„Burt, fucking, Reynolds!?“

Reviewing a game like Saint’s Row: The Third might sound easy, but to me it’s a pretty hard thing to do. I’ve basically sunk 25 hours into a sandbox GTA-clone, 25 hours I spent running tanks out of airplanes, using a chainsaw in a wrestling match and racing gimp-pulled rikschas. And now I’m going to convince this game is not just clever, but well-thought out, too?!

Attack of the Clones

Saint’s Row: The Third is the (yep) third instalment of the Saint’s Row franchise. While it might have started as a Grand Theft Auto clone, both series quickly grew apart and by the time the third game rolled out, they were simply miles away. So what makes them different?

Basically, at a first glance, Saint’s Row: The Third is exactly what people thought Grand Theft Auto was back in 2005, when the San Andreas hot coffee minigame had soccer moms everywhere reaching for their pitchforks. It’s dirty, overly sexualized, violent and crude.

But it’s also very well-written and smartly handled.

Good times

From a gameplay perspective, the premise is that Saint’s Row: The Third just wants you to have a good time. You start out as a hero and by the time the credits roll, you’ll have turned into a demi-god. You’ll have access to awesome rides, take no damage from bullets or fires and can pretty much take over the world. This game is (almost) never frustrating because of this philosophy. Saint’s Row: The Third doesn’t believe a video game is a series of challenges that keeps getting harder and harder. It believes playing video games all comes down to having fun.

Whoa, now, that isn’t so hard now, is it? Wrong. Ask yourself: if you take away the challenge in a video game, then what’s left? Aren’t challenges what keep us playing? Saint’s Row: The Third found an adequate answer to that problem, too: it’s all about dropping the player in increasingly fun situations. Let’s use a Spinal Tap referenc: I’d like to think this game starts at 11 and then proceeds to crank it up through the roof until you’re fighting hordes and hordes of zombies to please Mayor Burt Reynolds.

Writing fart jokes

But the best part to me? Between all of the nonsense and absurdity, Saint’s Row: The Third stays grounded in its own characters. As strange as things might get, your characters still remain the same bunch of friends they always were. Remember the A-team? Remember how those four weird people could carry every piece of plot their crazy writing team threw at them? Saint’s Row is like that.

Drew Holmes, Volition’s lead narrator who is also responsible for the other Saint’s Row games, is a very gifted man for pulling this off. Thinking about the why and the how, I found the answer lies in the flavour texts. As per usual in sandbox games, you start a mission with a cutscene and then you have to drive somewhere. During the trip, the characters chat. These chats are usually written as witty little banter scenes. No plot, just characterization to listen to while you play.

The way Saint’s Row works is: you take a mission from your cell phone and thus have to drive somewhere, making room for witty character banter, then you see the mission cutscene (usually a witty situation that is disturbed by, say, zombies, a SWAT team or a set of angry pimps). After the mission cutscene, you drive to the point of action and start shooting stuff. More banter along the way.

You see: there’s a lot more banter going on. And because of the way this banter is written, the characters stay grounded. Jokes are not written just to be funny, but to show us something about the character telling it. It’s the way the best sitcoms work. Sit through an episode of Arrested Development or 30Rock and try to interchange the jokes between characters. It can’t be done. Unlike most of, say, Grand Theft Auto IV, Saint’s Row: The Third works like this all the way.

Sure, the game is very crude and almost never subtle, and you might not appreciate the things they are joking about, but I think it’d be unfair to let good or bad taste come before good writing. Because that’s what it is: damn good writing. Even if the topics are bound to polarize. For me personally, I’m not one for crude jokes, but if the characters are well-written, I’ll follow them to the end of the earth. Screenwriting 101, basically. The reason “Steve Carrell-like character” is an actual comedy salespitch term. It’s a type of character where you know the funny will be grounded in realism.

In all…

Saint’s Row: The Third is a beast of a game. In an age where games try so hard to be mature, this one decides to stay a teenager. There’s so many crude games, but so little that do it well. It’s easy to make a fart joke, so people make fart jokes. Saint’s Row: The Third, however, always asks itsself a question the true great storytellers of our day and age do: how does the joke benefit the characterization?

Even for fart jokes.

Especially for fart jokes.

Blogbert

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