You really know you've made it in the underworld when you find yourself partying in a penthouse with an army of pink ninja bodyguards. In Saints Row: The Third, I'd achieved this within two hours. That's it, I'm on top of the world, ma. No-one's gonna bring me down.
Then the minigun wielding ogre clones showed up. In this free roaming city sandbox, you can never predict the future.
It's worth saying right now that this is the stupidest game I've ever played. I mean that in a good way. If you find yourself demanding reasonable answers to questions like: “Why does the tiger in my car calm down when I do power slides?” or: “Why am I being chased by carts pulled by gimps, and why did they just explode?” then you should steer clear of this ramshackle madness. If, however, everything described so far sounds like the best game ever made, then Saints Row: The Third was built exactly for you.
The world's most media savvy crime syndicate – the titular Saints – are back. But they've fled their home town of Stilwater to find their fortune in the city of Steelport: a generic neon metropolis studded with warped versions of American architectural landmarks. The opening scene has you and returning Saints Row heroes Shaundi and Johnny Gat dressing up as bigheaded versions of yourselves in order to rob a bank. The Saints have come along way from the grimy back alley thugs they were in the first game. They're international superstars now. Your hostages ask for autographs as your team politely fills the money bags.
Then the women in trench coats attack. The Saints aren't the only gang in town. The pompous Syndicate are the head honchos, and they demand that the Saints give over two thirds of all their Steelport profits to continue operating in the town. Your pal Johnny Gat politely declines by ramming their leader's head through a plane window. One free-fall later, you're on the streets of Steelport, and the whole city is unlocked, ready to be conquered.
Your mobile phone is the hub by which you accept new missions, check your bank balance, set waypoint locations and buy new upgrades for you and your gang. Important gang members will appear in your mission list when they have a ludicrous new task for you to perform. Completing these will unlock new safehouses and put you in contact with new gang members based in different parts of the city, unlocking more missions and furthering your quest to win over Steelport. Three gangs make up the organised crime syndicate that stands in your way, the slick European gunrunners known as the Morning Star, a lime green gang of Mexican wrestlers, The Luchadores, and the cyberpunk hackers that call themselves The Deckers.
Missions can be separated into activities and story missions. Activities are short, sharp tasks, and vary in quality immensely. Tank Mayhem throws you into a tank and asks you to roam Steelport's streets, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars of gleeful damage within five minutes. A less stimulating task has you dangling from a helicopter with a sniper rifle, shooting enemies off the tail of a fellow gang member half a mile away. Even if they're wading through the corpses of their nearest and dearest, enemy gang members will be completely unaware that they're being sniped, and the perfect accuracy of the rifle make this a dull turkey shoot. Not good.
But then there's Insurance Fraud. You drive out to a given crossroad, and must charge into oncoming traffic. Left clicking at the right moment to have your character ragdoll face first into the oncoming car. The more damage you take, the more money you get. Take enough punishment and you enter adrenaline mode, which lets you steer your flailing corpse in midair, letting you swerve into the path of more cars, racking up more and more insurance money. Brilliant.
Completing each mission unlocks it as a repeatable challenge on the city map. You can drive back to each location to kick off ever harder versions of the original mission for extra money. For me, only a handful survived the novelty of the first play through. The mad, mascot-slaying gauntlet that is Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax was one of the highlights. The minigame in which I had to cruise through a dull, undulating track on a Tron light cycle dodging firewalls wasn't. Saints Row's activities are wildly variable, but short enough to let you blast through the naff ones.
For every few you complete, you'll get access to a hefty story mission in which the Saints fend off a major attack from one of the three rival gangs of Steelport, or strike out to take some territory for themselves. These missions contain some of The Third's finest moments. Diving out of a helicopter into a penthouse swimming pool in the middle of a rival gang party, and then wading out with a rocket launcher to the sound of Power by Kanye West was one. Taking cover behind an angry, naked Russian ogre man to do battle with an army of clones was another.
Story missions also put you in touch with Saints Row's surprisingly funny cast of characters. Some are just jerks. Fine, they're all jerks – but you'll separate the ones you can't stand and the ones you'll choose to drive around with you based on how much of their schtick you can handle. The pimp who speaks entirely in autotune is amusing for the first two missions, then I endeavoured never to meet him again. On a more socially acceptable level, the vengeful Shaundi makes a welcome return from the second game, and the seven foot tall, turtle neck wearing Oleg is a lovable addition.
The humour blends a shock and awe assault of nudity and narcotics jokes with some knowing, clever oneliners: “When will the rescue chopper arrive?” “Oh, in about two waves of SWAT guys”. I teetered on the brink of genuine offence throughout, but stayed on the happy side of disgusted. True, it's a game that lets you hit an innocent pedestrian fatally in the face with a huge purple dildo, but you can't hire a hooker, drive her into the middle of nowhere and shoot her. And there are no women-slapping quick time events, or any of the other moments of nastiness that GTA slips under the radar in the name of parody.
The ridiculous, funny, disgusting balance that Saints Row strikes with its characters, and the all-in attitude to mission objectives, forms the glue that holds the whole thing together. Considered in isolation, its mechanics are solid at best. The driving is easy and fast, even if the cars feel a little weightless. Choppers are powerful but sluggish and the shooting is almost laughably easy at points. My most powerful weapon for the first third of the game was the pistol. You'll be able to wipe out a room by chaining together headshots: these enemies like to cluster together and all seem to be exactly the same height. It gets around this later by throwing huge hordes of stupid but determined opponents your way. They come skidding up in decked out cars, mounted in trucks, sniping from helicopters, sliding around on rollerskates, and as you progress you gain access to ever more powerful weaponry, like UAV drones and a gloriously destructive shock hammer. The combat in The Third is rarely challenging, but it does get pretty spectacular.
This over the top combat forms the basis of Saints Row: The Third's co-op survival Whored Mode (aping the Gears of Wars Horde Mode). It's a good way to get into a fast fight, but it's been made redundant by the fact that a friend can jump into your campaign at any time to play. The addition of co-op only adds to the playground feel of the city. You can start huge, escalating fights with any of the three gangs by wading into their territory and shooting them. If you're not concerned with the story you can buy the local establishments in each territory, boosting your hourly salary and earning you discounts in shops. Unlocked safehouses can be expanded and customised, there's a brain melting array of costume options available, and you can even buy upgrades for you and your gang's vehicles.
It's mad. In fact, it barely makes any sense at all. But for all its wonky bits, there's an odd charm to Volition's decision to leave nothing on the drawing board. It's not the largest sandbox, but it is packed full of brilliant toys. Saints Row: The Third's commitment to unrestricted, ridiculous fun is unflinching, and the product is a city full of glorious slapstick debauchery.