Full disclosure, I'm not a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. Oh sure, I've played each and every one of them and I fully realize that GTA 3 revolutionized gaming across most genres, finally showing the power of a truly open world environment. But when it comes down to it, there just isn't much meat there to make things memorable. And while subsequent GTAs have tried (and in my opinion, failed) to go deeper and darker, Saint's Row and developer Volition have gone the other direction: over-the-top and zany. And luckily for Saint's Row fans, the third entry in the series is the most ludicrous yet.
Saint's Row: The Third picks up some time after the second game. It's now the near-future and the player's gang has gone from some washed up has-beens to a worldwide super media empire. Your player, Johnny Gat, Shaundi and Pierce are the most famous people on Earth and practically own the entire town of Stillwater. But during the opening bank heist, everything goes south and after a few amazingly preposterous scenes (shooting down an entire air-wing of attack choppers while riding on top of an air-winched bank vault), you find yourself gang-less on the streets of a new city, Steelport.
Everything remains largely the same as the last game. Your objective is to take over the city, one mission and city block at a time, all while battling the police and the other three gangs that were there before you arrived. Any fan of the series is going to find the same enjoyment in this entry that they found in the last, as they are both largely the same game. The devil is in the details, however, and despite the graphics upgrade and the amp-up of insane set pieces, most of the smaller changes are actually negatives.
The major problem with the game is also the most intangible. But before I get into that, let me first say that I commend Volition for putting the game in the future. It was a slick move that allowed for the vehicles to look new and different, but it's not such a distant future that everything looks alien. The buildings remain largely familiar but the guns, cars and costumes are all slightly (or sometimes overly) cyber-punk. However, and this a key point for any sci/fi or fictional universe, the more you move your setting away from the familiar, the less relatable it becomes. Thus, to counterbalance that, some things need to remain the same in order to provide continuity. Unfortunately, Volition went the other direction with this.
For some odd reason, Shaundi has an entirely new look (I'm not talking a haircut, I'm talking a new body and face) and a completely different personality, as she used to be a slutty pothead and now she's some Angelina Jolie-esque super anti-hero, complete with an entirely new voice actress. Likewise, Pierce looks and talks differently too. Gat is the only character that remains largely unchanged, and he's gone for most of the game. And since the Saints own all of Stillwater, the player has to get acquainted with a new city, to boot. This last bit wouldn't be so bad if the game tried at all to give Steelport some personality or flair. But aside from a Times Square-style landmark, it has nothing unique going for it. Gone are Stillwater's college campus, residential suburbs and inner-city slums. Steelport is just an uneven mishmash of industrial, commercial and residential that leaves no lasting impression. At a glance I would know exactly where I was in Stillwater at any given moment. In Steelport, I'm always lost.
None of this would be so bad if they were rebooting the franchise, whereby the setting and timeframe stayed the same, but the characters were brand new. But the opposite is true here: the setting and timeframe are very different and extremely wacky, with giant naked mutant clone hulks rampaging through the streets and Mexican wrestlers using flamethrowers and rapid-fire grenade launchers. In that kind of urban Wonderland, the only thing that can keep the player grounded and invested in the story and world are familiar characters.
On a more positive note, the key feature of Saint's Row, which helps it stand out from GTA and its clones, is customization and boy is there a lot of it. Not only do you choose how your character looks and sounds in the beginning of the game, you also get to deck out your cars, guns and even your gang to your liking. Costumes and outfits are plentiful and you get to choose from seven voices for your character (three male, three female and one zombie!). Likewise, most cars have a bevy of body and color enhancements. I am a little surprised that there seems to be less car customizations than in the last game, especially since many of the cars look very similar. Making up for that, though, is the streamlined interface, more plentiful gang customizations and the ability to upgrade every gun you own. And they even look different when you add scopes and expanded magazines, which is always a huge plus.
Another welcome change from the previous game is the way in which your characters receive personal upgrades. Now, whenever "respect" and money are earned, a quick glance at your cell phone reveals tons and tons of gameplay upgrades like melee boosts, running stamina increases, dual wielding abilities, and even the skill of pick-pocketing. The cell phone interface is also extremely intuitive and speedy, as everything (maps, cash flow, respect meter, and even music) is only ever a click or two away. Volition clearly understood that hanging out in menus is a crappy waste of gamers' time and the faster you can get things done, the faster you can get back to high-speed chases and over-the-top gunfights.
Other than that, everything is the same as it ever was (I know I said that above, but it bears repeating). Co-op gameplay is still a good option for multiplayer and the addition of a survival mode (which each round containing some off-the-wall rule of how you must kill) is certainly a fun little diversion. On the whole though, I found Saint's Row: The Third to be a very hollow experience and would sooner recommend Saint's Row 2, even three years later. I get the impression that Volition was resting on their laurels a bit, as it never seemed as though the game was trying to keep me engaged, as if it was saying, "You have your sandbox, you have your guns and explosions and Tron cars and all the 'gangsta' references you can handle...what more do you want?" I wanted something memorable.