Professor Genki's Empty and Overplayed Joke

by Arthur B

The third Saints Row game tries too hard to be funny and doesn't try hard enough to provide content.
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A while back I loudly sang the praises of Saints Row 2, proclaiming it to be a hilarious and ultraviolent joy of a sandbox game which put the dour and uninspiring Grand Theft Auto IV to shame. The customisation on offer, the sheer amount of things to do in the game, the way the plot was constructed to provide opportunities for gleefully stupid violence, the little surprises to be found simply through exploring Stilwater, its setting. As a result of all this I was quite looking forward to Saints Row: The Third, the sequel which promised to shake things up by taking the action to the all-new city of Steelport, and on balance I'm not sorry I gave it a try - but at the same time, I should probably have rented the thing rather than purchasing.

Having destroyed all the rival gangs and beaten the evil Ultor Corporation in Saints Row 2, the Third Street Saints have become pop cultural icons and live a life of international celebrity - to the point where during the tutorial mission, in which you and the other lead Saints rob a bank, the customers get all excited and ask for your autograph. However, they've also ended up on the radar of the Syndicate, a major international crime organisation headquartered in Steelport. After a botched attempt to kidnap and neutralise the Saints' leaders sees Johnny Gat dead and the Saints' chief (the PC) loose on the streets of Steelport, the Saints swing into action to take control of the city and get revenge on the three major gangs of the Syndicate - the Morningstar, who are completely bland and don't really have much of a schtick, the Luchadores who are, er, luchadores, and the Deckers, who are cybergoth hackers. Things get all the more complicated when the escalating gang violence prompts the government to send in S.T.A.G., an elite anti-gang unit, with orders to neutralise all of the gangs - even if it requires the imposition of martial law to do it.

The best analogy I can think of to compare Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: the Third is this: Saints Row 2 is like a really awesome, over-the-top, hilarious South Park episode, but Saints Row: the Third is like a kind of sloppy South Park episode where they go through all the motions but something's kind of missing. I'll start with the comedy because that's a point that Volition seem to have relied heavily on this time around. The previous game was justly praised to high heaven for its giggly, juvenile sense of humour and the designers willingness to allow you to turn your character into some sort of fucked up mutant clown and drive around Stilwater spraying shit on everyone and everything if that's what you really wanted to do, as well as the over-the-top nature of the plot which stood in stark contrast to the more realistic direction Rockstar were trying to take with GTA IV.

Unfortunately, this time around Volition seem to have misjudged where the sweet spot lies; the previous game's comedy was great because it was extreme enough to be just cartoonish enough - goofy as hell stuff would happen, sure, but at the same time the city still felt like a real place rather than the big fakey funhouse all sandbox crime simulator cities are when you rip back the veneer of verisimilitude. Conversely, Saints Row: the Third goes beyond "just cartoonishly enough", traverses "way too cartoonish", and ends up in the worst territory of all for this sort of comedy, that blighted land that all LOLRANDOM comedy risks stumbling into (and which 99% of such humour inevitably ends up residing in). I speak, of course, of the realm of those who are trying too hard - that place where the difference between the genuinely cool and the only pretending to be cool becomes brutally, horribly apparent.

There's a fine line to walk between convincing an audience to laugh along with a joke and rolling their eyes at it, and obviously the line's going to be drawn at a different place for different players - and to be fair to The Third, it does include flashes of the old brilliance. The ponyplay cart chase is hilarious mainly because the carts explode like cars in action movies (those of you who aren't aware of ponyplay can listen to Kyra's hilarious attempt to break the idea to Dan in this podcast at about 42 minutes in). And there's a hilarious wrestling sequence which takes the sting out of the fact that a major boss fight is a big quicktime event by making it a lucha libre quicktime event. But at the same time there's too many gags which either fall flat or, even worse, ask you to completely abandon the premise that the game takes place in a universe where there's any sort of rules or consistency or logic.

The fact that after you go through the virtual reality bit where you hack the Decker's computer systems you can drive around in Steelport in an 8-bit tank, or the bit where the main character destroys an airliner by - so far as I can tell - falling through it at high speed, and other such gags are briefly amusing, but once the initial chuckle is over you realise that the pretense of reality the previous game held onto by the skin of its teeth has been let go of yet again, and by the end the game's plot and setting looks like the result of a bunch of people who've eaten too many sweets having a brainstorming session of all the LOL SO RANDUMB stuff they can cram into a game - which is presumably precisely how the design segments went. Equally, the part where a moralistic politician sends in soldiers dressed like the space marines from Starship Troopers to take out the gangs plays like one of those South Park episodes where Trey and Matt latch onto some political issue (in this case, "hey, isn't it weird that gangsters are pop cultural icons") and soapbox about it for thirty minutes in order to make heavy-handed and obvious points which aren't nearly as clever as they think they are.

The bit where the mayor of Steelport turns out to be Burt Reynolds - no, not someone voiced by Burt Reynolds, the actual Burt Reynolds - and the PC turns out to be a big-time fan of the guy is another misstep; not only is the gag drawn out far longer than it deserves, but it also strays into the territory of applying actual desires or personality to the player character beyond "I like to fuck shit up, show me where to go next to fuck shit up" - and keeping the PC's personality sparse and restricted to enjoying doing the sort of stuff you do in open world crime simulators was key to the previous game's success in making you feel more ownership of the main character than GTA IV gave you over its protagonist. In fact, the customisaton aspects of the game seem bizarrely curtailed compared with the previous effort whereas if anything they should be expanded; I could swear there's less costumes available this time around, and it's no longer possible to make a male character with a big bushy beard and enormous breasts if you want to - instead, the "sex appeal" slider on the character generation screen controls breast size for women and cock size for men - a particularly galling example of player choice affecting the entire game being taken away for a cheap gag most will forget about once character generation is done.

Of course, it's also a sexist gag, though if you want jokes which are just eye-rollingly offensive rather than funny hoo boy there's some better examples in here. Saints Row 2 was no innocent in that regard, of course, but I'm pretty sure I don't remember a mission on there where you attack a cargo ship smuggling women into Steelport for prostitution purposes, get the women out of the crates - and then pack them into your own crate and either sell them back to the people who were smuggling them for a fat profit or set them to working the street for you. Oh yes, you read that right - as well as being a trimmed-down retread of the shipboard mission from the previous game, it makes you complicit in people smuggling and treats the whole enterprise as a big joke, as though prostitutes were a mere commodity like guns or drugs to be bought and sold at the player's whim. This goes beyond the usual antics players get up to in open world games - like, for instance, revving up your sports car and running over scads of pedestrians laughing like a child, or doing the whole kill-hookers-for-money thing which got Jack Thompson so worked up. This is taking a real world issue, trivialising it completely, obliging the player to take part in it as part of the main plot, and creating the impression that it's OK to create hilarious comedy out of people being spirited away from their homes to be forced into prostitution. It's not quite on the level of having a rape-themed minigame but it's a way down the road in that direction.

As well as occasionally being Not OK, the plot is also just poor - both in terms of the set-piece cut scenes and in terms of the structure of the thing. Removing Johnny Gat seems to have been pointless except as a means to avoid paying his voice actor (Daniel Dae Kim) for another full game. Bits like diving into a nuclear power plant's cooling tower or defending a ship from encroaching boats and aircraft are rehashed from the previous game. The themes and personalities of the various gangs are woefully underdeveloped, or in the case of the Morningstar aren't developed at all. Your defeats of the various opposing crime lords are, in each case, enormously anticlimactic, the precise opposite of how such triumphant, hard-fought moments should be. In addition, some sections of the plot seem to be tied in with completion of the various optional side activities - for example, there's one side activity where you have to drive around with a tiger in your car, and you can't progress in one strand of the main plot until you've done enough activities of that type. This sets up situations where stuff happens which just never makes sense - because I tended to do side activities before main mission stuff, there were several points where I played a mission only to find that it consisted solely of a cut scene which essentially says "well done, you have done this activity enough to advance this strand of the plot", and it was only after a bit that I realised I missed the earlier mission consisting of a cut scene saying " You must do this activity before advancing this strand of the plot". As well as being sloppy writing, doesn't this entanglement of side activities with plot advancement rather ruin the point of them being side activities?

Taken as a whole - plot, gameplay, and the rest - Saints Row: the Third feels like a narrower, shallower, less ambitious game than its predecessor. There's no cool indoor areas to compare with the mall in Saints Row 2, and nor are there many cool little scenes you can stumble across as you explore the city, like the two goths you can find playing a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP in 2. This may, of course, be a consequence of Volition scrapping the Stilwater setting and rebuilding from scratch. To be fair, this was probably necessary - a third game based on the Stilwater map would have been milking it a bit much. But at the same time, part of the reason 2 felt so huge and so packed with stuff to do stemmed precisely from the fact that it took the base established in the first game and built on, expanded and embellished it.

In one way of looking at it, you could say that 2 was the first proper Saints Row game, and Saints Row just marked the halfway point in 2's development; it took a full development cycle to get Stilwater to the point it was at in the first game, at which point Volition rather needed to release something in order to make some money, but it was the additional polishing of the Stilwater setting between the first and second games which allowed it to realise its full potential. On this basis, the fourth game - if it's set in Steelport - might just claw things back. There's certainly potential here - the mechanic for taking over parts of the city a la Vice City suggests intriguing possibilities - but on balance, Saints Row: the Third slips down to the standards of the first game in the series, being a game which is fun enough to play through once on rental but won't have the staying power 2 had. If Grand Theft Auto V ends up being something special, Rockstar have a chance to pull ahead here.
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Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:32 on 2011-11-23
I suppose we should have noted the warning signs after Volition got those Tim & Eric people from Adult Swim to put together a 12 minute episode of Professor Genki's show as part of the promotional blitz for SR3.

(...)

It's...not funny. It's more like Dadaist anti-humor, comedy that mocks the concept of humor. And it goes on for too bloody long.

You know, Monty Python got a lot of shit back in the day, but at least they could fucking structure a joke.
Arthur B at 07:32 on 2011-11-23
One of the radio stations in the game is an Adult Swim radio station that exclusively plays songs from Adult Swim shows.

It isn't called Professor Genki's Super Product Placement Time but it may as well be.
Wardog at 10:52 on 2011-11-24
I am Kyra's broken-hearted disappointment.

*goes back to Skyrim*
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:44 on 2011-11-28
Don't worry, Kyra, Prototype 2 is coming in April. That game will let you infest a Marine's body with tentacles, throw him into his squadmates, and create instant hentai.

Seriously, I hope "create instant hentai" is one of the selling points on the cover.
Wardog at 13:42 on 2011-11-29
Oh? What? Really?

This isn't some kind of joke aimed at getting my little hopes is it?
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:27 on 2011-11-29
I never joke about tentacles. (zip to 1:06)

And according to this video, they've implemented a fairly robust tendril molestation mechanic.
Robinson L at 22:15 on 2011-12-12
Of course, it's also a sexist gag, though if you want jokes which are just eye-rollingly offensive rather than funny hoo boy there's some better examples in here.

My reaction to reading this paragraph:

I'm pretty sure I don't remember a mission on there where you attack a cargo ship smuggling women into Steelport for prostitution purposes, get the women out of the crates

Me: 'Okay, that's pretty risible but nothing extraordi-'

and then pack them into your own crate ...

Me: 'Oh, oh no' [jaw falls wide open and face remains in a slack-jawed, horrified rictus throughout the remainder of the paragraph]

Other thought: I think it's interesting that Yahtzee covers many of the same points you bring up, and seems to have a similar attitude to the game as a whole (fun but not great). He doesn't bring up the human trafficking bit, though.
Arthur B at 22:57 on 2011-12-12
Well, I started out my Saint's Row 2 review by referring to Yahtzee's review and saying I basically agreed with him so it's nice that things have come full circle.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:39 on 2011-12-14
It's the circle of skim!
And it moves us all!
Through repeated insights.
Through snap judgments and rage.
Till we write our flames
on the thread unwinding
in the circle, the circle of skim.


I clearly do not have enough to do.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:28 on 2012-05-05
Hmm...some news has come in over the wire about a new standalone expansion to this game that's supposed to be coming out. According to RPS, it involves...aliens? And the player getting...what?

I don't even know what's going on with this franchise.

Also on an unrelated note, your point about the fine line between "enjoyably ridiculous" and "trying too hard" is essentially the reason I hated Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. Well, that and the fact that nothing in it made any goddamn sense.
Arthur B at 00:51 on 2012-05-05
I don't even know what's going on with this franchise.

As I understand it, it's being milked to death because it's THQ's only real cash cow.
Craverguy at 01:15 on 2013-02-20
Hi, Arthur, I'm a longtime reader of yours who has bought and/or rented several things on your recommendation (and some things you didn't recommend, just because you made them sound interesting anyway), most recently Saints Row 2.

Now, admittedly, I've only played the second game here and not the third, so it's entirely possible that I'm completely wrong about this, but it seems to me that you're either being overly harsh toward the latter or you were overly lenient toward the former, because there are elements of the third that you've panned here that were present in the second and that you didn't feel merited a mention.

First and probably most importantly, in regards to the portrayal of human trafficking and prostitution, I think you're forgetting about the "Snatch" minigame from Saints Row 2. As you may recall, in that minigame, you're assigned to track down prostitutes who have escaped from their pimp or madam, round them up, and return them to their brothel. And while the game's prompts do try to soften it by claiming that you are "rescuing" them from "their abusive pimps," this is somewhat undermined by the dialogue given to them during the mission. (For example, if you crash your car into something, one of them will yell, "You promised you wouldn't hurt me no more!") And even if we accept the premise that the procurers you're working for are better than the procurers you're opposing, it still seems incontestable to me that the game is, as you put it, acting "as though prostitutes were a mere commodity like guns or drugs to be bought and sold at the player's whim."

Second, while I agree that mandating that the protagonist be a fan of Burt Reynolds does kind of undermine his/her status as a mere avatar for the desires and opinions of the player, there are several missions in Saints Row 2 in which the script mandates his/her musical tastes. In these missions, you team up with Pierce, who insists on switching the car's radio over to either classical music or a Ne-Yo song, both of which result in insults from the player character (in the former case, he/she questions Pierce's masculinity; in the latter, he/she wants to know "what the hell we're listening to"). And in a third instance, they actively fight over the radio, with the protagonist eventually winning, setting the dial to the modern rock station, and declaring it to be "my music." This, to me, seems a much bigger infringement on the player's control of the protagonist's tastes than automatically making him/her a Burt Reynolds fan, because all of these pieces of music are selections that are offered to the player to listen to during the game, and which the developers then go ahead and decide to make a canon ruling on which the protagonist likes and which he/she hates that may not jive at all with the player's views.

Lastly, and this is just my opinion, I also found the boss fights in Saints Row 2 to be very anticlimactic, in that the game very definitely subscribes to the Hard Levels, Easy Bosses school of gameplay. Two of the gang bosses I beat in under a minute by simply remembering to bring an RPG launcher with sufficient ammo, and the third was a straight rehash of the sword fight against his lieutenant a few missions earlier (except the boss doesn't spawn flunkies to harry you, so the fight is actually slightly easier). And the final boss of the game (when I could get past the teeth-grindingly, controller-crushingly irritating mission that stood between me and him) was the easiest of all, barely tougher than the average patrolman.

(Now, I don't want you to mistake my meaning here: I loved Saints Row 2, with the exception of the final mission and the DLC. I just think it's fair to point out what flaws it actually has.)

I would like to conclude this post with a note on where I absolutely agree with you. Although I haven't played this game yet, I have fiddled about with the character creator demo available from Xbox Live, and I agree with you 100% on your criticism of the reduced scope of the customization. While I was able to make my new character look reasonably close to my character from the second game (albeit with a different hairstyle and looking like he'd been hitting the free weights regularly in the intervening years), I could not recreate any of my three favorite outfits for him because of the inability to layer shirts, ties, and coats in different combinations (and, most crushingly, the elimination of the bowler hat). I was also disappointed to note that they didn't get Charles Shaughnessy back to provide the voice of the English accented protagonist, so between not looking quite like my previous character and not sounding quite like my previous character, there's a considerable degree of Uncanny Valley going on. Very disappointing.
Arthur B at 13:12 on 2013-02-20
Hi, Craver!

First and probably most importantly, in regards to the portrayal of human trafficking and prostitution, I think you're forgetting about the "Snatch" minigame from Saints Row 2. As you may recall, in that minigame, you're assigned to track down prostitutes who have escaped from their pimp or madam, round them up, and return them to their brothel. And while the game's prompts do try to soften it by claiming that you are "rescuing" them from "their abusive pimps," this is somewhat undermined by the dialogue given to them during the mission. (For example, if you crash your car into something, one of them will yell, "You promised you wouldn't hurt me no more!")

I had forgotten about it and you're correct that it's problematic in 2 as well. As I mentioned in the comments there, 2 still indulges in the ugly sexism endemic to open world crime-'em-ups and the customisability of the characters softens this but doesn't eliminate it. I guess this mission in question in 3 stuck out more for me because it feels like there's a very sharp discontinuity between how the start of the mission is portrayed (an action-packed rescue attempt) and how the conclusion goes. Given that the genre tends to involve massive criminal activities missions which say "Go and do [bad thing]" are going to be par for the course, though there's always scope to argue that [bad thing] crosses the threshold of good taste (especially whenever prostitution is involved in GTAalikes), whereas missions which start out as "Go and do [good thing]" and then turn into "actually do [bad thing]" are more incongruous.

I suppose, to give Volition their due, this may be deliberate as a way of putting in sharp relief the way we like to think about what our characters in these games are doing and what they are actually doing. On the other hand, saying "this isn't actually OK" and then continuing to offer you the chance to do it elsewhere in the game without recriminations (I believe Snatch-style missions are still involved in 3) feels kind of incoherent.

Second, while I agree that mandating that the protagonist be a fan of Burt Reynolds does kind of undermine his/her status as a mere avatar for the desires and opinions of the player, there are several missions in Saints Row 2 in which the script mandates his/her musical tastes.

That's true, but I think the intervention there is somewhat more justified because the game is at least doing something interesting with the format - specifically, it's engaging with the fact that these radio stations are such a prominent feature of GTA clones and making a joke of it by having an NPC fiddle with them. It would be nice if the game kept track of how much of each station you'd listened to up to that point of the game and had Pierce tune to stations you'd been ignoring and you tune to whichever station you'd be listening to the most of - you'd get the same point across but would also be giving some credit to the player's own choices - but it's still a fun idea.

Conversely, the Burt Reynolds thing didn't engage with the format at all - you meet him in a cut scene and that's kind of it. It's an extraordinarily lazy and artless way to work in a celebrity cameo. I can forgive tampering with the player's freedom to define the character if you actually do something interesting in it but the Burt cameo doesn't.

I agree with the easy bosses thing but don't especially consider it a problem. Given the wide variety of ways you can kill people in 2 it's kind of nice to be able to relax and get a little creative with how you take out bosses who've been thorns in your side for a substantial portion of the game.
Wardog at 15:06 on 2013-02-20
For me, Saints Row is ALL about the customisation. If I can't be a psychotic, over-weight, cross-dresser I'm just not interested.
Craverguy at 08:55 on 2013-02-22
You can still do that. You cannot, however, create a big, burly, trucker-looking guy and make him sashay like a supermodel and wade into melee like Jet Li. (You also can't make a make a male character who looks honestly lanky, as opposed to "well-toned but not grotesquely muscled.")

Anyway, since I last posted here, I got ahold of a copy of this game and I have played "The Ho Boat" (the mission in question), and it pains me to say it, but I think Arthur misinterpreted the nature of the mission. At no point is it pitched as a rescue or anything other than stealing a "commodity" from your enemies. It's always "do this to hurt the Morningstar" and "let's go have a look at my new employees." That doesn't ease up the (to put it mildly) problematic aspect of making the protagonist a slaver, but at least I don't think we can honestly say they misled you about what you were doing at the start of the mission.

On an odd note: although this mission is pretty much the nadir of this series' portrayal of the Saints' involvement in prostitution, the game otherwise actually improves on that portrayal relative to the previous game. In the "Snatch" minigame, the prostitutes now no longer make references to the pimp you're working for being abusive and, in fact, they explicitly thank you for rescuing them. And in the mission where you storm a Syndicate fetish brothel and take it over, the prostitutes working there will fight on your side with cries of, "Let's kill these slave-drivers!"

So, while I don't think it's fair to say that the specific mission Arthur cited is inconsistent or deceptive in telling you the purpose for which you're storming the boat, the game is as a whole somewhat indecisive in how it wants to portray the protagonist's involvement in the sex trade overall. (It's also rather schizophrenic in its portrayal of the protagonist's ruthlessness. Is the guy who just enslaved these women really the same person who scolded Josh Birk in the first mission for being verbally abusive toward the tellers during a bank stickup?)
Arthur B at 10:55 on 2013-02-22
Fair enough, I admit I haven't played (or even owned) 3 for over a year so my memory of it is hazy. Perhaps the discontinuity between that game's Snatch missions and the more callous way The Ho Boat goes down is to blame; I certainly remember 2 being much less conflicted about having the main character being a cartoonishly violent monster and I do wonder whether The Ho Boat wouldn't have been less out of place in the second game as a result.
Craverguy at 12:00 on 2013-02-22
I would probably agree with that. The game is definitely conflicted about what kind of a person the protagonist is. Case in point: in the previous games, the "Trafficking" minigame involved drug dealing. And not drug dealing concealed by clever euphemisms, either. In this game, though, "Trafficking" involves selling Saints brand action figures and lunch boxes. Or, for a little bit of an edge, porno magazines. But, on the other hand, not only do the "Mayhem" missions still exists, now they have "Tank Mayhem," too (which is exactly what you think it is).

So, apparently, the protagonist is someone who doesn't deal drugs and treats robbery victims with respect, but who does deal in human cargo and occasionally rolls down the street blowing up random cars with a 120 mm cannon for giggles.
Craverguy at 18:45 on 2013-02-24
I really, intensely dislike the way Activities (the minigames) are implemented in this game. Not only did they (as Arthur pointed out) make them mandatory for parts of the plot, they also made them mandatory for taking over the neighborhoods in which they're located. So if you just focus on the main storyline, it's entirely possible to get to the end of the game, in which (I would imagine, I haven't gotten to it yet) the Saints supposedly have smashed the Syndicate and taken over Stilwater Steelport, and yet still not actually control a single neighborhood.

As a result, I've spent the past two days' worth of play doing Activities in order to catch up my control over the city with where the plot says it should be (and in order to ensure I don't waste my two opportunities to take over neighborhoods without a struggle on areas I could have gotten the old-fashioned way). This has not been particularly fun (even though many of the Activities, particularly Tank Mayhem and Tiger Escort, are legitimately amusing on their own), because it feels less like I'm playing a game and more like I'm grinding away at a chore I have to finish before I can get back to the game.

They also failed to standardize the difficulty between different instances of the same Activity, because they give you different equipment to use depending on which neighborhood you're in. So, for example, the Hard difficulty Trafficking minigame in Downtown is easier than the Medium difficulty Trafficking in New Colvin, because Downtown Trafficking gives you a gun that, when upgraded, fires exploding bullets, and New Colvin Trafficking gives you a pistol that...doesn't. As you may imagine, it's quite irritating to go into an Activity never completely sure of how difficult it's going to be, no matter what the label on the map says.
Craverguy at 05:50 on 2013-03-06
I just got 100% completion of this game (first time I've ever done that in a wide-open sandbox game, so I'm rather proud) and finished the DLC, so this'll probably be my last comment on this particular page, but this has to be said:

Remember when I challenged Arthur on the whole "anti-climactic bosses" thing in my first post? I retract that fully and unreservedly. As easy as the boss fights in Saints Row 2 were, they were the Sky Horror in Dragon Age II compared to the bosses in this game. Between bosses killed with quick time events that you have to apply effort to fail at and bosses killed off in cutscenes with no fight at all, there are only three bosses in the entire game that you actually have to fight (two of them are in mutually exclusive endings...and one of them is just like a boss you fought in Saints Row 2, but easier).

So, my final verdict on this game: all right, but several steps down from the previous installment. If I think there's one word that sums up this game, it's "less": less customization, less missions, less neighborhoods, less enter-able buildings, less difficulty in the boss fights, and (bizarrely, for a game that prides itself on being "wacky") a less colorful setting. I'm not sorry I spent a week and a half playing it, but I certainly got less out of it than the equivalent amount of time I spent playing Saints Row 2.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:57 on 2013-08-10
After watching part of a Let's Play of this on Youtube, I picked it and most of the DLC up for a song about a week ago, and I have to say...I've really liked it. I agree about some of the problems you mentioned. There's still a lot of customization, but it is really much smaller in scope. (There's also a whole new vehicle customization mechanic, which I've never used.) Interweaving the side missions in with the main storyline was really not a good idea. The whole Zimos storyline was really quite icky, and I sped through that as fast as I could. I also found myself wondering, if the game was going to go down the whole tawdry exploitative sexuality route, why they couldn't throw in some rent boys to go along with the whores. You know, make it fun for everyone.

That being said, I was rather surprised to find I had the most fun not in fighting the other gangs, but in fighting STAG. As an antagonist, they're really outside the context of the typical GTA-styled sandbox game, which I think really gets to the heart of the design issues of the game. Essentially, I don't think SR3 wants to be a GTA-type sandbox game anymore, but it's not entirely sure what it wants to become. A lot of the basics of something like GTA are all streamlined in SR3. When the game starts, the Saints are not some hardscrabble gang, but a corporate juggernaut in their own right. You start off having to rebuild your empire in Steelport, but you can build up a dripfeed of money fairly quickly. Infantry and vehicle support is always a phone call away. STAG's futuristic armory completely upends the normal weapon and
vehicle dynamics of a GTA game. In GTA you're doing good if you get an Apache; in SR3 you're handed a laser-armed hoverplane that would make Lockheed Martin cream their collective pants.

At the same time, the game seems to be distancing itself from its predecessor. The Saints are morally chaotic, of course, but there aren't any moments of flat-out sadism akin to Gat burying a man alive in SR2. The few holdovers from SR2 also seem to have reduced roles; Gat is killed at the beginning of the game and only reappears as a FrankenHulk clone in the DLC, and Shaundi goes from an easygoing stoner chick to someone who's angry and irritable all the time. (Personally I suspect that with the Saints' rise in the world, she switched from pot to coke, the drug of winners.) Meanwhile newcomers like Kinzie and Oleg outshine the older characters. As you mentioned, SR3 does seem to be critical against the glamorization of gang life in the games. In practice this criticism seems hypocritical, but there are a few zingers that hit home. I, for one, was rather discomforted to find out that the leader of STAG was the father of Worf's girlfriend in SR2, who you killed in a rather unpleasant way.

However, despite all the problems, I think the pentultimate mission managed managed to take all this discomfort the game has with itself and bring it to the surface in a satisfying way. At the end of the mission, you're offered a choice: prevent a rogue STAG officer from causing a terrorist incident to blame on the Saints and killing Shaundi in the process, or kill the escaping head Luchadore, Killbane, who's trying to flee the city. Most people, myself included, would probably choose to save Shaundi. The funny thing is, while it seems like the "right" choice, it is the most unsatisfying one; the entire plot of the game gets shuffled away in a cutscene, and the mission after is a fight against Killbane on a sound stage that is so blatantly fake that you can't take any pride in accomplishing it. By contrast, if you let Shaundi die, you get revenge against Killbane, but there is no catharsis in it, and the mission ends on a down note. However, in the mission after, things change. STAG moves in their helicarrier in to flatten Steelport in a final bid to destroy the Saints. In response, the Saints rise as one, destroy the helicarrier, take control of Steelport and secede from the union. The mission ends on a genuine note of triumph, with the Boss as the Doge of Steelport. The two final missions are night and day; if you save Shaundi, the Saints remain a mere gang, just going through the motions day after day. If she dies, the last major link between SR2 and SR3 is severed, and the Saints are freed from the burden of history to ascend from mere street thugs into a revolutionary force. In the first ending SR3 fails to throw off the burden of its GTA ancestry; in the second it succeeds, giving itself the opportunity to follow a new path. Judging by the trailers, it looks like the fourth game will be following in the footsteps of Prototype, which is probably a much better fit for the series now than GTA.

I'd also like to mention that Russian Woman Boss has replaced British Man Boss as my favorite Boss. It's a shame she won't be back in SR4.
Craverguy at 08:45 on 2014-04-07
So, Arthur, any plans to review Saints Row IV?
Arthur B at 09:12 on 2014-04-07
Eventually.
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