Remember when Fox News and everybody else was in a tizzy about GTA III's Hot Coffee Easter egg? Well, wait until they get wind of Saint Row: The Third. Whereas Rockstar's sandbox series has reined in its more outlandish aspects to simulate a truer-to-life urban environment, Saint Row simulates nothing, except a morally reprehensible good time. Want to crush parked cars with a tank, beat strangers with a bat-sized dildo, or see how much police attention an unlimited rocket launcher can get you? You won't even need cheats, those are standard missions in Saints Row: The Third.
Developer Voltion understands how people generally play open-world games. It's seen the fevered cheat code sessions, and heard players' impatience with the slowly unfurling sandbox of Grand Theft Auto. SR gives you carte blanche practically from the get go. Your first pad is a mansion, the first mission an explosive heist, and the closest it comes to slowing down is having you ragdoll yourself into a busy intersection in their signature Insurance Fraud missions.
With a color palette composed exclusively of neon, and the sugar rush meets acid trip that is Professor Genki's Super Ethical Climax, the game is constantly going for sensory overload. Generally, it pulls it off. The constantly fluctuating missions will have you light-cycling in a Tron knock-off one moment, fighting as a giant robot the next, and then chuckling your way through a text adventure parody. Although someone should teach Voltion the difference between absurdity and vulgarity. A mission that has you recruiting hookers fresh from shipping containers goes beyond bad taste. Your game would be funnier without the human trafficking jokes, Voltion.
While the game works hard to keep things fresh, there are moments of stagnation. When it settles into the traditional beats of run and gun missions the engine shows its creakiness. In the age of Gears of War and Uncharted, SR's third-person shooting is bland and woefully last gen. Your aim is always rock steady, except when it isn't, the game has a propensity to stagger and rag doll you with grenades. It can be frustrating, and downright infuriating in larger, more chaotic battles. Imaginative weapons, like a sonic boom generator and a Mega Man-style arm cannon, spice things up, but the lack of a cover system makes SR feel dated.
Fortunately, this can often be circumvented, since there's rarely anything to stop you from showing up to a mission in a tank full of AI homies. It's game design that doesn't want to stand in the player's way. No matter if having a fighter jet on your side will make the mission considerably easier, if that's the way you want to play it, then that's how it'll go down.
The varied missions are far more satisfying than the story that links them. Picking up where the last SR game ended, the Saints are now the world's biggest gang, with their own movies, energy drink and line of clothing. They're such a marketing force they're hemorrhaging street cred. So along come three new gangs: the Morningstars, the Deckers, and the Luchadores (goths, geeks, and Mexican wrestlers, respectively) to challenge their supremacy. Even though the game's intro takes pains to establish that the Saints are the baddest boys in town, these gangs appear seemingly from thin air, with power and resources to rival the main characters. No matter, says the plot, the Saints now have the perfect opportunity to reprove themselves and confirm their edginess.
The three enemy gangs control different sectors of Steelport, SR's rather bland amalgamation of NYC and Chicago. While the campaign will give you a tour of these territories, fighting the gang wars that pop up on your map and purchasing local businesses and hideout will cement your control over the city. With the ability to summon AI back-up with touch of a button, these turf wars are a real highlight. Anyone who's favorite part of GTA III was the gang wars of the first act will fall in love with this gameplay.
With the exception of a few for-sale skyscraper cribs, and an inspired Times Square riff, the city of Steelport is short on landmarks. It is littered with replayable mini-games, however, but not all of them are good enough to actually replay. Mayhem is the standout, it gives you a choice arsenal of weapons with unlimited ammo and tasks you with racking up damage as quickly as possible. Tank Mayhem is just as it sounds, the same thing, only with a tank. Helicopter Assault is a blast, and the aforementioned Insurance Fraud is truly inspired. These missions feel like GTA with cheats, in the best possible way. The rest of the mini-games are basically escort missions and races. They don't lend themselves to repetition as well as the others.
While you and a friend could get a ton of replay out of simply passing the controller for swipes at the high score in Mayhem, SR has a well executed co-op mode. It's a simple drop-in, drop-out structure, and the game adds enemies and new elements to suit multiple players. The game's matchmaking is nothing special, but once you've found a session, it's extremely easy to get the ball rolling on a co-op mission or mini-game. If you've spent any amount of time playing GTA IV online, you'll have a lot of fun with this. There's also, ahem, ?Whored mode,? because every game needs a cooperative survival mode now, and everything in SR must be juvenile and borderline offensive.
The game's sense of humor would have the editors at Mad magazine rolling their eyes, and will likely damage its crossover appeal. Part of the charm of GTA was that, when you simply wandered about town, the game was only as bad as you wanted it to be. You could go deliver pizzas if you were so inclined. Or lob a grenade into a busy intersection. Your choice. SR crams the offensiveness down your throat, and does so proudly.
It's not edgy, but it is funny on occasion. Its gang-banger characters, with their out-sized egos and penchant for self-promotion, would fit right in on the Jersey Shore. They're like Bonnie and Clyde for the reality TV age, and the game knows it. There are some great moments in the first act; a police helicopter has you pinned down, demanding that you ?autograph and then put down your weapon.? There's also a pimp with an artificial larynx that auto-tunes his voice. That stuff is quickly forgotten as the plot dissolves into a gang war full of jokes about dildos, whores, and some ham-handed jabs at the news and the military industrial complex.
But who's buying this game for a thoughtful mediation on anything? As far as customization goes, it brings the goods, with dozens of character outfits. You can do nearly anything you want to your character, at anytime, providing you have $500 to drop at the plastic surgeon (not a lot of in-game money). Whatever tweaks you make to your character, which includes choosing one of seven strong voice performances, will be shown verbatim in the game's cinematics.
While you can get your character looking pretty awesome, the rest of the world can be somewhat dreary. The game overuses its signature royal purple, to the point where even run-down warehouses are a dull magenta. Also, Steelport has some of the most hideous pedestrians you'll ever see. They're the ones who need a trip to the plastic surgeon.
Despite playing it fast and loose, Saints Row: The Third is more than equal to the sum of its occasionally rickety parts. It does plenty of things right, but qualifies as a success right out of the box because it understands what people tend do in open-world games. You can craft all the unique missions you want, pump the world full of believability, and people are still going spend their time stealing cop cars and leaping off buildings. By embracing anarchy, and crafting worthwhile online co-op, Saints Row: The Third is a fine appetizer until GTA V arrives, or an alternative for those who find that series too restrained. Two warnings, however: the game uses an online pass, so those who rent or buy used will have to pony up again for some of the game's best features. And if you get it for Christmas, don't pop in the disc until grandma has left the room.