It's weird, really. There I was worrying that MODERN WARFARE 3 would lose the franchise's identity due to being written and developed by a substantially different Infinity Ward. It didn't, and is perhaps the best installment in the series*. As if that wasn't baffling enough, SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD turns out to suck in comparison to its predecessor, despite being made by the same studio, including the same writers.
The game starts with some promise, and some wit. The Saints are now celebrities. The first mission has you and your homies robbing a bank wearing rather useless disguises while in the company of a method actor who is trying to learn how to play a Saint. The second mission is a gloriously stupid shootout in an airplane, followed by one of those free-fall sequences that are becoming so common in third-person games (such as DEAD SPACE 2 and FORCE UNLEASHED 2), but even crazier. Both missions have the funny writing that made SAINTS ROW 2 such a joy, my favorite moment being when the main character calls the villain a "French fuck", and hears the offended response: "Please! I'm Belgian."
But in the third mission, I started to get worried. What the fuck happened to Shaundi? Where's the lovable, sexually promiscuous stoner who kept upstaging Pierce in the previous game? Who's this perpetually pissed-off, profoundly irritating woman who shares her name, but absolutely none of her traits except a bare midriff? Also, where's the attention-needing, classical-music-loving Pierce? Why is he now pretty much defined by his wish to finish a chess match? Where's Johnny Gat? Did they really do away with an excellent character on the second mission? And this hacker chick who speaks in complicated computer lingo no-one understands and lacks a social life -- are those two horribly cliché traits the best they could come up with? And dear God, why did anyone think that Zimos' autotuned voice would stay funny?
Not only do all the characters suck now, the interaction between them is astonishingly bland, failing to come within a mile of the funny dynamic of the previous game. They go for the obvious almost every time, and the effort to be funny actually comes off as a struggle. At one point, while you're running away with your enemies' cargo and being pursued by its owners, Pierce actually asks "Why are they aiming at us?!". They being the people whose cargo you're stealing. And instead of being baffled by the sheer stupidity of the question, my character responded, "Because we're not dead yet!". I honestly do not know which is worse, the set-up or the punchline. I actually want to go back to that mission and hear it again to make sure I'm not paraphrasing, but the game doesn't have a mission replay option. SAINTS ROW 2, of course, did.
And mind you, the cargo was a group of barely-dressed whores being sold as part of a sex trafficking operation. At the end of the mission, you can decide whether to sell them or keep them. At another point in the story, the whores at your party turn out to be assassins, and the mission requires you to kill them all. In your crib, whores can constantly be seen giving people lap dances. When Burt Reynolds shows up, he has a whore in his lap. There's a game mode called "Whored Mode". THE THIRD seems to be very proud of its whores, and its approach to ramping up the absurdity of a situation is often to add whores to it. "Look, you're shooting people and there's all these WHORES around!" I'm surprised they didn't include a cameo by Frank Miller.
But that's not all: the female members of pretty much any gang in SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD show up semi-nude. For example, while the male members of the Morning Star gang dress in suits, the women wear trenchcoats over a corset and panties. Shaundi -- despite no longer acting like the sexually promiscuous stoner from the previous game -- walks around with her abs always bare. The game makes a point of having a sexualized woman whenever possible, which quickly gets tiring and gratuitous. There never seems to be any irony about it, what with so many of the game's attempts at humor failing disastrously. Only the mission in which Viola dresses in a superhero costume with a gigantic cleavage, while the other characters constantly tease her about it, comes close to being a spoof of the comic book industry, but never actually comes off as such.
The story does start to get crazier (and occasionally funny) in the third act -- although to say the game's story has acts is to attribute more structure to it than it has. Characters come and go without ceremony, and frustratingly the game does away with its most promising characters. The proud Belgian Phillipe Loren is soon replaced by the unspeakably dull Killbane, and Decker leader Matt Miller shows up only to fill out a couple of missions. STAG commander Cyrus Temple is a monotonous cliché -- big, pragmatic and a fan of Shock and Awe. Apparently that wasn't deemed obvious enough for a military leader, so they give him a sidekick who's pretty much a female version of him. At least the game doesn't dress her minimally, although perhaps if it did -- and other characters remarked upon it with surprise -- the sexism would really start coming off as tongue-in-cheek.
Chances to subvert or ridicularize stereotypes are, therefore, constantly missed. Obvious routes are taken throughout the entire narrative, and new ideas are introduced without foreshadowing as if they're being scratched off a checklist (the zombies come to mind). Nothing about this game comes even close to the aspects of SAINTS ROW 2 that kept it interesting and funny, such as the pathetic leader of the Ronin who is a disappointment to his father, or the deadpan couple that commanded the Sons of Samedi, or the disastrous tattooing of the Brotherhood's boss. And what's worse, THE THIRD presents its watered-down, cliched ideas with an overconfidence that makes them all worse.
Gameplay-wise, there's ups-and-downs. The visual presentation is much improved, with vivid colors, slick graphics and excellent animations, but the implementation of the latter leaves a lot to be desired. For a start, grabbing people and throwing them is no longer fun, because you can't aim them anymore. In SAINTS ROW 2, you could throw them against a bunch of trash bins, or against a car, or against a breakable fence, with surprising (and immensely entertaining) accuracy. In THE THIRD, your character will throw them in the direction you're facing, but always upwards, so if you do it indoors, they'll always hit the ceiling. I made the mistake of upgrading my throw power to the max, and whenever I tried to make a target hit a fence, they'd fly over the fence, and when they did hit the fucking fence, it wouldn't break. What's worse, even after flying forty feet, bouncing off a wall and landing on concrete -- leaving blood splatters everywhere they touched -- they'd get up. On several occasions I threw enemies off dangerous heights only for them to get up again and shoot at me from below. So the throw feature was only useful when you're fighting on top of a skyscraper -- and I wouldn't be surprised if they survived that, too, but at least it'll take a while for them to get the elevator back up.
The nut punch feature -- which allows you to liquefy anyone's testicles with the press of a button -- gets old fast, and much more appreciated would have been the addition of varied kill animations such as the ones that made THE PUNISHER (also developed by Volition) such a joy to play. The wrestling moves you can perform while sprinting also lose their charm, and are an uncertain tactic in combat, since enemies often survive them and keep shooting at you. Enemies are way too relisient, in fact, and to waste two thirds of an SMG's clip on a single one of them breaks the pace of the combat. When they die, they have varied death animations that transition into ragdoll -- but the transition is not seamless. It would have been much better if the game used an Euphoria-like system instead of rigid death animations instantly going full ragdoll.
The "brute" characters, muscular giants that ram you -- yes, SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has those. SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has one the most cliched type of enemy in videogames, and they're just as annoying as you wouldn't expect in a SAINTS ROW game. Instead of poking fun at this tired cliché, the game makes them even more infuriating by giving some of the brutes flamethrowers and miniguns, and as they set you on fire/tear you to shreds, they can still ram you.
"But what about the insanity?!" I imagine a straw man asking, as strawy tears slide down its strawy face. "What about the dildo baseball bats, and the fart bombs, and the --" Yeah, they're all there, but like the rest of the game, they get old fast. Volition had a lot of ideas but didn't think the execution through. Hitting people with a giant dildo is pretty much the same as hitting them with a baseball bat, or any other melee weapon -- it sends them flying backwards in floppy ragdoll. The sword, despite being huge and sharp, does the same thing. The amusing quick kill animations that every melee weapon had in the previous game -- guess what -- aren't in THE THIRD. To be honest, I didn't even see any fart bombs in my full playthrough -- well, "full" except for the horrible final mission, which offers two endings, and the one I picked was so pathetic I didn't have the stomach to check the other one.
We do get quick-time events. SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD has quick-time events. Yeah.
Furthermore, the experience system makes the activities pretty much useless, since they don't earn you enough money or respect to be worth playing. In the previous game, completing an activity would give you some kind of perk, and you wouldn't know which until you completed it. Could be really useful, or just barely useful. In THE THIRD, you buy whatever upgrades you want after you've unlocked them, which you do by earning respect, which you get from doing stuff. Missions award you a lot of money and respect -- activities usually don't, which reduces them to pointless diversions. And guess what happened to the best and funniest activities from the previous game, such as FUZZ and CROWD CONTROL? That's right.
Mind you: I had fun playing through the campaign. I had little interest in the activities, and the main story sucks most of the time, but the game was solidly-designed and entertaining enough to keep me playing until the ending. It is a good game. But that's it. The pure sandbox full of toys THE THIRD marketed itself as, and is so proud of being, it is not. If there are things I missed, I'm not compelled to find them, because they'll likely not be funny enough to be worth it or because they'll just ragdollize people in a slightly different way.
* AUGUST 24TH 2012 UPDATE: No it really bloody isn't the best installment in the MODERN WARFARE series. I must have been temporarily insane when I wrote that. Or probably just impressed that the game turned out good after so many problems within Infinity Ward. Still, it's not as good as the previous two, the first of which is more brutal in its portrayal of war and the second being less grounded but more subversive.