Plunging past shipping containers and burning debris miles above the skyline of Steelport just minutes into the campaign, it seems that Saints Row: The Third is the type of game Niko Bellic might well enjoy.
If the Grand Theft Auto series can be seen as a humorous and crudely sophisticated abstraction from reality, then the Saints Row franchise can be considered another maddened extraction derived from that.
Post-modernist musings aside, this third iteration in the series has been a pleasant surprise on the PC platform. Openly determined to repent for the shortcomings of the previous instalment’s port, Volition took it upon itself to develop the PC release in-house, to avoid the stigma of “port” altogether. It certainly doesn’t feel like one.
The Third Street Saints are back on new turf, admittedly with a fashion label and an energy drink now behind their name, but they’re still gangbanging, and another trifecta of equally unhinged rivals has stepped up to challenge them. Let the madness begin.
The lead role can be whoever the player wants to be. Thanks to the extensive character customization ability, there are virtually no barriers when it comes to age, gender, sensibility or colour. If it becomes necessary to take another walk on the wild side, plastic surgeons dotted around the city offer total character recreation for a small fee.
The story proceeds much the same as previous Saints’ games; destroy stuff, get money, attain assets. This time around, players are free to progress at their own speed, as there’s no minimum respect level required to follow the story missions.
As far as gunplay goes, the lack of a lock-on system may frustrate some, but with the aid of a mouse this is less of an issue, and it makes agreeably explosive headshots all the more gratifying when they land. Tactical cover is yet to grace the Saints Row franchise but it would feel out of place here, as “guns blazing” sums up most of the situations encountered.
It's always possible to crouch or put a solid object like a car between the player and the action, but dumbstruck bystanders and enemy hoodlums can also be forcibly employed as effective meat shields if that gets repetitive. Life is cheap in Steelport – if the ceaseless waves of goons are anything to go by – but health is abundant and regenerative as long as cover is reached every now and then.
To that end there is an extensive armoury lurking within Saints Row: The Third. Common stalwarts like assault rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers that can be upgraded to the nines are accompanied by ubiquitous melee weapons of the genre, such as giant dildos. Specialised weapons like remotely operated Predator drones are also great for pulverizing enemy goons when you don’t feel like getting your hands dirty.
With death and disorder comes respect, and the spoils of victory. Player upgrades can be bought for cash as their level of respect climbs, affording the player new abilities such as dual-wielding pistols, explosive bullets, and increased notoriety, while others increase the health regeneration of fellow felons and improve hourly takings from assets around the city. An array of cribs can be purchased or otherwise acquired as higher ranks are attained, as well a series of strongholds that can be bought and upgraded.
Vehicle handling has definitely improved from Saints Row 2 whilst retaining much of its arcade simplicity. The effect isn’t so much felt on a keyboard, but the game allows for seamless swapping of keyboard and 360 controllers if getaways prove too hard on the traditional WASD keys.
AI is not as intelligent as might be expected; there were a couple of times where progress became stuck due to level design, and exploding cars that conspired against accurate path-finding. Enemies, too, are often oblivious to the concept of cover, but for the most part everything happens as it should.
Visuals are adequate but nothing fancy. Steelport is vast but lacks the charm or polish of its genre contemporaries. Character models are reasonably detailed but cartoonish in a way that lends itself to the overall theme of the game.
With shiny explosions and gore a-go-go, frame rates are prone to dropping when the action heats up and buildings occasionally pop-up ungracefully, but overall the game runs well enough for these issues to be slated as minor annoyances.
There are plenty of graphical goodies though for those with higher-end rigs; advanced depth of field, ambient occlusion quality, multisample anti-aliasing (MSAA) and DX 10/11 support to name a few, as well as being Crossfire and SLI enabled.
To its credit Volition is continuing to monitor feedback post-release and recently put out an optimization patch designed to smooth the stuttering issues some ATI/AMD users were encountering.
It is the depth of gameplay and customization that will really win players over in Saints Row: The Third. Whether cruising the streets in a freshly pimped purple police cruiser, covering homies with a sniper rifle from a helicopter, or going tête-à-tête with furry mascots in a flaming warehouse, there’s a remarkable amount to see and do, and kill, and drive, and so on. The Steam version even comes with a video recording mode that allows players to capture and upload the height of their insanity to social networking sites and the game’s official website, because it’d be a real shame for weirdness of this scale to go unshared.
Some teething issues aside, Saints Row: The Third offers up an expertly mixed concoction of hilarity and stupidity that’s arrived just in time for the silly season.