Developer: Volition, Inc.
Release Date: 11/15/2011
Platform Reviewed: PC
System Specs: Core i7 920 @ 2.8ghz
EVGA GTX570 2GB RAM
1TB Raptor HDD
Played with Controller or Mouse and Keyboard? Mouse and Keyboard
Difficulty(ies) Played: Normal; Hardcore
Time Played: Over 45 hours.
Concept and Execution:
Shortly before Saints Row: The Third (SR3) was released, developer Volition opted to release a multi-platform demo for free download. It was called Initiation Station, and provided players with a robust character creation tool. Which was it. There was no gameplay in the demo, but Volition played not only to the strength of the series, but to the core of the entire “sandbox” genre of games with it: do what you want to, even if it doesn’t make sense.
The premise of such a concept sounds rather simple in execution: ignore logic for the purity of entertainment. However, in practice, it isn’t as simple to assume that a player will never attempt to question the logic of a narrative or gameplay system as a natural process while playing a sandbox game. SR3′s ability to suspend disbelief lies in the fact that the player won’t care that a lot of the game has no logic attached to it whatsoever, simply because it’s fun. There’s no reason to ponder the qualities of verisimilitude while playing, because it actively bucks against the entire concept of realism. The player will not ask Why?, but rather, Why not?
This is the reason why Saints Row stands out against its contemporaries, most notably the industry-leading Grand Theft Auto franchise which lends itself to more realism with every subsequent release. Saints Row makes no attempt at realism, instead shooting for the lofty goal of absurdism, and this is displayed by many facets of the gameplay and the narrative.
The narrative revolves around the player fighting a humorless military regime and rival gangs, and also going on missions to regain the respect a street gang requires while fighting the stigma of being “sell-out” popular figures. The main goal the player gets through the narrative is reflective of the game’s development itself, which is to bring chaos back to the street-level of gang fighting and crime in a city that has become complacent, boring, and stagnant. Much like the sandbox genre.
The game begins with a scrolling-text Star Wars parody, segues into a satire in the form of a commercial for a “Saints Flow” energy drink, and then transitions into a bank heist celebrating the gang’s status as pop culture icons, including autograph signing and a familiar method actor tagging along to do research. The narrative of the game pokes fun at the cult of personality and video game tropes at nearly every turn, in layered metafictional sub-texts, including turning your character into a toilet and then a blow-up doll in a Tron-inspired digital environment, before moving to the character, still in the digital environment, forcibly playing a text-based game which will be remembered for the rest of my days gaming. The toilet and blow-up doll costumes alone arguably make a potent statement about the nature of roleplaying in video games, especially considering their context.
The appearances of the main character within the game changes in significant ways that would warrant an essay in its own right, proving that Volition knows how to engage absurdism in an open world to a degree that is quite thrilling to the observant player, although in the interest of avoiding spoilers, they will not be referenced in this review.
Concept and Execution Grade: 23/25 (A-)
The game on PC, being a port, doesn’t feel cheap or half-baked. The interface is usable, the controls on default make sense (and can be re-bound), and there is no issue with mouse acceleration as is common to PC ports. Using a mouse and keyboard feels natural, and not a detriment when a USB controller is available. SR3 is in a genre heavily dependent upon the CPU, whereas most other games rely more on the GPU, but it performs (in a technical sense) much better than other sandbox games like Mafia II or Grand Theft Auto IV. Glitches are minimal, but when there are visual bugs, the player may wonder whether or not they were intentional in a game so heavily-laden with satire and absurdist elements.
Combat is simple but appealing, as it is a third-person shooter at heart that doesn’t rely on a cover system. Health is automatically regenerated when the player spends a short amount of time without taking damage (and all character stats and systems can be upgraded through a currency-based menu in the in-game cell phone). The enjoyment of the game is not so much in how you are shooting people, but what you are shooting them with, which enhances a rather simplistic combat system.
Obnoxious tutorial elements are minimal, which is likely by design, as it encourages the player to choose how they want to play and achieve their goals, and also what goals they make for themselves. There are challenges that can be tackled through the achievement system, but for the most part, Volition makes no egotistic move towards forcing the player into any specific playstyle. There are visual and audio cues to help for navigation and combat feedback, but they are logical and don’t disrupt gameplay.
The game mechanics in SR3 is where the largest departure from previous entries will make itself apparent. The previous games had more activities to take part in, there were more customization options, more vehicles, more weapons, and simply put, more of everything. The paring down came with higher quality of each element, but whether the risk pays off is a matter of contention.
For a game so heavily reliant on variety to allow the player to do whatever they want, the downsides begin with the lack of variety of weapons. Most of the items in the game, which are separated into a few different categories, can be upgraded. While some items have meaningful upgrades (like the flash bang grenade which is eventually turned into a stink bomb that will make the targets vomit), others don’t feel distinct or different enough from their counterparts and a clear victor in terms of efficiency will emerge. Weapon choice, then, for the discriminating player, becomes rather illusory.
This lack of variety (not counting paid downloadable content or collector’s edition material) begins to extend to the other gameplay systems, including customization and vehicle combat. While the systems are done in a more polished and refined manner than previous entries, a bit more would have been nice.
The player gains levels by earning respect (as opposed to experience). Levels unlock purchasable upgrades that apply to the player character, and also to his or her (or its) gang. With the best upgrades, the game ceases to be challenging. Upgrades later in the game include immunity to being ragdolled by the physics system, fire damage, explosive damage, bullet damage, falling damage, very fast health regeneration, and unlimited ammo. These upgrades are very expensive and take time to unlock, however, and while optional they do allow the player to do more in the game that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, like jump off the top of the highest skyscraper in the building and survive unscathed, or out-and-out melee combat without needing to break the action to hide for cover.
Mechanics Grade: 19/25 (C)
Overall, playing SR3 is like being in a madman’s carnival which is celebrating the ridiculous nature of gaming and popular culture, complete with events and minigames that are shocking not because they are vulgar or disgusting, as much as they are shocking simply because they are unexpected.
The art style pulls away from some of the visual realism of the previous titles, and the lack of realism allows designers to draw on an array of representations, spanning the history of gaming. Most striking is an instance where the character is equipped with twin machine guns that shoot eight-bit “pixels” with accompanying sound effects. Put upon a backdrop of realism, these items and vehicles would’ve seemed gaudy, whereas with a slight tweak towards a more characteristic visual tone, they stand out not because they don’t “look right”, but because they are fun, different, and sometimes just plain weird.
The most common complaint about audio in video games is repetition, and SR3 is not an exception to that. The repetition comes mainly from the audio cues the player gets during gameplay, and many of them are extraneous and don’t add much to the game. As in the other two Saints Row games, the player may choose a radio station while in a vehicle, and they may also compile their favorite songs into a custom radio station (mix tape). However, the song variety, while decent, is not very big. An option to let the players choose songs from their hard drive would have been much appreciated, and as audio can add a lot to a scene in SR3 (like flying a helicopter while listening to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries as opposed to a hip-hop or rock song), this option would have enabled much deeper immersion into a player’s experience. The weapons and vehicles sound fitting enough, and each separate audio channel (speech, sound effects, music, etc.) run at a normalized volume level, but nothing stands out about them. The voice acting runs the gamut from average to excellent, most notably featuring the choice to give your character the voice of Jennifer Hale, a renowned voice acting veteran of many games, or even the choice to have your character mumble in the manner of an asexual zombie.
Volition was locked into a certain style of sound by necessity. An example of that would be a weapon that looks similar to Mega Man’s Buster Cannon, and it was presumably put in the game as homage to the 8-bit era of gaming. There’s only so many different variations of what that can conceivably sound like without detracting from the presentation of the homage. This conflicting nature extends to many of the game’s sounds, even though it contains the most disturbing audio representation of a human vomiting that I have ever heard. Clacking chunks is the best way I can describe it.
Outside of the game, Volition and THQ have implemented a web-based community to foster the atmosphere of creativity in the game, while also tracking your stats and achievements. A user can view and download the characters that others have made and uploaded which are wide in variety, such as eerily-accurate re-creations of Bruce Willis from Die Hard and Jason Statham from Any of His Movies, to comic book/gaming characters or characters which are just plain strange. While co-op is offered in the game, it was not tried by the reviewer, mainly due to the lack of participation from the playerbase.
Atmosphere: 20/25 (B-)
In a sense, a sandbox game can be considered an RPG (depending upon the individual criteria), and thus suffer from the “sameness” in objective variety that other games have. An RPG player will be familiar with the three basic types of objectives, normally referred to as fetch, escort, and kill quests. SR3 avoids a lot of the feeling of “sameness” not by changing the types of missions, but by introducing surprising elements or twists on convention to each. As an example, one mission involves the player escorting a live (and angry) tiger in the passenger seat of a convertible at high speeds through the city, the goal being to drive fast enough without slowing down to placate the tiger. While it is still an escort mission, it is different enough to not feel monotonous or boringly familiar.
SR3 also offers a “whored mode”, a pun on the popular horde mode in other games, which allows the player to fight against waves of variously-strange enemies including gigantic prostitutes wielding rocket launchers larger than the player, mascots viciously swinging phallic melee devices that would make a porn star blush, or mutated beastly humans and zombies. There are certain situations which are poorly designed in whored mode, like the artificial difficulty of letting the player be attacked before the match begins while they sit helplessly watching, which severely detracts from the potential and fun of the mode.
The reason a player will continue coming back to play the game, DLC notwithstanding, would be the raw ability to propagate mass chaos, and to view the inherently fun random that coincides with it. Sometimes a person will have a wildly strange dream, and they’ll try to tell their friends about it. Those stories are never very interesting, no matter how polite we are about them. However, if you know someone else who plays SR3, you’ll likely swap stories about the random, crazy things that happened to you in the game, and they’re actually fun to hear. This is usually not done in other types of games. You generally don’t walk up to a friend and say “I was playing Street Fighter, and I kicked this guy in the face”. What the game lacks in variety, it makes up for in the curiosity of seeing what can happen when you try something new, or when something new unexpectedly happens to you.
Entertainment Value: 21/25 (B)
Overall Score: 83/100 (B)