Saints Row The Third review: Walking the talk

"There's nothing like this game. In fact, I'm not sure there should be anything like this game. There's no concern for taste, no concern for morals -- it's all about the fun factor." That was THQ's VP of "Core Games," Danny Bilson, at a preview event for Saints Row: The Third just last month. Bilson has lead THQ's "hardcore games" push, attempting to reinvent the once-embattled publisher by reinvesting in "core" brands. That didn't work out so well, as we found out this past year.

I'm glad to say that, with Saints Row: The Third, Bilson's "Core Games" group is finally on solid ground. And in that respect, actually walking some of the big talk we've heard so much in the past few years. Beyond the now-infamous weaponized dildo and the inclusion of certifiable jams like Kanye West's "Power," there's so, so much to love and enjoy about Saints Row: The Third.

For starters, there's totally a hoverbike.%Gallery-136917%

Story contrivances are thankfully few and far between in Saints Row: The Third. Like most things in SR3, the focus is on getting players into what I've dubbed "Potential Fun Moments™" as soon as possible. And when there are story contrivances -- like the opening scene, which sets the stage for the rest of the game, as well as the gang's move to the new city of Steelport -- the focus is still right there on those PFMs.

Here are just some of the things that I did, and thoroughly enjoyed, during the first hour of SR3: participated in a foiled bank heist, shot down dozens of helicopters from a helicopter while protecting a bomb, jumped out of an airplane and had a mid-plunge battle with gang members, sang along to Sublime's "What I Got," in entirety, in a zombie voice.

A zombie voice? Yes, a zombie voice. Sure, the character creation process isn't exactly "thrilling" (are they ever?), but the things you can do with it most certainly are (especially when coupled with the ability to download and share creations). Discovering that I could create an abnormally large pink monster with a zombie voice and a sloping brow was quick and painless, and the results of those choices during cutscenes was where my reward truly paid off.

You see, the zombie voice ... well, let's just say it makes the main character less than legible -- it's rather akin to "Crazy Dave" from Plants vs Zombies, and thusly turned intentionally goofy cutscenes into unintentional laugh riots. Subtitles allowed me to read the main story beats, but even the subtitles read like a script for zombie extras in Night of the Living Dead, making the choice all the more hilarious and definitive.

Whether it be grappling in a Luchador match or riding a sex slave-powered rickshaw to freedom, there are a dozen or more conversation starters in SR3; the kind of moments that other reviewers were buzzing about before the review embargo lifted, and many of which I'd rather not spoil for you.

Thankfully, unlike some of this year's other blockbusters (SR3 is most certainly in that camp), the major moments aren't stacked on top of each other. The open world helps to break up the campaign, but even when I was charging through main story missions, the game never felt stale or too intense. The big moments get a chance to stand out as a result; that they're paired with a great soundtrack certainly helps. Kanye West's 2011 blockbuster "Power" is used at just the right time, making a fun if forgettable mission into something special, and the Adult Swim radio station is a constant source of hilarity throughout the game.

These outrageous moments are paired with some flaws, of course. Tutorials and side mission introductions take up far too much of the initial campaign time, and the optional cell phone missions early in the game feel impossible with such a low-level character. Those missions also seemingly disappear as the game goes on, which left me wondering why they were ever an option in the first place. Those issues are easily forgivable, though, as the overall package is easy to love.

I spent just over 20 hours in Steelport, upgrading my weapons to the point of massive devastation and kitting out cars to pop tires while I drove at thrice the speed of anyone else on the road. Did I mention there's a hoverbike? 'Cause there's totally a hoverbike. It shoots missiles. It was an easy 20 hours, speeding along just as fast as my overpowered sports cars and sniper bullets. And afterward I was still eager to jump in for more.

All of this (and more!) can be played co-op with a friend over Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, either separately from your own campaign or one in the same. Each person can earn Trophies or Achievements in each other's games, and both will record progress through the campaign if they're on the same mission (the game will otherwise warn you of an imminent character overwrite if you're not synced up in terms of progression).

Players can also team up for SR3's wave-based "Whored Mode," which pits one of several character models (read: not your creation) against a variety of different enemy types with different weapon constraints applied (giant scantily clad women armed with swords ... and you've only got unlimited grenades!). Unfortunately, while the gameplay of "Whored Mode" is surprisingly fun, it's the only part of the game that I felt was in bad taste.

Here I was, violently murdering loads of women, often wearing bikinis (presumably "whores?"), and for what reason exactly? The imagery made me personally uncomfortable. Thankfully, not every level/wave involves beating women with a purple dildo bat -- the mode is meant to constrain your weapons to something specific (yes, occasionally the bat), and offer a challenge based on that. Sometimes I was facing off against multiple "brutes" (tank-like enemies equipped with miniguns or flamethrowers), sometimes it was furries, sometimes "whores." Again, it's a fun diversion if you can separate yourself from the frequently upsetting themes.

Having only played SR3 in the Saints Row series, I can't say for sure whether or not there were massive leaps taken with the latest entry, but I can say that it feels brand new. Beyond the dense, dangerous, opportunity-filled open world, there's another mission type around every corner. Saints Row: The Third doesn't play like recent THQ efforts have -- all bark and no bite -- but instead feels like a labor of love. It feels like the developers had fun, and they wanted you to feel it too. And I promise, you will.

This review is based on retail code provided by THQ for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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