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.
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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