I have a couple of dirty little secrets to confess.

Up until 2 weeks ago I was a Saints Row virgin.  I have always considered Saints Row to be the slightly inbred second-cousin of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and so I have never bothered to play any of them.  However when a gaming friend sent me the link to the Saints Row website I was instantly hooked by the presentation, madness and mysterious woman in shiny purple paints.  In fact so hooked I downloaded the initiation station, created and uploaded my own characters and rushed down to the shop at 9am on release day for a copy.

This leads me to the other secret.  As a second string (or maybe third) reviewer for Game-Guide I don’t often get my hands on the big release games.  Reviewing gives me a chance to experience games I wouldn’t otherwise spend my hard earned gaming dollars on but I was so taken with Saints Row I actually volunteered to review my full retail copy.

Sadly my first impression of the game was actually a bit disappointing.  The game box was so light I thought I must have received a copy missing some contents but no, apparently the games manual is only available online.  They appear to be trying to sell this as a green initiative or as a convenience for gamers… really? People actually believe that?  Buying a new video game is about more than just pixel time (although this is obviously the most important part).  It’s the expectation and excitement of a new game, cracking open that packet, exploring the background of the game and the game world and reading about the controls/features and extra information about the game.  I realise this is an old fashioned view and with XBL/PSN/Steam it makes sense to create games that stand alone without the need for a manual but then why create what looks exactly like a manual that is available on the internet but not included on the game disk?  This makes even less sense as they include an 8 page print out with the controls etc whereas the full manual available online is only 13 pages….

Its the kind of decision that makes me nervous about the future direction of a company.  Today they are cutting corners on the manual and overall presentation, what are they going to cut corners on next? Well obviously the fact you need a special code to play co-op and if you buy a second-hand copy you’ll have to buy the code too…  Anyway, enough of the minor irritations on to the game itself.

The main storyline revolves around the Third Street Saints fall from grace at the hands of the Syndicate and their subsequent rise back to dominance in the city of Steelport.  The main storyline is pretty much an excuse to string together some well crafted and highly amusing missions.  I cant say I really care about the characters involved but the storyline makes sense and works well to move the game along.  Overall it really only makes up about half of the fun SR3 and the rest of your time will be taken up with the gang-war for control of Steelport.  This aspect of the game is thoroughly enjoyable and with great variety of tasks from driving around escorts to blowing up the city with tanks/helicopters and explosive quad-bikes.  All of which is great fun and somehow avoids becoming a chore.

Game play follows a tried and true formula which has changed very little since GTA3.  You have a large (but manageable) open world to explore that is packed full of interesting things to do and see.  People to kill, cars to jack, drugs/money & blow-up dolls to find along with various shops to buy. You can pimp out your cars at the body shop or your character at a plastic surgeon.  Your character can wear all manner of wild and whacky outfits, or in fact nothing at all…  If you are a fan of gratuitous sex & violence you will have no end of fun exploring the world of Steelport.

Graphically SR3 is very good without being exceptional.  The cut scenes are clean and well rendered and I enjoyed watching them so I could see my unfeasibly large breasted & scantily clad character.    Although I have only seen a few graphical glitches I have been quite disappointed with the draw distances.  Although the city/buildings are good the vehicles & fine details have a definite tendency towards popping up.  This is fairly common when there is lots going on whilst free-roaming the city but doesn’t appear to happen during missions.  Load times are fairly long between missions and surprisingly long, to the point of irritation, when retrying a mission but as expected you can travel from one side of the city to another with no loading.

The control system is immediately familiar and comfortable to use.  Driving, flying and shooting are all easy to do although it took me a while to master the powerslide button but once you do turning corners becomes fast and fluid in everything except big trucks.  Initially I found helicopters and tanks a bit tricky to manoeuvre but with all things it came with practice.  I suspect this has something to do with the way I use the camera but now helicopters are definitely my preferred mode of transport!

Combat is basic and unless in 30 hrs of play I have somehow missed it they have not included any kind of cover mechanism.  Fire-fights are stand-up, duke-em out affairs with very little finesse although an engaging variety of ways to kill people.  The lack of cover makes taking human shields a useful tactic and you’ll want to ensure you always carry plenty of ammo!  Oh, and rockets/grenades are your friend!

What makes SR3 a stand out success for me (apart from the gratuitous sexual content) is the sheer madness.  I love the way you leap straight into the game at full speed.  Tanks & helicopters are immediately at your disposal in storyline missions.  You don’t waste time driving from a boat to your cousins dirty apartment…  Also a little thing that made this game for me is that when you die you don’t lose all your guns!  That little feature meant I was happy to go mad and attack anyone at any time because death doesn’t slow down the fun!

Saints Row the Third has kept me very happily engaged with the main storyline missions and wide variety of tasks to complete.  I have easily completed the achievement called Third & thirty (spend 30hrs playing SR3) and I suspect there is another 20-30 hours play in front of me.  If like me you are a Saints Row virgin your first time with SR3 is not going to be like messing about with your high-school sweet heart in the back of your parents car… Its more like your weird uncle taking you to a brothel and giving you your choice of hookers on a 2 for 1 special.

And then joining in…

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