'Saints Row: The Third" Is Finally Absurd Enough to Work

Okay, here's the deal. I don't like Saints Row. At least, not in theory.

The Saints Row series has always been more or less Grand Theft Auto's id left to run rampant without even GTA's extremely minimal levels of restraint. This could have been a good thing, but while earlier entries have shown an adolescent's interest in growing beyond his stodgy old father, they were also held back by an adolescent's interest in poop jokes and crude, "shocking" imagery. Previous Saints Rows have had all the class of an episode of Jackass written by Beavis and Butt-Head.

I'm not averse to toilet humor, mind you, but "Grand Theft Auto with dong swords" just isn't a good enough hook for me, which is why I put off reviewing—or even playing—Saints Row: The Third for a long time.

But get this: Saints Row: The Third is actually a decent game. And I don't mean decent in the way that Saints Row fans typically do when they're trying to convince you that Saints Row 2's septic-tank-truck missions somehow contributed more than a very blunt metaphor for the game's poop-flinging narrative. No, Saints Row: The Third is, for all the well-deserved stigmas its pedigree holds, decent in the way that real people sometimes use the word.

For one thing, you've got a storyline that's at the very least self-aware. While various Grand Theft Autos send only the vaguest of call-backs to previous entries, Saints Row is steeped in continuity (such as it is), which allows it to actually flesh itself out beyond the relatively self-contained scope of the average GTA vignette. And in Saints Row: The Third's world, Saints Row itself is king.

The eponymous "protagonist" gang has gone Hollywood, parleying its popular bad-boy image into a lucrative and practically all-encompassing Saints-based lifestyle brand. Having done all the damage to society they could through cartoonish acts of street crime, the Saints managed to buy their way into a higher echelon of societal downfall: the licensing deal.

Of course, those that live by resting on their laurels are typically doomed to die by resting on their laurels in these things, and the Saints are no exception. When a previously unheard-of multinational criminal syndicate decides to muscle in on the Saints' turf, the Saints' ringleaders (being you the player and your wacky NPC friends) are shuffled out of Saints hometown Stillwater and into the mean streets of Steelport—two towns most notable within the sandbox action genre for not being based on New York.

What follows can be safely and accurately described as a romp. As in previous Saints Rows, players design their own gang leader (mine was a passable, if uncharacteristically angry, version of Michael Caine) and send him out into a world that's three parts action movie, two parts bad teenage comedy, and one part insane Japanese game show.

The combination is just zany enough to work. It dips and turns and builds momentum upon itself, growing wilder and weirder until you're finally wearing a massive mascot's caricature of your own best friend's head while dual-wielding machine guns astride a VTOL jet that appears to be one surly comment away from going Decepticon on a random passerby.

Above all, The Third goes right when it grows up about being infantile. The first and the second were juvenile about being juvenile, but The Third manages to get its head around its own brainlessness, rising to surprisingly enjoyable levels of absurdity. Not all of it makes sense, and precious little of it is art, but The Third seems to finally understand that. Coherent at last in its incoherence, The Third moves beyond the mere trappings of its prequels and into a world in which its own madness finally starts to makes sense.

So I guess maybe Saints Row has grown up. Somewhat. A little. And only occasionally, really. But it has finally come into its own as a series, which is heaps better than its previous standing as Grand Theft Auto's idiot cousin. I still don't necessarily completely like Saints Row in theory, but in practice, The Third has a lot more going for it than its predecessors.