Saints Row The Third: Now you're playing with POWER
Revisiting Steelport as the new Saints Row launches
Saints Row: The Third is a stupid load of old shit. By design, I mean. And in practice. It is a truly daft game in a truly daft series, one that has the strange reputation of having been serious at some point and that eventually became silly. This is a nonsense, as the Saints Row franchise has been daft as a brush since year dot. Sure, the first game is relatively restrained compared to the super-powered likes of Saints Row 4, but it's still a supremely idiotic game that leans into its humour. It's that humour plus the looser, more "gamey" feel that leads me to prefer it masssively over its clear inspiration, Grand Theft Auto, which often feels more concerned with fidelity than with playability.
And The Third is ten years old now, which means it's retro, so here it is. I recently revisited it via its somewhat questionable Switch port and am delighted to reveal that it's still terrific fun, though it achieves this via a somewhat mobile game-esque series of systems that I'd probably call predatory if microtransactions were a factor. Every single thing you do in The Third makes a number go up. Makes a bar go up. Drive in the oncoming lane? XP. Have a near-miss with another car? XP. Kick someone in the bollocks? XP. There's a dedicated nut-shot button, incidentally. It's that kind of game.
Bringing the Saints back from rock bottom is an enjoyable way to experience mass sociopathic violent criminals, because Saints Row never tries to introduce ambiguity as to whether or not these are good people. You're on their side despite their actions, because you relate to the central idea of loyalty to your friends - a clever way to spin The Saints as the heroes despite routinely emptying a machine gun into crowds. They're the best of a bad bunch, and they are fun to be around. Volition's now-trademark commitment to characterisation is in evidence here as your created Boss and his slick pal Pierce drive to the next mission, singing along to the radio in a genuinely quite heart-warming moment. These psychos will grow on you.
Gameplay is pretty standard, but with a commitment to simplicity that I find pretty much impossible not to enjoy. Instead of getting into a car, you can simply leap through the windscreen and instantly be driving. The weapons are fun to use and there are plenty of them, with generous auto aim. This isn't really a game about challenge, though if you crave it you can always turn up the difficulty. In Saints Row titles I usually put the difficulty on "Casual"; this is a power fantasy and I don't want dying to get in the way of it.
So a simple open-world game then, and one that is redolent of AAA design cancer, but is so blatant about its skinner box compulsive elements that it basically gets away with it through sheer audacity. Every aspect of its design screams "yeah, but it's just a game", from narrative to control to missions to collectables to difficulty. And it's an absolute blast.
Letting it down, however, is the game's obsession with "whores" and "hos" and the like; yes, it's part and parcel with the lifestyle depicted here, but it still jars when even Saints Row 4 chilled the hell out on that kind of thing, and Agents of Mayhem is laudably progressive in a way most games of its type don't even try to be. The new Saints Row retains that inclusivity without sacrificing the attitude, but it all began with The Third, a game that still deserves to be played. It gets a very high rating on the Gippometer, something I'm currently workshopping.