It’s been awhile since I’ve stayed up way, way too late playing a game, and I never expected it would be this one: Saints Row the Third.  My Mefite friends said it was big dumb fun, and it was on sale.  Guess what?  It’s damn big dumb fun!

I never played the first games, so this was in medias res, not that it really matters.  The opening is a blockbuster.  It starts out cutsceny, though you get to shoot dudes.  It’s a heist, but just so you don’t get the idea this is a serious examination of criminal behavior like say Ocean’s 11, everyone is wearing giant Johnny Gat heads.  (That’s one of the gang leaders.  Johnny Gat is there, also wearing a giant Johnny Gat head.)  The heist goes wrong, and then there’s an insane bit where you’re parachuting, holding onto one of your co-gangsters; you drop her, plunge through the window of an oncoming plane, kill most of the rival gangsters inside, drop out the back, and dive to pick up your friend again.

At some point you pick a character.  I couldn’t stop laughing when I came to the Fat Slider:

Trying hard to pull the slider even further to the right

SR3 is not content to just give you a bunch of character options.  It gives you insane character options.  After all the normal skins, there’s oiled skins, then metallic skins, then skins of all colors of the rainbow.  I ended up going with a very pretty alabaster.  For voices you can pick any of three male or three female voices… or a zombie moan.  And of course you can combine all these– a mustachioed horribly old fat man with a Russian woman’s voice?  No problem!

And then pretty soon you’re on the streets of Steelport, building up your gang and your respect level.  It’s an open world, and you can do all sorts of things: kill rival gangsters, buy up businesses, spend cash on threads or wheels or guns, do assassinations, steal cars, run Dr. Genki’s reality show deathly obstacle course.  Or just mess around: you get respect for driving in the oncoming lane, or nearly missing other cars.  Or for streaking close to people.  Or taunting rival gangsters.

Or browse the Saints store. Sadly you can’t buy one of the inflatable gangstas.

The inevitable comparison is to Grand Theft Auto IV, which has the curious distinction of being one of the games I’ve played the most (74 hours) without coming near finishing it.  GTAIV is incredibly big and ambitious, but I think it doesn’t manage to make its themes coincide with its gameplay.  It’s an actual saga of criminal life, seemingly intended to make you question the psychopaths and wannabes you hang out with.  And yet the actual gameplay is organized around killing people, interspersed with endless driving.  All the depth is in the cutscenes; when you actually get control of Niko there’s not much to do besides go take on his next crime.  (Well, unless you really like the bowling and pool minigames.)

There’s no such conflict in SR3; it’s all mindless mayhem played for laughs.  (The difference is a little like the different treatment of mercenary life in Far Cry 2 vs. Team Fortress 2.)  Plus, as a friend pointed out, it’s optimized for fun.  Driving is easy; there are keystrokes for powered turns that are easier and more fun than GTAIV; plus the little respect augments you get for reckless driving make the driving itself part of the game in a way GTAIV didn’t manage.  (GTAIV often felt like a driving simulator with crime minigames.)  You have plenty of health, so it takes a fair amount of effort to get killed.  You can have your car delivered anywhere just in case you don’t feel like stealing a car.  I just kept playing one more mission, one more activity, ooh I have money now let’s buy more clothes, say what’s this activity here… omigod, tank mayhem, can you do $325,000 property damage in three minutes?  I can!

Not as angsty as Niko, but way prettier

If you drive with a friend in GTAIV, you’re likely to get a long dramatic dialog, possibly delivered in Jamaican creole.  In SR3, by contrast, I got my character and her buddy laughing and singing along to the radio… really an unexpectedly charming moment, especially as I love my character’s brash Latina accent.

(To be fair, GTAIV’s undercurrent of radio shows, TV programs, and ads adds up to a biting satire of American life, whereas SR3 is more of an affectionate parody.  Plus I really liked some of its tunes, not that SR3’s music is bad.)

There’s also a co-op mode, so you can go cause mayhem together.  Haven’t tried that yet.

Edit: thoughts on finishing the game.