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The GoodI'm not on very good terms with Volition's games; I found the Red Faction games I tried boring, but thought there was a lot of potential in Saints Row 2. What bothered me in that game was its complete dependence on GTA formula and the discrepancy in its tone: it walked the middle ground between a gruesome gangster drama and comedy, and in my opinion failed as both.
I think that in this third installment the series finally came to peace with its true nature. Seeing how GTA IV suddenly became all serious and dropped its predecessor's most crazy antics, the developers of the The Third made the right decision: they stopped trying to compete with GTA and instead made a sharp turn into the opposite direction, steering the series deeper into the realm of comedy and abandoning all pretence of realism.
This was what ultimately warmed me up to the game and made me appreciate it with less reservations. The Third is much funnier than the previous game. The humor flows without restriction now, because they chose the right tone for the narrative. There is still extreme violence and everything else you would expect from such a game, but darker shades have been removed from the story; it is now a full-fledged grotesque, a merry absurdist comedy with some clever satirical touches. There is less torture, less cruelty, and more fun.
The main characters have become less realistically psychotic and developed some fairly attractive sides. The protagonist's four or five closest associates are surprisingly likable (well, as likable as mad, power-hungry gangsters can get); my absolute favorite is a new recruit, a giant Russian mutant who defies stereotypes by having a mild nature and being the most intelligent and well-educated of the bunch. But the rest of the crew have also evolved since I last met them in the previous game; they behave more like actual people rather than the trigger-happy maniacs they were before. Granted, the difference is sometimes barely tangible, but somehow the "softening" of homicidal protagonists worked better this time around.
Well-written, often very funny dialogues and good voice acting are just a part of the game's overall craziness. The Third has some of the most hilariously insane content in the history of video games. You can create a female protagonist with a mustache, let her wear a samurai outfit with a space helmet, and then send her to shoot sharks at enemies or hit them with a giant purple dildo. You fight murderous prostitutes side-by-side with a pimp who worked as a human pony, pilot a flying motorcycle over a zombie-infested island, and play a text adventure in a virtual reality where you are incarnated as a toilet. I swear I'm not making this up; I can think of even crazier stuff I encountered in this game. If you are not against ridiculously over-the-top, completely nonsensical, juvenile humor, you are bound to have some fun with The Third.
I found the game's world much more attractive than the bleak city of the second installment. It is true that it's smaller and has somewhat less variety, but it is flashier, more stylish, and fits the game's tone better. I rarely complain about graphics, but the poor visuals of the previous game were quite a turn-off; The Third, on the other hand, looks great and has plenty of visual charisma that its predecessor lacked. There is something cozy in this purple-pink, neon-bathed collection of skyscrapers and strange sculptures.
The gameplay is at first sight an almost exact copy of the preceding game; but it flows much better thanks to the removal of the idiotic "you need to gain respect to play this mission", which annoyed me to no end. Now you can play the story missions at any time, thank you very much; also, the familiar "activities" are integrated into the story, so you no longer work for some unimportant guys, but perform missions for your homies, even if the mission involves the same "heli attack" you did many times in the second game. This gives much more coherence to the narrative and weight to these initially unrelated mini-games.
The "respect" concept has been overhauled; instead of serving as a pass to proceed with the story, it is now handled like experience points in RPGs. In fact, The Third has a RPG-like system that is surprisingly well implemented: your character levels up as you gain respect, which allows you to increase his and her personal attributes (such as maximum hit points, damage taken from bullets, etc.), as well as plenty of other customization options. Weapons can level up as well; you can invest respect and money into a particular type of weapon, raise its damage, ammo count, and develop some interesting abilities: for example, I upgraded the submachine gun to level 4, which allowed it to set enemies on fire. There is quite a bit of flexibility in these upgrades, and you can choose your own style of play up to a certain degree. This new RPG angle is one of the most noticeable gameplay improvements over the previous title.
The BadThe Third does many things better than its predecessors, but in the end, it brings nothing really new on the table in terms of gameplay. It has the same wacky violence that we have seen many times before: well-executed, very entertaining, but certainly not deep and quite unoriginal. The game's main strength lies in its humor and presentation; purely from the gameplay viewpoint, it is a conservative installment with the same shallow content as the other games in the series. The missions are still very straightforward; the game holds your hand most of the time for maximum comfort; the playground is filled with familiar toys, and nothing is added to the tried-and-tested sandbox driving mayhem that has been meanwhile done almost to death.
The game's humor is very particular; some would find it amusing, eccentric, and even clever, while other might just shrug their shoulders and dismiss the whole thing as immature idiocy. Frankly, there is quite a bit of both in the game, which can also be considered a bad thing. It is obvious that the developers tried to cram everything they could think of into the game; the result is an incredibly colorful, but ultimately meaningless comedy, where funny things appear out of context, simply because they are funny.
I pretty much stopped being a self-proclaimed "video game moralist" right after I drowned a music manager in San Andreas and realized I was still having fun with the game. The toughest moment afterwards was gruesomely killing a dying soldier in God of War II. I know these are just games, and I know I would never do such things in real life, but I still prefer to be a good guy in my games. The Third made it easier than the previous installment; and yet, I didn't enjoy setting up wrestlers by remote-controlling their vehicles and causing deaths of innocent people with them. I think the game would have been better if it dropped such moments altogether, or at least made them optional.