Saints Row: The Third (Review)

I think I’m about a month late to the Saints Row party but, whatever, I was busy playing Skyrim! Anyway…

There’s a lot that could be said about Saints Row: The Third. Prior to playing the game, I always thought that the series was just a more “gangsta” version of Grand Theft Auto and nothing more. Sometimes it feels good to be wrong about some things, and I’m certainly glad that I was wrong about Saints Row: The Third. This game is so much more than just a GTA-esque sandbox game and it is, dare I say, better than Rockstar’s series.

Saints Row: The Third is, yes, an open world sandbox game set in a huge urban sprawl. Just like in Grand Theft Auto you can steal cars, have shootouts with cops that grow progressively more and more intense the longer you hold out, play dress up by buying clothes, or even just mucking around with the pedestrians and traffic by causing general mayhem. The difference between the two? Saints Row does it better than Grand Theft Auto and it’s mostly because this game is just so insane that you cannot take it seriously.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to beat zombies with a big two foot long dildo? How about to pilot a bizarre ATARI-esque tank in city streets firing giant explosive blocks? Or have you ever wanted to take a Jet Moto bike into the open and run over dozens of people? While we’re at it, let’s set a casino full of gamblers on fire with molotov cocktails. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about throwing ourselves into traffic and getting rewarded for it. This game is just completely balls to walls crazy.

Character customization can be quite good in this game depending on what you're aiming for.

The story isn’t the greatest there is simply because the game is so ridiculous. Missions have you getting plastic surgery (and possible a sex change) to impersonate an enemy, turning into a toilet, waging war with a computer geek in a virtual world, and driving around the city with a pissed off tiger in your vehicle for no apparent reason. There is an actual story and it deals with the 3rd Street Saints ending up in a city called Steelport after a bank heist goes terribly wrong in their home city of Stilwater. With Pierce and Shaundi, you (the leader of the Saints) must establish a presence in the city by battling rival gangs for control over districts to raise your reputation and power in the underground. The further you progress in the story the greater your hideouts and residences (cribs) will be, and the Saints will acquire access to things that seemed completely out of reach at the start of the game. The story is just all about building your power and reputation in Steelport while not letting the rival gangs walk all over you. Eventually a military group called STAG will arrive in Steelport to bring the gang wars under control, and that’s where things get really interesting.

There are a few surprises and twists in the story throughout the course of the game, but nothing that happens will really blow your mind or have you on the edge of your seat. Saints Row: The Third isn’t trying to give you an epic story, no. This game just wants you to have a lot of hilarious and over the top fun in a city where anything goes. Literally. As I said, your missions will bring you face to face with an angry tiger, virtual reality baddies in a Tron-like world, zombies, and more. Fun comes before story here and it’s blindingly apparent.

Your character’s cell phone is pretty much the most important thing in the game as it has a list of available missions for you to take on while playing. If progressing the story isn’t something you feel like doing, you can have your phone direct you to various locales throughout Steelport that counts as additional content. The most enjoyable form of additional content has to be acitivites. These are essentially minigames that you can find on the side of the street and triggering them will initiate the activity itself. Some have you thrusting yourself into open traffic in an attempt to collect insurance money while another kind throws you into what has to be the most violent game show ever where the objective is to gun down enemies dressed in cute animal mascot costumes while avoiding many electrical and flaming traps.

Other things to do outside of missions include purchasing properties and shops. By buying these locations, you will earn revenue from them hourly. The more expensive the location is, the more you’ll probably get from it in return. Purchasing shops will give you discounts such as lowering the cost of ammo and making clothing cheaper to buy. Another handy thing about buying shops it that, whenever gangs or police are after you, entering a shop will immediately clear you of any notoriety you have.

Crazy carnage and unrealistic vehicles are the name of the game here.

One of my favourite aspects of Saints Row: The Third is the customization. The character customization process is pretty thorough (it has dozens of sliders for facial features) and can take you up to an hour to make your character if you’re really serious about getting them to look the way you want. Fortunately you can edit them again later by visiting plastic surgeons littered throughout Steelport. Many vehicles can also be customized by upgrading their brake, torque, and much more or buy giving them a new paint job, tossing some new rims on the wheels, or modifying the body of the car itself. Any vehicle that you modify will then be saved to your garage where you can access it whenever you’d like. The greatest part about this? If you blow up your highly customized car and then accidently blow it up, all you have to do is visit your garage again and presto! You can spawn the exact same car! It may be unrealistic, but it’s a fantastic feature which heavily endorses the whole “we just want you to have fun” aura that permeates this game.

Your character can also be customized via the upgrades menu from your phone. By selecting this you can increase your combat effectiveness (raises damage you inflict from guns, etc.), unlock gang bonuses, or just make life a lot easier for you by increasing your sprint speed or health regeneration. There are tons of upgrades available which will unlock over time by gaining respect which is a sort of experience point system. You’ll gain respect by completing missions, activities, and other various tasks. You can also acquire respect simply by performing stunts and such in the world like having several near misses in a row when you’re in a vehicle. There are tons of little things that award respect and you could literally decide to just grind respect and still have fun in this game since the things that grant respect are fun themselves.

One thing that I’m glad for in this game is how responsible the controls are. Traversing on foot is predictably easy to do, but I was pleasantly surprised when I realized how easy it is to drive the various automobiles, boats, and flying vehicles in the game. A few of them (mainly anything that flies) may take a few minutes to get used to but there’s little challenge involved and you’ll rarely ever find yourself blaming the controls for anything that happens.

The graphics in Saints Row: The Third are pretty impressive. Some districts of the city look really beautiful when you’re on foot, especially the downtown areas with huge neon displays. I haven’t found any areas of the game that look a little rough. Some locations may seem a little barren, but nothing actually looks bad in this game. Considering you can go into buildings as well (mostly just cribs, shops, and a select few others), there’s a lot to look at in the city itself. Characters also look pretty good in this game. Your homies (mostly Pierce and Shaundi) are quite detailed but other secondary characters such as Cyrus, Kilbane and Viola all look great as well.

Yes, you can parachute from that high up... and it's pretty damn awesome.

The sound work in the game is also quite good. Sound effects are mostly pretty generic and standard stuff that we’ve already heard before, but the music and voices are something else. The soundtrack in this game has some truly great licensed songs that you’ll hear on the radio by Benny Benassi, Bush, Robert Tepper, and Sublime while the mission sequences also boast some good tunes. I never expected to enjoy anything by Kanye West, but there’s one song by him called “Power” which plays during some great moments ingame and it really fits wonderfully with the action on the screen.

About the voices, I love them all. All of your homies have excellent voice actors bringing them to life and the antagonists aren’t half bad either (especially Kilbane). The voices that you can select for your character are all very good as well. I was instantly won over by Female Voice 3 for my Hispanic chick and it fit like a glove. Another voice worth mentioning is one by the never-out-of-work Steve Blum who provides the lines for another selectable voice that is simply titled “Zombie Voice.” By choosing this for your character you are entering a land of non-stop laughs. The zombie voice is less moan and groan and more… Spastic weird noises and grumbles. It’s pretty funny stuff, especially during one sequence where your character sings “What I Got” by Sublime with Pierce. I literally burst out laughing when I heard it.

So how good is this game? Pretty freaking good. There are some details I left out such as the co-op (it works beautifully and is a lot of fun) and probably a few other little things, but they are worth discovering on your own. There’s a lot of fun to be had in Steelport and I think just about anyone will enjoy this game. Saints Row: The Third is perhaps the quirkiest and silliest game I have ever played and I absolutely loved every single second of it. This game is a winner and if you’re reading this review then you must be thinking about giving the game a try. Do it. Now.

Final Score

9.3/10

Pros:
+ Steelport is a blast to explore and has lots to do.
+ The voicing in the game is superb.
+ This game has customization coming out the wazoo!

Cons:
– Later missions can become overwhelming with the amount of action happening at once.
– Loading times can infrequently spike at random.
– Unfocused storyline may deter those looking for a compelling quest.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Review)

It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have another brand spankin’ new Elder Scrolls to sink our teeth into. At the time of my writing this review, Skyrim sales have exceeded expectations by shaming even the new Call of Duty. Overall reception from critics and gamers has been overwhelmingly positive. Bethesda has been made aware that they really captured something special this time around. Skyrim is the greatest Elder Scrolls game to date by a very large margin and could, quite possibly, end up vying for the position of my favourite RPG of all time.

So, what makes Skyrim so darn good? For starters, the narrative and story telling is exceptional. While in the first three Elder Scrolls games we were mostly confined to reading dialogue windows that told us the story, Oblivion tried to deliver a more cinematic and immersive experience by fully voicing the campaign. Unfortunately it ended up feeling a little sloppy in Oblivion, as it was clear that Bethesda’s dabblings in fully voiced NPCs was unable to hit a steady stride. After getting their feet a little more wet with Fallout 3, Bethesda made enormous ground. This really shows in Skyrim’s opening sequence in which the player is set to be executed. Typical Elder Scrolls fare there, but the immersion has been improved drastically. The game opens slowly with your character riding quietly in a cart with a few other apprehended prisoners who you soon learn are rebels who refer to themselves as the Stormcloaks. As your horse-drawn carriage enters the town of Helgen, you learn that the Imperials wish to execute you along with the Stormcloaks. Fortunately this obviously does not pan out, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game to play. I won’t spoil the opening sequence for anyone who still has not played Skyrim, but it is wonderfully done. Bethesda has really shown that they have the chops for delivering highly cinematic interactive scenes.

Gameplay is where Bethesda has made the most improvements. In Oblivion, many of the new features felt like failed experiments that went awry. Skyrim takes Oblivion’s shortcomings and perfects them while also adding a dash of what made Morrowind successful. It is probably difficult to talk about the various features of Skyrim in brief, so get ready for a huge section of this review to be about gameplay.

First off, let’s look at combat. This is nearly identical to how it was in Oblivion in terms of mechanics and physics, though there have been a few tweaks. It is now possible to dual wield two one-handed weapons or even two spells. While dual wielding weapons can feel a little clunky at times, I’ve taken an enormous liking to dual wieling magic. There is nothing more satisfying than melting a bear’s face with fire spewing from one hand and lightning sparking from the other. You can also have offensive destruction magic in one hand and a support spell (such as a healing or damage absorption spell) in the other hand. Fans of battlemages can now also fully realize their dreams as they are fully allowed to simultaneously hack away with a sword in hand and a stream of frost emitting from the other. It is actually surprisingly easy and user friendly be swinging a melee weapon in your left hand and casting a spell in the right at the same time. Bethesda did a fantastic job of making it feel natural to the player and I really have to commend them for really nailing this dual wielding system that they’ve finally chosen to add.

Assassin and thief characters will have a lot to look forward to in Skyrim. It is now more possible than ever before to sneak realistically and fool your enemies. Ever want to make an intimidating looking foe think you are in one spot but are actually somewhere entirely different? This is finally possible, as a sneak-themed player with quick wits will be able to maneuver quickly enough to make enemies search an area that they believe you are in while, in reality, you may have already moved behind them for the kill. If you’re not one who enjoys sneaking up on your foes and performing critical hits with daggers, you can always opt to use bows instead. Bethesda has further refined the arrow physics since Oblivion and it shows. Arrows now fire and arc in a more realistic fashion than in any of Bethesda’s previous titles. Players with good eyes will truly fall in love with the archery in Skyrim.

An interesting “give and take” situation with Skyrim’s gameplay is the refined nature of the stamina bar which allows players to always run without losing stamina. This is partly because the acrobatics and athletics skills have both been removed. There is no longer a need to improve your running and jumping since you are always able to run efficiently. Instead of your stamina being drained by running, it will now deplete when you use the sprint key. Sprinting works like it does in any first person shooter, allowing the player to gain a momentary boost in speed to escape difficult situations or cross treacherous drops and ravines. Sprinting depletes your stamina quite quickly, so it is best to use it in small spurts. Players can now regenerate stamina by simply running, which makes traversing the Skyrim’s wilderness quite a bit more enjoyable than it was to trudge through Oblivion’s neverending forests.

As I said, acrobatics and athletics have been removed. A few others such as axe and blunt (both for weapons) have been removed and are now part of the one-handed weapon skill (it is no longer blade-specific). To make up for these removals, Bethesda has added a few new skills such as enchanting and smithing. Anyone who has played an MMORPG in the past few years will know exactly how these work. For smithing it all boils down to finding pieces of leather and the proper metal ores required to make different kinds of armors and weapons. Enchanting is a little different and instead rewards you with actually destroying your equipment! By selecting the “disenchant” option, you can select a magical item from your item to destroy. When you destroy the item, you learn the magic enchantment that it possessed, such as fire resistance, magicka regeneration, or additional points of damage. To enchant an item you choose one from your inventory, select an enchantment that you have learned, choose a soul gem to use, and then hit the “craft” key. You even get to rename your pieces of equipment prior to performing the enchantment, which is nice. If your character is named Bill and you are enchanting a hammer to inflict bonus fire damage, you can certainly rename it to “Bob’s Hammer of Fiery Hell.” This adds a bit of fun to the game as it allows you to personalize your gear or simply try to give everything epic sounding names (go on, rename your iron dagger as “daedric dagger of deity slaying” if you want).

Scaling still exists in Skyrim, but is not as “in your face” as it was in Oblivion. You will no longer see common highwaymen charging at you with glass armor and ebony greatswords. A little realism has been put in place with humanoid NPCs and they are now fairly static in terms of their statistics and what gear they have. Creatures are still a different story and you will see stronger creatures in the wild as you gain levels, but this has always been the case with Elder Scrolls games and was not exclusive to Oblivion.

In terms of encounters, there is probably nothing more exciting than dragons. They are indeed a true joy to fight and your first few encounters feel remarkably exciting and epic. Unfortunately, once you have fought several dragons under different circumstances (on plains, on a tower, in the frozen north, etc.) they start to lose their novelty and simply become nothing more than giant cliffracers that have returned from Morrowind and take longer than most encounters to defeat. Dragon attack patterns become very predictable after several encounters, and most players will find themselves growing frustrated with the dragons that prefer to do more flying than actual attacking due to the fact that dragons are much harder to combat when they are airborne. While dragons are definitely a very worthy selling point for this game, I do feel that the initial excitement and grandeur that they present the players with upon their first few outings far outweigh their repetitiveness that tooks root after about a dozen dragon fights. They will always be rewarding to fight due to the fact that they drop dragon scales that are essential in forging powerful pieces of armor or can be sold for hefty sums of money if you’re not into Skyrim’s smithing system.

An impressive aspect of the gameplay is the overhaul leveling and character statistics. Gone are major and minor skills, and now improvements to any skill will contribute to your leveling. As in previous games, all you need to do is raise ten skill points to gain a level. Upon doing so, you will be able to increase either your health, magicka, or stamina. Seasoned Elder Scrolls fans will likely wonder where strength, dexterity, endurance and so forth have disappeared to. Character stats are no more and their functions are now either wiped from the game or have been incorporated into stamina. Remember having to increase your speed to make yourself run faster and longer? Or how increasing strength allowed you to carry more. Increasing stamina will now do both of these. The overall stats system is simplified, but it is for the better. Having to juggle between upwards of ten individual statistics was a chore in previous Elder Scrolls, especially since they were all useful to some degree. Now that players only have to worry about increasing one of three core stats, character builds are now easier to put together than ever before.

To make up for the simplification of character stats, Bethesda has carried over the perks system from Fallout 3. Whenever you level up, you are awarded with a perk point which you can place into one of many skill trees which govern your actual skills. If you look in the destruction perk tree, you will find that you area ble to reduce the casting cost of destruction spells while, in the archery perk tree, there is a perk that allows you to zoom in and slow down time slightly when you are aiming your arrows. There are around a dozen perks for the roughly two dozen individual skills which means that there are a lot of fun possibilities for players to experiment with using the perks systems.

The open world exploration has been improved significantly over Oblivion. Players will find that exploring now feels more like it did in Morrowind, as there is a sense of wonder at times when you are exploring the different regions of Skyrim. The southern areas are mountainous but full of lush forests while central Skyrim has rocky but scenic moors and plains, and the northern ice-covered coastlines of Skyrim are often blanketed in extremely heavy snowstorms that almost reduces your visibility to zero and, oh yeah, it’s tough as heck to explore the north too! The regions vary quite heavily and there are also some really beautiful lakes and swamps to find as well. An improvement Skyrim makes over Oblivion is that it is no longer possible to simply press the forward key and watch your player walk in a straight line without obstruction for a few minutes. Skyrim’s landscape is dotted with many jagged rocks, mountains, and obstacles. In many cases, players will have to make their own paths. It is this sort of “off the beaten trail” method of exploration that really draws several between adventuring in Morrowind and Skyrim.

There have been numerous complaints by players over the game’s UI. Initially I did not like it much either but, after spending a bit of time with it, the UI really grows on you. While it may not be as quick to navigate as Morrowind’s UI, it is still infinitely better than what we were forced to endure in Oblivion. Everything is now sorted into organized lists that can be quickly scrolled through with the mouse. If your inventory clutters up and you find that locating certain items becomes a chore, you can hit the F key to add them to your favourites. This adds an entirely new category called “favourites” at the top of your inventory screen that only lists the items you have manually added. This is exceptionally handy for keeping track of your favourite equipment sets.

To finish with the gameplay, I’ll briefly say that NPC interaction has been improved tremendously. Time no longer freezes when you talk to someone and it does not zoom in on their faces either. Time will continue around you and, in many cases, you will steal be able to move freely and throw objects around rooms like a fool while NPCs continue talking to you.

There are a lot of factions to join this time around. The mandatory Thieves’ Guild returns while the Winterhold College replaces the Mages’ Guild and The Companions have replaced The Fighters’ Guild. The Dark Brotherhood is of course still intact, though joining them is a little harder this time around than it was in Oblivion. There is also a civil war brewing between the Stormcloaks and the local Imperial Legion and it is up to the playe to decide which side they want to align with. Siding with either faction will automatically brand the player as an enemy to the opposing side, so make sure you know for sure which side of the war you want to be on!

In terms of graphics, Skyrim does not disappoint. Bethesda has long made sure that their Elder Scrolls games are beautiful games that require state of the art computers to run at the highest settings. Skyrim is no different and it certainly is a gorgeous game, but the fact that Bethesda had to develop first and foremost for consoles limited what they were able to accomplish. Skyrim does look great, but visually it could have been much better if it had been developed exclusively for the PC.

Aside from the landscape looking great, the best part about Skyrim’s graphics is the immense improvement made to character faces. Bethesda dropped the ball with Oblivion when they decided to use FaceGen software for rendering their faces. Dark Elves had fair and soft looking skin and the beast races looked like humans wearing animal costumes. This has been remedied completely in Oblivion as Dark Elves now look like their miserable old selves again and the beast races have been restored to their former glory. Fans of Daggerfall and Morrowind will enjoy how the races look, as they now look as they did in those games once more. Players who started with Oblivion will probably be wondering why the Elves all look so ugly now, but truthfully? It’s how they’re supposed to look. Oblivion’s FaceGen software was fairly limited and wasn’t truly capable of providing players with the faces Elder Scrolls Elves are supposed to have. Now that Bethesda has ditched FaceGen, we are seeing proper Elves once more. Oldschool Elder Scrolls fans will be very pleased by this!

As always, it wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without a score provided by Jeremy Soule. This guy needs to win an award for Skyrim’s soundtrack because it is simply outstanding! While I still enjoy Morrowind’s sountrack a little more (despite Skyrim featuring a new recording of a Morrowind track), Skyrim is still leagues ahead of Oblivion’s score which I felt wasn’t Soule’s best work. Skyrim has very immersive tracks, and the battle themes are all really fantastic. The themes that play during dragon fights really suck you in and sound so deliciously epic that your heart will be your throat the whole time.

To finish things off, I can safely (and gladly) say that Skyrim is a true return to form after the flawed package Bethesda gave us in the form of Oblivion. This is the biggest Elder Scrolls yet and there is an insane amount of quests to take on, dungeons to traverse, and perks to play with. This is Bethesda’s most polished release ever and could, quite possibly, be the RPG of our generation. Skyrim is not to be missed.

Final Score

9.5/10

Pros:
+ Elven races look as they should again.
+ Perks system adds a whole new dimension to The Elder Scrolls.
+ Skyrim’s regions are gorgeous and incredibly varied.

Cons:
– Dual wielding weapons can feel slightly clumsy at times.
– Follower AI can sometimes seem suicidal.
– Light given off by fire in dark areas can look a little dated.