.

There is seriously a gang of Mexican wrestlers in this game. It’s never allowed to be anything other than fucking stupid, I’m afraid.

This is also indicated by (more) gutted content in the form of the activities. In SR, it’s a given by now that there are a variety of side-quest style criminal activties and “diversions” the player can engage in for fun and profit. Because you can buy upgrade at any time (if you have the $$$) from your phone (again with the phone) , the incentive to do these doesn’t seem to be all that high. It’s possible that there are unlockables I don’t know about but the game does a poor job of letting you know this, whereas in the previous games you knew that performing activities would lead to upgrades for both your character themselves (in the form of better health, weapon stuff, etc) and also advancing some side-story type stuff where various contacts outside of the main Saints lineup were around and could sometimes show up in story-related missions. This brought a sense of Stillwater as a big sandbox, Saints or no Saints, and made the world feel like a more fleshed out place. Not so much in Saints Row 3 where the cast of characters is super small and activities come from your lieutenants or just wherever.

It doesn’t help that the game is fairly glitchy as well. Granted, I played most of it in multiplayer with my brother (otherwise Skyrim would have completely obliterated the time I’d have normally spent plaing this solo). That must be a bit glitchier than the solo experience but still, it’s another nail in any sequel’s coffin to be more glitchy than its predecessor, not less. Sure sure, new engine and all that but c’mon. There’s no reason for the physics to be as broken as they are or the missions to glitch out sometimes due to homies not working the way they’re supposed to or the AI just being plain dysfunctional. As a result of these issues, Saints Row The Third feels like a B-game rather than the AAA title it should be.

Like I said before, SR3 feels like they focused on the wrong “defining features”. The Saints Row series has always had a somewhat vulgar, juvenile sense of humor. Where Grand Theft Auto butters its bread with satire and excellent parody/pantomime of pop culture, Saints Row just has fun with it. In previous games, the sense of humor was paramount and just as ridiculous as in this third game with one glaring difference. Where before, the humor came largely from characterization and the cartoon-gang flavor, SR3 derives most of it from over-the-top everything. The violence, sexuality, misogyny, and toilet humor are all writ large here and obscure the underlying cleverness that was before a trademark. Maintaining the fine balance between affecting storylines and character development with the bonkers tonal shifts and everything-goes mentality was an art that Saints Row 2 performed masterfully. SR3 errs on the side of bonkers at every single turn, reducing its most likable and significant characters to either pale version of their former selves (Shaundi) or completely removing them (Johnny Gat). Only Oleg transcends this and becomes more than just a figure of entertainment. Watching Oleg fights the brutes which are clones of him (seriously) can lead to some interesting dialogue and, at times, the relationships between various side characters can intrude most joyfully on the proceedings and remind you that, at some point, Volition thought some of this through.

There is some entertainment to be found in the new crop, for sure, but no storyline is as personal or significant as Lin’s in Saints Row or Johnny Gat’s in Saints Row 2. None of the gangs are as compelling or multi-dimensional as those in previous games other. In fact, though they have played with the ridiculous (the Sons of Samedi and Ronin) before, Volition really takes it to a whole new level with the Deckers and Luchadores. If they had balanced that with the same attention, nuance, and moral ambiguity as the Kings in SR or the Brotherhood in SR2, we’d still have something. Unfortunately, not so much. Instead, humor and insanity are left to run amok and all pretense of drama and narrative maturity is completely dropped. See, I liked how SR2 managed to be as crazy as it was while still surprising you with nuance and pathos every now and again. SR3‘s one truly affecting scene is a callback to SR2 which has the protagonist driving along with Pierce singing What I Got by Sublime, a reference to a scene in SR2. This is great stuff and showed some redemptive promise early on. But the promise never really pays off.

This sort of thing is truly fun.

About halfway through the game, STAG shows up. STAG are a private military company that is tasked with securing Steelport against all the out of control gang violence. At one point, the protagonist tells the politician behind STAG that “The Saints aren’t about domestic terrorism” and the player must experience some disconnect as yes, this is exactly what they have been engaging in for every hour of the game up to this point. SR3 takes over the top gangbanging to a level where their activities are exactly domestic terrorism. In fact, in one ending, the protagonist declares Steelport an independent city-state.

Anyway, STAG end up being the real villains as they use insane tactics like zombies and bombarding the city from a high-tech airborne carrier. Because so many of the unbelievably advanced STAG toys become available to the player, the disappointment tinging Saints Row 3 does eventually develop into an appreciation for the game that it is over the game you want it to be. STAG’s introduction makes SR3 about a completely different type of experience than previous games. They want you up there in that VTOL, using the laser like a kid with a magnifying glass, against all the ant-like street people. Not that random violence to ridiculous proportions wasn’t a trademark of previous Saints games. It’s just that, here, it’s like they threw in every goddamn idea they had. Rarely did it become as magical as the VTOL. I’ll love the sound and satisfaction of switching from flight to hover mode til the day I die. And I’ll love the game for giving me this experience but this doesn’t mean I’ll be dishonest about it.

In effect, the VTOL and other cool shit are just toys for the player to fuck around with some more. Unfortunately, the fucking around has diminishing returns when it has returns at all. By the end of the game, your character is already basically in god mode and there isn’t much reason to fly around destroying things with hoverbikes or the VTOL (or anything else). In Saints Row 2 artifacts of insane power were either very rare or very difficult to acquire or both. As a result, you cherished the achievement of getting them less than the ability to use them to do very little. In SR3 this shit is handed to you like candy corn and the enjoyment of it lasts almost no time at all as you realize there’s just so fucking little to do in this game.

In terms of the missions themselves, there are several that are truly fun both conceptually and in action. The bank heist at the beginning is pretty great, so is the airdrop on the Morningstar party house (single-handedly responsible for my newfound appreciation for Kanye West’s Power), and the last few crazy missions are pretty fun too even if they feel like they belong in a different game. The campaign is fairly short, however, and constitutes only about 50% of the overall game content. The other 50% is comprised of busywork activities, collectibles, and maybe a few unlockable toys. Unlike SR2 where I felt compelled to do everything, possess everything, and experience everything, SR3 loses me at the completion of the campaign. Except for that I will likely replay the game alone and take my time with it rather than playing multiplayer. It could be that my disappointment wanes and my appreciation grows. If so, it won’t change the fact that SR3 is demonstrably weaker than its predecessor.