You know how some games have that special moment you can't wait to tell all your friends about? It's the kind of thing that defines the game you're playing and sticks with you for the rest of your life. Saints Row: The Third doesn't have one of those incredible moments you'll never forget ... it has hundreds of them. THQ's newest open world action game has so many unbelievable moments I could spend the next two thousand words talking exclusively about them and not even scratch the surface of what makes this sequel so much fun.
Because of their antics in the first two games, the Third Street Saints have been catapulted to superstar status. They are larger than life pop culture icons; recognizable celebrities who are constantly getting hassled for autographs. Thankfully the Third Street Saints haven't gone completely soft, as demonstrated by a bloody bank robbery that opens the game. In true heist movie fashion, the street gang decides to hide their identities by wearing a mask of the Third Street Saints' most recognizable face, Johnny Gat. To make matters even stranger, you are currently playing Johnny Gat, which means that you're wearing a mask of your own face. This surreal robbery should be your first clue that Saints Row: The Third is about to get very weird.
It doesn't take long for our hero to nearly get run over by an airplane while skydiving, rain down explosive death with remote guided missiles, go on a Japanese TV game show and take an extremely dangerous drive with a live tiger. The fact that all of these things happen within just a few minutes of each other is at the core of what makes Saints Row: The Third one of the craziest action games I've ever played. The game establishes within the first hour that practically anything is possible. Think there's an army of cloned super humans out to get you? You're probably right. Worried about a zombie apocalypse? You have good reason to be concerned. What about aliens? It's definitely a possibility.
Somehow all of these outlandish ideas are sewn together into one narrative. At least that's the attempt. The story involves the Third Street Saints getting arrested and caught up in a fight with Phillipe Loren, the leader of an evil group called The Syndicate. What started as a simple business arrangement quickly devolves into an all-out gun fight, which ultimately leads to a lot of bad blood and a revenge plan. The popular gang moves to Steelport and plots a course to kill Phillipe Loren and control the city.
It turns out that this grimy industrial city is home to three eccentric gangs, each with colorful leaders and unique clothing choices. The most outlandish are the Luchadores, a group of masked Mexican wrestlers. They are led by a steroid-injected muscleman who resembles Batman's worst nightmare, Bane. His name? Killbane. Yes, that's the kind of wit you should expect from Saints Row: The Third.
Another intriguing addition are the gang of, ahem, "hacktivists" known as the Deckers. These youthful killers are computer savvy and know a thing or two about administering the blue screen of death. The Deckers' story breaks new ground in the open world sandbox sub-genre, allowing players to play a killer toilet. That's right, at more than one point in this Saints Row sequel you play as a toilet.
Things get even more complicated once the politicians step in. In order to rid Steelport of this nasty problem, an opportunistic Senator calls in the government-trained Special Tactical Anti-Gang squad, also known as STAG. These highly armored soldiers are tough to kill and will present a real headache for each and every one of the city's criminals.
These various groups are nothing more than a reason to introduce a bunch of colorful characters and make the hero fight through dozens of action-packed missions. Fans of the Grand Theft Auto-style of action game will no doubt recognize a lot of the mission types, which largely lean on the shoot everything that moves conceit. Saints Row manages to make this fun by constantly introducing exciting new weapons and vehicles, including special gear from each of the different gangs and government agencies. Not only will you find a lot of standard hand guns and automatic rifles, but also experimental guns, a sonic boom blaster and even a Mega Man-esque arm cannon.
Beyond the traditional shoot-em-up missions, the game has a healthy supply of diverse tasks to undertake. In one mission you'll be using a remote control gun, which allows you to take control of any vehicle you want while you sit high above in a helicopter. There's something satisfying about taking control of an enemy's airplane and sending him for the ride of his life. Another stage involves you riding a Tron-like light cycle to help hack the computer's mainframe. And in even another stage, you'll have to save the city from a zombie outbreak. And did I mention that you occasionally play as a toilet?
When you're not playing through the ten hour storyline, there are plenty of side-missions set up around the world. Fans of Saints Row 2 will recognize most of these secondary activities, which include driving hookers around town, taking part in a Japanese TV game show, racing, insurance fraud, protecting fellow gang members and much, much more. You'll also be able to track down desirable targets and assassinate them to earn respect. Or, if you're looking for a less violent way to earn some quick points, you can spend your time tracking down specific cars around town.
One of my biggest pet peeves about Saints Row 2 was that the game forced players to complete a bunch of the secondary activities before moving through the story. The constant breaks from the story hurt the pacing and made me loathe some of the more difficult side-missions. This is not the case in Saints Row: The Third. This time around players only have the play each side mission once. The different activities are introduced throughout the course of the story and then only repeated by choice.
Despite the game's ultra-violence, Saints Row: The Third feels like the Saturday morning cartoon version of Grand Theft Auto IV. Every character is larger than life, the plot points are completely ridiculous and there isn't a believable moment in the entire game. The game has no problem referencing strangely specific moments in wrestling history, not to mention reference games (Mass Effect), movies (a bunch of Star Wars jokes) and TV (a loving nod to The Walking Dead). It's hard to take any of the craziness seriously, which is what makes much of this game so compelling.
And yet, sometimes the absurdity plays against what the game is trying to accomplish. Because the action is never grounded in reality I found it difficult to care for any of the characters. By the end of Grand Theft Auto IV I was emotionally invested in Niko's journey, while in this game I couldn't care less about my user-created character. Furthermore, the game's over-the-top antics ruin what could have been a couple heartfelt moments.
Fans of the Saints Row serious will always point to the game's superior open world gameplay mechanics. The game is a significantly more playable third person shooter when compared to Grand Theft Auto IV. The problem is that it's a mediocre third-person shooter compared to Gears of War. The developers do a good job at keeping the action diverse, but there are moments towards the end of the game where the gameplay is unable to keep up with the demand. What's more, Saints Row could use an easier way to switch between weapons. The current method (hold the "B" button to pop up a menu and select using the left analog stick) is unusable in the heat of battle.
While the game's style blew me away, I wasn't thrilled with the overall graphics found in Saints Row: The Third. The game looks a lot like Saints Row 2, with sometimes ugly character designs and questionable textures. The backgrounds are generally sparse and lack details, which is even more noticeable after spending so long in Rockstar's recent episodes from Liberty City. Thankfully the action is fast and the style is able to overshadow some questionable visuals.
The game's soundtrack is a completely different story. The campy voice acting fits in perfectly with Saints Row's silly storyline. Hulk Hogan delivers an inspired performance as, surprise, a former wrestling champ. Daniel Dae Kim (from TV's Lost and Hawaii Five-0) reprises his role as returning star, Johnny Gat. And even former porn star Sasha Grey proves her worth as an actress. All of the actors have a lot of fun with what is undoubtedly stupid material.
When you're done cleaning the town of gang members, it's time to move on to the, ahem, Whored Mode. This "cleverly" named mode is a lot like the Horde Mode you find in other games, only with a sharper sense of humor. Here you'll have to kill a certain amount of enemies to advance from wave to wave. Sometimes you'll need to use a chainsaw to kill a bunch of zombies, while other times the player will use a gigantic sex toy to smack around half naked women. This mode doesn't even attempt to mask the pop culture references, putting many of them right in the wave's title. I'm not sure how often I'll play this mode, but I had a good time fighting as long as I could.
Saints Row: The Third is the perfect answer to anybody who thought Grand Theft Auto IV took itself too seriously. The fact that I never knew what was coming next was enough to compel me to see the game through to the end. At a mere ten hours, this third Saints Row game is a fraction of the length of a standard Rockstar Games title, though you would never know it from the blistering in-your-face pacing. With so many must-see moments, you'll be talking about Saints Row: The Third for months to come.