The Saints Row series began in 2006 as a minor imitator of franchise goliath Grand Theft Auto, whose own next-gen offering Grand Theft Auto IV wouldn’t hit for two years. Competent but buggy, it filled the void of open-world games with a nicely detailed setting and enjoyable gameplay, arguably more fine-tuned than the previous Rockstar GTA offerings, especially in regards to its controls. But the series didn’t come into its own until the 2008 release of its sequel, Saints Row 2, competing directly with GTA IV, but taking an entirely different approach: While Rockstar attempted a profound, affecting narrative with harsh moral dilemmas set in a fully realized open-world city, Violition’s sequel took the baton from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and was completely, mind-blowingly, hilariously, awesomely ridiculous. Dispensing with any notion of seriousness, SR 2 embraced the juvenile and destructive nature of popular crime-based open-world games, offering an immense and detailed sandbox city to take over, destroy, and literally shit over, simultaneously parodying the ridiculous stereotype of “gangstas” in the most excessive and exaggerated way possible.
Where the original game’s 3rd Street Saints—the gang that comprises the series’s protagonists—were fairly mundane and generally offensive black gangbanger stereotypes, the sequel’s gang transforms into whatever extreme the player chooses (for example, ninjas with missile launchers in monster trucks). An amazingly diverse character creator allowed the player to customize the protagonist into some kind of creature barely resembling a human before diving into the insane, irresponsible gameplay: In any single session of SR 2, one could streak through populated streets, dive into traffic, shoot raw sewage over citizens and their houses, crash planes into cars, and find an enormous hidden part-cat-part-rabbit that lived under the sea. And it was wonderful. While GTA IV struggled with depth and consequence in a narrative that clashed with shallow consequence-free gameplay (it’s hard to sympathize with Niko Bellic over a deceased relative after gunning down legions of innocent police officers), SR 2 succeeded by embracing destruction and immaturity, dispensing with the weight of actions in the same way that popular modern archetypes of gangs and rappers dispense with morality and consequences. The puerile notion that greed and respect should be one’s driving force alongside a heaping of ingenious, imaginative tools of destruction made the game a joy to play and, with the addition of a wonderfully executed co-op mode, one of the highlights of this console generation.
Enter Saints Row: The Third, the natural evolution of the franchise and an honest Game of the Year contender. It’s been some years since the last adventure and the Saints are now celebrities in the Curtis Jackson mold, complete with billboards, merchandising, and energy drinks. When we join them, they’re robbing a bank disguised as themselves, alongside an actor to play them in an upcoming film who accidentally sets off an alarm as they airlift the vault out of the building. This leads to a violent confrontation with the police (“Please autograph and put down your weapons! Turn yourselves in—my son wants to meet you!”), resulting in lots of bloody death and their incarceration. Bailed out by an international crime organization called the Syndicate, a meeting with the leader on his private jet leads to a gunfight ejecting the Saints from the back of the plane alongside debris and other gang members for an insane midair battle hurtling toward the ground—all of which is interactive and playable. The Saints soon find that the Syndicate has declared war upon them and, using several opposing gangs (including a group of Mexican Luchadore wrestlers and a gang of Tron-adorned hacktivists, of course) wishes to eradicate them and their infamy in the sister city of Steelport. So absurd and over the top is the beginning that one can’t imagine it getting more ridiculous or hilarious, but it does. Oh, how it does.
The game is a wonderful exercise in intelligent, juvenile excess. The ridiculous gangbanger characters here don’t do drive-by shootings; they drive jets into each other. The wafer-thin story is merely an excuse to take part in the kind of bizarre, over the top, and hilarious scenarios that you would never encounter in any other game. The character creator is back and better than ever—so good that it was available before the game’s release, allowing hyped players to create characters for the final game ahead of time. The customizability of appearance as well as actions and voices (a new “zombie” voice is absolutely hilarious, substituting dialogue for undead groans and gurgling, which other characters don’t seem to notice) is arguably the best ever made in a video game. Without too much effort, I was able to make a character who looked recognizably like myself, before opting for my usual obese-transgender-thing in tighty whities and stripper heels complete with a pink rabbit mask and a high-pitched woman’s voice. Every cutscene is rendered in game using your created character, and it’s hilarious. My bizarre design is not an outlier; the game actively invites you to mess with it, and not just cosmetically. Early in the campaign you acquire the UAV popularized in the Modern Warfare series and it entirely breaks the game, allowing you to blow up opposing gangs instantly from the sky. Not to mention the hilarious preorder bonus, the Professor Genki Hyper-Ordinary Pack, that gives you a car that shoots humans into the sky and a bazooka that fires mind-controlling octopi. Such empowerment is immensely ridiculous and incredibly fun, and the game frequently rewards you with more for completing missions and events. By the end of the glorious 12-hour campaign you’ll have gang members delivering you fighter jets and tanks, and life is good.
Arguably the only real flaw with SR2, the forced activities between missions, have been organically integrated into the main campaign here, giving the player the opportunity to sample each as part of the story, then return to any they want at any time. And you’ll want to, as they’re as varied and fun as ever. You’ll want to tear down streets in tanks, drive atomic buggies over innocent civilians, commit insurance fraud by throwing yourself in front of passing cars, and drive angry zoo animals around the city. Although the game isn’t technically groundbreaking, the setting of Steelport looks fantastic, especially compared to Rockstar’s now aged engine for GTA IV. (PC players who suffered through the awful port of SR 2 will be pleased with the incredible performance of this game on the PC.) But beyond the technical specifications, the entire game is wonderfully alive with imagination and invention. The Third is smart enough to always go the next step; not just content with the requisite adventure to the sex shop, it has to push everything to the extreme.
Music has always been an important part of this game genre, and The Third sports not only the best video game soundtrack of 2011, but the best utilized. Not just restricted to the radio stations (which are awesome, by the way, with a diverse range that real radio stations lack), the game is orchestrated with different songs to magnificent effect. An early gag has your characters sing the entirety of Sublime’s “What I Got” in a car ride back to home base, and the unofficial theme of this year’s E3, Kanye West’s “Power,” turns up at exactly the right moment in the campaign. Not to mention the amazing soundtrack to the final insane mission of the game that I dare not spoil. The writing and voicework is excellent, complete with a bizarre cast of stars including Hulk Hogan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Sasha Grey, of course. The superb co-op mode returns, allowing players to join a friend to play the entire campaign, or just wreak havoc on the streets of Steelport. Taking note of the diminishing returns of competitive multiplayer in this genre, Violition instead offers the stupidly named Whored Mode, a rip on the popular Gears of War Horde Mode that has groups of players going to war with large quantities of armed hookers. But perhaps the best addition to this series entry, beyond the amazing campaign and inventive weapons and advanced melee combat, is a fantastic experience points system: The game tracks every single stat to earn “respect” and develop your character in a limited but compelling RPG system, allowing you to gain abilities that best suit how you want to play. The perks are great and extra incentive to do nearly anything in the world; the feeling of constantly being rewarded makes playing the game even better, and the money earned doing any activity in the game can be used to upgrade vehicles and weapons.
Accusations of sexism and racism typically leveled at games of this genre are neatly avoided by The Third and its over-the-top nature. In the opening, the game is largely racist against Belgians. Any created character can be any skin color, including red and purple. A prominent female character’s promiscuity is openly accepted whereas a sex party hosted by a prominent male character is actually a trap set by murderous hookers (Trojan Whores). Even missions involving prostitution and the slave trade are so batshit that they’re impossible to take seriously; consider, for example, defending a container of hookers being airlifted through the sky from evil wrestlers with a missile launcher while taking orders from a pimp whose every line of dialogue is inexplicably Auto-Tuned. Sasha Grey’s character has a neat monologue asserting herself as a real human being despite her previous employ in the sex trade—as if addressing recent events—and a clever dialogue exchange between two Moral Military antagonists suggests that even, or especially, those emphasizing heightened morality as virtue are just as fallible and prone to hedonism as everyone else. It’s incredibly smart, as well as being out of its mind. It’s the kind of experience that only this medium can offer, and as escapist fantasy it’s first rate. The nonstop lunacy is addictive, memorable, and incredibly fun; it’s consistently funny and you’ll want to keep playing to see what it will throw at you next. (Consider an incredible and violent wrestling storyline with references to “classic” moments in wrestling that few will get, or a great bizarre sequence in a Tron-style world that’s much more enjoyable than the Tron Legacy tie-in games or, arguably, either of the movies.) The Third is completely aware, completely insane, and completely committed to its unique brand of ridiculousness.