Some time in the dark and dingy past, I played Grand Theft Auto‘s demo map to death, full as it was of crushable joggers and shootable cops, and always felt that the game’s reckless sense of style was great fun despite being a person who didn’t care about car-based videogames. A big crime sandbox, perhaps even the first big sandbox game, GTA grew older as I did, and when it had its awkward puberty into 3D, it also started trying to grow a mustache and act a lot more mature and serious than I could take it. I still remember back when it and I used to run around the park doing donuts in stolen taxicabs to spell out the word ‘boobs’ – I don’t care that you’ve got all this interest in the plight of immigrants and the poor underclass nowadays, man, you’re still the spoiled rich white kid who changed his name the second he got any money and demanded everyone call him ‘Rockstar.’
GTA was a game that defined itself by being pretty insane, and then spent the rest of its life trying to get away from those things that made it fun. There was a growing void in gaming for anyone who remembers back when you could get a score bonus for plowing down matching Hare Krishnas in amongst its Fuck Around With Cars simulation, rather than its attempts to be Godfather VI: Scarface II. Thus began the tale of Saints Row, the mutant parallel-universe GTA that responded to every one of GTA‘s pimple-popping efforts to be taken seriously with increasingly vulgar shirt slogans and an extra set of piercings, culminating in its looniest moments with Saints Row: The Third.
As a disclaimer, there’s a strong chance that this game, is, in fact, a complete pile of horse-shit and I’ll never realise it. I played it cooperatively with a friend over the course of about a week, and its level of manic weirdness was fuelled further by a pair of friends who are, to say the least abnormal people, goofing off and ascribing deep political significance to the commentary of the game, singing along with hiphop songs despite being the two whitest people in the world, and having serious discussions about how to emulate single-episode Adventure Time characters with the character creator. This game is a truly fantastic way to spend time with that friend, so in a way, I can recommend my friend to anyone who wants to enjoy her with the medium of Saints Row the Third, but I can’t say for sure that this recommendation is useful to anyone in particular.
Some games you can bust into two parts, the good and bad and set them down next to each other for the reader to determine their preference. It’s a lot harder with something like SR3, because we’re talking about a game who does a lot of bad things on purpose. Good reviewers shouldn’t complain about how the combat mechanics in Lone Survivor are bad, or how Limbo lacks for bright, colourful characters, so what fair mind could complain about SR3‘s parallel flaws? For a game that’s meant to realistically reflect a misogynistic subculture in both gaming and the real world, its misogyny is low-key, and tempered with some well-fleshed out, realistic (all things considered) female characters that contrast the culture they’re in. Shaundi goes through boys like tissue paper, but it’s never wallowed in and you don’t know who they are – she just discards them as easily as Zimos discards his female partners.
Another thing is the game may have little sense of progression, but it has a dizzying breadth. This game features time spent running around in Tron levels as an animated talking toilet, a luchador minigame, VTOL assassinations, a zombie apocalypse, plane chases, celebrity cameos and at least one plot point where you’re trying, somewhat haphazardly to bring a tiger to orgasm. In any other game I’d probably criticise these things for being disconnected and out of place, but since SR3 opens with what would be in almost any other videogame a climax, it excellently desensitise the player to the squalling of disbelief. It’s a game that jumps from climax to climax, and with all of its dials spun so high, you can never stop, pointing at what you’re doing and say Okay, but this is ridiculous. You started as the crown prince of loonytown. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Oddly, thanks to its M rating, SR3 is able to indulge something surprisingly meaningful, in that the characters get to swear in a way that feels realistic. In Batman: Arkham City, there was a pointed effort to keep the rating down below T despite playing a game about a crazy billionaire hunting a serial-killing clown, which means that the thugs all seem to use ‘bitch’ as the only swearword that exists. SR3 swears with its full throat, letting ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ fly around quite happily, which might not seem a big change, but it’s nice that the main word you hear isn’t a feminine perjorative.
SR3‘s character customisation available is one of the most expansive and creative I’ve ever seen, and it’s apparently less varied than the customisation of Saint’s Row 2, which makes it a great way for a certain type of player to vanish into a rabbit hole for hours while I walk away from the computer to go and have a snack after dressing my character in an outfit so dull I’m reasonably concerned that I may have committed a hate crime against the very idea of fun. When presented with a million options for how to dress a character onto whom I’m going to project while running around a city full of Tron-style hackers, warrior Luchadors and Vampire-themed gangsters, I somehow feel I get to stand out and be the best expression of myself by running around in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and even just saying that sounds like a complete cop-out.
The company that makes SR3 is sadly the enormously-troubled THQ Development, whose financial woes have led to the game being priced at a bargain basement value, with all of its DLC whenever Steam has a sale. The DLC has a sad effect on the game in that in a game where you already start with some remarkable resources, it gives you even more – you start the game with katanas and motorbikes during the part of the game when you’re meant to be building up resources. On the other hand, I suppose the motorbike is a fine way to get yourself nearly-killed, which helps to add to the challenge. Hardly a dealbreaker, of course, since you can just choose to not pick it all up, yet you can’t deny that that decision itself indicates something wrong with the DLC.
Now that I’ve thrown around all that sort of praise, I owe it to myself to quickly point out that:
- The faster cars just don’t handle well and seem to be made out of twine, leading to frustrating experiences hopping from car to car before you get the upgrades that make those cars tough enough to fling around the scenery like Tonka toys.
- Even though it has some great moments countermanding it, it’s still a gangsta-culture game that’s happy to throw abuse at women.
- Some of the mini-game sidequest malarkey seems pretty unnecessary.
- Character upgrades start out too small to notice, become noticeable almost at the end of the game, then leap through the ceiling in power level when you’re more or less almost done, including things like immunity to falling, fire, and bullets.
- Some of the challenges can feel a bit luck-based, meaning a streak of bad luck leaves you feeling frustrated.
- There’s no way to communicate with your co-op partner beyond microphone-based chat, which is for some an unpleasant experience.
- There’s no Marshal Lee shirt. :|
SR3 takes things that I normally hate, Gangsta Culture and triple-A sandbox games and successfully merges them into something that I don’t just like but love. It’s off-the-rails whacky, and while some have said it’s a bit too far, I cannot fault a game that made me laugh so hard, so consistantly. The laughter isn’t just repeating the same joke, either, it’s shifting gears and showing things of varying levels of ridiculousness, and while I’m in the mood to giggle, swings out at me with something surprisingly serious – not sobering enough to break the mood, just something serious that, thanks to its contrast is itself a source of humour. It’s a matter of artful contrasts – some games will contrast moments of weakness with moments of strength, while SR3 contrasts its moments of ridiculous over-the-topness with unnecessary but welcome moments of character insight. It’s like you’re riding a really fun rollercoaster with blaring music and enjoying the experience as having no substance and then find mixed into the soundtrack is some really good Bowie or Eagles*. It’s a remarkably well-constructed piece of lunacy, and you should grab it if you’ve any interest in its genres.
* If you’re more musically inclined than me, choose your own pretentious rock group to go here, seriously.