Like I said, Saints Row The Third is really great, but not perfect. So let’s talk about the bad parts, the odd parts, and the stuff that was left out. I had originally titled this series “Saints Row Nitpicks”, but as I wrote it grew from an enumeration of shortcomings to a more general discussion of the game and the genre it inhabits.
For the record, I didn’t play the first Saints Row game. I know nothing about it, except that it was notoriously buggy. For me the series began at Saints Row 2. I’ve played through the third installment once now, and I’m currently working on a semi-completionist second run.
You may notice that the player character is different in some of these screenshots. I tend to re-invent my character every couple of hours, changing my gender, race, voice, outfit, etc. (You can change all of this at any time. The character builder is just another store in the game. Going from a tiny female waif to a burly bearded muscleman is no different than buying a new shirt.) It’s a bit schizophrenic, but I like hearing all the different versions of the main character’s voice. And if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll admit that I enjoy playing dress-up with my avatar.
A final warning: Spoilers ahead. I mean, this game is really, really obvious and I sort of balk at the notion that any of this could spoil the game for you, but I understand it’s considered rude not to give fair warning.
I really think the story is better in Saints Row 3. In the previous thread on this game The Hokey Pokey explained why:
The most important thing, in mind, is that the story missions aren't insulting in SR3. In SR2 you are be captured by two unarmed men, even though you have seven guns with infinite ammo. You give speeches all game about “owning this city” and being a super hard gangster type, but suddenly you care about fair fights and honor long enough to be forced into a terrible sword fighting mini game. After you win said fight without taking damage, the following cutscene shows that you actually lost and were foolish to think you could succeed. One mission forces you to drive your ultra fast, incredibly tough sports car in the opposite direction of your destination so you can take a slow and fragile jet ski around the long way. SR3 is a lot less idiotic. The one time you get captured, it is by overwhelming force. You never kill anyone only for them to get up an run away in a cutscene. It is just better.
There is a really, really annoying exception to this. At one point in the game you’re obliged to spare an enemy you should obviously kill, and that comes back to bite you right away. It’s really annoying. But aside from that moment, the game does a lot less cheating this time around. The bank heist in the tutorial should be required viewing for any game designer who wants to make a story mission that ends in failure. It didn’t feel cheap. It didn’t feel like the writer stole my victory by fiat. It felt like Things Went Very Wrong on our mission, and we had to make the best of a bad situation.
However, the story here is not perfect and it really stumbles at a few key points.
The Zimos missions are just stupid. Their stupidity is never lampshaded, which means the writer was either asleep at the keyboard or they thought the audience wouldn’t notice. Zimos says that before he can help you against the syndicate, he needs help rebuilding his pimping empire, even though he seems to have a lot of girls already. Then after several missions where you do all the work and he does all the nothing, he asks for a favor. When you object he says, “Hey, haven’t I been helping you out?” And your character inexplicably agrees.
Your final Zimos mission is the only one that even remotely advances your goals. You steal a bunch of sex slaves from the Syndicate’s cargo ship and bring them back so that they can be hos for Zimos. In return, he will give you a cut of the proceeds from the prostitution franchise you just got done building. Aside from the uncomfortable implication that I might be enslaving women (the game doesn’t really discuss the mechanics of how Zimos runs his operation, although it does seem like his girls are with him of their own free will) it’s not at all clear why I needed Zimos at all. He had nothing to offer the Saints.
(And yes, I realize it’s goofy for me to be uncomfortable with the idea of slavery after I just murdered twenty people and blew up eight cars in a pique of road rage. These games are like that for me sometimes.)
Then at the end of the mission you can actually sell the girls back to the Syndicate for a lump sum of money. I never took that option, but it seems like it would screw Zimos at the expense of rendering his entire questline pointless.
The second act of the game suffers from a lot of this, where you seem to be doing missions for no reason. You’ve gotten your revenge, you own a lot of the city, and the things you’re doing don’t seem to be advancing your goals against the Syndicate. It makes the middle of the game sort of muddled and I often found myself rampaging across the city blowing things up at random, because if I’m going to engage in pointless unproductive violence it might as well be on my own terms.
I don’t think any of these urban playground games have really gotten it right on tone. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Saints Row 2 have come the closest, but these more recent games seem to be missing the point.
What the player wants:
For the sake of illustration, let’s say that players want a mission to vandalize a poster of the mayor. Ideally, the mayor should be the personification of the kind of smug arrogance and cheap platitudes that drives people crazy. The player wants to be able to go in and draw a little Hitler mustache on his campaign poster. Maybe blacken out some of his teeth.
Yes, it’s a little bit childish, but humor me. Here is that same hypothetical mission as it would appear in the last couple of urban sandbox games…
What Grand Theft Auto IV gives you:
Niko meets Trixie, one of the women in the mayor’s harem of battered junkie prostitutes. She’s got a fat lip and is wearing sunglasses to hide the black eye he gave her last night. But that’s not why she wants Niko’s help. No. You see, last week the mayor slipped her some date rape drug at a party, and while she was passed out she missed the season finale of her favorite reality TV show. She wants Niko to get revenge for her.
Of course, she doesn’t want Niko to hurt her meal ticket, so she asks him to go downtown, find the volunteers putting up campaign posters for the mayor, and gun them down in the street. Niko accepts because Niko always does what people ask him to do in cutscenes. After the murders, Niko sits down with Roman and talks about how the American Dream is a lie and only fools believe in it.
And then everyone praises the game for its incisive social commentary.
What Saints Row The Third gives you:
Pierce calls you up and says the mayor doesn’t want the job anymore, but the people keep re-electing him anyway. The mayor is a circus clown named Mr. Bongo. Desperate to get out of being mayor, he’s willing to pay you $500 for every poster of his that you can find and deface. And if you can find them all he’ll give you the Bongo Boots, a pair of big floppy clown shoes that can punt cars into the air and explode your foes in a single kick.
The point is…
Yes, I’m exaggerating a bit here, but this is how the two games drift away from the ideal I have in mind. See, I want to be the crazy person while the entire gameworld plays the part of the straight man. I want a world of over-serious self-important jerks to blow up, set on fire, deface, rob, and suplex. I don’t want to make fun of the clown. I want to be the clown.
I don’t want to be Tony Soprano, running amok in Gotham City. I want to be the Joker, invading Tony Soprano’s New Jersey.
By design, the world of GTA IV is too vile for this sort of subversive mischief. Saints Row The Third gets it backwards by making the world zany and encouraging the player to be the straight man.
Having said that, I still prefer the Saints Row way of doing things. At least those boots would be good for a few laughs.
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