"Saints Row" returns in excellent, twisted form

"Saints Row" returns in excellent, twisted form

The Third Street Saints are back, and they're just as profane, perverted and fun to play with as ever.

The last time we saw them (the end of "Saints Row 2"), they were on top of the world, having climbed a pile of bodies in the city of Stilwater to emerge as masters of all they surveyed.

At the start of their latest adventure, the just-released "Saints Row: The Third," they've ascended to even loftier heights. Hailed as celebrity megastars, they're the subjects of movies, stars of reality TV and shillers of horrible-tasting energy drinks. But they haven't quite given up their criminal ways, as the game opens with the stars of the crew — the boss, represented by the player; Johnny Gat; and Shaundi — showing an actor how the Saints rob a bank.

Things don't go quite as planned, however, and as a result, our anti-heroes experience a fall from grace, both literally and figuratively. But like the criminal masterminds they are, they land on their feet in the town of Steelport, bruised but not broken, all hot and bothered for a little revenge against the Syndicate that brought them low.

If you are already familiar with the series, you know that this means it's time to cause all kinds of mayhem. If you aren't, well, re-read the previous sentence.

The weirdos at Volition Inc., the Champaign-based game developer, have once again managed to cram a jumble of off-the-wall ideas into one delightfully chaotic package. The result is a game that is sick and twisted in the best ways possible; think of it as a juvenile power fantasy for the discerning adult, where you can run amuck to your heart's content. And if you start to get a little bored doing whatever springs into your sick, sick mind, you can trigger the next mission in the storyline — or participate in one of many different challenges.

Here are a few of the many things one can do in the city of Steelport: beat people to death with a large sex toy; ride an armament-laden hovercycle into battle; base jump from skyscrapers; play in traffic to commit insurance fraud; escort a tiger around town; go streaking to earn respect; drive a tank down Main Street; surf atop random cars; call down artillery strikes on rival gangs; and gun down children's mascots on a television game show.

And trust me when I say that's just scratching the surface. "Saints Row" has always been about excess, after all.

It begins with the game's character creator. This robust feature allows you to tailor almost every aspect of your character's physical appearance, from the most basic elements — gender, race, hairstyle — to the most meticulously detailed — eye placement, ear lobe size, neck thickness. With enough time and effort, you could truly insert yourself in the game, or you build yourself a better She-Hulk (from Marvel comics) or humanoid Pikachu (from "Pokemon").

For me, the most important part of the character creator is picking the right voice. If I've created a male avatar, I can't help but choose the Cockney accent available. If I'm playing as a woman, she'll more than likely speak like Natasha from "Rocky and Bullwinkle." Each voice choice brings a slightly different personality to the game.

Once you've made your character and arrived on the streets of Steelport, you can roam the open-world city at will. No areas are off-limits, though if you do venture certain places, you will get shot at. Still, free-roaming right off the bat is a good thing. It means you can go to town on the town as soon as you feel like it.

But veterans of the series will notice a few things they've gotten used to just don't exist in "Saints Row: The Third." For one thing, food, drink and drugs are completely gone; players can no longer munch a meal from a perverted spoof of Wendy's to heal up when they're in a tight spot. And when gangs or the po-po are hot on your heals, you no longer run to the Forgive and Forget drive-thru to buy some relief; instead, you can duck into one of your cribs or any store you own, and your tormentors will beat a hasty retreat.

Both changes are among the many things that have been done to streamline or improve the game. For instance, the consumables are gone so that players have greater access to hand-thrown weapons, such as grenades and farts-in-a-jar.

Other changes:

— Story missions are no longer activated by driving to a specific point on the map. Instead, you simply open up the Missions category of your character's in-game cellphone and select the one you want to start.

— Similarly, assassination missions and car theft targets are also activated through cellphone use. In fact, your phone also acts as your GPS, contact list for your homies, camera, bank and music organizer/MP3 player, and it's also where you go to upgrade your character and the rest of his crew.

— At the end of certain key missions, the player gets to make choices that will modify their future game options. For instance, one such mission ends with the player deciding between ownership of a new crib or a better reputation in the community.

— What used to be the sprint button is now the "awesome" button. If you hold it down, yes, your character will still sprint, but with additional inputs, he or she will also dive through car windows like one of the Duke boys from Hazard County or do a roll-dodge manuever or ...

— The melee combat system is much deeper. The good old-fashioned punches and kicks of the past are lumped under a single light-attack button. But now there's a heavy-attack button too, which activates a punishing attack, such as a ground-and-pound takedown, that gets more vicious if the player hits additional buttons in time with on-screen prompts. If the player holds down the "awesome" button and attacks another character, an acrobatic takedown of some sort will be the result; maybe the main character will literally bodysurf on his victim or do a clothesline or hurricanarama. There's lots of variations.

— While more pedestrian weapons — pistols, shotguns, machine guns, etc. — are still present in the game, there's a few more outlandish additions too. In addition to the aforementioned deadly sex toy, players can bring the rain with drone strikes, blast enemies with laser beams, and ... well, I don't want to spoil things. Let's just say a few different weapons will turn their victims into bloody stains.

Frankly, there are more changes in the game than I can begin to delve into here, and most of them aren't terribly important.

Something important that hasn't changed, on the other hand, is that the campaign doesn't have to be a solo experience. Players can be joined online by a friend or a stranger in roaming about Steelport, and doing any of the in-game activities. Volition calls this feature the "Co-op Campaign," yet I feel "cooperative" doesn't accurately describe it. That's because the two players don't have to work together. They can quite independently run amuck and even sabotage each other. That's not cooperative, but it is extremely enjoyable.

Outside the story campaign, there is a separate game-play type called, ahem, "Whored Mode." It's a series of progressive combat challenges against some extremely unusual foes, and can be played solo or with a companion. I recommend running through it with a companion. Played alone, it can be a little tedious, but with another player, it's often hilarious.

Now it's time for me to temper all this praise with a few notable complaints about "Saints Row: The Third." To my surprise, Volition has made a few mistakes that really disrupt the experience for me.

The biggest problem could be defined as an issue of continuity. Actions taken on story missions lack a lasting effect on the game world. Specifically, in numerous instances the Saints must deal with the fact that their main headquarters, an extravagant penthouse, is no longer a safe place to hang out. Yet they continue to hang out there. They go on missions to relocate, yet still they hang out there. The place gets blasted apart on one mission, yet once it's over, the player is sitting pretty again in the undamaged penthouse.

It makes no sense. Not only do the Saints have numerous residences by that point in the game, Volition is the pioneer in environmental destruction. Yet they've ignored their expertise and created a glaring contradiction as a result.

Another problem commonly encountered is that certain inputs can confuse the software. In the Xbox 360 version, the "Y" button is used in multiple ways. Sometimes it opens a doorway, other times it tells the character to climb into a vehicle, and other times it's used to grab someone for use as a human shield. I've found that if more than one of these possible situations is available (an enemy is in close proximity to a car door, for instance), the game's character will start to perform an action — open the car door — then stop and stumble about for a moment, confused, and ultimately won't complete either action.

Yet another big bug I've found happens in co-op play. Sometimes when a challenge mission is launched, both players automatically "fail" before the mission has even begun and have to restart it.

Finally, well, I'm not sure I can qualify this as a problem, but it seems odd. If you go on a major rampage in Steelport, and get five-star wanted levels with a gang or the authorities or both, enemies pour out of the woodwork. But if you crush the opposition for long enough, they give up. It makes sense on a realistic level, but as I've said, this isn't exactly a realistic game.

Overall, I've had a lot of fun playing "Saints Row: The Third." Sometimes you just have indulge your more immature side, and this game is an excellent way of doing that.

"Saints Row: The Third"
Publisher: THQ.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360 using a free review copy.
Price: $59.99 consoles; $49.99 PC.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: If you've got a healthy sense of humor and like the idea of playing the part of an amoral criminal, this is the game for you. But whether it's a buy or a rental depends entirely on if you find lasting value in all the wacky hijinks you can indulge in.

Images courtesy of THQ

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