Five years ago on November 15, 2011 Saints Row: The Third was released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. It came out in-between the releases of Grand Theft Auto IV (April 29, 2008) and Grand Theft Auto V (September 17, 2013) and, at worst, filled the time for fans of open-world crime sandboxes until the next GTA game came out. At its best, it introduced gamers to a new world that put its own spin on the Grand Theft Auto formula—and it did it with astonishing rapidity. Saints Row: The Third sold 5.5 million copies in its first year.
Today, Saints Row: The Third has sold millions of copies and was followed by two more games in the franchise, Saints Row 4 and Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell. The Saints Row games have been on sale and dropped in price a fair bit unlike its bigger cousin Grand Theft Auto, and now many fans (including myself) are wondering what’s going to be next. For the moment, let’s take a look back at how we got here by exploring the background of Saints Row: The Third. A good place to start as any is the lovely CG trailer; it’s by no means representative of the game’s graphics, but it sure does show off the game’s sense of style.
On October 26, 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas came out. It was widely regarded as an excellent game—the pinnacle of the open world gangster sandbox. Two years later, Saints Row was released to slightly less critical acclaim. These two titles largely occupied the same gameplay space, dueling with one another for the crown of their particular vidya fiefdom. Grand Theft Auto IV followed in April of 2008, and Saints Row 2 (released a mere six months later) was definitely lagging behind graphically.
Enter Saints Row: The Third. Developed by Volition (developer of the previous games in the series as well as the FreeSpace and Red Faction franchises), the game had a wonderful sense of newness for existing fans of the franchise and new players alike. Whereas Grand Theft Auto was already on its third generation of graphics (transitioning from 2D to 3D and then finally a higher def 3D experience), this was the first big upgrade for the series in terms of fidelity.
The game performed admirably (as far as sales are concerned, anyway) and had a number of advantages over the newest Grand Theft Auto game of the time. For starters, Saints Row: The Third had a co-op campaign that was not only fully featured but allowed the second player to participate in interesting ways that went beyond “do the same stuff as Player 1.” For example, the controls of a vehicle might be split up between players or they would occupy different positions or roles within the same mission. While missions and activities were tackled together, players could also run about the world in free roam on opposite sides of the map if they felt like it.
To this day, Grand Theft Auto has yet to feature a true start-to-finish co-op campaign. While the GTA series might make for a better narrative, the Saints Row series (in my opinion, anyway) made for a better experience of pure entertainment. This is shown further by the proliferation of Let’s Plays of the game, a goodly portion of which are co-op LPs and are all the better for it. Saints Row: The Third certainly had a lot going for it at the time (and it still does today), but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its weaknesses.
Slapstick Over Serious
I played the everloving heck out of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I’ve played through the game several times and I probably have a few hundred hours into the game between the PlayStation 2 and the PC version. I consider it one of my favorite games. It struck the right balance between silly fun and serious story.
Come Grand Theft Auto IV, and my opinion of the series diminished considerably. I’ve played nearly every Grand Theft Auto title to some degree and completed a lot of them, and to this day I consider Grand Theft Auto IV one of the weakest in the series. It went so horribly grimdark and serious that I have to wonder what the hell Rockstar was thinking when they cooked it up. Sure, the story was excellent. The characterization and the satire of American culture was on point. But at some point during the development process it felt like Rockstar lost their sense of humor.
Conversely, Saints Row: The Third has humor in spades. It has ridiculousness in spades. The game is so over-the-top at times that you’ll enter low-earth orbit (and in Saints Row IV, you leave the planet altogether). The player character can hurl themselves about with reckless disregard for silly little things like terminal velocity or broken bones with nary a scratch to show for it. You have the option to wield a gigantic floppy purple dildo as a melee weapon, and I strongly suspect that the only reason it’s in the game is because the very image of it could show how different the game is compared to the more serious tones of GTA IV.
That’s not to say it’s all good. Whereas I feel Grand Theft Auto IV lost its sense of humor, Saints Row: The Third (and its two direct sequels) seem to have lost the ability to be remotely serious. Both companies presented opposite sides of the same coin and somehow missed the middle. If you have the time to sit down and watch it, I feel that Angry Joe’s review of Saints Row: The Third best describes my feelings on what the third game in the series left behind.
The Montreal Rushjob
Another weakness of Saints Row: The Third was a general sense of something missing. This point was also addressed in Angry Joe’s review of the game, and I’ll echo it here: an awful lot of gameplay was left behind. While there was quite a variety of fun activities to partake in, it paled in comparison to Saints Row 2.
Those activities also felt a bit like filler this time around—a good portion of your story missions were in fact an introductory mission for a new activity or three. Roughly a quarter of the game’s missions were mandatory activities, and it feels to me that the narrative opportunities hand-crafted missions could have provided were lost here. To the game’s credit, the activities are fun more often than not.
It’s not just the hint of filler missions that gets to you. Fans of Saints Row 2 complained about lacking clothing options. Yes, Saints Row: The Third does indeed give you a lot of ways to dress your character up, but the possibilities in the preceding game were kinda nuts. You were able to layer outfits and mix things up in such a fashion that you had a lot of wiggle room for carving out your own unique style and the third game in the franchise failed to provide that same level of customization.
The world itself ended up with some incomplete bits. The Syndicate Tower was originally supposed to be a Crib if you chose not to blow it up. Cutscenes following that point show your characters exploring the interior, but you never again enter the building after the completion of that mission. An entire DLC pack was eventually cut out entirely and expanded into Saints Row IV—boy howdy, if there were ever a game to complain about filler content it’s that one.
The game’s engine also had some weaknesses. Most notable was the inability for the game to properly transition through time. You would randomly get one of a handful of pre-set periods—morning, day, night, etc. They would only ever change once you’ve passed through a loading screen or two by partaking in an activity or completing a mission.
There’s also the downright infuriating inability to disable upgrades or uninstall DLC after purchasing it around the time of launch; if you wanted to have a more difficult run at the game and you’ve already purchased an upgrade such as infinite ammo, you can’t really undo it. I’ve still yet to purchase some of the DLC that arguably makes gameplay easier. (Thankfully, Steam allows for uninstalling DLC these days so the process is apparently reversible now.)
All credit to Volition, it’s not easy working with a new engine. They also likely had a fair share of pressure from THQ to get their game out the door by the end of the year; the publisher was in rocky waters financially and they likely couldn’t bear to delay the game any further.
Don’t Judge the Boss by their Cover
Despite its weaknesses, one of the things Saints Row: The Third got right was making the player feel invested in their character. A robust character creator allows you to make your version of the Boss truly your own. You can even port your character into Saints Row IV for the sake of continuity, and they’ll make an appearance in Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell if you have Saints Row IV installed.
Adding to the visuals is a selection of seven voice actors—three male, three female, and one zombie. Each of the voice actors has different lines, and if you really enjoy the game you can get a little bit of extra replay value by hearing things in the words of the other vocal characterizations.
I truly believe that Saints Row: The Third may be one of the most open and welcoming games on the market in terms of characterization. You can have a female body with a male voice or vice versa. You can wear outfits from both genders regardless of your own. At any point in the game, you can change all of this by going to a plastic surgery center and paying a nominal fee.
Best of all, absolutely none of these things affect your character’s abilities in the game. Sure, it’s a bit unrealistic that my chubby-yet-strangely-muscular Boss is as agile as one of my more lithe and athletic alternate characters. It’s nonetheless nice that I can make my character look however I like without having to concern myself with the stats of it all.
Do you Smell what the Saints are Cooking?
Professional wrestling fans had something to enjoy in Saints Row: The Third. A good portion of the game’s hand-to-hand combat moves were elaborate professional wrestling or luchador stunts.
One of the new crew members you pick up in Steelport is the luchador Angel De La Muerte. He’s instrumental in helping you take down his former tag-team partner Killbane. You ultimately accomplish this feat by stealing his mask following the conclusion of a wrestling event and then chasing him down a bit later in the game if you so choose.
And for the role players out there, players could trick their character out in a variety of outfits appropriate for the squared circle. Everything from tights to elbow pads are available for you to wear if you felt like unleashing your inner heel or face. Adding to the not-so-subtle pro wrestling undertones was the fact that a fair share of the game’s taunts were carbon copies of signature wrestler gestures with the serial number filed off.
Finally, the Murderbrawl wrestling event—a combination between a wrestling pay-per-view and The Running Man—makes for the perfect boss fight against the evil luchador-turned-gangster Killbane. It’s not simply a throwaway mission; your character will interfere with potential challengers by injuring them. You’ll taunt your future prospective opponent from afar. You’ll even barge into one of Killbane’s press conferences and declare your challenge in front of the whole world in the finest traditions of hammy professional wrestling acting, and your character sells it spectacularly.
Music to Murder By
Grand Theft Auto III marked the point that Rockstar went full tilt into curating music for their game. Saints Row followed suit, of course, and the third game in the series was no different. It came jam-packed with themed radio stations as well as a built-in ability to mix and match your favorite songs as a “Mixtape.” Quite a few games these days will put the money down to license songs and use them to enhance their worldbuilding one way or another. Other titles such as Wolfenstein: The New Order take it a step further and tweak classic songs to better fit their world.
Saints Row: The Third elected to make good use of music as the backdrop for critical moments. The first point it really hits you is the airdrop onto the Penthouse, which will be your first honest-to-goodness bad guy lair. Kanye West’s Power (also featured in the CG trailer) makes for an excellent tune to complement your adventure in cleaning house. You later engage in a sing-a-long with Pierce to Sublime’s What I Got while driving along during a mission
Closing out the game is Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero; it not so subtly cheers the player on in an epic onslaught against everyone who has been trying to stop you from taking over Steelport. The credits feature a reprise of the Sublime sing-a-long featuring a good portion of the game’s voice cast. This tradition is carried on in Saints Row IV, which poignantly ends on the vocals of Michael Clarke Duncan who tragically passed away before he could complete his work for the game.
Saints Row: The Third was one of the last few titles released by THQ before their closure. It took part in one of the biggest ticket Humble Bundles of the time—the Humble THQ Bundle. The announcement of the bundle surprised a good portion of the gaming community;how is it that a big company like THQ could put up so many of its biggest and newest titles in a “Pay What You Want” bundle? Well, unbeknownst to many, the Humble THQ Bundle was the swan song for a publisher that had been in the game for over two decades. THQ’s pocketbook was hurting—badly—and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy not too long afterward.
Unfortunately, this has led to a bit of recycling going about in the Saints Row franchise. There have now been three games released taking place in the “new” city of Steelport which, frankly, isn’t feeling very new anymore. I’m sure this was all the result of triage on the part of both developer and publisher—what can you make with what you have? Movies and games alike will re-use existing assets whenever they can to save money, but the Saints Row franchise has really overdone itself in this regard.
Whereas Grand Theft Auto V shattered sales records and earned Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games the equivalent of a small island nation’s GDP in a day, the Saints Row franchise feels a bit like it’s been struggling to find a similarly explosive success. It meanders from game to game with the same fantastic characters and introduces a few new ones. It constantly steps up its game to ever more ridiculous heights (for better or for worse), and now the franchise is enjoying a bit of a lull before the next big thing comes along.
It’s now been nearly two years since we’ve seen a Saints Row game. Volition has kept their cards close to their chest, and now we see a mysterious new game looming on the horizon.
What’s next for Saints Row?
Well, if I had a genie that granted me one video-game-related wish, I’d probably ask for a survival game that’s actually finished. But if this genie further specified that my wish must be related strictly to Saints Row, I suppose I would express my earnest hope that they make a return to their roots in Saints Row 2. Keep the fun, sure, but dial back the slapstick a bit. Give us some degree of drama to balance out the comedy. Make it just a tad less ridiculous, a little bit less surreal.
Volition does have another game coming. Titled Agents of Mayhem, it’s set to release early next year. The trailer features little hints that it is somehow linked to the universe of Saints Row, including the mention of Ultor as well as a logo that looks suspiciously like the Saints’ fleur de lis.
While I have no doubt that Agents of Mayhem is going to be a lot of fun, I don’t think it will be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ll probably check it out at some point and hope that we will see Volition do a Saints Row that is as reinvigorating for the franchise as Grand Theft Auto V was for the GTA games.
In the meantime, in the unlikely scenario that you’ve never played Saints Row: The Third, you’re able to pick it up at a rather cheap price (all things considered). You can grab the PC version of the game and a ton of DLC on Steam for $15. It’s well worth it at that price, and if you feel that’s still a bit too steep, the Steam Holiday Sale is a little over a month away.
Have you played Saints Row: The Third? How do you feel it compares to the previous games in the franchise? How do you feel it stacks up against Grand Theft Auto?What do you hope the future Saints Row games will be like? Let us know in the comments below!