By: George Weidman
There’s no low we won’t stoop to in order to provide you with buying advice for all the latest releases, so when we were denied a review copy of Saints Row: The Third for unscrupulous reasons, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Thankfully, a little bit of research unveiled a lucky surprise: OnLive was running a Thanksgiving promotion where new accounts could buy one new “Full PlayPass” for $1. “An expensive new AAA game for $1? What a deal!”, I thought. Like the diligent rationalist I am, I pursued the bargain and opened my first OnLive account, and naively hoped for the best. “What could go wrong?”
Review Disclaimer: The following review of Saints Row: The Third is of the OnLive version, and (as I quickly found out) is in no way indicative of the quality one may experience when playing a locally-installed version of the game via most other distributors.
OnLive: The Broken, Blurry Future of PC Gaming
After launching the game from OnLive’s full-screen DVD-style menus, I was greeted with nothing but a black screen idling away while the first cutscene banged and whizzed loudly in the background. “That’s weird,” I mumbled. “I’ll just start it over again.” This time it worked, but not impressively. When you buy a game on OnLive, you’re not necessarily purchasing it for yourself and playing them on your own computer. You’re buying a pass to watch a video of you playing that game on someone else’s computer. It shows—there is input lag, there is video compression, there are crashes and errors that send you straight out of the game back into OnLive’s bulky, glossy console-style menus and there’s nothing you can do about it except start the program over again. It’s a very limiting experience, and doesn’t embrace any of the flexibility and customization that makes us love PC gaming so much (like being table to take off a game’s HUD elements to make pretty screenshots.) It’s the closest you can get to playing games on a console without actually playing games on a console. But even then, you’d still get a clearer picture and a more responsive game.
The Plot (and how hard it is to follow)
Saints Row: The Third is a notably more cartoony follow-up to Volition’s series of “crasser than thou” GTA knockoffs. I say “knockoff” because Saints Row could not possibly exist if Grand Theft Auto didn’t happen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s no shame in innovating on an existing concept, or simply trying to make a bigger, better, and more ballsy game than your competition. But sadly, it fails to improve the genre, only embracing GTA’s least admirable traits while entirely missing the point of what makes them so engaging.
Within minutes from starting up the game, Saints Row 3 barrages you with a pacing problem that doesn’t let up for nearly half the game. Within the very first half-hour of game, you’re robbing military armories, diving out of airplanes and sniping from skyscrapers before you’ve even learned who the antagonist is. The story opens up with a bombastic bank robbery scene that doesn’t offer any backstory or explanation as to what’s going on, and never really fills that introductory plot hole. Even at its most decipherable, the plot is still cringe-worthy in its desperate attempt to be over-the-top.
My scribbled summary of the premise, written one hour after the game started: “so you’re like a street gang, but also celebrities, and there’s another street gang with more money than you and that’s why they’re the bad guys. And now your gang has to take over this city because that’s where you landed after blowing up a plane.” It doesn’t get better. Characters mysteriously disappear, cut scenes end too soon, you’ll hear references to events that you didn’t see happening, and a significant chunk of the missions are tutorials for minigames.
The World (and why I can’t suspend my disbelief)
It’s a plot that is just as strange as its bizarre, contradictory world. Lingerie-wearing street gangs parade openly in front of trigger-happy, Ferrari-driving supercops. Fully-costumed furries casually walk the streets. There’s no subtlety (after all, we’re talking about a game whose entire reveal trailer was just one shot of a dude getting punched in the groin) but there should be. Saints Row 3 is way too serious about not taking itself seriously.
The 3rd Street Saints are played off as legitimate badasses. They live in gratuitous, larger-than-life decadence, and are too cool to throw in a joke or two about the explosive wackiness unfolding around them. It’s a whitewashed gang-banging fantasy, gussied up and glorified for shopping mall friendliness. This underlying theme of decadence extends to the whole game: everything is relentlessly over the top, whether it needs to be or not. It’s a game that is unashamedly pleased with itself. It’s obnoxious and jaded and expects you to put up with it. Nearly every line of dialogue is written in quick, flashy one-liners and snappy comebacks. Pedestrian quips and DJ banter is rarely clever or funny, and the super-serious action movie synth music, flaccid drama and morally dark goals of most story missions don’t exactly build a mood of good-natured fun.
The Fun (and why being fun isn’t always enough)
But it somehow manages to be fun, and that’s in no small part to the one particular thing that Saints Row: The Third does well: character customization. There’s a big fat list of upgrades to consider and RPG-style story choices to be made. An overwhelming amount of content can be personalized to some degree: cars, weapons, radio stations, and even your fellow gang members. There’s a ridiculous selection of wardrobe and cosmetic options, enough to make a character that really feels like your own. I decided to make Billy Mays.
After meticulously tuning Billy Mays’ jaw line to perfectly replicate the chiseled, masculine face he wore in real life, I found out that I could take off his pants. Which I proceeded to do. I played through nearly ten hours of game like this before the novelty finally wore off.
“It’s Okay, I’m a Saint.”
Saints Row 3 isn’t necessarily a bad game. Shooting is satisfying, in a “bad guys dance and jiggle under your crosshairs” kind of way, and it’s decently challenging even on the “normal” difficulty. The weapon and character upgrades genuinely improve your character, and keep you spending away your gang’s laundered and stolen money. More importantly, they motivate you to explore the city and play the minigames and missions that earn you money. Thankfully, the storyline eventually out-crazied itself into a third act that I could actually follow. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t having some kind of fun with Saints Row 3, but I’d also be lying if I said that there was anything truly compelling or memorable on top of the fun.
Remember what it was like to play GTA at the age of twelve? How it was so easy to spend hours causing all sorts of homicidal ruckus that would escalate into epic, explosion-filled police chases that felt like they could never end? Saints Row 3 is a game about that, but it really shouldn’t be. Such rampages don’t feel nearly as mischievous and fun when they’re encouraged. For this game, they’re unavoidable. Deadly car chases are the normal means of transportation. Maybe the OnLive input lag had a lot to do with it, but even a short-length cruise from point A to B turns into a frustrating fight with some very exaggerated steering physics. In this game, driving straight is an accomplishment.
That Saints Row can poke of itself shouldn’t let it off the hook. Peel back the surface layers of glitzy decadence and outlandish parody, and you’ll find that the game looks a lot more like GTA IV than it would like to admit (except without the cinematic flair and attention to detail.) What’s most striking about Saints Row 3 is that it doesn’t do anything new—it just takes what GTA does and neuters it through ridiculousness. Slapping enemies to death with a giant purple dilo bat may look funny (for a whole six seconds,) but isn’t mechanically any different from slapping them with a regular baseball bat. Within the first four hours, you earn a powerful attack helicopter that completely kills the challenge of taking over rival gang operations. You can even eventually upgrade your character to be immune to all kinds of damage except melee attacks.
Saints Row: The Third is rough around the edges and is deliberately obnoxious. Though it had occasional moments of fun, I’m glad I only paid a dollar for it. It’s hard to recommend when a number of quality GTA games fill the role of “satirical crime sandbox game” much better.
One last word about OnLive
But playing this game on OnLive never stopped being kind of scary. OnLive is the beginning of the end, the first milestone on our way to a brutally capitalistic future where you pay by the subscription for half-baked games you don’t own on systems you don’t own so that you can be continually prodded with even more ways to spend your money. It’s also the ultimate form of DRM. We’ve finally reached a point where publishers and distributors can ensure that you’re being tracked in their system at every moment, curbing piracy while making you play a blurry, laggy video of a game with graphics options locked at the “low” end of the spectrum. Even YouTube footage of this game looks smoother, prettier, and more responsive than the OnLive version.
I also can’t ignore my impression that Saints Row: The Third feels uncomfortably “lite.” The GTA3-sized city is tiny compared to the size of most sandbox games coming out these days, and there isn’t a huge variety of minigame activities to do in-between missions. The fact that THQ has already scheduled 40 whole weeks of constant DLC releases (many of them being simple cheat codes) for the game should tune us in to how much content is being reserved only for customers who can afford to pay extra. I may have only had to pay $1 to take a sneak peek at this dystopic, cyberpunk-esque vision of gaming’s future, but for OnLive to stay afloat it needs people to pay a lot more for the experience. If you want be a powerful consumer, stay far, far away from this company.
Saints Row: The Third Technical Summary:
- Play Time – 26 Hours
- 5.1 Sound – Yes
- Widescreen – OnLive’s resolution is fixed, stretches to your screen
- Acquisition Method – Purchased by reviewer
- DRM – OnLive (For this review)
- Demo – Yes
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/mouse, xinput gamepads
- Availability – Steam, Green Man Gaming, Direct2Drive, OnLive, Local Retail
- Bugs – The occasional random death, intrusive pop-in
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