If there’s anything I can say about THQ, it’s that they know how to throw a party. At the Saints Row The Third event I attended last week they pulled out all the stops. There was an open bar, a three course meal with dessert and live music. But that was just the start. They also had dancers, ice sculptures, Saints Row-themed cocktails and exact replicas of the statues in the Saints’ hideouts. The whole thing was orchestrated to recreate the classy yet decadent hedonism you find in the Saints’ headquarters in the game, and to make one point abundantly clear: THQ is very confident and proud of Saints Row The Third.
And you know what? They should be. After immersing myself in the game for a solid five hours I can see just how much hard work went into this elaborate experience. Saints 2 was crazy enough, but Volition has somehow managed to top themselves in every regard, from the game’s technical merits to its gameplay variety to story and just its insanity in general. For the first half hour or so I was actually a little numb—I rarely get sensory overload from a game, but with those surround sound headphones on and the controller in my hands, Saints 3 sucked me in and left me blinking, ears ringing.
I don’t mean to say that it’s an entirely new experience or it takes time to get used to; anyone who has played the previous Saints games or sandbox games in general will be able to pick up the experience very quickly. In fact I was surprised by just how similar the interface and controls are, by how natural it was getting back into the groove. Saints 3 doesn’t switch up the formula much, but it cranks everything else to eleven and does it so early in the game that you might be a little overwhelmed at first.
Just to put it in perspective, Saints 2 started with a prison break and slowly transitioned into larger mayhem in the city streets, culminating with an all-out ground war between the Saints and the Ultor Corporation. Saints 3, on the other hand, starts with an insane bank heist—the Saints blast the roof off a bank and literally try to airlift the vault out¬—and then goes straight into a mid-air skydiving firefight that lands the Saints in the new town of Steelport. Saints 2 started slow and got crazy as it went; Saints 3 starts out crazy and gets progressively crazier by magnitudes of ten.
While there isn’t a boat explosion to explain your character’s between-game makeover, the game presents the character creator as a suspect lineup or mug shot. It’s similar to the “profile reconstruction” you do at the beginning of Mass Effect games, and it’s gotten several new options. Volition has added a few new taunts, many of them raunchy and amusing, although they removed a few of my favorites from Saints 2. You character’s skin can now be just about any color you want, natural or not, including chrome green. I could’ve spent an hour just messing around in the character creator but I had a preview to do, so I settled on making Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive and got started.
Once the intro is over the Saints are stranded in a new city controlled by the shadowy Syndicate, a massive criminal empire that controls all the local gangs and is now gunning for the Saints. Are the Saints forced to work their way up again from square one? Hell no! The Syndicate may have frozen all of their assets, but that doesn’t stop you, the boss, and Shaundi from calling in Pierce from Stilwater with a fleet of helicopters. Volition wanted to emphasize that the Saints spent two previous games making a name for themselves; by Saints 3 they have a motion picture in production about them, dozens of sponsorships and their own freaking energy drink. The Saints may be out of their element but they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
A new city means new recruitment, and while Shaundi and Pierce are still around Johnny Gat is MIA presumed dead. For the first few missions you’ll be signing new Saints to the team, and as you’d expect they’re all rather…interesting. Within the first hour or two I’d rescued a disgraced nerdy FBI agent named Kinzie, an MMA hardass named Angel and a gigantic Russian guy named Oleg, who was being used by the Syndicate as a clone template for a super soldier army. Did I mention that Oleg was completely naked, and then proceeded to open up a can of nude whoop-ass on the people who imprisoned him? The whole sequence sounds ridiculous—and it is—but it’s also extremely funny, particularly how Pierce gets increasingly insecure as the team follows the gigantic naked Russian guy on his vengeful rampage.
My favorite of the new Saints is Zimos. He’s a retro 70s-style pimp who’s been trapped in an S&M club, and once you get him out of the hellish situation he signs on out of gratitude. Zimos talks like he has an auto-tuner stuck in his throat so he’s particularly funny to listen to, and having him on a mission makes it all the more entertaining.
The new homies add more than character color, though. Saints 3’s mission system has been re-tooled so that each character gives you specific kinds of missions, and these include both story-progression missions and the diversions. To start, each homie introduces the various diversions and they’re divided up based on the character—being a pimp, Zimos handles all things prostitution, whereas Angel deals with the insurance fraud, etc.
Some of the diversions have also been changed to reflect the homie that’s in charge of them; for example, nerdy Kinzie handles the trailblazing, which has been turned into a Tron-esque lightcycle racing videogame where you help her hack by racing through a rival gang’s system. I never really got the trailblazing diversion in the second game (you rampaged through the city on a burning ATV) so I like that Volition has made a few of the diversions less random and more inclusive to the story. Assigning them to the homies also cuts down on superfluous characters and focuses more on the core cast; I much prefer this to the series of random one-appearance characters that only served to introduce the diversions and then vanished.
Once each homie has introduced their diversions they’ll also give you story missions, and as far as I could tell you didn’t need a certain amount of “respect” to plow through the story. That’s a good thing, because the respect system has also seen some upgrades. Respect is a lot more like XP, progression is more gradual and the bonuses and upgrades you unlock feel a lot more balanced and better distributed. Simply beating through all six levels of a diversion won’t automatically give you upgrades like more sprint speed or infinite ammo—these must be unlocked with respect before you can purchase them.
The improved respect system factors into every aspect of the game’s nuts and bolts: almost everything is upgradeable now, not just health and personal stats. Guns can be give laser sights, silencers and more damaging ammo; the car upgrades go far beyond adding a nitrous boost or tinted glass. I didn’t get to play around with the alternate outfits for your gang but I have a feeling they do more now than just look cool.
In addition to tightening up the story progression and upgrade system, Volition has done an overhaul on the cooperative mode. Co-op can once again be played both online and in system link, but now the entire story campaign can be played cooperatively start to finish. I joined another journalist’s game and it was pretty cool how easy it was to set up. What’s more, the way Volition handles story progression in Saints 3 co-op is also very simple and elegant. It doesn’t matter if your friend is several missions ahead of you—you can still play along farther in the game than you’ve gotten in your own file, that is of course if you don’t mind spoiling the story for yourself.
The cool part happens when you go back to your own game. You still have to progress up to the point where you and your friend started, but once you get to any missions you completed with your friend, you have the option to skip them or replay them as you like. This lets both people progress through the story at their own pace, and the co-op can be a drop-in/dropout deal without having to start a separate cooperative file.
Volition has done a lot to improve and update the admittedly good framework they had in Saints 2, but they’ve also taken the time to polish everything to a mirror shine. It’s hard to appreciate when you’re trying to cram as much gameplay as possible into a 5 hour preview window, but Saints 3 is a much better optimized package than its predecessor. I don’t want to slam Saints 2—I absolutely loved that game—but it did have a few rough edges. The framerate chugged noticeably from time to time, the engine was colorful but looked a little dated, and the driving physics, while much smoother and more enjoyable than GTA 4’s sluggish driving, did tend to mess up at the worst possible times.
Saints 3 has none of these issues. You get the gritty yet colorful world of Steelport without any of the slowdown, pop-in or physics bugs. Draw distance, one of Saints 2’s Persian flaws, is no longer an issue and Saints 3 goes out of its way to prove it with a couple extreme-range sniping missions early on. You can see—and snipe—for miles now. I went back and played a little Saints 2 after getting home from the event and the difference is subtle but significant. Volition has taken every lesson they learned on the previous two entries and used them to make Saints 3 a magnum opus of insane open-world crime games.
I’ve always liked the Saints Row series, mostly because it harkens back to the older GTAs. Rockstar started mixing immature humor with serious narrative, leaving the recent GTA games feeling a bit jumbled. Saints Row has offered a solid alternative by focusing purely on crazy fun without taking itself too seriously, but the series has always lacked the polish of a GTA. Well now, Saints Row The Third has both. It’s crazy, it’s easy to get into and play but deep enough to keep you playing for hours, and it finally has the refinement and polish the series needed. Considering the amount of trouble I got up to in just 5 hours, I can’t wait to see the chaos I can set loose once the game ships in late November.