The Saints Row series has always lived in Grand Theft Auto’s looming shadow, not quite the black sheep of the open-world genre, but just a few wool-curls shy. Its third iteration bucks that trend, hard, shoving its crime-fetishism into natural light, and, boy, is the game blossoming. Whereas before, it felt like a thin parody of the genre, Saints Row: The Third adheres so strongly to parody tenets—exaggerating all its source material’s aspects as much as imagination allows—that it becomes transcendent, absurdist, and irresistible. It’s a soothing respite from GTA’s pompous self-seriousness and subtle social commentary, because it never takes itself seriously. Sarcasm aside, SRTT is remarkably adept at balancing Naked Gun-style zaniness with a joyriding celebration of gory headshots, radiant explosions, and consequence-free carjacking.
This is established from the onset, when SRTT illustrates how the titular gang’s passion for crime has cooled: They attempt to rob a bank, but the clerks ask for their autographs instead. Then the cops show up, wearily warning, “Stop this publicity stunt, or we’ll shoot!” As it turns out, though, the bank is owned by a ruthless organization known as The Syndicate. It wants the Saints to pay, and subsequently launches a surprise attack, which leads to a parachuting hunt that has players hurtling through airplanes and debris, blasting unsuspecting thugs in the brainpan. This is how the game starts. It gets exponentially more outlandish from there, with exploding-rickshaw chases, a guy who speaks through a vocoder, and failed interrogations of BDSM freaks who want to be hit by your purple-dildo bat.
But without solid action under the hood, these eccentricities would be nothing but a provocative house of cards. Fortunately, there’s an impressive amount of variety, not just in the mission types, but also in how they can be executed. Not all of them are inspired, though: Escort missions are tedious, as always. (Except for the one where you chauffeur a live tiger, which mauls you if you drive too slowly. That’s somehow more awesome than it sounds.)
There is, alas, an equally wide variety of rare glitchy hiccups, like disappearing vehicles and the occasional mission objectives that lounge teasingly behind unopenable doors. When these dead ends crop up, though, there’s no shortage of other things to do instead. Whether playing chicken with oncoming traffic or raining fire down from a stealth fighter jet, it’s all as thrilling as what you’re “supposed” to do, if not more so.