I like Saints Row: The Third. After a long Overwatch bender that largely left me frustrated with the stress of competitive play, I decided to go for something in my library that was a bit more stupid, something easy, something that would serve as a good pallet cleanser. What I landed on was the ridiculous, goofy Saints Row: The Third, a game that answers the question “What if the GTA team included every stupid thought they had in development?”
Saints Row: The Third is a dumb video game. You can smack cops with a three foot long purple dildo, you can run around completely nude (with a mosaic blur at all times, of course), and you can have a button on the controller dedicated entirely to making a jerk-off motion. It banks on being completely ridiculous, it’s the main distinguishing factor that the Saints Row series grasped on to in order to transcend the label of “GTA clone”.
However, I can’t help but feel like this ridiculousness isn’t core to the game, and is instead a layer of paint, something that entices you and catches your eye at first, but doesn’t actually contribute to the structure of the game. For craziness being the central selling point of the game, it sure feels ancillary to many of the mechanics and missions.
Take, for example, the mission My Name is Cyrus Temple. This section will contain spoilers for the later portion of the game, so be warned.
In My Name is Cyrus Temple, Third Street Saints mainstay Shaundi is kidnapped by STAG, the Special Tactical Anti-Gang unit which has set out to eliminate all crime syndicates, including the eponymous and protagonist Saints, from Steelport. The plan is great in summary: the Boss gets plastic surgery to look like Cyrus Temple, the commander of STAG. Then, he flies onto the aircraft carrier STAG is using as a base, offering other Saints members as prisoners, before the real Cyrus calls in and the whole thing goes sour. The Saints bust Shaundi out, and blow up the carrier before flying away in a VTOL jet.
That sounds…pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, the execution leaves something to be desired. Here’s a basic play-by-play of what happens:
- After meeting with your Saints members at the plastic surgery clinic, you automatically get transformed into the STAG commander
- You then make your way to a STAG base without rousing any attention, and grab a VTOL jet.
- You fly the VTOL jet, and (in a cutscene) land on the carrier and meet up with the second-in-command
- You have a bit of non-interactive walk-and-talk before choosing 2 of 3 STAG R&D projects to progress on (which are then added to your inventory)
- You get outed, and have to shoot your way down some corridors to free your friends
- You shoot your way through some corridors to the main reactor, then shoot a panel to blow it up
- In a timed sequence, you shoot through some more corridors before grabbing a VTOL jet and escaping (in a cutscene).
Let’s look at the actual mechanics involved in each of these steps. Steps 1 and 4 have literally zero significant interaction, beyond some walking, and are essentially cutscenes. Step 2 is autofailed if you kill anyone, so you have to carefully and nonchalantly drive into that base (in a game whose driving controls are designed not for precise driving, but big clumsy chases). Flying the VTOL in Step 3 is a straight shot from A to B with no flying combat or even obstacles really. Then, Steps 5, 6, and 7 are the same corridor shootouts that are not only mundane for this game, but mundane for the genre as a whole.
Each of these steps can be seen as expressions of one of the game’s mechanics, or as intersections between the player and certain subsystems of the game. Really, most atomic elements of any game can be seen as that, but I think it’s a fair way to analyze this mission. As a Saints Row: The Third player, and maybe as a fan of open-world crime games in general, I want main story missions to do one of these things:
- Show me new and interesting ways to use the mechanics in the game that I wouldn’t have seen before
- Let me participate in cool and fun set pieces that the regular mechanics can’t quite handle without a bit of bootstrapping
- Put the pieces in place to set up really cool moments using the normal mechanics
My Name is Cyrus Temple, and in fact almost all of the missions in Saints Row: The Third, fails to perform any of these three tasks. The whole mission involves regular mechanics put in regular contexts (driving on city streets, flying in clear skies, shooting in corridors against well-known enemies). The best cool set piece opportunity for the mission, flying out of the exploding aircraft carrier, is handled in a cutscene, and even then it isn’t even shown. There aren’t even any cool moments. Most of it is just mundane corridor shooting. You could have some potentially interesting scenes of banging around in a VTOL in an indoor space, but that’s not even done. In fact, swap around some nouns (STAG for cops, VTOLs for cop cars, plastic surgery for stealing a police uniform), and this mission could slot in easily in any “serious” open-world crime game like GTA.
So, this mission is just the regular-ass mechanics of the game, without any embellishment, so at least this mission is as good as the wacky free roam, right? Look closer. You have to carefully drive a, due to the mechanics, very clumsy vehicle without causing any chaos, flying a VTOL through empty skies, engaging in a shooting gallery with bland enemies who are extremely resistant to the game’s goofy melee attacks. This mission isn’t even as good as just free roam, it’s worse. At least in free roam, I can drive like a maniac, shoot down police helicopters in the skies, and engage my full arsenal in combat.
This goes for a lot of the missions in the game. The token zombie mission in the game bogs down as you get staggered by every enemy attack, and the final mission, which brings to you space, is a regular gunfight ended with an epic boss fight where you…shoot…explosives when the boss…walks past them. None of your dumb guns matter when you’re basically just pointing at a gun at a big red barrel.
In the end, the problem is that, while parts of the game are as ridiculous and off the wall as the marketing and aesthetic would have you think, My Name is Cyrus Temple, and in fact a lot of the missions in the game, are as by-the-books as one of these games can be. That’s the key observation: it’s not enough for a game to just have the veneer of its theme, that theme needs to be baked in to the mechanics, the level and mission design, the enemy behavior and the weapons. Otherwise, it’s just going to feel like a coat of paint over the same old game.