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Saint's Row 3 Review

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By Zak Wojnar

The 3rd Street Saints are back, and they are no longer a petty street gang. They are international celebrities with licensed energy drinks and their own clothing line. They also have new enemies, a new city, and a new art style. After being defined as a Grand Theft Auto clone since its inception, does Volition's Saint's Row: The Third manage to break out and stand on its own? Also, do the words, "The Third" make sense as a subtitle? Yes to the first, no to the second.

The first thing fans of the series will notice is how much lighter the tone is than from Saint's Row 2. Sure, the player character, the unnamed leader of the gang, is still a sociopathic mass-murderer, but the cutscenes and scenarios almost always err on the side of comedy rather than gritty drama; when they do get serious, it's always surprising, shocking, and effective, if somewhat out-of-place, causing the player to suffer from a severe case of mood whiplash.

After blasting way through the opening mission, a bank heist gone wrong, you create a highly customizable male, female, zombie, black, white, silver, or gold character, and find yourself in conflict with The Syndicate, who wants a cut of your action. After having words with them, shooting up their plane, and losing one of your most trusted lieutenants, you set up shop in Steelport and vow to take down The Syndicate, at any cost. The Syndicate is comprised of three gangs: the stoic, leather-clad Morningstar; The Luchadores, a gang of masked wrestlers, and; The Deckers, cyberpunk, err, punks who borrow their aesthetic from Tron, and would rather engage you in VR combat than in a fist-fight.

Saint's Row seperates itself from Grand Theft Auto with its emphasis on absurd comedy, and The Third takes this to its illogical extreme, with bizarre characters (Oleg, the Russian giant), insane weapons (The Penetrator, a giant purple phallus, complete with veins) and impossibly crazy setpieces being played for laughs (I won't spoil any of these, you'll just have to see for yourself!). Occassionally, it winds up being a bit too juvenile for it's own good, and a lot of the jokes will appeal more to teen males than to anyone with any higher brain activity, but it manages to never fall back on its vulgarity as a crutch, and manages to usually be genuinely funny. Usually. Regarding cutscenes, The Third doesn't seem to have as many as Saint's Row 2. Perhaps this is due to the more streamlined approach to the narrative, but it is somewhat disappointing; after spending a lot of time and virtual money to make my character look like a fusion between a cowboy and a pirate, I want to see him perform crazy stunts during cutscenes. Saint's Row 2 excelled in this area, featuring big gunfights, swordfights, and other crazy acts. Here, most consist of mere exposition, and a great many cutscenes don't even feature your character, but focus on the Syndicate and their power-struggle. Not that they aren't compelling or well-written; I'd just much rather see my avatar get into tightly choreographed gunfights than talk about plans, but I digress.

While The Third seems to run on the same tech as Saint's Row 2, the presentation is improved in every way. The draw distances are further, the framerate is faster, everything is more detailed, and the sensation of speed when driving a fast car is more visceral. The biggest improvement, however, is the art sytle. Characters have exaggerated features, big anime-esque eyes, and just pop off the screen, especially compared to the somewhat desaturated colors and low-res textures of many parts of the city. There still are not enough tunes to listen to on the in-game radio, especially when compared to GTA, but the song selection is still pretty solid, and the Adult Swim radio host is just hilarious. Even better, certain moments in the game spring upon the player a licensed song to add drama and excitement to a scene, culminating in the single greatest use of Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out For A Hero" I've ever heard.

Driving is still floaty and not as precise as Grand Theft Auto IV, but it is much improved from Saint's Row 2. However, due to the remapping of the buttons, shooting while driving is a bit more difficult, which may take some getting used to. On the other hand, the on foot controls are the best in the genre. Instead of cowering behind cover and scavenging for health kits like GTA IV's Niko Belic, Saint's Row: The Third encourages running into a firefight, guns blazing. Tight, FPS-style controls with a third-person viewpoint (i.e. Max Payne) allow for fast, explosive firefights, punctuated with exaggerated ragdoll physics. Yeah, it's awesome. Speaking of awesome, holding the sprint button while performing an action leads to performing an 'energetic' version of said action. For example, one may open a car door, punch the driver, pull them out, take their place and drive off; or, while sprinting, just jump straight through the windshield, kick them out, and drive, all in one motion. Sprinting also allows the player to engage in on-the-go takedowns, taking hostages, and performing evasive dives, and adds a lot of extra flavor, making sure you remember that Saint's Row: The Third is different. Further, The Third offers the best economy in the genre. Completing missions, side-activities, diversions, and just causing chaos rewards your character with cash and Respect. Respect is used to level up your character, but leveling up only unlocks the ability to purchase upgrades, which are perfectly priced; for the entire 20-25 hour playtime, you'll be making tons of money, but engaging the economy, buying weapon upgrades, character upgrades, and buying properties scattered throughout the map, which increase your daily income. It's not as deep as Skyrim, but there is a strong feeling of genuine growth as the game progresses, and your money is working hard, not just sitting there, mocking your meager real-life income.

There is a variant on the budding genre staple, Horde Mode, only this time, it's groan-inducingly referred to as "Whored Mode". Classy, no? While the enemy types vary greatly, the conditions of each round don't, and, after a few minutes, you will have seen everything this mode has to offer. On the other hand, the entire campaign is playable in two-player co-op mode, which can be a blast, especially since the side missions and diversions are altered to challenge two players. Unfortunately, it's online-only; no split-screen carjackings here.

Between its gonzo sense of humor, varied and awesome weaponry, customization options, and tight control, Saint's Row: The Third is a highly enjoyable exercise in audacity. It's a guilty pleasure with enough substance to elevate it to triple-A status, and its surprising depth should keep the disk spinning in your console for quite some time.

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