The following blog will contain story spoilers for Saints Row 2 and The Third. Don't read ahead if you don't wanna be spoiled!
All of the advertisements I've seen for Saints Row: The Third built it up to be completely over-the-top in the most insane way possible. The first trailer I remember seeing of it was a clip of a man getting punched in the dick, and that was it. Then I heard more details about the game trickle out, and the game sounded even more interesting: there's was a button dedicated to groin attacks! You go into cyberspace and ride lightcycles like Tron! There's a catapult car that shoots pedestrians!
And of course, who could forget about the Penetrator? It's basically in every piece of promotional material THQ has ever released for the game.
Seriously, I've seen that screenshot more than any screenshot for any other game. I'm not even exaggerating.
So, great! I'm a fan of the Saints Row series. Saints Row 1 was just OK, but I put tons of hours into Saints Row 2. I enjoyed the variety in missions and Activities in the game. I always felt like there was something fun to do in Stilwater, like jumping into the Fight Club activity to beat down thugs, surfing on airplanes, and my personal favorite pastime: picking up trash cans and street signs and beating pedestrians with them. I was ready for new Saints Row that had all of the things I loved about 2, but more!
So why did I feel no desire to keep playing Saints Row: The Third after the credits rolled?
I suppose one reason is because there's just less to do compared to Saints Row 2.
Several of the Activities and Diversions are just gone for no explained reason. And while I can do without stuff like Zombie Uprising, Fire Truck, and Taxi missions, it doesn't mean they should just be gone. You should keep them and crank them up, if this game is supposed to be so crazy and over-the-top.
Even worse, some of my favorite Activities in SR2 are just gone. I would've loved for them to keep FUZZ and crank it up to the game's alleged crazy level. Let me kill a bunch of fursuiters with a Flamethrower!
Why take out Fight Club when you just added a bunch of running takedown moves and new "brutal finishers"? Actually, I'm not sure if Fight Club would work well anymore, considering the multiple fighting styles and hand-to-hand combo system was completely removed for the Third. The game is full of cuts like that.
Racing events are gone, even though the game's vast amount of vehicles could've made for some interesting racing situations. How about a 5 man hoverbike race downtown, where everyone has to dart past skyscrapers and try to win without crashing?
I also found it amusing that Ho-ing (where you have sex for money) is gone. That's just too crass and offensive for the new Saints, I guess.
Another reason why I left The Third feeling a bit let down was the story. In Saints Row 2, the protagonist is one of the most interesting characters portrayed in an open-world murder simulator. This is because the protagonist is a psychopath. Over the course of the game, this character:
1)Kidnaps a rival's girlfriend and tricks him into crushing her with a monster truck
2)Helps a good friend bury a man alive
3)Sings along to "Take On Me" on the radio despite it clearly not being in their vocal range
And all other manner of villainy. It was interesting to see a character break the traditional "I used to be a criminal but now I'm trying to get out" mold in such a radical way. The Boss in Saints Row 2 was aggressively amoral and in ways, the biggest villain in the game. Yet, they still had a strong sense of trust and loyalty to the Saints, and was still likable despite being evil.
The story in Saints Row 2 was pretty easy to follow. You had three gangs to take down, and there were essentially three "arcs" as things built up to a climax where you killed the leader of each gang in an awesome way.
In Saints Row The Third, the story feels disjointed and has much less shock value than the previous game. Seemingly major events pass by with no explanation.
Apparently the Saints held a funeral for a fallen member at some point that got broken up by a rival gang. I'm saying "apparently" because your fellow gang members are pissed about it afterwards, but the game doesn't exactly show it happening. It feels like a cutscene is missing. Or maybe it was there but they cut it out. The Boss is content with sarcastic quips to his/her gang. This is the same character who broke into a nuclear power plant to steal radioactive waste to poison a rival's tattoo ink. What happened? Why was Shaundi redesigned to a humorless, annoyingly generic action girl with a perpetual scowl?
The rival gang leaders in the Third never feel threatening because they have no presence. They show up in a handful of scenes to call you a jerk, but the story gives you no drive to go after them except for "they are the enemy, kill them". Maero and Jessica in Saints Row 2 were a presence. You meet them and attempt to work out a deal. It fails and then you have an increasingly violent feud with them that climaxes when they torture a Saints general to death. Now that's motivation.
My last major problem with Saints Row The Third is mission variety. It takes far too long for the game to actually start. A large chunk of the missions are secretly tutorials, teaching you how to play the game's (now optional) Activities. It's interesting how you don't have to play Activities to progress in the story...except how many story missions are Activities in disguise.
They're somewhat justified in the story: you're selling merchandise to build up the Saints gang, or protecting a friend while they steal intel from rivals. But in the end you're still playing a slightly easier version of Trafficking or Guardian Angel. There are some fantastic, creative missions in this game. And almost all of them are at the end of the Act you're currently in. It's almost disappointing to see how creative the development team got with missions like HTTP://DECKERS.DIE with so many interesting sight gags and gimmicks, because these missions are only accessible after you play glorified Activities or bland "blow up all these tanks" missions for far too long. Oh, and you can't replay Missions at all this time around. Dunno why they'd take that out.
Saints Row: The Third is fun at points, but it's nowhere near as insane as the trailers would lead you to believe. In fact, it's pretty safe and inoffensive most of the time. There are some incredible setpieces and missions, but you have to slog through a lot of boring things to get to them. Instead of building on Saints Row 2's diverse set of Activities and Diversions, The Third chooses to remove many of them, but keep the least interesting ones without changing them significantly.
You'll be doing this more often than you'd think.
I appreciate streamlining in games. It was a smart choice to remove the Respect requirement for missions and let me go back to the story whenever I want. The issue is this game streamlined too much. Removing weapons and abilities the character could use in the previous game. Removing Activities and Diversions, essentially giving you less things to do. Removing customization options like the walk cycle and the option to wear clothing in different ways. The worst thing they took out were varied mission types. There's much more "drive here and kill them" or "blow up these targets" missions than the previous game, and it's just unfortunate to see them alongside the brief, incredible setpieces that the game shows it's capable of.
At points, Saints Row: The Third is the most over-the-top sandbox game I've played in years. It's a shame that these points are brief peaks breaking up long stretches of tedium and uninteresting gameplay.