I finished the original Saints Row and Saints Row 2 and remember them both very fondly; I was excited when the hub-bub around The Third started to get rolling as the game looked like more over-the-top, don’t-take-your-too-seriously shenanigans that made 1 and 2 so much fun in the first place.
When it came time to play, I bought The Third for the PS3 and was happy to see the offer to get a free copy of Saints Row 2 again; I figured it would give me something to relax with and play back through again when I had some time.
First things first though, time to play Saints Row: The Third.
There is a particular aspect of open-world games like Saints Row 2 and GTA IV that I absolutely adore: surprisingly realized worlds. I love driving around, seeing something interesting and then spending the next hour walking around a real-life casino, water treatment plant, mine shaft or mall just to see how detailed the designers got. The more detail, the more impressed and immersed I feel.
For the most part GTA IV has this all over the Saints Row series, but in Saints Row 2 there are many areas of the game that surprised the hell out of me with some serious detail; I was surprised that developers and artists had taken the time to create and decorate such intricate (and random) parts of the city.
You see where this is going, but let’s get started anyway…
After getting Saints Row The Third in the mail I popped it in and started playing. Something I noticed right off the bat was how flat the world felt. No matter how over the top the missions or actions were, the world felt entirely flat; detailed enough to service the mission at hand, but nothing terribly interesting to explore.
Buildings like the run down wrestling gym have nothing beyond their design to interact with or explore. There are no derelict basements with surprises in them or hidden gems; there are no NPCs to mess around with (e.g. wrestling matches)… there is just nothing beyond the 3D model occupying space in the world.
More examples, heading out to the star-island or the half-sunk tanker, you’d think there would be some rewarding little nick-nack, maze or collectable to reward you for adventuring… but there was nothing. The simple geometry and flat textures on these items clearly ear-marked them as forgotten assets stuck in the outskirts of the world and not meant to be messed with.
Conversely, in Saints Row 2 if you headed to the outskirts of the world and started adventuring around (e.g. in the sunken hotel crib) you’d find a 3-level deep buried town that went on for half a mile; or a mine shaft complete with lighting paths and drilling tools; or a boat house; or a chinese market or a prison island, etc. etc.
Something I noticed right away in The Third is that the Volition team didn’t re-use any of the world they had created from the previous Saints Rows… like any of it. Not just geometry or the city, but textures, animations, etc. It all felt brand new, and as with most all-brand-new games without $100mil budgets, none of it was as fleshed out as it would have been had most of the SR2 assets been reused and updated instead.
Besides all the new assets, from what I can tell The Third used an entirely new engine that was not necessarily better than the one used in SR2; texture resolution was higher and I am sure it was pushing more polygons, but there were things that were worse. Physics was simpler, pathing wasn’t any better, FPS was slightly faster but still nothing compared to Rockstar’s Rage engine, etc.
As a software developer I got the distinct sense that the Volition team set out to re-create the world “so much better and awesome!” using all new stuff in The Third and got carried away with boiling the ocean.
Another example of what I mean, in the meat-packing plant in Saints Row 2, there are characters textured to look like inspectors and they lean over and check the pressure on the valves on the machinery. In the airport there are baggage handlers and attendants.
These are art assets and mo-cap sessions specifically done for these little menial parts in the game; the attention to detail is really nice.
In Saints Row The Third, there is nothing like this. There are pedestrians and bad guys… and police. That’s it, have a nice day.
I am sure I am over-simplifying, but you get my point. When you scratch the surface of an open-world game, the deeper you can scratch, the more impressed you become with the world exponentially. That being said, if you scratch the surface and the paint comes peeling right off, you realize there isn’t much here but a bunch of 2-dimensional smoke and mirrors, so you never get that vested in the game.
My god, this is the biggest difference between the two games. The creative styling of the cutscenes, characters and sequences in Saints Row 2 is over-the-top awesome; the Ronin missions have some of the most exciting and action-movie-esque cutscene sequences where you and Gat truly brutalize (and get brutalized by) the gang.
Saints Row The Third opens, misleadingly, with one of the best missions and gameplay sequences in the game. Rightfully so Volition showed this sequence at all their press junkets before the release (the airplane escape scene) and it was awesome and over the top to play. After landing though, the game never really picks back up like that opening sequence.
There are more bad guys to shoot, more people mad at you and all this nonsense with NOOSE, but you feel no ultimate alliance to your gang or the city you are trying to take back.
The brutal intensity of SR2 (e.g. how you handle Merril’s tattoo or his girlfriend) are all missing from SR3, with a light-hearted silly city that isn’t all that interesting to be in.
The best comparison I can make is that Saints Row 2 felt like it was written and directed by someone who had worked in Hollywood writing scripts and choreographing fight and action sequences for a long time; you could feel the talent in that script.
Saints Row The Third felt like a great first effort by someone that will eventually be good at this, but this is their first outing and they were either rushed or the vision for the world and story wasn’t that ambitious in the first place.
I never thought this would make a difference, but all the licensed music in Saints Row 2 really made it feel much more like a polished/impressive/1st party game. All of the cover-band music that inevitably cost Volition much less in Saints Row The Third ended up leaving a cheap taste in my mouth.
I don’t know if this is a style item, but I specifically noticed this (and I’m not a big music guy) which means others must have as well.
In SR2 I tend to leave the car radio on (as well as GTA IV) because of the hilarious talk shows or great music. In SR3 I did for a while until I got sick of most of the music and now I just turn it off.
Moving on from the styling, I found the story in The Third to be flat and feel really really linear to me. It wasn’t terrible, it was just kind of silly… not silly in the awesome kind of way that SR2 was (where everything is turned to 11), but silly in the eye-rolling, I-am-not-taking-this-seriously-enough-for-you-to-go-so-wild-with-it sort of way.
The characters are entirely unmemorable, there isn’t that much interaction with you and your other Saints and the bad guys are… god… I finished the entire game and all the activities 3 days ago and I cannot remember what happened in the game.
So if that is any indicator… there you go.
The reason I’m writing this up is because right after finishing The Third (3 days ago) I immediately started playing Saints Row 2 again just for comparison and having the two side-by-side like that caused me to see the shortcomings in The Third clear as day.
An anecdotal example: I ground through Saints Row The Third in a few days; hours a day. The entire time I played, mission after mission, activity after activity, it felt flat and most of the time felt a little like a chore. I didn’t care about any of the characters, didn’t care about my Saints and just wanted to see the map cleared but wasn’t really having fun doing it.
Conversely, as I’m playing back through Saints Row 2, the reason I end up playing hours at a time has nothing to do with trying to get full completion again (I’m not), but has everything to do with the fact that I am genuinely having fun.
The story is silly in the right spots, serious in the right spots, really intense and vicious in the right spots and all mixed together really really well.
If you were looking for a review on Saints Row The Third, here it is: 7 out of 10.
I don’t like it as much as the 2nd one (I barely remember the first one so I can’t compare) and standing on its own, it is just OK. You should pick it up used for $25 if you love open world games and especially the Saints Row franchise, but there is no reason to pay full price.
While the over-the-top design has always been a staple of the Saints Row franchise and how it has differentiated itself from the Grand Theft Auto series, in The Third, Volition jumped the shark; they made it so over the top and so silly that you didn’t take any of it seriously and it wasn’t even that much fun.
It is possible to make an over-the-top game that takes itself just seriously enough to make you care; but if the game is a nonstop romp of mildly amusing shenanigans with 1-dimension characters that you care nothing about and a thinly constructed world that shows its simplicity at first glance; then you don’t really give a shit about the entire experience.
I hope Saints Row 4 builds on the assets from Saints Row 3 and allows the team to focus on realizing the world more, brings back the writer and director from 2 and really sits down to tell a more serious, funny, intense story again.
I’ll be waiting when they do.