It’s often said that imitation is the finest form of flattery. If that’s the case then there’s a hell of a lot of flattery doing the rounds in the videogame world. Nary a week goes by without some clone of a popular FPS or RPG vying for our limited time and money. The Saints Row series has long been hit with the ‘Grand Theft Auto clone’ tag, but those launching such an attack are missing the point completely.
Far from a work of plagiarism, Saints Row is a work of reference. If you simply copy another work it’s plagiarism, if you take cues and inspiration from various sources then you’re referencing. Sure, the academics in the crowd may turn their noses up at such a simplistic notion but Tarantino ain’t never not wrong.
Moreover (to me, at least), Saints Row comes across as a work of satire. A series that flourishes in pointing out the ridiculous nature of many of our most dear game mechanics by wrapping them in a covering of sex, violence, bad language and outrageous bad taste. And that’s okay, because a well-rounded diet is important.
I like to solve political disputes in Skyrim, I like to feel the fear of Amnesia, I like to build the perfect system in SpaceChem and I like to discuss the utopian/dystopian qualities of Bioshock’s Rapture. But I also like to whack leather clad gimps around the head with a giant purple dildo. Saints Row: The Third lets me do that and doesn’t judge me along the way.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite, it revels in acts that would have you thrown into a mental asylum in the real world.
The opening scene demonstrates The Third’s panache for over-the-top action and its ability to provide a sideways look at society. in a bank heist that goes wrong, the Saints Row gang are joined by an actor researching his role in a new movie. That movie? A Saints Row movie. Yep, the criminal overloads of Steelport are now celebrities and the populace cannot get enough of them.
Even when they’re being robbed, the bank’s employees are eager to have their photo taken with them. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it’s a slick comment on the state of a society that turns those involved in questionable acts of publicity into individuals worthy of celebration. Would Paris Hilton be the idol she is today without that tape? No.
Predictably enough, things go badly for the Saints when police packing military grade firepower are called in. How long before a friendly chopper arrives to save the gang? “About two waves of SWAT guys,” is literally the reply. This outlandish, self-referential approach is continued throughout in a manner that manages to remain punchy and humorous rather than overbearing.
At the risk of spoiling the bizarre I don’t want to go in-depth about the story or the characters – rest assured that by the time you’ve reached the five hour mark you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve taken a trip down the wrong rabbit hole. The long and short of it is that there’s a new player in Steelport, a Belgian (don’t call him French) with the thickest most clichéd accent imaginable. A bit of big shot with seemingly never-ending wealth and influence, he wipes the Saints bank accounts and takes their property – it’s your job to start building back up.
As stories go it’s hardly a classic, even for a videogame. However, that works in its favour as a plot with too many threads or too much depth would get in the way of the silliness.
The gameplay itself plays on that silliness in a wonderful mix of freedom and variety. Core missions are legitimately interesting for an open-world game. Rather than recycled courier, shooter and racing missions each provides you with something unique. Whether it be in terms of the narrative, meeting a new character, playing with a new dildo weapon, infiltrating a new location or indulging in some gameplay mechanic you’ve yet to experience.
This wide breadth of objectives is sustained throughout the bulk of the game and applause must go to the design team for having the patience and creativity to keeps things fresh for so long in a game of this scale.
And then you’ve got the extra-curricular stuff. An RPG edge is added through the levelling up menu which allows you to upgrade both your own character and your gang members that patrol territories you hold. Professor Genki ‘game show’ challenges test your skill with weapons as you fight through an obstacle course filled with guys dressed as dogs and beer bottles trying to kill you (think of Rage’s Mutant Bash TV only funnier).
Then there are gang wars to initiate, properties to buy, assassinations to complete, vehicles to steal and upgrade, tank rampages to go on, jets to fly, radio stations to customise and buildings to base jump from. All of this takes place in a city which is about the same size as that of Saints Row 2 but far more advanced when it comes to making it feel alive and teeming with people who are just as messed up as you are.
For example, I play as a female character (although I’ve changed my gender at the plastic surgeons more than once) and have been told by other women on the street more than once that if were in jail together I’d be on the receiving end of sexual acts I probably shouldn’t repeat here.
Character customisation is almost a game unto itself, allowing you to create avatars that range from the exquisitely cool to the fantastically dumb. Over the course of the game I’ve played as a superhero cheerleader in a fetching red and yellow outfit complete with face mask, an Italian-American Jersey Shore rip-off, a grotesquely overweight naked Latino woman with shiny metallic skin and purple hair and a suave business woman in a suit.
All of these looks (and many more) are achievable by visiting one of the numerous clothe stores and/or surgeons around the city. I spent at least 45 minutes making my initial character, it could have been more but I actually had to review the rest of this thing. If you were ever in doubt as to focus of The Third, both male and female characters have an attractiveness sliding in the creation menus – for men this equates to the size of their penis, for women the breasts.
Outside of the main game there’s ‘Whored Mode’, The Third’s wave-based Horde Mode imitator that replaces Lancers with dildos, Shotguns with dildos and body armour with dild… I mean gimp suits. Yes, you’re actually fighting whores. Whores with sniper rifles, zombie whores, rollerblading whores, giant whores and, of course, whores with dildos.
However, its individual elements are not perfect. The radio (especially the adverts and talk radio) is not as clever as that in Grand Theft Auto, gunplay is a little dodgy when faced with multiple opponents and, despite the quality of the dialogue, some of the voice acting could be better.
None of those issues prevent Saints Row The Third from being incredibly enjoyable, though. Viewed as either a work of satire or a work of sheer dumb, frat-boy humour it works and it works with a surprising degree of clarity and finesse.
Any game that lets you play as an obese woman with metallic skin, purple Mohawk, pink thong, no top and a love for streaking and slapping guys around the face with a giant purple dildo bat is okay in my book. If intelligence is cyclical then Saints Row The Third is so dumb that it’s smart.