What I've Been Playing: Saints Row The Third

So, when we last left our anti-hero, the Saints had reclaimed their old stomping grounds of Stilwater, and as a bonus taken over the Ultor Corporation (because, obviously blowing up all the execs means that you get to be the new boss). SR3 picks up what seems to be a few years later - the Saints are now media icons, with their own line of Planet Saints clothing stores and Saints Flow energy drinks. Pierce is now a television star, Gat has bobble-heads, and Shuandi did a dating show (more on her later). Somehow the Saints have been re-invented as cool - to the point that the opening of the game (not really what I'd call the opening cutscene - I'll get to that later) has the gang robbing a bank so that a movie star can tag along for research. Obviously, things don't go according to plan, but not because the actor is an idiot, but because for some reason this particular bank is protected by The Syndicate. Instead of a few bank guards, the place is crawling with special forces and black helicopters and the whole things goes to hell.

You and the crew finds themselves on the Syndiate's private jet, where they to make an offer you can't refuse. Being the Saints, obviously you refuse and proceed to shoot the hell out of everything. In my mind, this is the proper opening cutscene, because it makes a better comparison with the other games. Saints Row 2 starts with you shooting your way out of prison, and then into a courthouse to rescue Gat. By contrast, The Third has you shoot your way out of an airplane, freefall through the air while shooting guys and dodging debris, rescuing Shaundi (who had fallen out without a parachute), realizing that somehow the plane is coming back towards you (don't think too hard about this). You then *drop* Shaundi, shoot your way through the front windshield, through the plane, free fall *again* to catch up to Shaundi *again* before you both hit the ground. Unfortunately, Gat doesn't make it off the plane in time (staying behind to give you time to get Shaundi out), leaving you a psychopath short. You land in the town of Steelport, to find that this is the Syndicate's home turf, and they've managed to cut you off from all your resources. So, you crash at the pad of one of Shaundi's ex-boyfriends, and start planning to take over another S-named city from three gangs.

Let's stop here and handwave - obviously this is setup so that we can restart the classic "start from nothing, conquer the city" routine. But it really makes no sense, on so many levels. Let me count the ways:

  1. The Syndicate controls the town, so why do you even want these guys around? Why fight this war on your turf, when you could tackle it on theirs?
  2. If the Syndicate has the ability to wipe out bank accounts, why are they even bothering with street gangs at all?
  3. Apparently, the correct answer to "the three of us are stranded in town because we don't carry cash for some reason and don't want to just steal a car and drive home" is "call the homies to come *here* and help me conquer a new town". (Yes, you-as-Boss are astoundingly stubborn and want revenge, but it's still weird.)
  4. Just need to bang on this one more time - Syndicate can cut off your funds, but there are *multiple* Planet Saints franchises in town. You can't hit any of them up for petty cash?

Short version: I accept that we're wanting to stick to that formula - but it really needed a different handwave. Oh well.

The game structure is largely the same - three gangs plus a Big Bad at the end - but there's a single primary quest chain - you have to do things in order, rather than getting to jump between tasks. Activities aren't nearly as important in this game, since you buy upgrades directly (rather than unlocking them through the activities). Cribs get a major downgrade - they're a place to restock and grab vehicles, but you collect your hourly income directly from the menu - no need to go home. Stores get a bit of an upgrade, in that walking into any store will immediately wipe notoriety, just like going to your crib. Except there's a lot of stores out there - and there's a certain irony to being in the middle of a big shootout, running low on ammo, getting chased into Friendly Fire, and having the badguys immediately turn around and wander off, just as you walk out fully stocked again.

This is probably a good place to mention that while clothing and cribs are a lot simpler this go around (cribs don't customize in the same way, and clothing options are much reduced), guns get a lot more focus. Ammo is way cheaper for starters - so your combat options aren't as limited to "what they're shooting at me". Guns are also upgradable - pistols will upgrade with larger clips, start shooting through armor, set things on fire, etc etc.

What it does do is make money a lot more important - you need respect to unlock new abilities, but you'll max that out over the course of the plot. But to buy the new abilities you've unlocked needs money. Upgrading guns needs money. Buying stores to earn money needs money. So, activities are used mostly as an additional means to get money (without directly advancing the plot).

And the upgrades this go around are a lot crazier, at least in terms of "third person shooter". By the end of the game, you will have the ability to take no damage (from *anything*) along with infinite ammo and instant reloading. If you decided to grind activities and take the XP bonus options, there is a point where the plot would be a literal walkthrough. You just walk through town, destroying all who oppose you. And don't get me wrong - the new system works fine. But I did notice I was a lot pickier about what side activities I did, because there's no pressing need to do them - the game will provide you enough toys as is. (For the record, my favorite is the Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax "gameshow".)

Now, losing Gat is tough, but you do pick up a few more homies - one for each of the rival gangs you're after. Angel is the enemy of the Luchadores, led by his old tag-team partner Killbane. Zimo is the auto-tuned pimp who used to be the Morningstar's competition until he was captured and thrown in the (kink) dungeon. Oleg is the template for the various oversized brutes you'll be fighting (and helps you kill the Syndicate leader). But the breakout character here is Kinzie, who is ex-FBI until she was kicked out due to a hack from her nemesis, the Deckers. She's easily the most well-rounded character I've seen in the series - and having an FBI hacker makes a mite more sense than Shaundi.

But let's get back to the plot.
Once you're on the ground in Steelport, is roughly the same - you take over the place neighborhood by neighborhood, defeating the gangs. The big twist is that instead of Ultor being the power behind the scenes, all the gang violence brings Steelport to the attention of the federal government, who dispatches STAG (Special Tactical Anti-Gang) units to town, declaring martial law. Basically, think SHIELD, up to and including the flying Helicarrier. So now you're fighting off the last of the gangs, while the government is busily making your life miserable. The finale ends with the government going off the deep end, kidnapping Shaundi (and some other people we don't care about), and putting her atop the town Statue of Liberty, planning to destroy the statue, blame it on the Saints to make everyone hate them. Meanwhile, the last gang boss is heading to the airport to leave town. You get the choice - sacrifice Shaundi to get revenge, or let the asshole escape? If you save Shaundi (and disarm the bombs), you're the heroes of the country while STAG looks like an idiot, putting you back on top of the world (and presumably running two towns now). If you go for revenge, you end up declaring martial law in Steelport and making Pierce the new mayor. (Canonically, you save Shaundi, and the game lets you replay the mission so you can see both endings.)

One final note - the final mission has what may be the best use of music in a game - there's just something about fighting your way up the statue while "Holding Out For A Hero" plays on the radio...

Next time: you're media darlings who saved the city - where can you go from there?