First published on 12 Dec 2011. Updated on 28 Jan 2012.
The first Saints Row game was, let’s be honest, a shameless rip off of the Grand Theft Auto franchise: a big open sandbox world, a plot that centred around gang life, with most of the best moments involving either gunning people down or hitting them with cars. It was fun, sure, but it was clearly the generic brand version of the popular title.
The second game was just as derivative, but it actually fixed a few of the GTA title’s more egregious annoyances – like being able to restart missions midway through rather than drive across town to the start point every single freakin’ time – and replaced the series’ increasing seriousness with big dumb explosions and references to boobs.
Now we have the third game, and the comparisons between it and Rockstar’s flagship title have never been greater. While the GTA games have become deeper, richer and more close to reality, Saints Row has gone the other way: flashy, shallow and deeply silly. It’s basically a parody of everything that South Australian Attorneys General fear about video games: extraordinary violence, glamourisation of criminal activity, sexual themes and drug references. And they’re all so over the top that the resulting game is gloriously absurd.
The Third Street Saints are on top of the pile at the beginning of the game, having gone from criminal gang to multinational corporation and media brand complete with chain stores, energy drinks and glassy-eyed fans who worship them like movie stars – to the point where the bored police assume that the bank heist that starts the game is a publicity stunt. With longtime gang leader Johnny Gat perishing in a plane crash shortly thereafter, it’s up to you to rebuild the Saints from the ground up – taking neighbourhoods back from upstart rival gangs, exacting a terrible revenge on those who wronged you (other gang leaders, the military, the government at large), and blowing up damn near everything in the process.
It’s absolutely ludicrous fun. The gradual weapon upgrades and increase in skills keeps things challenging but never impossible, and racing through the streets in a variety of stolen and modified cars is a delight in itself – made all the more exciting if there are police or gangs in hot pursuit. By the time you need to prove your courage by racing around the city with a full-grown Siberian tiger in the passenger seat, or to kill a suburb of zombies to placate Mayor Tom Sellick, you’ll be giggling at the gleeful idiocy of it all.
It’s not quite as activity-filled as GTA IV, but there’s plenty of things to do aside from the main storyline, from carrying out assassinations to deliberately getting hit by cars for insurance fraud. You can also fly helicopters and planes, and crash them both into things if you fancy it, harking back to one of the most delightfully fun elements of GTA: San Andreas that GTA IV disappointingly dropped.
It's not quite the game it could have been: it's a good deal boxier than you'd have guessed from the slick, smooth trailers, and THQ could have stood to make either more radio stations, or made those stations a bit more content heavy (you’ll be spending a lot of time in vehicles, and you’re going to hear Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ a hell of a lot), and there are occasional glitches where homies get trapped in walls or cars become jammed between invisible walls, but these are small complaints: for dumb, flashy fun you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game than Saints Row the Third.
Playstation 3, single player, $99.95