Bigger Car Shooty Fun Time

I’ve been wanting to write a few words about Saints Row the Third for some time now, but I’ve been putting it off for pretty much the same reason that I want to write about it. My problem is basically this: How do I qualify that the most fun game I’ve played of 2011 is somehow still a bit of a disappointment? And furthermore, how do I keep the disappointment from overshadowing the fact that it’s still the most game I’ve played of the whole year?

Let’s start with the first part of that – with November now over I’ve played both The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, having gotten to try The Old Republic already for a weekend, and had enough time to conclude that I’m simply not going to get Arkham City working unless I’m willing to pay for a second, digital copy as my computer is simply unable to read or even recognize the first DVD as valid or even existing… I feel I can honestly judge that yes, indeed, Saints Row the Third is and will remain the most fun game I’ve played for the whole of 2011. It’s an amazing ride of completely over the top hilarity almost from start to end, and the game keeps constantly redefining where the limit into completely crazy lies.

Let me try to put this in terms of things that actually happen. During the latter half of the second mission, you find yourself in a gunfight with enemy thugs while in free-fall over the city of Steelport. Much later on in the game, you have another mission where you get a repeat of this situation – except your enemies are now VTOL Fighter Jets, and your two Submachine guns have been swapped for a tank. Oh and the third mission gives you a set of UAV drone controls, empowering you to rain down missile-shaped death from the skies from that point on. Restraint is for other games; Saints Row the Third makes Over The Top its mission statement and then keep climibing.

And the game is completely on board with this every step of the way – the characters typically react to all the insanity with the complete acceptance that all of these things are totally normal aspects of their daily lives and usually just run with it – especially in terms of justification. Much like Saints Row 2, where other games either step in to prevent players from going on murder sprees or quietly fold their arms and wait until the players start behaving according to script… Saints Row the Third accepts that the player’s main means of communication with the world around them is through violence, bullets and death and subsequently has the player character be for most part an unrepentant sociopath. There’s very little of the stark gameplay-narrative dissonance that many other games suffer where a character will express thoughts like killing is wrong or guilt over death caused or the like only for the game to then happily ask you to slaughter throngs of enemy NPCs for the sheer sake of game mechanics; in the Third, your main character has no problem happily expressing how their preferred plan is typically “Let’s just go in there and shoot everyone”, which is also typically exactly what you’ll be doing.

So where does the disappointment fit into all of this? Well. The thing with Saints Row 2 was that it wasn’t just madness upon madness – for all its silly clown exterior, it had a surprisingly functional narrative that not only blended in with the completely insane setting, but even delivered several much more serious and somber moments, and it wasn’t afraid to let either step aside when the other needed the center stage. Essentially, Saints Row 2 struck me as a game where the narrative, the setting and the gameplay all typically walked hand in hand and worked together for a combined result. The Third, on the other hand, typically only uses the narrative to set up the madness and doesn’t really think more about it – while there’s a whole lot of opportunity for story and serious moments within story, it doesn’t really bother much with it. Occasionally you do get glimpses that the Volition that made Saints Row 2 are still in there, but there’s a severe lack of desire to let the story speak and seemingly almost a worry that the story might dare get in the way of the crazy. There’s also a distinct lack of show in favor of tell, and sometimes even a lack of tell in favor of nothing at all – plenty of moments within the narrative are poorly portrayed or are constructed in ways that set up expectations that are then never lived up to. Along the same route, some characters are introduced and then pretty much just put in stasis except for the odd moment; the Third is simply a great deal weaker in terms of narrative, and it’s a real pity because the potential really is in there. It’s just untapped.

What makes the narrative void all the more surprising is the sheer level of personality that was poured into some characters – in particular that of your main character, the boss. Here’s the thing, Saints Row the Third – much like its predecessor – lets you pick one of several different voice sets which provide your character with a voice, accent and personality; in this case three male, three female, one zombie. This choice is completely unrelated to what kind of body you picked (making it entirely possible to have a female character trying to channel the voice of Jason Statham, for example) and changes nothing in regards to how the missions actually play out. What it does change is what your character says, and subsequently how most of the dialogues in the game turn out. There’s a surprisingly large amount of difference too, with several during-mission dialogues going off on completely different tangents depending on what voice you use, and then there was that one mission…

There’s this mission where you impersonate STAG (Special Tactical Anti-Gang) commander Cyrus Temple, which essentially means that for the duration of the mission, you’re put in Cyrus Temple’s body model all of your characters lines are done by Cyrus Temple’s voice actor. Considering that voice personality sets are inherently unable to affect the actual narrative of the game, not to mention possible to change at nearly any given moment, it’s a case where I would’ve expected the lines of your character to be entirely generic… which makes it absolutely fantastic that they aren’t. I was playing through the game using the Female 2 personality, which is this over the top russian accent, and hearing the voice of Cyrus Temple slip in a few of her grammatical quirks and then throw in a few remarks in regards to her obcession with her underling Pierce Washington was a complete riot. The other voices all have entirely different lines there, which is such a great little detail.

It’s a game crafted with love, which makes the moments where the attention to detail simply disappears all the more strange and bothersome. And as much as I maintain that between the insanity, the unhinged mayhem and the delivery of the russian Female 2 boss voice, it is definitely the most fun game I’ve played all year, it also leaves so many places where it simply could’ve been so much better.

Still, Volition aren’t done with the franchise yet, so here’s to hoping that they’ll take the opportunity to learn and bring back some of the narrative strength in the future. Oh and that they keep the russian voice for future installments, for it is awesome given vocal form.


1 Response to “Bigger Car Shooty Fun Time”

  1. 1 LoLDrood
    December 7, 2011 at 00:34

    OOooo, do you get the big-ass mini gun right away, or do you have to first try to kill Solid Snake with the M1 tank to unlock it?

    I would like to see more voice options, at the very least am Asian one. I supposed that’s potential DLC revenue though, especially if it doesn’t really affect the story and can be easily plunked into the engine.
    Although, if zombie Cyrus ever says, “I am the braaaaaiiiiins of this organization.” I would be willing to overlook any such minor gripes.

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