Saints Row: The Third lives again.
The 2011 game comes to Nintendo Switch on May 10, and it’s the same ridiculously over-the-top story of superstardom, gang warfare, and government malfeasance you remember.
Or not? Even if we accept that time has actually flowed normally since early 2017 — a tall order when every day ages us all another 10 years, I know — it’s been a long time since Saints Row: The Third showed up. If you’re not familiar with the series, or just want to catch up, let’s talk about why it matters.
Finding the right footing
It’s always funny to think back on how Saints Row, the series, started as an opportunistic knock-off.
In 2006, the early days of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 console generation, video game fans were hungry to see what their new hardware could do. At the time, Rockstar’s Grand Theft was the gold standard for big, open world action romps, but with 2004’s San Andreas still fresh there was little chance of a new GTA at the time.
So along came Saints Row, the first one. It was a bit more subversive than GTA, and it took itself way less seriously. There were some rough edges, and the humor didn’t really land. But it scratched an itch.
Saints Row, the series, started as an opportunistic knock-off.
Saints Row 2 leaned in even harder a couple years later. It embraced the over-the-top sensibilities that the first game had merely flirted with, to great effect. The humor landed in a way that it hadn’t before and the violence, more gratuitous than ever, became an integral part of the joke.
That first sequel made it clear this was no mere knock-off. Volition, the series’ developer, was bringing some fresh ideas to the mix and shaking up a modern open world action sub-genre that had until then been entirely the domain of the GTA games. But it wasn’t until Saints Row: The Third that the series found itself.
We’re talking about a game whose opening mission is a blockbuster-worthy series of events in which you fight your way through an airborne cargo plane, dump everything in its hold into the skies above a major city, shoot your way through a mid-air gunfight, and then, finally, re-board the plane in an unconventional way — I won’t spoil how — to make it crash.
Or how about a mission that comes up shortly after where you have to crash a rooftop pool party at a penthouse apartment owned by a rival gang? You parachute in, guns a-blazing, while Kanye West’s megahit-of-that-moment “Power” backs you up. Nothing in video games at that time felt quite so epic.
Don’t take it from me, though. Let’s take a look at how the critics of 2011 greeted Saints Row: The Third.
Writing for Giant Bomb, Alex Navarro summed up the totality of the sequel’s success in two perfect sentences.
Grand Theft Auto filtered through the mind of a fucking lunatic, pushed to boundaries of ludicrousness that make things like giant dildo clubs and man-launching cannons seem altogether reasonable compared with much of the other batshit nonsense going on in here. In a sense, Volition has succeeded in making the mayhem and murder simulator that Rockstar never even tried to make in the first place, and it’s hard to argue that we, the video gaming public, aren’t better off for it.
Navarro went on to praise the story improvements, a feat he felt was pulled off by Volition’s writers for “simply refusing to care.” There is a plot to follow that unfolds over the course of three very clearly divided acts, but as Navarro pointed out “most of it is lost amid the genuinely funny throwaway one-liners and endless gobs of insane action thrown directly at your eye sockets.”
GameSpot’s Carolyn Petit had much to say about the wild sense of freedom in Saints Row: The Third, starting right at the top with the game’s character creator.
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.
That freedom, she said, also extends to the things you actually do when you’re playing the game. Progression in Saints Row: The Third revolves around earning Respect, which you get from completing missions and activities. That, in turn, leads to more weapons, more vehicles, more “Homies” to call on when you need back-up, and more story missions.
It’s a heady feedback loop because, as Petit wrote, “you’re never held back from advancing through the story, or from doing just about anything else. … With so many opportunities to earn respect, you’re totally free to do only those activities you enjoy, and ignore the rest.” Every activity helps your long game in Saints Row: The Third, but importantly, you don’t have to master every one.
It’s not all a success, however. There are elements of the game that were seen as needlessly offensive in 2011 and those same things most certainly haven’t aged well into 2019. Writing for Joystiq (which has since been folded into Engadget), Ben Gilbert raised the alarm on “Whored Mode,” a wave-based survival minigame that’s separate from the main story mode.
The premise is simple: you’re dropped into a small arena and tasked with surviving an onslaught of attackers. The rules change from wave to wave — “giant scantily clad women armed with swords … and you’ve only got unlimited grenades,” Gilbert offered as one example — and you’re meant to survive as long as you can.
The tastelessness of the mode’s overarching concept, however, is a disappointment, per Joystiq’s review.
Here I was, violently murdering loads of women, often wearing bikinis (presumably “whores?”), and for what reason exactly? The imagery made me personally uncomfortable. Thankfully, not every level/wave involves beating women with a purple dildo bat — the mode is meant to constrain your weapons to something specific (yes, occasionally the bat), and offer a challenge based on that. Sometimes I was facing off against multiple “brutes” (tank-like enemies equipped with miniguns or flamethrowers), sometimes it was furries, sometimes “whores.” Again, it’s a fun diversion if you can separate yourself from the frequently upsetting themes.
Thankfully, it’s hard to imagine any developer seriously pitching a mode like this in 2019. But it’s definitely an inescapable piece of the history here.
Where are we now?
The Switch edition of Saints Row: The Third is the 2011 game top to bottom, for better or worse. It ran great for me in portable and TV mode both, with the latter maybe enjoying a slight edge after I noticed some occasional slowdowns when the action got intense with the Switch in tablet mode.
The bad stuff is still there. It’s unfortunate to see Whored Mode on the main menu and completely unchanged. You don’t have to engage with it at all — the story is entirely separate, and the main focus of this experience — but the menu option is still there looking back at you every time you load up the game.
I don’t know if it’s fair to expect or even ask for sensitivity-minded changes in an eight-years-later re-release. But the world has changed a lot since 2011 and people as a whole are generally more mindful of what they say and how they say it. And the existence of Whored Mode — as well as some of the more offensive humor in story mode — is something every potential buyer will have to reckon with and decide on for themselves.
It’s also worth mentioning that this Switch release contains every shred of add-on content introduced for Saints Row: The Third after it came out. There was some cool stuff in that collection, but you should also brace yourself: the first time you unlock your gang’s clubhouse, prepare to spend multiple minutes cycling through “These items have been added to your collection!” pop-ups as all of those add-ons alert you to their existence, one after the other.
That’s a much smaller complaint than the sensitivity issues, of course. So long as you can set that aside, there’s still a tremendous game to be enjoyed in Saints Row: The Third. Look for it on Switch starting May 10.