Some games create atmospheric worlds that attempt to draw you in with moving stories about characters seeking a second chance, or cast you as troubled superheroes who push themselves to the limit to fight evil. Saints Row: The Third is not like those games. Rather, it's the kind of game that gives you weapons called apocafists with which you can punch people, instantly making them explode in a bloody mess. The Third won't impress you with knockout visuals, move you with an absorbing story, or engage you with challenging combat. What it does, better than just about any game before, is embrace the idea of an open world as a place for play, constantly giving you access to awesome new toys and providing you with no shortage of exciting opportunities to use them.
No knowledge of earlier Saints Row games is needed to jump into the insanity of The Third. Following an incredible opening sequence that involves the kind of bank heist that only the Saints can pull off, the gang is transplanted from their hometown of Stilwater to the city of Steelport. As their leader, it's up to you to lead them from upstart newcomers to rulers of the town, which means frequently coming into conflict with the local gangs, the masked Luchadores, stylish Morningstars, and Tron-inspired Deckers. Along the way, you meet some great new characters, like Oleg, a strongman so huge, he can only ride in the bed of pickup trucks and who defies expectations by being learned and philosophical. And at key moments, the action is energized by fitting uses of music; the pounding rhythms of Kanye West's "Power" make a great early set piece even more exciting, for instance, and a fun sing-along between your character and another creates feelings of warmth and camaraderie among the Saints. Occasionally, the game's "anything goes" tone goes a little too far--a mission that uses human trafficking of sex workers as a plot point to support its cartoonish mayhem is one example--but the story typically succeeds at being absurd, goofy fun.
If you choose, you can make it all the more absurd by creating a character who speaks in zombie grunts or wears an animal mascot suit (when he opts to wear anything at all). The number of character customization options is impressive, and there are no restrictions on what elements you combine. If you wish to create a blonde bombshell with a beard or a mean-looking man who sounds like a woman from Eastern Europe, you can. Seeing a man in a sexy cowgirl outfit or a woman wearing a giant Johnny Gat head in cutscenes in which everyone treats him or her as a respected gang boss is hilarious. And if you get bored with your character's current appearance, voice, or outfit, plastic surgery and clothing from the varied boutiques of Steelport cost a pittance, so you can reinvent yourself as often as you please.
This kind of freedom characterizes the entire Saints Row: The Third experience. Previous Saints Row games required you to do activities to earn enough respect to proceed to the next story mission. In The Third, you're never held back from advancing through the story, or from doing just about anything else. From the moment you arrive in Steelport, you have access to an assortment of vehicles to steal for chop shops and targets to assassinate for clients, as well as a tremendous list of challenges you can strive to complete or ignore. Many of these reward you for doing things that you might want to do for fun anyway, like streaking, vehicle surfing, driving in oncoming traffic, catching big air in cars, doing wheelies or stoppies on motorcycles, nailing basejumps, killing people in those creepy mascot outfits, and much, much more. You earn respect for just about everything you do, and as you level up, you gain access to a host of upgrades--health increases, combat abilities, the option to recruit more gang members to follow you around, and much more.
Yes, "more" is the driving philosophy of The Third--more awesome weapons, more amazing vehicles, more really fun stuff to do. The available activities include returning favorites like Insurance Fraud and Mayhem, and a number of great new pursuits. Guardian Angel puts you in a helicopter with a rocket launcher or sniper rifle to protect Saints on the ground. In Tank Mayhem, you must create a certain amount of destruction within a time limit, but you get to do it by harnessing the tremendous firepower of a tank. Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax is a reality-show gauntlet of deadly traps and deadlier enemies, in which everything is fair game, except shooting pictures of pandas, because as we all know, killing pandas is unethical. With so many opportunities to earn respect, you're totally free to do only those activities you enjoy, and ignore the rest.
One thing you definitely shouldn't ignore is the main story. Within just the first few missions, you plummet out of a plane and into an airborne shoot-out, skydive into a penthouse that belongs to a rival gang, use a UAV drone to call in guided missiles on tanks, and more. The missions eventually become a bit predictable for a while, serving as introductions to the other activities and diversions available to you in Steelport. But before long, they get wild again, packing in numerous surprises before culminating in one of two outrageous final missions. (Don't worry; after experiencing one ending, you have the option of replaying the penultimate mission and making the choice that takes you to the alternate ending.)
Saints Row: The Third gives you the tools you need to wreak havoc. You start off with typical pistols, shotguns, and submachine guns at your disposal, and even from the first moment, you have the ability to cause all kinds of bedlam. You can spend money to level up weapons until they become instruments of absurd destruction. Fully level up a pistol, and it can fire explosive bullets that send enemies into the air. Max out a submachine gun, and it can set your foes on fire. But it's the way that you constantly gain access to awesome new weapons and vehicles that makes your progress immensely rewarding. You eventually get your hands on one device that lets you take remote control of any vehicle, another that lets you paint a target and call in an airstrike, and a number of other fun and powerful weapons.
You also become the proud owner of an increasingly large and varied assortment of vehicles that includes helicopter gunships, VTOL planes, and jet bikes. Regardless of how you choose to get around Steelport, you're sure to enjoy yourself. Cars have a tight grip on the asphalt and slide around corners with style; aircraft are similarly maneuverable and let you bank and roll with ease. If you don't find a car that suits your tastes on the streets of Steelport, you can take your ride to any Rim Jobs mechanic shop and avail yourself of a robust customization system, improving the car's performance and changing its appearance in a number of ways.
Unfortunately, the world in which you get to use all these amazing toys is far from flawless. Steelport's districts don't have much detail, and as a result, the world feels more like a chintzy miniature playset than a living, breathing city. Vehicles, trees, and other features often visibly pop in to the environment, and sometimes characters get stuck inside of objects. Occasionally, activity objectives won't trigger properly; for instance, you may steal a vehicle that has been requested, but find that your GPS continues to direct you to the area where the vehicle can be found, rather than to the chop shop. And at times, you may call in homies for support and have them fail to show up. Also, the enemy gang members and law enforcement officials you're constantly gunning down don't exhibit much intelligence. They tend to stand in the open, making easy pickings for you and your fellow Saints, and when they do take cover, you can often walk around behind them and take them out before they even know you're there. But this isn't a game that tries to excite you with challenging tactical combat. It's all about the chaos that ensues as you fend off dozens of enemies, the sheer fun of pointing and shooting and making things blow up and fly through the air in spectacular fashion. And when you're having that much fun, the blemishes don't matter much.
As entertaining as it is to cause mayhem in Steelport on your own, the enjoyment is amplified considerably when you bring a friend along. Playing with a partner, you can each freely move around the city doing your own things, or you can join each other for activities and missions. Causing mayhem in tanks, raining rocket-propelled death on rival gang members from a helicopter, or just running around and kicking people where it hurts is all the more merry when you're rolling with a real-life homie. With another player, you can also participate in the Cat and Mouse diversion. Similar to the great Chopper vs. Chopper multiplayer mode from Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, Cat and Mouse has one player drive a car through checkpoints while the other attempts to destroy the car from a helicopter.
Along with the fun it brings, co-op play also brings more chaos to the game's visuals; your co-op buddy and other characters and vehicles may bounce around the environment at times, but again, it's easy to overlook such flaws when the action is so enjoyable. It's too bad, though, that, with the aforementioned exception, you don't have the option to replay missions you've already completed. Some are so spectacular that you might want to invite a friend to join you, but you can only do so if your friend has played up to exactly the point in the story when he or she has access to the mission and hasn't done it yet.
Outside the main game, Saints Row: The Third has Whored mode. This pits you (and possibly a partner) against waves of enemies, but while plenty of games have similar "horde" modes, this one has a distinct Saints Row flavor. One wave may give you a chainsaw with which to defeat a flood of zombies, another may give you a minigun with which to take down a massive energy-drink mascot, and another may require you to fend off attacking gimps while armed with nothing but a purple dildo bat. It doesn't offer the tactical thrills of the best "horde" modes out there, but the absurd concepts and varied waves make it fun to experience at least once.
Saints Row: The Third is buoyed to great heights by terrific mission design and by the remarkable assortment of vehicles and weapons it gives you with which to take over Steelport. Whether you're buying up property to increase your hourly income, cruising the city in your favorite vehicle to collect photo ops, drug packages, and sex dolls, or punching people to bits with those crazy apocafists, there's rarely a dull moment. Saints Row: The Third succeeds tremendously at delivering its unique brand of raunchy, outrageous fun. If you have an appetite for this particular kind of absurdity, you won't be disappointed.