Unlike the open worlds of L.A. Noire or even some GTA games, there is no lack of stuff to do in the third Saints Row. Just driving around the new city of Steelport can offer challenges, like trying to travel 100k feet in the oncoming lane or on two wheels. And yeah, there’s over-the-top humor and a predilection for displaying enough sexual fetishes and cleavage to make Marcellus Wallace blush, but that’s all part of the charm of being a gangbanger in the world of Saints Row: The Third.

For those of you who care about story, the tale told in the third game is a pretty damn good one. The introductory sequence of a bank heist sets up that the Saints are celebrities in their hometown of Stilwater. There’s a movie deal in place (oddly mirroring the offer from rapper 50 Cent to make a movie based on the first game) and commercials for the energy drink Saints Flow are high-budget affairs. The bank robbery goes wrong – like they do – when some very well-equipped guards combine forces with the police to arrest the gang. The robust customization that the series is known for actually has you craft the main character’s mug shot for their first night in the slammer. There are not as many sliders for fine-tune adjustment as there were in previous Saints Rows, but there are certainly enough options to excite even the most creative individuals.

After a scene on a plane with a Belgian gang leader speaking for an international crime organization known as the Syndicate, the characters leave the plane the only way you can mid-flight – by jumping out. Landing in a new city called Steelport, you quickly discover that all your assets have been frozen by the Syndicate and the Saints have to start building up money and street cred from scratch. The whole setup is an elegant balance of character introductions, action sequences, and vital gameplay information – well, as elegant as characters can be calling each other assholes and talking about where they used to score weed.

The opening sequence also reveals how natural the combat controls feel. Hand to hand combat has a satisfying pop to it, but it resorts to quick time events a little too often. Firing guns will be your bread and butter, and, with no lock-on mechanism, possessing a shooter’s skill will definitely help. Once you perfect using rocket launchers and grenades, most normal targets are easy to kill, but that’s when the game throws a huge brute bearing a mini-gun or a flamethrower at you. These hulks are really hard to take down, as are the specialists that randomly show up from each rival gang, and they offer a satisfying challenge and change of pace without overdoing it.

Once you are dumped in Steelport, the real game begins. As the pop-up windows instruct you – again and again, really, I wish could turn those off – there are many activities to occupy your time, and all of them have the net benefit of leveling up your character with “respect”. Respect is experience points in the gangland of Saints Row. You earn it by doing just about anything, but you get the most by completing missions and challenges.

Almost everything is accessed through the incredibly useful phone menu. Made to look like an iPhone or an Android device, the phone displays a street map that shows all of the activity locations you’ve discovered. You can also call your friends on the phone to access story missions or have them fight with you. The Saints Book application is where all the random challenges are located, and it’s very possible to lose a boatload of time tracking down vehicle requests from chop shops and assassination targets. Having all of these activities governed by the excellently designed fake interface of the phone made performing these tasks a lot more fun because it was so simple to pick a new thing to do right after completing something. Some of the activities do start to feel a little repetitive, but there’s so many different things to do that I could just move onto something else. Like beating up every mascot I could see.

Dotted on the map are many stores, like the Friendly Fire gun shops, clothing stores, tattoo parlors, plastic surgeons, and – my favorite – the car customization chain called Rim Jobs. Once you do a few story missions, smart gang leaders should start investing in buying these fine establishments. Each place you own increases your hourly income in Saints Row 3 and every twenty minutes or so of playing the game, you can transfer all the funds your network earns to your pocket. I don’t know why they call it “hourly” when there’s no in-game clock, you just have to keep checking your phone to see if a new transfer is available. The constant promise of money at regular intervals keeps you playing Saints Row 3, stretching your play sessions as you wait for just one more payment. The designers were smart enough (or mean enough) not only to come up with this ingenious mechanic, but also by limiting how much you can transfer per Respect level. Leaving your game paused won’t help either. Sorry, cheaters.

Money allows you to customize every car you steal, buy a new wardrobe or cover yourself in tattoos, and also purchase all upgrades. When you start out in Steelport, you will be easily killed if you try to tackle too many gang members at once, or if too many cops answer the summons of your Molotov cocktails. But as you progress and spend more money, you will soon be sprinting for miles and bullets won’t cause you as much damage. That is, if you don’t invest only in huge purple dildos.

Performing a quick carjack and driving around the city is just enjoyable, especially if you pick a car that handles well like the Zimos and upgrade it all the way. The street layout feels more conducive to playing the game with few restrictions on where you can drive. Having a central highway connecting different regions allows you to go from one end of the map to the other fairly quickly. Later in the game, the map will show which parts of Steelport are under the Saints’ control. In between missions and just blowing up stuff, I loved just driving to different locations to find new stores to buy or gang operations to explode with a well-placed grenade. Once those activities are done, that little slice of the city is colored purple – controlled by the Saints.

While the whole game is pretty much non-stop fun, the writers and voice-actors get extra points for making me chuckle like a thirteen-year-old boy. Saints Row 3 walks that fine line between satire and parody, lampooning science-fiction movies, paranoid hackers, and pop stars like T-Pain all while shining a light on the very real issues of sexism and violence in our culture today. Either that, or the guys at Volition are just screwing with us. Honestly, I don’t care, I’m just glad they let us along for the ride.

Bottom Line: Steelport is a glorious sandbox with fun around every corner and the well-written story and easy-to-use design make Saints Row 3 a fantastic package.

Recommendation: Buy it before I beat you unmerciful, you little turd.

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

[rating=4.5]

Game: Saints Row: The Third
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Volition
Publisher: THQ
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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