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Saints Row wants to be the WarioWare of open-city games, and this may be no bad thing. While the giddy mayhem of early GTAs set the table for ostentatious crime drama, Saints Row trims as much context as possible from its carnage, becoming a cartoon flipbook of anything-goes extremity.
In its third outing, the game’s titles have barely finished rolling before you’re skydiving from an exploding plane. Tank missions, the traditional climax of GTA clones, arrive but half an hour later, and the game escalates with a breathless, puerile imagination so single-minded that it commands respect. Why have a simple speeding challenge when you can do it on fire or in the company of an ill-tempered tiger? Pyrotechnics that would be the concluding punctuation of any other game are little more than a footnote here; one all-out assault bundles hurriedly into the back of its predecessor, except this time the firefight takes place in freefall, or during a city-wide war, or on Mars.
Central missions are thematically varied yet proceed in a mostly linear fashion. A host of leering pop-culture references volley you between violent Japanese-inflected game shows, luchadore wrestling matches, pastiches of Tron, text adventures, zombie apocalypses and more. The game’s obsessive spoofery is more often empty-headed than not, but there are well-placed gags and sharp writing in here too, and the voice cast gamely hams it up.
Yet the drive towards context-free rapid-fire frippery comes with a cost. The continual barrage desensitises you to the action, and the irreverence makes it all feel largely meaningless. In these circumstances, the thin mechanics of many of the game’s devices fail to act as a satisfactory replacement. Combat often feels like a chore, as you agonisingly bleed wave upon wave of enemies. Even the most basic foes can sponge up entire SMG clips at point-blank range, impatiently nudging players toward the game’s weapon-upgrade options. Late-game attempts to sabotage player control compound frustrations further. Enemies ram and stagger you while explosions send you reeling amid a blinding cats-cradle of laser fire. In an ill-advised zombie-themed vignette, your undead foes not only waylay you with QTEs and leave you teetering uncontrollably with an unending flurry of blows, but sometimes spontaneously combust, sending you into a protracted, helpless flailing animation, which too frequently ends with you reigniting and entering the cycle once more. You may as well put the pad down and make a cup of tea – before you fling it through the screen.
Helicopters, planes and vehicles handle without nuance, but for getting from A to B they’re perfectly suitable. Even the humblest roadster can roar across the city in minutes, turn on a pin, and shriek to a full halt near instantaneously. The city itself lacks character – or doesn’t encourage you to look for it – and outside of the main mission line, the game’s diversions are little more than one-off gags. This flippant attitude allows the game a degree of slapdash silliness. Volition doesn’t owe you a retro-styled videogame tank made of chunky green blocks, so who are you to complain that the model sometimes won’t fit through your garage door? But the game’s loose approach to design gets harder to forgive when a mission-critical character dies during a cutscene, or when your assassination target is rendered invulnerable by virtue of being stuck in a wall.
Saints Row’s weakest parts are hand-me-downs from its GTA source text, uncomfortably echoing the squalid business of pimpin’ and hustlin’ in the form of a lame cartoon, a whooping fratboyish endorsement of crime and female degradation, devoid of any conscience or commentary. GTA takes pains to voice moral unease. In doing so it may not offer up reconciliation with the violent mechanics of the game, but the best solution to that dissonance cannot be to pitch the entire thing into a swamp of near-uniform toxicity.
By the time you’ve ploughed through the mission in which you murder dozens of busty stripper assassins (‘Trojan Whores’), dabbled with the option of slaughtering waves of sex workers (‘Whored mode’) or packed whimpering trafficked sex slaves from one container crate into another to either be sold back to their pimps at a premium or put to work in your own prostitution ring (‘The Ho Boat’) you might find the sheer amount of violent abuse of women reaches the point of being oppressive, a sensation so bleak that the taste has to be swilled out with back-to-back episodes of Adventure Time. Clearly it’s possible to take dark themes and spin them into effective humour, but if there’s a hilarious joke about sex trafficking to be told, then it’s not found here. This representation serves no purpose other than shock value. We’re not saying the creation of something in which women only exist to be sold, killed or fucked shouldn’t be allowed, but what does it say for gaming as a type of entertainment?
The final third of the game abandons grubby criminality for altogether more lurid, excessive and enjoyably silly climes, testifying to the fact that Saints Row is at its best when it rejects the expectations of the series and the strictures of the GTA format. Such is the pace of its ever-amplifying procession of exploding pop-culture nonsense, cheek and charm that it almost covers for the failings of its basic action, which is by turns shallow and turgid.
Ultimately, though, the streak of squalor that is parcelled with the game’s gang-banging aesthetic can’t help but sour what might otherwise have been a frivolous, disposable delight.