I broke down and bought Grand Theft Auto IV a few months ago when I was in the mood for some open-world mayhem, only to be sorely disappointed. Why was I driving some guy’s girlfriend around? And why do I have an angry, a-hole boss? Why am I some low level schmo, and why can’t I customize my character, beyond just a couple of wardrobe changes? Where was the fun? Well, I figured out a few weeks ago. All of the fun that I was expecting can be found in Saints Row the Third.
In the third installment of this popular series, the titular Saints (a street gang) have become media darlings. They’re the same homicidal, larcenous monsters, but people can’t get enough of them. They’ve got licensing deals with clothing lines and energy drink companies. Their victims – and even the police – want their autographs. Random people stop them on the street for “photo opportunities”. Imagine the very worst parts of shows like Cops and The Jersey Shore cooked down into a toxic essence and shot straight into the veins of the TV viewing public, and you’ve got a good idea of what I’m talking about. However, all is not well with the Saints: after a bank heist goes south the gang is left in a new town, Steelport, facing a powerful new enemy: a gang called the Syndicate. You, the player, have to lead the Saints to dominance over every glittering, vice-glutted corner or Steelport. Or maybe not: this is your world to do with as you please. Every bit of the city is completely unlocked, so you’re free to roam it (and wreck it) as you like. But first, you’ve got to determine who “you” are.
SR3 features an extremely deep character customization engine. You can create a character of any race, build, gender or facial composition that you want. With a little bit of time, you can recreate your favorite celebrities or costumed superheroes. You don’t even really have to look human, so if you’re looking to play a blue-skinned ectomorphic mutant with a skin condition, or a zombie, or the Incredible Hulk you’re all set. None of it has an in-game effect, but it’s characteristic of the kind of fun-house feel that SR3 has on offer that you can do this right from the start. Within a few minutes, I had a pretty decent clone of the Joker. (Why so serious, Steelport?) All of that being said, a variety of clothing and costume shops, plus plastic surgery clinics in the game allow you to change your character’s look if you get tired of it.
While stealing cars (all completely customizable down to their rims and window tinting, by the way) and assassinating rival gangbangers is a part of SR3, it’s only a small part. You can buy businesses (tattoo parlors and garages are the mildest of the shops on offer) and participate in mini games that you discover along the way, many of which are downright bizarre. The wildest one I’ve discovered is “Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax: an underground game show where you fight it out against costumed characters in a trap-filled bizarro parody of a Japanese tv program (Actual in-game quote: “There are some things that the street can prepare you for, and the Japanese fever dreams of a homicidal cat is not one of them.”) The actual missions are pretty fun, too, and absolutely ooze with style. One of the first has the character parachuting onto a penthouse roof to assault a rival gang lieutenant and claim his digs while Kanye West blasts in the background (Achievement Unlocked: “Opulence: you has it”).
I can’t remember the last time that I’ve been so caught up in a game. I’ve looked up during play to see that literally hours have passed by while I’ve been busy rampaging through the streets (and skies and waters) of Steelport. There are so many crazy WTF moments in SR3 – some of which are totally accidental – that you’re constantly entertained.
Whereas GTA drops the player into a gritty crime story. SR3 puts the player at the controls of an ultra-violent, super-gonzo nightmare carnival of the id. I should warn parents that this game earns its “Mature” rating in a big way, and by no means is it for kids. However, if you’re an adult who smiles at the idea of speeding down the crowded city streets of a major metropolis in a stolen concrete truck wearing a spaceman helmet, armed with a giant purple marital aid while Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” screams through the speakers, then this may very well be your game.