I took some time off from the internet late last year. It was nice. I went on an actual vacation, played a lot of NBA 2k12 with a friend (we ball so hard his fiancee wanna find me), and then I got home and played through Saints Row: The Third. It was nice. You should’ve come along.
NBA 2k12, despite its various flaws (no classic jerseys online? weird difficulty spikes for no good reason?) is the best game that came out last year. At this point, I’ve done just under one hundred matches online with my friend (I’m 49-45, what what, but he’s up on points at 5497-5481), over one hundred games in My Player, and probably… honestly, we probably did something like 60 games over Christmas break. It was absurd. Appalling, really. But fun. That game never gets old. Infinite replayability.
The only other contender for Game of the Year, by a long sight, is Saints Row The Third, an open world published by THQ, developed by Volition, and sequel to the stellar Saints Row 2. Here’s the opening trailer:
First, the trailer is immaculate. Excellent use of Kanye’s “Power,” one of the most undeniable songs that dude has ever made, to begin with, and then the trailer actually starts running through the characters you see in the game. Angel comes through with the Tornado DDT, Oleg slings a dude off the roof, Johnny Gat protects his boss… it’s good. Tremendously effective.
The thing about Saints Row the Third is that it understands why you played Vice City and San Andreas. It knows that the story was part of it, sure, but the real draw to GTA-style games is in the gameplay. GTA has spent the past few iterations building itself up into a real Hollywood production. The plot has taken over as prime mover from the gameplay, and that’s part of why I’ve backed down from that series. It isn’t as fun as Saints Row, not by a long shot. The story’s nice, but I’m long past the days when I would play a game just for the story.
In contrast to the over-serious and surprisingly humorless stuff that put me off GTA IV, here’s the second mission of Saints Row the Third:
The video is eight minutes long, but essentially, you get captured, you fight your way off an airplane, and then your mid-air dogfight gives way to you rocketing through the cockpit of an airplane and out the back end. In-between and during all of this, there’s a lot of dialogue.
Saints Row the Third is GOTY because it front-loads the mayhem that made Grand Theft Auto such a success. Rather than making the mayhem something to be avoided, or setting up mayhem as a diversion from the real gameplay, SR3 understands that working your way up to a five-star wanted level is why you play sandbox games. It incorporates that into the story by giving you a (completely customizable) main character who makes the same choices you would. Do you need to take over a penthouse so you can have a new hideout? Well good news: you’re going to parachute in and kill your way to victory. None of this sneaking around business or working your way up from the bottom floor. You go all in, and you do it every single time. Laws and rules don’t apply to you.
The mayhem in SR3 is glorious. You can escort tigers or hookers around town, try to cause as much damage as you can in a set amount of time, basejump, grab a plane with VTOL capabilities and go wild, or knock down entire buildings in your quest for more cash and dominance. A floppy sex toy makes for a killer melee weapon. Upgrade your guns enough and you can dual-wield fire-spitting submachine guns. I spent a large portion of the game Supermanning them hoes and then hitting them with a Ric Flair strut after I took out their entire gang. I got into a gunfight with something like sixty or seventy fur suiters. I robbed a bank dressed as my best friend. I stormed a penthouse over online co-op with a friend and we made mincemeat of the enemy while an incredibly well-timed music cue rang in our ears.
Saints Row The Third approaches storytelling from a gameplay perspective first. “How can we make this mission, which is essentially follow someone in a car and shoot them, more fun?” How is storming this building going to be different from storming the penthouse? They find a new answer every time, and that’s delightful. Your character consistently makes bad decisions that make for great gameplay, whether it involves jumping out of one airplane and into another or suiting up for the only good VR mission to appear in a non-Metal Gear Solid game. They even make fighting zombies fun by couching the battle in one of the most amazing lead-in cinemas I’ve ever seen.
The gameplay informs the story, but that doesn’t mean that the story is shallow. It’s heightened to allow for the gameplay, but it’s really a very familiar tale. A gang of criminals hit town and start setting up shop. They take over a few strongholds, buy out local businesses, eliminate the competition, run girls and drugs (or maybe not drugs?), and embark on a campaign to show the cops and rival gangs that they are the wrong people to test.
The cast is diverse, from the adorable ex-FBI agent who does your computer hacking to Hulk Hogan as Angel da la Muerte, disgraced luchador. Jane Valderama, the local news lady, reports on your missions on the radio right after you do them. Citizens react to you with awe or hate, depending on where you are. Steelport is a big city, and littered with minigames and opportunities for some serious mayhem.
Here’s a video of all seven main character voice actors singing a Sublime song, a compilation of something that actually happens in the game while you’re shooting dudes:
Somehow, in the end, it all comes together. The combined effect of the insane gameplay, the story and its constantly escalating transgressions, and the unbelievably charming cast of pimps, thieves, and murderers had me alternating between crying with laughter, texting friends about how amazing the game is right now you just don’t understand it’s so beautiful, and being genuinely bummed out by a few plot twists. The last mission, which leads to one of two endings, features a music cue so unbelievably appropriate that I couldn’t help but be happy with how the game wraps up, even if my ending was probably the lesser of the two. I don’t want to ruin it for you–you can probably youtube it if you’re curious, but it’s worth waiting for and experiencing in context–but the cue ratchets up the drama in a very classic way, and gives the last mission a momentum that a lot of final stages lack (whattup MW3 and an ending that attempts to be a crowd-pleaser but is actually just pretty gross).
Shoving the mayhem into the forefront of the story seems like it would turn your character into an anarchistic terrorist monster, and I guess you make several decisions that are basically on that level, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wall to wall murder. You get to know the entire cast really well, thanks to them being in constant radio contact. They’re all weird in their way. Kinzie is a typically frazzled and innocent computer hacker (though a ludicrously well-timed joke about sex toys suggests otherwise!), Z is your friendly neighborhood autotuned pimp, Oleg is a giant mass of muscle but scarily smart, and Pierce really likes chess. Every character has their own quirk and motivations for getting down with the Saints, and the glimpses into their stories are great.
Saints Row the Third is fun, in the fullest sense of the word. The story, the gameplay, the tone, all of it. It’s a very smart game, despite the constant onslaught of felonies and treasonous actions. It understands the expectations of the audience and then does its level best to not fulfill, but exceed those expectations. I was expecting great things after playing through “Freefalling.” I was surprised and totally in love by the end of the game. I got the game for forty bucks on sale at Amazon. After watching the two endings, I went ahead and dropped twenty bucks on the Season Pass for DLC, something I have never done before. I more than got my money’s worth out of it, and there’s still plenty of gameplay left to go.
It’s very rare that I get into a game like I did with Saints Row The Third, but yo, it happened. I got hooked hard. And tomorrow, the first wave of DLC hits: Genkibowl VII. I still haven’t found Professor Genki in-game, but I’ve been looking. I want that three hundred thousand dollars.
Also, real talk, the only game with better sound direction is Child of Eden, which is in an entirely different genre.