Not many games can go from being a clone of a chart-topping title to a respected companion piece of the same bestseller in three iterations or less. But the Saints Row series, which began life as a Grand Theft Auto clone trying to exploit Rockstar's slowness in getting to the "next generation" market of HD-gen consoles, has evolved into something else entirely -- the game that many people wish GTA still was.

Not to diss GTA IV -- it's still in my top 5 games of all-time -- but Rockstar made a conscious decision to make that game a platform for better narrative storytelling and its world more of an interactive dramatic stage than a sandbox full of rocket launchers. The only problem is, a sandbox full of rocket launchers is a hell of a lot of fun, and the game makers at Volition seem to have focused the evolution of the Saints Row franchise on that: how do we let gamers have a ton of ridiculous fun?

So instead of going darker and grittier like GTA, Saints Row has gotten brighter and sillier. That's how it gets away with some of its more egregiously vulgar moments: by planting its tongue firmly in its cheek. In a sense, it sort of has to -- how else can you justify driving a car down a sidewalk at 70 miles an hour, tearing through pedestrians like a wheat thresher without any kind of serious moral repercussions? Because Saints Row knows what it is: just a game.

That self-awareness turns into some clever satire on occasion. I've always thought that Saints Row sat somewhere in the middle of the sophistication chart, between GTA and Postal. But at the beginning of Saints Row: The Third we are introduced to a surreal world where the Saints are celebrities themselves, and the popular culture has somehow embraced violent street gangs who get in massive gun battles in public and careen recklessly through city streets in stolen cars as if they were rock stars. There are even certain people on the street who want to take your picture, and more than once I found myself posing in front of the burned out wreckage of a cop car or tank I destroyed myself.

It's those moments that make Saints Row that ultimate sandbox experience that some gamers prefer, but I think all of us enjoy. Compare it to the single-player experience of one of the big military shooters out this year. You can't talk about your experiences in those with your friends and have them be unique. Two people talking about a part in Battlefield 3 probably had nearly identical experiences. Two people playing Saints Row: The Third have an infinite amount of possibilities for how their experiences differed.

Saints Row: The Third

It all begins with the character creation tool. I don't think it should be understated how awesomely democratic this feature is; you can be anyone, and I mean anyone, you want to be. The fact that your character talks and engages in cut-scenes makes each player's experience unique, and almost gives you the impression that you're taking part in the game's design. That's a pretty cool concept that was satisfying to see in action, especially as the story continued on. It was for me, at least.

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The evolution of the character you play as -- "The Protagonist," as he or she is referred to -- doesn't end there. Saints Row: The Third is practically a role-playing game with all the ways you can enhance your character through personal upgrades, not to mention the system for upgrading your weapons and cars. As much as the open world contributes to the variety you'll experience in the gameplay, the customisation options are another layer that enriches the entire experience.

That open world of Steelport does present its own problems though. As full as it is with activities that earn you money and respect, and as varied as the stores and other shops you can patronise or just outright buy (you only get a discount at shops you own though), there's something lacking in terms of the overall layout. It's just not as interesting geographically as the world of Stillwater in the previous games. It's a bit too much like a simplified version of GTA IV's Liberty City, which would make it a super-simplified version of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. I don't know if that was the designers intent, but the world of Steelport just didn't grab me in the same way the prior games did, and I almost never felt like just driving around and looking at stuff.

My other big beef with the game is one of a more important nature, and more observable to the average gamer. I know that if you compare Saints Row: The Third to the original game -- running on the same hardware -- you can see the newer one is much more accomplished graphically. But it doesn't really hold up against other games of its generation, and looks rather retrograde. On top of that, the frame rate quite often chugged when a lot of things were happening onscreen. The glitches weren't anything more than I would expect from most open-world games (in which they are endemic), but the overall performance is often lacking.

Saints Row: The Third

Ultimately though, none of that matters too much. Saints Row: The Third creates so many moments of pure, unadulterated fun that take place in the middle of comically absurd situations that few things could really mar the experience. It's even got a ludicrous but satisfying storyline, complete with branching paths, that only gets more crazy and more intense as the game goes on. The game's two endings are like two completely different chapters in a book, and it allows you to go back and replay that mission from the other side once you're done, just as it leaves the world open for you to play in.

I'm not ashamed in my adoration of Saint's Row: The Third. It's juvenile, it occasionally objectionable (I'm sorry, I just don't like blasting away at bikini models, even if they are trying to kill me too) and sometimes after playing I feel like I should go take a shower. But I can't remember a game I've played recently that was so dedicated to letting the gamer have as much fun as possible any way they want to. And when it comes to having fun, Saints Row: The Third is like a big party that you don't want to see stop.

Saints Row: The Third: Specs

  • Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC PC system requirements: OS: Windows® XP Processor: 2GHz Dual Core Processor (Intel® Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon™ X2) or higher Memory: 2GB System RAM or more Graphics: 320MB Video RAM GPU w/ Shader Model 3.0 support. NVIDIA® GeForce® 8800 series or better. ATI Radeon™ HD3800 series or better DirectX®: 9.0c Hard Drive: 10GB Sound: 100% DirectX® 9.0C compliant sound card or equivalent onboard sound Co-Op Play: NVIDIA® GeForce® 8800 cards require 640MB of Video RAM. ATI Radeon™ HD3800 cards require 1GB of Video RAM Online Steam Account
  • Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC PC system requirements: OS: Windows® XP Processor: 2GHz Dual Core Processor (Intel® Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon™ X2) or higher Memory: 2GB System RAM or more Graphics: 320MB Video RAM GPU w/ Shader Model 3.0 support. NVIDIA® GeForce® 8800 series or better. ATI Radeon™ HD3800 series or better DirectX®: 9.0c Hard Drive: 10GB Sound: 100% DirectX® 9.0C compliant sound card or equivalent onboard sound Co-Op Play: NVIDIA® GeForce® 8800 cards require 640MB of Video RAM. ATI Radeon™ HD3800 cards require 1GB of Video RAM Online Steam Account

OUR VERDICT

Fun, flexible, agreeably absurd gameplay involving a lot of things that go boom real big, plus a raft of very memorable characters: that pimp with the auto-tuned voice, Burt Reynolds... The game does suffer a few technical and interface issues, however.

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