Kanye West's "Power" plays a central, recurring role in Volition's new open-world crime game Saints Row: The Third. The tune has been featured in the game's exhaustive promotional materials, plays regularly on its in-game radio stations, and makes bookending appearances in the single-player campaign. Considering the song's lyrics and the man who wrote them, Volition couldn't have chosen a more appropriate theme song.
No one man should have all that power
The clock's tickin' I just count the hours
Stop trippin' I'm tripping off the powder
Till then, fuck that, the world's ours
Is there a bigger egomaniac in the world than Kanye West? He is practically the embodiment of our cultural obsession with VIP-status, our fantasies of strength and chaotic destruction, of swaggering rage against a fucked-up world that just so happens to revolve entirely around us. And so Saints Row: The Third is a celebration of the player's ego and of his or her power—it's a joyous, wholehearted embrace of the "you" as it applies to video games. Who is the most important person in the world? You are! Who gets all the toys? You do! Indulge yourself, this game tells us. Stop tripping. The world's ours.
In Saints Row: The Third, players assume the role of the boss of the Third Street Saints, a notorious purple-clad gang of (surprisingly likable) psychopathic killers. The few surviving members of the Saints have blasted through two games and a sizable body count to arrive at the start of the third game, where they must relocate from the almost ironically generic city of Stillwater to the equally generic city of Steelport and claw to the top of yet another criminal empire.
By the time Saints Row: The Third's story begins, the Saints are no longer mere gangsters. They are super-criminal masterminds, amoral, invincible, and essentially unstoppable. This progression towards supervillain status has been happening for a while: Saints Row told an enjoyably soapy but grounded gangster tale, and Saints Row 2 upped the ante in terms of over-the-top antics. This was mainly in an effort to set itself apart from the juggernaut whose template it had stolen, Grand Theft Auto, and to a large extent it worked. Saints Row: The Third, then, is in many ways a full realization of the template set forth in Saints Row 2, often for the better and occasionally for the worse.
The narrative setup is as follows: The Saints have become the biggest celebrities in the world, with energy drinks and reality shows to their names. In other words, they've cashed in and have sucked up as much modern-day ego-fuel as any human being could. But they haven't exactly gone soft—the opening mission has them robbing a bank by attaching guywires to the ceiling of the a room-sized vault before explosively separating it from the building and flying away with the entire thing dangling beneath a helicopter. Skydiving gunfights follow shortly afterwards.
As for your character, he or she is whatever you want him or her to be. At the start of the game, players can choose a character of any ethnicity, sex, size, or shape, and even customize their character's voice from a list of seven options—three male, three female, and one Zombie. (Here's a video I put up earlier this week detailing the character customization options). Want to play as an overweight Asian man with a lady's voice? Go for it. Want to be an iridescent purple goth chick with a giant tiger tattoo on her face? Make it happen.
I remain impressed by how generous a game Saints Row: The Third is. Each of the seven voices (even the grunts of the Zombie) are usable throughout the story missions, which means that every line of the protagonists' dialogue has been recorded seven times. That's a hell of a lot of voice recording! I played as a bald dude with a rough British accent (voiced expertly by Mr. Travis Touchdown himself, Robin Atkin Downes), but I could have just as easily played as a haughty Eastern European dominatrix-type, a valley girl, or a grunting member of the undead (voiced, incidentally, by the one and only Steve Blum).
And it's not just the characters—damn near everything in the game can be customized. Cars have an exhaustive number of appearance and performance options, gang members can be dressed however you please, and for a relative pittance you can even take your character to "Image by Design," the Steelport plastic surgeon, and completely remake him into a her (or vice versa).
Saints Row: The Third's generosity extends past its customization options and into its writing. Throughout the story but particularly during the first two thirds, it seems lead writer Steve Jaros and his writing team will do anything to entertain. Time and again the story tops itself until you don't think it can get any more delightfully absurd… and then it does. I laughed more and harder playing this game than I have playing anything this year except for Portal 2.
There are very few "routine" open-world crime missions in Saints Row: The Third, and as a result the game largely avoids the sense of been-there-done-that that can creep up in GTA-style games. After two Saints Row games and years of GTA iterations, it's impressive that people can still come up with interesting things to do within the mostly unchanged parameters of the template set forth ten years ago in Grand Theft Auto III. And yet Jaros and his writers do so with impressive regularity.
The game's writing also thrives in smaller, tossed-off moments. There are references strewn throughout the game like so much confetti—for example, there is a grenade launcher called a "GLG20" (a reference which, it must be said, the TV show "Chuck" got to first) as well as a motorcycle named the "Kaneda." The throwaway banter between characters is genuinely funny, particularly in how deadpan the Saints are about the ridiculousness of their antics.
"Let's clear them out quickly and quietly!" instructs your character.
"Quietly?" asks a sidekick with great skepticism, no doubt thinking back to that last mission flying a VTOL in which half the city was razed.
"Quiet…ish?" the boss responds, just before opening fire with a bazooka.
Occasionally the jokes lean a bit too hard on current memes and slang, and it all can wind up feeling a bit on-the-nose. And despite the inclusiveness inherent to its deep respect for player customization (would you like your gang leader to be a hispanic woman? How about an elderly black man? Sure!), Saints Row: The Third frequently errs into bad taste in how it deals with female characters. Yes, scantily clad women get blown away in this game as often as big buff men do. Yes, there is a horde mode in the menu called "Whored Mode" in which players fight off increasingly difficult waves of attacking sex workers. (Though I should say that many of the "whores" are men, or S&M slaves, or any of a number of other types of oddity.)
But as easy as it would be to get het up about the fact that the game's female NPCs are all either prostitutes or have prostitutional tendencies, I felt like it managed to get away with much of its more outrageous content with pure guile and ridiculousness. I'm not sure why I wasn't more offended by Saints Row: The Third's offensive content (surely it has something to do with the fact that I am a straight white dude), but I wasn't.
Those shortcomings notwithstanding, I was impressed with the script. The writing in the first two Saints Row games was good (and underrated, I've always thought) but in Saints Row: The Third, Volition's pen-pushers have truly come into their own.
While the main story missions provide the most memorable and watercooler-worthy bits of the game, there is much more to Saints Row: The Third. The Saints Row series has set itself apart from Grand Theft Auto not only in tone and ridiculousness, but in its focus on sidequests called "Diversions," which allow players to rack up respect and cash while taking over the map one district at a time. These diversions take a backseat compared to Saints Row 2, mainly in that it is no longer necessary to amass respect to unlock story missions. It's a welcome change, and a further example of how the game puts the player's experience above all else.
As enjoyable as some of the diversions are, many are returning from past games, and it's probably for the best that they're not as directly tied to the story as they once were. Also, whither the sewage-spraying, Volition? What have you done with my favorite diversion from Saints Row 2? Blowing up vehicles in a radioactive four-wheeler is good fun, but nothing could top SR2's fecal-blasting property damage minigame, which is curiously absent from the new game. Alas.
But enough poop, let's talk cake. There is so much delicious frosting slathered on Saints Row: The Third that at times I found it hard to refocus my tastebuds on the game at its core. Which is fine, okay, frosting is delicious! A game can be all frosting. But as Saints Row ramps up in intensity towards the end, the weaker aspects of its design become increasingly unflattering. The missions mostly just pit players against a small army, fighting their way from checkpoint to checkpoint around the city. And so the game must rely on its combat systems which, while enjoyable, aren't robust enough to hold the weight of the late-campaign missions.
There was a moment in the game—right around the two-thirds mark—when I realized that a lot of the combat wasn't actually that fun. It's surprising how little that effects my enjoyment the majority of the game, since around 90% of the missions are of the "Go here shoot guys" variety, but as the encounters get bigger and bigger, this shortcoming sticks out more and more.
The weapons aren't a problem, but the enemies are. Guns and bombs are fun to use, and GTA could learn a thing or two from Saints Row's wonderful weapon-wheel and free-aiming. But the enemies are spammy and occasionally infuriating, pouring towards your location in ceaseless, often overwhelming waves.
Somewhere along the line, the game's difficulty spun out of whack—there are always a few too many enemies attacking at once, they all have a bit too much health, and they're entirely too accurate. To balance things out, Volition seems to have made your character exceptionally, almost comically resilient. My cockney Guy Ritchie thug could absorb ten times his body weight in lead—and in a particularly forgiving touch, the final 5% of the player's health drains much slower than the first 95% did, which allows for many a down-to-the-wire escape.
The end result of all this hitpoint-juicing is that combat feels not so much overstuffed as overinflated. Most battles devolve into frantic sprint and spray-fests, with scads of regular soldiers pegging you with mosquito-powered bullets, huge breserker enemies relentlessly chasing you and throwing you around, flying helicopters and VTOLs blasting you from above, snipers taking potshots from rooftops, rockets flying in from tanks and helicopters, and fast-moving, teleporting enemies knocking you in the face with tech-hammers.
It feels jammed up and confusing, and the final 20% of the story is a real slog. And perhaps most frustrating of all, any time an explosion or large impact hits the player, their character goes limp and flails around before finally climbing back to his feet. At several points during the campaign I bumped the difficulty down to "Casual" after repeated, cheap deaths made me wonder if I would even be able to finish.
I hereby propose a moratorium on impact animations that steal control from the player in the middle of a firefight. And while we're placing moratoriums, let's also put one on party members who get downed in combat and require rescuing, but whose death results in a "mission failed" screen. Just by removing those two things, Saints Row: The Third's combat could have been a great deal more enjoyable.
The game finally truly overextends itself when zombies enter the picture. Saints Row 2 players will remember the goofy "Zombie Uprising" video game that could be played in-game and put players up against increasingly difficult hordes of zombies. Something similar happens in Saints Row: The Third, and hoo boy, is it a mess. It starts with a funny idea—where did these zombies come from?—but quickly turns into a profoundly frustrating mission. In it, you must knock containers out into the sea as hordes of identikit zombies charge you. In order to move the containers, you must switch to a melee weapon… that is terrible at killing zombies. If the undead touch you while you're aiming, you stumble and lose control, unable to shoot or switch weapons for a few seconds. This setup often results in you arriving at a container, switching to the container-mover, and then getting mobbed by zombies and being unable to switch to a weapon that will let you fight back.
On top of this, the zombies are often on fire, and they run as fast as your character is able to sprint. If a flaming zombie touches you, you are engulfed in fire and lose control for a good ten seconds as your character flails around onscreen, still unable to switch to a goddam usable weapon. Does this sound like a mess yet? Because boy, is it ever one.
I go into such detail because this mission is illustrative of the sometimes-slight, sometimes-large disconnect between Saints Row: The Third's hilarious bright ideas and its often-frustrating execution. "Sudden zombie outbreak!" sounds like just the kind of goofy shenanigan that the story has been getting away with up to this point, but the abject failure of the mission to be any kind of fun prompts a reexamination of what, exactly, is so fun about Saints Row: The Third in the first place.
Those zombie missions, as well as many of the late-game missions, would no doubt be much more managable alongside a friend. And here, another one of Saints Row: The Third's remarkable bits of generosity—the entire campaign, from start to finish, is playable in co-op via Xbox Live or System Link. I didn't have much of a chance to try it out, but it works well and allows for seamless drop-in/drop-out, and it's not hard to imagine how fun it would be to play through the entire game with a friend. Better, both players progress through the story on their own and earn respect and money in their own single-player game. It's a strong continuation of one of Saints Row's coolest features, though at times it feels like the missions are designed to be handled by two players instead of one. (And no, the generally useless teammate AI does not count as "additional people.")
In Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book "Blink," he discusses snap-decision making as it related to the the Coke/Pepsi rivalry of the 1980's. In Pepsi-sponsored "sip-tests," people were given a sip of Pepsi and a sip of Coke and asked which they preferred. Pepsi won by a landslide, and so for a brief time Pepsi stated that their cola was objectively the better-tasting option. But as Gladwell reveals, the sip-test results were only half the story—when testers were given an entire can of each cola type, a majority actually preferred Coke. Pepsi's enhanced sweetness gave it the edge in taste-test, but Coke's richer flavor won people over long-term.
In much the same way, 2008's Saints Row 2 was very much the oversweetened Pepsi to Grand Theft Auto IV's richer Coke. While Saints Row 2 was at times an explosively fun game, it lacked the depth and flavor that made GTA IV such an achievement.
In this regard, Saints Row: The Third is a significant step up for the franchise. It has all the flavor of a supercharged Pepsi, but it's also got a lot more Coke to it than its predecessors. This is a good thing, and a sign that for all the willful dumbness of the characters and the story, the people making this game are both smart and truly dedicated to making each of their games better than the last one.
It is difficult not to be won over by Saints Row: The Third's sheer joie de vivre. This game is in love with its own madness, and it was clearly crafted with a lot of heart. Yes, there are some significant tonal problems. Yes, combat is flawed and the story runs out of gas in the final third. But in so many ways, Volition puts the player's comfort and enjoyment above all else, and in doing so their game becomes an unparalleled indulgence, the current pinnacle of the "you"-oriented video game.
No one man should have all that power? Fuck that, says Volition. The world's yours.