Third time's the charm? Well, out of any number of words one may choose to describe Saints Row: The Third, "charming" would likely be at the bottom of the list. This third outing in the Saint's Row series seems to have taken a philosophical position of "anything goes" within its depraved, cartoony atmosphere, and even that proves to be somewhat of an understatement. Although ridiculously over-the-top in their own right, the first two titles seemed to take themselves a bit more seriously, especially in the attitudes and motivations of the main characters. This latest outing, however, makes it clear from the start that moral objectivism is the order of the day, and players should explore their dark sides for the sheer titillation of it. So while "charming" may not be an appropriate word, others such as depravity, turpitude, criminality, vulgarity, corruption and narcissism may do just fine.
The Saints Row series has always been compared to the Grand Theft Auto series, as its gameplay shares undeniable similarities with Rockstar Games' beloved titles. While some similarities are maintained in Saints Row: The Third, it can truly be said that Volition has taken the series in a different direction. Where GTA aims for a "close to reality" feel, SR3 aims at more of a "looney tunes" style and atmosphere. Right off of the title screen, players are thrust into an introductory bank-heist mission that will leave players breathless before the opening credits, much in the same way the opening of a James Bond film does. It is within this twenty-minute deluge of bullets, buildings, bombs and mayhem that it becomes plainly obvious the ride you have strapped yourself into is going to be a doozy. SR3 spends the rest of its approximately seventeen-hour campaign attempting to keep the same level of adrenaline flowing through your body. In some ways it succeeds, unless you're the type that will tire from it too quickly.
The main character is completely customizable by the player; to even begin to list the sheer number of options available would be futile. If a fat, transgendered character who wears animal suits is your preference, you can have at it. Or, play it simple and just be naked through the whole game. The Saints opening mission has moved them from their hometown of Stillwater into the bigger metropolis known as Steelport. This is seen by the gang as an "undiscovered country" ripe for the picking. Taking out any and all rival gangs in the area is the first order of business.
Graphically, SR3 is a bit of a mixed bag. The city is pretty to look at from the air (the airborne vehicles are handled beautifully here), but once you get to street level it doesn't contain much detail or life. Most of the time, you are completely aware that you are controlling a cartoon. There is plenty of environmental pop-in and repeating textures to make you grumble. Traffic appears on the road out of nowhere sometimes, and other times the streets feel positively abandoned. It's a bit silly when you're actually trying to blow something up only to find nothing available on the streets on which to carry out your dastardly deeds. Animations can be stiff and rhapsodic, and there are many places throughout the map where your character can actually get stuck. Falling into water is handled well, with the player given a choice to swim or warp to shore.
The in-game menu system has some elements from previous games (such as the 'wheel-o-weapons'), as well as a new cell-phone interface that seems chaotic at first, but becomes second nature after a while. The targeting system feels really loose and imprecise, with aiming becoming more difficult than it should be at times, and the overall character movement feels a bit sluggish and muddy. None of these flaws are major showstoppers, but take note that you will need to adjust to them.
The soundtrack is a nice mix for the setting, with licensed tracks in all the car radios. How the music and sound were mixed in the game may leave you a bit puzzled, however. Perhaps only those with high-class sound systems will notice, but it seems that some of the sound effects are overwhelming while others are completely muted or non-existent. Players may find themselves pausing the game and checking their gear at times, particularly due to the haphazard fashion in which the center channel of a 5.1 setup is handled. Saints Row 2 sounded much better, overall.
Saints Row: The Third does deliver what players are looking for when they purchase the title. It can be said that the developers poured over the game design and completely removed anything that would be considered boring or tedious, and replaced it with pure amoral mayhem. The side effect of this design is that character development takes a bit of a backseat to everything else, and, as a player, you may end up caring a lot less about these "foul-mouthed-because-I'm-supposed-to-be" two dimensional characters and, eventually, the game as a whole. What is more likely to happen, however, is that you will be too wrapped up in giggling like a schoolgirl as you drop a guided missile onto a crowd of people in the local city park.