There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about beating someone unconscious with an over-sized sex toy, but don’t think for a minute that these moments of slapstick juvenilia – so warmly embraced by a few pockets of the gaming press, and cited a little too avidly by The Third’s own creators – are representative of the entire package. Saints Row: The Third has clearly taken great pleasure in nurturing its own marquee status as a guilty pleasure ever since it was first announced, but there’s nothing guilty about deriving pleasure from a character as well conceived as Zimos. Zimos is Steelport’s oldest pimp, and he’s forced to speak via an electronic voice box in the wake of a laryngotomy. Ever the swaggering playboy, he subsequently had the voice box fitted with a vocoder, and now his voice is perpetually auto-tuned.
Having one of your lead characters sound like a bad pop song is a joke that frankly doesn’t get old, but it’s flanked by some genuinely rock-solid writing. Saints Row: The Third’s plot isn’t complicated, but it’s unpredictable and snakes around with real panache, and features more than a few clever movie pastiches of which Quentin Tarantino himself would be proud. Sandbox games don’t tend to be naturally cinematic, but Volition intermittently stir in the kind of rousing action set pieces that Naughty Dog has cemented its name with. They only appear during the story’s biggest beats – like when you’re being flung around on top of an airborne portacabin in the aftermath of a botched bank heist – but they’re all thunderously effective without exception.
Pop music is used brilliantly throughout too, and it highlights the difference between skydiving into a penthouse pool party in order to raise hell, and doing exactly the same thing whilst the whole incident is soundtracked by the Kanye West hit “Power”. For all of the brilliant side quests on offer in Saints Row: The Third, moments like these are very likely to inspire you to race through the campaign much faster than you may have expected to: especially because now, you’re no longer forced to partake in the game’s digressions in order to progress. Side missions are a piece of the sandbox puzzle that Saints Row has always done better than most of its competitors, and along with the likes of Tank Mayhem – which more than lives up to its title, trust us – Professor’s Genki’s new score-attack challenges represent one of the best new additions to the gameplay formula.
They’ve clearly been inspired by Bizarre’s brilliant cult shooter The Club, and elements from these areas also bleed over into the main game. Maintaining a killstreak multiplier throughout gunfights has now become a great way of earning yourself some extra respect, and Criterion’s Burnout series has even been pilfered so that you can earn brownie points by driving like a lunatic. Earning respect in Saints Row: The Third plays a much bigger part here than it did in either of its two predecessors, and directly or indirectly it all helps you to unlock and upgrade absolutely everything in Steelport. This obviously extends to vehicles and weapons, and Volition never allow the narrative to discourage you from taking a few minutes out in order to treat their city as they’ve always intended it to be treated; as a wreckful playground.
There are a couple of small moments where the sheen rubs off. Pop-up is a surprisingly prevalent problem throughout the city, but whilst this never really damages the core experience, if you’re a fan of the returning ‘Insurance Fraud’ mini-game, trying to square up with oncoming traffic to maximise your multiplier often descends into an irritating game of chance. The city itself can also appear strangely barren when you’re wandering around it on foot, which is something that, obviously, you won’t have to do very often. But if you’re searching for faults, that’s about it. Incidentally, the online co-op mode works absolutely flawlessly, and Volition continue to have the best possible attitude towards co-operative play; you can work together, but only if you really want to.
The first Saints Row game was always a bit underrated, and everybody chose to look away when GTA 4 sneakily poached a few of its neatest tricks. Saints Row 2 was a deserved cult classic, but its take-no-prisoners approach and sour callousness were offset by a multitude of detrimental glitches. Some of those bugs were just funny (and Youtube is packed with amusing examples) but its predecessor was so polished and slick that it seemed like a bit of last-gen hatchet job. Saints Row: The Third is a compelling mixture of its two forebears; glossy as all hell but with its barbarous sense of humour constantly nailed to the foreground. Even though this is every inch the blockbuster franchise sequel, it feels like one of a kind. Almost everything about it is ridiculous, but almost everything about it is also intravenously satisfying.
Saints Row: The Third is available now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.
Watch the Saints Row: The Third launch trailer below: