Hands up if you remember the first Grand Theft Auto game. The real first GTA game, that is; the one that was released all the way back in 1997 and had teeny-weeny top-down sprites.
That was a game that almost lived up to the ridiculous claims that moral crusaders like to make about its successors. While there were missions to do, your primary task in each city was to cause as much carnage as possible in order to hit a score target. Running people over in quick succession, or gunning them down, or blowing up cars? Bonus points!
Except that it was very hard to seriously consider GTA1 as “shocking” or “destroying the innocence of youths” because the in-game characters were little blobby sprites, all of about five pixels wide. Its violence was about as offensive as Worms, for crying out loud.
Around about the time it transitioned into 3D, though, GTA changed. It stopped being about very silly (and moderately cutesy) carnage and instead went in for linear campaigns, more serious plots, and a hefty dose of satire. This culminated in GTAIV – gaming’s own gritty crime saga, set within a take-off of New York.
Saints Row is, I think, what GTA would’ve been like had it stayed true to its roots. It’s less satirical and more in-your-face outrageous; it’s less Almost True Crime and more… well, in-your-face outrageous.
And Saints Row: The Third remains true to that. You don’t start off as a weakling driving taxis, and you don’t have to wait five missions before you get your hands on a pistol. You start off robbing a bank, and by the time you’ve done the first five missions you have a Predator drone. Not just for one mission, either – it’s there whenever you want it – and as powerful as you feel at the start, that’s nothing compared to how you feel by the end.
You’re constantly increasing in power. As you complete missions and generally amusing side-quests (ranging from Insurance Fraud, wherein you throw yourself in front of traffic, to Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, a shooting range in which you blast mascots while the announcers banter in the background) you gain both cash and respect, which you can use to upgrade… well, everything.
Want to dual-wield sub-machine guns? Buy the upgrade. Want your pistols to fire bullets that electrocute your foes? Buy the upgrade. More health? Buy the upgrade. Want AI gang members to help you out when you’re in trouble? Want a purple, bullet-proof car with a nitrous system and a pink underglow? Buy the… you get the picture.
It’s all carried along by a relentlessly silly story and characters that, despite being so unbelievably psychopathic it’s a wonder they haven’t killed themselves on a slow day, are also well-written and desperately likeable. As you proceed you unlock more and more weapons and vehicles that expand what you can do and how you can do it, and again, these aren’t limited to story missions. Hopping into a VTOL aircraft for the first time and blasting the hell out of everything in the vicinity will certainly raise a smile, but finishing that mission and discovering that said aircraft is now yours, forever, whenever you want it… that’ll make the smile grow.
Ostensibly, Saints Row: The Third is a game about gangs fighting it out over the city of Steelport. In reality, it’s about as far from “gritty” as it can get – and, indeed, it’s pretty damn far from “gangs.” By the close you’ll have gone into a Tron-like virtual reality, flown a hoverbike, played a text adventure, called in airstrikes, and done loads more stuff that I’m not going to spoil. It’s bright and colourful, with excellent dialogue and one of the best character creation tools this side of The Sims, and enjoyable solid shooting and driving mechanics clearly weighted on the arcade side of things, to keep everything light and entertaining. Every car handles better and drives faster than you’d expect; every gun throws out more of a kick than you’d think.
If that’s not enough, then you can always do it all with friends. Aside from the reasonably entertaining Whored Mode – a survival mode with whores, unsurprisingly – the entire single-player mode can be tackled alongside a friend. Or, y’know, you can just tear shit up in the city.
And that’s it. Saints Row: The Third is a city sandbox that really understands sandboxes: you can do what you like, when you like, with whatever you like. The main storyline is certainly compelling, but it’s just as easy to get sucked into doing side-missions and buying property in order to take control of districts, or just going out on a rampage.
Oh – and yes, you can beat people to death with a giant floppy dildo. But, quite honestly, that’s one of the least ridiculous things here.