The Saints Row reboot is just around the corner and while it has been stated to have reigned in the chaos and quelled the zaniness back to the Saints Row 2 era of the series, it got me reminiscing on the series as a whole. Saints Row The Third – the third entry into the Saints Row series of video games – is still undoubtedly the best in the series because it possessed a little bit of that “BioWare magic” (despite being developed by Volition) and just felt like the true culmination of the series.
Saints Row The Third brought the 3rd Street Saints to the fictional city of Steelport – modelled after the real-life New York City – after leaving the city of Stilwater from the first and second titles. In the third instalment, the 3rd Street Saints had elevated from a powerful street gang to a multimedia empire, complete with film rights, sponsorships, as well as their own branded energy drink (which is the ultimate marker of success). So what made Saints Row The Third so well regarded by Saints Row fans and why does it remain the best in the series, despite Saints Row IV cranking everything to an 11? Well, Saints Row IV’s extreme over-the-top nature was actually its downfall – let me explain.
Note: Before we continue, I would like to offer a spoiler warning for the events of the Saints Row series of games, especially for Saints Row The Third and Saints Row IV. Do not read further if you really do not want anything spoiled for you from the Saints Row series of video games (although that is like saying “beware of spoilers for Scary Movie”). Nevertheless, I will be discussing story elements and events below so you have been warned. Onwards, we march!
I want to preface this by stating that this is obviously my own thoughts and reflections and not a totally objective account and that while I might state that Saints Row The Third is the best, I by no means am stating that Saints Row IV or the others are bad – I loved every single one of the games for what they brought, but The Third just had that something special.
Saints Row IV brought in an incredibly wacky and over-the-top plotline (even by its own standards) with the Presidential election, alien invasions, and simulated realities. While it was a great premise on paper, it was no longer a Saints Row game; rather it was simply a great sci-fi epic with Saints Row flair that felt like it was shoehorned into the series. The Third was grounded a little more in reality (in the loosest sense of the phrase) and while it by no means pulled punches on the “WTF” moments, it still felt like you were in command of a successful street gang that was on the march towards infamy.
This being the case, the events that occurred, and by extension, the story that unfolded, The Third still felt that much more impactful because it was grounded a little more than its follow-up. Granted, we still dealt with megalomaniac wrestlers, infiltrating sex clubs to rescue pimps, and battles in cyber-space but this was still a far cry more “down-to-earth” than what we would experience in Saints Row IV. A good example is looking at the obscenities in Grand Theft Auto still being a little more level, despite being able to launch homing missiles from a functioning jet bike.
Saints Row The Third offered a diversity of characters that made the story interesting and colourful, from previously mentioned megalomaniac luchadores, to a psychotic Frenchman, two lethal assassin twins, and a kid with a great internet connection – and those are just the villains. Not to mention or line-up of protagonists that included a fame-hungry Nelly look-a-like, an even more psychotic ex-drug addict turned murder enthusiast and a shaded cool guy whose name sounds like a food item from an Italian Mafia restaurant. Combined, the quips and dialogue from each of these characters just felt authentic, unique, and just ludicrously wild which gave the story (as moronic and dumb as it was) so much meat to it, that you couldn’t help but feel that it was an opera worthy of a real-world movie.
Saints Row IV’s story and characters felt forced, with the main antagonist Zinyak still offering a worthy performance of an alien dictator with a severe case of narcissm. Our protagonists remained largely unchanged and it was still interesting to venture into our peers’ fears and histories – which was also great if you had never played any of the previous Saints Row games before. There were also great scenes with quirky dialogue where I was left in stitches while listening to Zinyak argue with an imbecile (me) while discussing Shakespearean literature as we were playing a weird text-adventure game. Overall, since the majority of the game took place in a virtual world, all my actions just seemed non-impactful, like nothing I actually did really meant anything at the end of it all.
This was even bolstered by the ending of the game where you have seemingly done everything right and pushed towards a “good” ending, where you overthrow the bad guys, and reclaim the Earth, the world is still blown up in its entirety and you are stuck in space as the last surviving human beings. Hey, at least we became the new Emporer of Zinyak’s empire, right? What would we do with all this power? I know, awaken Jane Austen from her cryogenic sleep because she is “cool”. Not to mention the fact that the Zinyak dynasty had somehow mastered time travel so instead of just finding out how to return to when the Earth was still around, we just kind of shrug our shoulders and call it a day.
Along with this, all the significant deaths and disappearances from characters throughout the series that contributed to making the 3rd Street Saints who and what they are, are actually revealed to have been held captive by aliens this entire time, nullifying their deaths and severely diminishing the impact that they had on Saints as a whole. It just felt as though the writers were only looking at how to “one-up” a logical progression of a narrative simply to try and generate the biggest shock factor without any regard for the story itself. Worst of all, there were a number of times where you could tell that the game knew it was just pushing it for the sake of pushing it rather than it just being genuinely fitting for the universe.
Again, I am not saying Saints Row The Third was some kind of incredible meta storyline with a deep impact; but, it did always feel more “real” and nothing really happened just to elicit the biggest “GASP” it could. It was fun and wild, but still had that hint of restraint that kept it a little more “down-to-earth” and impactful, all while trying to actively push a coherent storyline (again, loose sense of the word). Another way of looking at it is that Saints Row The Third feels like the true, intended culmination of an incredible trilogy where the Saints had gone from rag-tag street gang to a multi-million dollar media conglomerate and global brand that had conquered it all and were now reaping the rewards of their efforts, whereas the sequel felt like a capitalisation on a successful series with cheap thrills and a watered-down impact. It was still a good, fun game (and I still recommend playing it) but the developers’ hearts just weren’t in it.
Another element where Saints Row The Third really showcased its power was the character, vehicle, and weapon customisation. You could turn your hardcore street gang/multimedia mogul leader into a ridiculous leather-bound sub, a strange vampire-killing priest straight from a TV show, or a weird amalgamation of clothing items that would turn you into a walking billboard of “just because you could, doesn’t mean you should”.
Not to mention collecting all the vehicles on offer, and pimping them out to become rolling death machines for you to terrorise the citizens of Steelport with. Finally, the weapons (which were bountiful) could be turned into another example of why America needs stricter gun control laws with explosive pistol rounds, launchers capable of vaulting sentient, mind-controlling octopi or literal sharks at your foes, and a giant phallic toy shoved onto a baseball bat.
While Saints Row IV had its fair share of zany weapons, it didn’t feel like there was a whole need for customisation of them or vehicles, since the game introduced superpowers. The superpowers slightly detracted from the importance of upgrading your weapons since the powers were intrinsic in taking down certain enemies, and left the weapons as a sort of “if you want to, you can”. To say the vehicles were left totally in the rear-view mirror is an understatement because, in a virtual world equipped with abilities like scaling buildings, gliding, and running faster than a re-enactment of The Flash or a dog with an abundance of energy, why bother with slow-feeling vehicles that just felt like a drag?
Saints Row The Third truly felt like the pinnacle of the series because everything that happened in the game felt natural to the world, the characters, and the storyline as a whole. It was still ludicrously over-the-top but purely for the fact that it felt right rather than just trying literally anything to get a reaction, without thought or regard for the impact. The Saints Row Reboot is incredibly exciting because it seems to be coming back to that traditional Saints Row craziness that we saw culminate in Saints Row The Third rather than just desperately lurching for extreme reactions in the hopes that the shock factor would mask its lack of heart.