Open world sandbox games have been hugely popular since their inception and have diverged down two paths over the genre’s evolution. On one hand, you have your serious titles, focusing on gritty stories following tortured characters with dark and mysterious pasts taking on drug deals, shootouts and heists in order to survive. Think games like Grand Theft Auto, Prototype and Infamous.
On the other, you have games which take the piss out of themselves to a stupid degree. Ones where you partake in a number of ridiculous activities, visit hilariously-themed shops and generally have a good time just dicking about. The Saints Row series most definitely fits into the latter category: the first introduced us to the idea that sandbox games needn’t be serious to be fun and the second beefed up this idea with the inclusion of a story lined with hilarious moments, several audacious side missions – such as spraying as much shite from a refuse disposal vehicle as possible over passing pedestrians and buildings – and two player co-op so you could enjoy all the nonsense with a pal.
The second title was a fun and refreshing take on the stuffy and stifled genre, breathing new life into it purely through the amount of stupid shit you can do in it. Does the third game manage the nigh-impossible task of somehow being even more over-the-top?
It’s been a few years since The Saints took over the city of Stillwater, becoming media and commercial giants in the process: they own film studios, clothing lines and have just launched a brand new energy drink. Setting their sights on the city of Steelport, they’re ready to unleash their attack when a shady group made up of the town’s three main gangs calling themselves The Syndicate step between them and their objective. The Saints, being Saints, won’t be happy until Steelport is theirs and every single opposing gang member is destroyed. All this happens just as the government puts its anti-gang initiative into action. Five way gang war, anyone?
As ever, Saints Row: The Third prides itself on its customisation options. After a hilarious opening – seriously, who does give a shit about Pierce? – you’re taken to the character creation screen and given more options than ever to customise your gang member. Thanks to the wealth of options, you can make the coolest badass to ever roam the streets, or a bright golden, obese, illiterate Frankenfreak with bugged out eyes, bright blue hair and bikini tanlines. Guess which option this reviewer plumped for.
After sculpting a suitably freakish creation, you’re reintroduced to the main Saints in a bombastic cutscene where they literally rob a bank. It’s here you’re reacquainted with the brilliant banter between the characters and the sheer ridiculousness the series has to offer. Soon enough, you’re escaping from a plane… twice. It’s hard to explain. This, along with a whole host of other audacious setpieces, is what makes the Saints series great.
After this, you’re free to fanny about the city to your heart’s content. There are myriad shops to visit and customise your gear in, be it purchasing some ghetto gear to strut on the street, stocking up on outrageous weapons or fitting out an ambulance you stole with nitrous boost and a wicked pink and mint green paintjob. It’s a pleasure to see such a level of customisation, along with the ability to buy and generate revenue from real estate, return to the sandbox genre after their inexplicable removal from the GTA series.
And then something happens: you’re introduced to new characters and you’re forced to play through the other activities Stillwater has to offer. Some return from the second game, such as the Insurance Fraud and Trailblazing distractions, while others, such as Tank Mayhem and Guardian Angel are brand new. The vast majority of the activities, however, apart from Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, are frankly boring. There’s no driving suburban mums to drug deals or spraying a load of shit over as much public property as possible. Nope, all the tasks are straight-faced and humdrum with the cash and respect you earn afterwards being so small as to not justify the effort you put into achieving it. We’ve done all this before. Why would we want to do it again?
After these missions are completed, thankfully things pick up. This downturn in mood is quickly put behind you as the plot becomes hilariously stupid once again. Despite this redemption, though, it somehow doesn’t manage to recapture the magic of its predecessor: sometimes it feels like you’re playing through a generic sandbox game rather than the pumped up sequel to the game where you threw rabid fans in front of trains and staged massacres for a Cops-esque reality show.