Murder time, fun time: SAINTS ROW THE THIRD

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Last updated: June 1, 2019

How do you follow up what just might be the greatest open world game of all time (one that isn’t called Red Dead Redemption, anyway)? Do you refine what you already have, or do you take a risk and drastically change how the game feels? In 2011, Volition asked themselves this question and decided that the old Saints Row engine was getting a bit rough and needed an overhaul. Which, to be frank, it was and did. We had spent two games in the city of Stilwater and taken it over on two separate occasions, so a change of location was in the cards for the third game. Enter Saints Row The Third, first announced with this trailer:

Having taken over Stilwater and the Ultor Corporation in the previous game, the 3rd Street Saints are now major celebrities with all sorts of merchandising deals including clothes stores, comic books, an upcoming movie, and the Saints Flow energy drink (prohibited in California). People ask for their photos and autographs during bank robberies, and the cops are in their pocket so said robberies are more like publicity stunts than anything else. The Saints have all the money, power and respect they could ask for, and life is good despite Johnny Gat worrying that they might be going soft.

Of course, everything goes horribly wrong when the Saints accidentally rob a bank owned by the Syndicate, a rival crime organization from the city of Steelport. The Boss, Shaundi and Gat are captured by the Morningstar (one of the three gangs making up the Syndicate) and threatened by their leader Philippe Loren on a plane, but they manage to skydive their way to Steelport after gunning down a few dozen people in the plane and then in freefall. Well, the Boss and Shaundi do — Johnny dies in the first real mission of the game. Off screen, I might add.

I suppose that is one way to start the game, kill off a fan favorite character in the most anti-climactic way possible. Obviously, he’d be back in Saints Row IV, but at the time he was actually supposed to be dead despite the cutscene seeming like the most obvious “oh, he’s gonna come back in a later mission and it’s going to be great” foreshadowing ever. Volition actually wrote a proper dramatic death scene for Gat, and for whatever reason it was always planned for him to bite it (contrary to popular rumors, there was no issue with Daniel Dae Kim’s schedule at all), but THQ found it too dark and thus it was replaced with what we have now.

Gat’s death scene wasn’t the only time THQ would meddle with the game’s content either, as most of the darker and more serious storylines were left on the cutting room floor because they didn’t fit the kind of experience THQ wanted. Basically, THQ wanted the game to be all wacky and humorous and over-the-top all the time, which was a fairly major departure from the feel of the previous game.

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Just another day in Steelport. This is one of the survival missions, which are basically horde mode. There is also an actual horde mode in the main menu, named “whored mode” because hurr so wacky and edgy lol, and I’ve never played it because who gives a shit.

As soon as they arrive in Steelport, the Saints lose all their money thanks to the efforts of master hacker Matt Miller, leader of the Deckers (a gang that basically consists of anime teenagers, and another part of the Syndicate. The third gang is the Luchadores, a group of Mexican wrestlers led by Eddie “Killbane” Pryor. Yes, there is a gang of Mexican wrestlers), so they have to start from scratch again and build up their influence in the new city. Of course, doing this with just the Boss, Shaundi and Pierce (who shows up shortly after you arrive in Steelport) wouldn’t work at all, so the Saints are going to need some new friends.

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L to R: Oleg Kirrlov (former KGB agent), Pierce, Shaundi, Boss, Gat, Zimos (pimp who speaks in autotune), Angel de la Muerte (pro wrestler, voiced by Hulk Hogan himself). Not pictured: Kinzie Kensington (ex-FBI agent, master hacker, BDSM enthusiast), and Viola DeWynter (ex-associate of Loren, voiced by former adult film actress Sasha Grey)

Why not just get some of your old buddies from Stilwater to help out, you ask? Well, the original plan was for Stilwater to get nuked to oblivion in this game, which was meant to give you extra motivation to take down the Syndicate. Personally I thought that storyline sounded quite stupid and forced (“LOOK HOW AWESOME OUR LAME VILLAIN IS, HE BLEW UP ALL THAT STUFF YOU LIKED!” is an incredibly tired trope in fiction), so I’m kind of glad it didn’t make it in, although by the time SRIV rolls around none of this will matter in the slightest.

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The storyline really feels like an afterthought this time around. While the cutscene writing and voice acting are still fantastic in general, the overall plot is extremely disjointed and some parts of it make no sense whatsoever. Undoubtedly another result of THQ cutting out some of the more dramatic content. You end up fighting some special forces as well as zombies along with the usual gangs, but none of it feels like there’s any point to it. Some of the individual setpieces are absolutely brilliant and feature some of the best use of scripted licensed music this side of Red Dead Redemption, but it all tends to ring rather hollow. The Third also likes to make you do activities while pretending they’re story missions, which is a little bit silly especially when the Boss pretends she’s never done Insurance Fraud before.

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Just another day in wait what

Speaking of hollow, the city of Steelport itself is also very uninteresting. There are no hidden secrets to find (according to Volition, most players never saw that stuff so they decided to focus on the main content — talk about missing the forest from the trees), everything looks the same and it feels like a video game environment instead of a real breathing city. It can look good — the neon lights downtown do look quite striking especially when you’re flying a plane between buildings — but it’s so very empty and soulless. At least you can still play through the entire story with a friend in co-op mode, so you have someone to complain to about the game’s faults while you’re having a blast murdering a horde of furries with an enormous purple marital aid.

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Looking pretty good, but something is missing. The HUD is also bugging out with the “Explosive kill” and “Specialist kill” popups, those should only show up when you’re killing stuff.

The improved game engine is quite nice and looks more “next-gen” than the first two games. Shooting is now quite a bit smoother than before, as you can fine aim with the left trigger instead of having to click the right stick to zoom in. Unfortunately, the enemies are more bullet-spongy than before and don’t react to shots in as satisfying a manner as they did in the previous games. What’s even the point of a shotgun if you can’t blast a fool across the room? At least you can upgrade the weapons now. Melee attacks are easier too, especially when you hold the sprint button (now renamed the Awesome button), which lets you do all sorts of silly wrestling moves as well as speed up carjackings by smashing through the front windows.

However, with the new engine come a few unfortunate restrictions. The most obvious of these is the fact that customization has been severely limited; due to the consoles’ memory constraints, layered clothing is gone, as are the different wear options as well as socks. Yup, no more socks or clothing layers. The character models themselves do look quite good (if a bit plastic) and a lot of the clothing is very nice, looking much better than most of the clothing options in the previous games, but having so many fewer options is definitely a disappointment.

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You can still make yourself look pretty goddamn stylin’ if you’re so inclined. Or you can crossdress. Or go streaking, if you really want to offend the old ladies of Steelport.

Most of the old activities are still included, although SR2’s Septic Avenger and FUZZ are gone. Insurance Fraud remains much the same as the SR2 version, although for whatever reason Volition decided to add repetitive voice clips to the proceedings (“This was a bad idea!” and so on) and tone down the physics so you no longer clear entire city blocks when you get hit by a car. Boring.

Escort, Snatch, Trafficking and Mayhem are all present and accounted for, and work almost exactly as they did in Saints Row 2. Well, you’re no longer allowed to summon an APC or repair your car (or remove notoriety, which is now done by entering a Saints-owned property or safehouse) during Snatch, which in conjunction with brainless NPCs (“GET IN THE FUCKING CAR YOU STUPID ASSH–never mind, you’re dead again”) makes harder levels of the activity a complete pain in the ass.

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The new activities this time around are Guardian Angel (basically Heli Assault on rails, which is an improvement over regular Heli Assault since you don’t need to deal with the awful controls), Cyber Blazing (Trailblazing in a cyber environment, not very exciting), Tank Mayhem (Mayhem… in a TANK! Ram the hell out of those fences!), Tiger Escort (Escort, but instead of prostitutes and johns you’re driving around with a live tiger, trying to calm him down and avoiding animal activist vans) and Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, which was quite heavily promoted leading up to the game’s release.

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SUPER ETHICAL!

Basically, Reality Climax is Takeshi’s Castle mixed with Running Man, or possibly Smash TV with furries. You run around a maze with various hazards and murder a horde of mascots and brutes (clones of Oleg and this game’s version of that annoying bullet sponge enemy that has to be in every game despite everyone hating them). It is definitely a lot of fun, but mostly amounts to a glorified shooting mission, and there are already plenty of those in The Third.

Professor Genki himself never appears during the actual Reality Climax events, but you can sometimes find him walking around in the open world. If you kill him (which can be tough, because he has a ton of health and packs a rocket launcher) you earn BIG MONEY, BIG PRIZES!

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MURDER TIME, FUN TIME!

Amusingly enough, one of the songs used in SERC was recently (as of 2014) heard on the WWE Network’s Countdown show where they were playing some Mortal Kombat footage during a segment about WCW’s Blood Runs Cold storyline — an ill-fated attempt by WCW to cash in on the whole Mortal Kombat craze in 1996 by introducing a wrestler named Glacier, a blatant Sub-Zero ripoff (and his arch enemies Mortis and Wrath)… which might have worked if WCW’s very own nWo storyline hadn’t revolutionized the wrestling business by that point and instantly made cartoony gimmicks like Glacier terminally uncool (pun mostly intended). In any event, the song is apparently from a stock music library and was clearly the closest thing to actual MK music they found for the segment.

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While we’re on the topic of professional wrestling, it should be noted there is a lot of wrestling stuff in this game. Along with the melee attacks, Hulk Hogan voicing a major character, and the Mexican wrestler gangsters, you can assign a variety of wrestling-related taunts for your character (including John Cena’s “You can’t see me” and Ric Flair’s Nature Boy strut), and at one point Killbane drops a Montreal Screwjob reference of all things. Of course, then there’s the mission where you actually wrestle him inside a ring (and finish with a picture-perfect “Macho Man” Randy Savage elbow drop off the top rope), and Rob Van Dam voices one of the Reality Climax announcers who also commentate on the match.

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The in-game physics are still 100% realistic, obviously.

You still earn various rewards from completing activities, but this time there is actually a level-up system. You can use your respect points and cash to unlock various abilities, which gives the game a nice sense of progression despite the problems with the campaign. The level cap is 50, and by the time you hit that you are more or less invincible. Upgrades can’t be turned off, so you might want to think twice before getting that 100% bulletproof ability. That being said, now you can actually back up that one drunken combat taunt from Saints Row 2. “I’m bulletproof, bitches!”

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Weapons and vehicles are generally unlocked through the story, and there’s a whole bunch of DLC you can also get if you’re so inclined and it’s on sale. Most of the DLC is rather unremarkable and some of it is just offensively bad (Penthouse Pack! Get a bunch of Penthouse Pets as homies, just what you’ve always wanted! Yes, that is a thing that costs real money, I’m not making that up), and the three story DLC packs aren’t anything to write home about either so I won’t be covering those. Genkibowl adds some fun new activities (Sexy Kitten Yarngasm, in which you drive a giant ball of yarn around town and smash everything… basically another flavor of Tank Mayhem, with some lovely music), but that’s it.

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Not all of the DLC is bad. Meet the Shark-O-Matic. Yes, it works indoors and on rooftops. 
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Sad Panda Skyblazing, brought to you by the Genkibowl DLC. In this minigame you skydive in a panda suit, fly through rings, hit balloons, and kill mascots with chainsaws. And I’m not showing any of that, just the end celebration.

The soundtrack in The Third is a bit of a step down from its predecessor. The Mix is still there and remains the best radio station by some margin, even though its Steelport incarnation is more of a general 80s/90s station than “all the cheesiest 80s songs you secretly love and sing along to.” There are still some great 80s tunes on there, but it also adds a bunch of boring alternative rock that just isn’t what I want from The Mix.

An Adult Swim station is also included, which is worth it for “Sports” by Tim & Eric (who made a rather disturbing tie-in sketch for the game, featuring Professor Genki) and you’ve also got some Dethklok if that’s your thing. There is also some incidental music, which gets the job done but isn’t particularly memorable.

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As mentioned before, the voice acting is generally great. Hulk Hogan sounds bored out of his mind (probably because his character is extremely boring and not at all fitting for a larger than life character like the Hulkster), as does Sasha Grey, but the rest of the cast is fine aside from Shaundi, who has a new voice actress and sounds angry all the time. Hell, she is basically a completely different character in this game, and you wouldn’t even be able to tell she’s supposed to be Shaundi if they didn’t say it was her. This is also a problem with the writing, as she was supposed to have a character arc dealing with Johnny’s death and survivor’s guilt and that kind of thing, but once again this was seen as too dark for this hilarious comedy game.

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It deserves to be mentioned that Laura Bailey is the best Boss voice. I’ve tried the other voices in The Third and IV, but I always go back to her because to me she is the Boss. The default male voice this time around is Troy Baker, who is also very good. There is also a joke voice which is “Zombie”. Yup. Voiced by Steve Blum, no less.

If you pick Zombie, the Boss will grunt and gargle their way through the game and the other characters still somehow understand what they’re saying, which I’ll admit is actually pretty funny. The scene where the Boss and Pierce sing along to Sublime’s “What I Got” is already quite entertaining, but the zombie voice makes it even better (you can just about make out the zombie voice telling Pierce “You’re a good singer!” Pierce, incidentally, is not a good singer).

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Citizens of Steelport have some issues with raised bridges.

Saints Row: The Third is still a fun and entertaining game I have spent far too many hours playing, but it is nowhere near as memorable as Saints Row 2 due to the executive meddling and shift towards a full-on action comedy game featuring a zombie outbreak and Mayor Burt Reynolds. Some people do actually prefer The Third to SR2 and I understand where they’re coming from, but personally I think this is where the series started to head towards the wrong track.

To me, the constant silliness and self-aware winking at the camera simply isn’t as funny as the game rolling with all the crazy bullshit and playing it completely straight (think of Saints Row 2 as something more akin to Airplane! or The Naked Gun, where none of the main characters were in on the joke or even aware there was a joke in the first place). It seems as if Volition tried to script The Third to be as insane as the emergent gameplay shenanigans people got up to in SR2, and it didn’t really work out all that well for them. The most obvious example of making a scripted scene out of something that just occasionally happened in SR2 isn’t actually anything related to the core gameplay, but the Sublime singalong I mentioned earlier.

In Saints Row 2, the Boss would randomly sing along to one of the popular 80s hits on The Mix, and it was funny because Volition didn’t give the voice actors any lyrics before sending them into the booth. Here, we have the Boss and Pierce riding in a car in an early mission as What I Got (a mid-90s song I was completely unfamiliar with, must have been a bigger hit in the States than over here) comes on and the singalong begins. It’s still fun, and it’s nice to hear the Boss goofing around with Pierce (I also like how Laura Bailey is the only Boss voice who can actually sing), but the fact is that this is a scene everyone gets on every playthrough, at the same part of the game, instead of something that felt spontaneous.

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The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of The Third are largely identical. The PS3 release runs at a slightly lower resolution, but keeps vertical sync engaged at all times and thus avoids screen tearing, although the frame rate tends to drop below 30 fps more often than not. On the 360 side, you can choose whether you want to enable vsync, and doing so is generally recommended because otherwise you get absolutely appalling tearing. The frame rate is unlocked in the non-vsynced mode, but the performance level isn’t nearly high enough to justify the constant screen tearing. Drops below 30 are still all too frequent regardless of the mode you select.

However, if you play the 360 version on the Xbox One, vsync is automatically activated on the emulator level regardless of your in-game choices. This may not seem that interesting, but if you happen to be playing on the Xbox One X, disabling the in-game vsync will let you brute-force your way to 60 frames per second! It’s not perfect, and the frame rate drops significantly while driving, but combat sequences do get a noticeable boost. If you have an Xbox One X and a copy of the 360 version (or a Game Pass subscription), give it a shot.

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Of course, when it comes to actually getting the best experience, the PC release is absolutely the way to go and offers far better performance and visuals than the consoles could even dream of, even with the Xbox One X boost. Volition developed the PC version in-house, and it’s about as good as you could possibly hope for.

Most recently, The Third was released on the Nintendo Switch. Portable Saints Row sounds like it could be a lot of fun (albeit not at $40 or your local equivalent, which is what it costs at the moment), but unfortunately the Switch version is not particularly good. Admittedly, I haven’t seen it with the latest patch, but the launch version actually ran worse than the original console releases from eight years ago. Oof.

Saints Row The Third was supposed to receive a standalone DLC called Enter the Dominatrix which was going to be even wackier than the main game (oh boy), but since THQ was having huge financial issues they decided to integrate EtD into Saints Row IV, which had been in the planning stage around that time and didn’t resemble the finished product in the slightest. Of course, THQ wouldn’t be publishing SRIV at all because they would go bankrupt and have their assets auctioned off in early 2013, and Saints Row and Volition ended up in the hands of Deep Silver.

As for the Boss, she became the President of the United States.

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“One nation under me.”

******

Next Saints Row Review: I DON’T WANNA MISS A THING

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