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Saints Row: The Third Review

Screenshot: Fighting rival gang the Morningstar in the streets of Steelport. THQ

The Saints are back in Saints Row: The Third. Fans of the series can rejoice this holiday season as THQ and Volition continue the tradition of over-the-top open-world action and mayhem with the latest Saints Row title. And with its addictive, fun gameplay and hilarious gangland fantasy storyline, gamers new to the series are sure to enjoy Saints Row: The Third as well.

Your customizable character is the leader of the Third Street Saints, a gang that has taken over the city of Stillwater and become pop culture icons in the process -- complete with energy drinks, clothing stores and billboards. When a crime organization known as the Syndicate tries to strong-arm the Saints, it turns into an all out gang war in the fictional Steelport. This new city is a large metropolis with several districts and areas to explore and take over.

In addition to the new location, SRTT introduces new enemies. The Syndicate is made up of three gangs: the Morningstar, Deckers and Luchadores. But if the Syndicate isn't enough of a challenge for you, there's always STAG to contend with. Going up against this paramilitary anti-gang force with an arsenal of tanks, fighter jets and an endless supply of armored commandos focused on taking out the Saints makes for some exciting gameplay.

Customizing your character is easy but the options and level of customization are tremendous for those who really want to create a unique avatar. You can make a character who looks like you or something else entirely like a zombie, super hero, alien, and nearly anything else you can think of. Though the clothing options seem limited compared to Saints Row 2, there are still a lot of styles to at your disposal, ranging from trendy, to sexy, to funny and just plain crazy. THQ also introduced the Initiation Station prior to SRTT's release that allows players to create characters that can be shared and imported into the game easily.

Besides the storyline missions, there's a lot to do in Steelport, like searching for collectibles such as inflatable sex dolls and money stashes, shopping and buying property, or just causing havoc all over the city. Activities are key for taking over territories from the Syndicate. Mayhem, Trailblazing and Insurance Fraud are back along with some new ones like Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax. Professor Genki's can best be described as a twisted and very entertaining game show where you must survive traps like electrical walls and crazed mascots with sniper rifles during timed matches.

Customization is a key aspect of SRTT and that theme is taken beyond just how your character looks. Completing the activities and missions will earn you money and respect. Respect levels are what will determine how you'll progress in the game and what upgrades are available to you. Earning respect and cash while choosing which upgrades to purchase are vital to progressing in the game because the enemies will get tougher as the story progresses. It's a system that helps the pacing of the game and encourages players to explore what Steelport has to offer.

Upgrades are purchased by accessing the in-game cell phone, which also acts as a hub for everything from calling in allies and vehicles to checking on your stats and starting missions. The ability to call in NPC allies or homies can be a lot of fun and can be a tactical choice at times when your enemy notoriety level is at three stars or higher. Having different combinations of allies also makes for some funny dialog so it's worth calling in different characters to hear them have a short conversation or bicker with each other.

Players are able to upgrade most of the weapons in the game. Depending on the weapon, upgrades like ammo capacity, laser sights, and even exploding rounds can be added. SRTT gives gamers some unique and seriously fun weapons, including laser rifles and missile targeting systems. These however seem tame in comparison to the outrageous Apoca-Fists and the hilarious Fart in a Jar. With the former, punching enemies with oversized cartoon-like fist-gloves causes them to explode on impact in a bloody gory mess. The latter is exactly what the name suggests and acts as a stun grenade. When thrown, opponents will start to cough or throw up, giving you time to run away, finish them off with a weapon of your choosing, or just to laugh at them. After playing SRTT for over a dozen hours and throwing more than a few rounds of Fart in a Jar grenades, it still makes me laugh every time.

Co-op gameplay in SRTT is near perfect. The players have the ability to jump in and out of games, toggle friendly fire, and both players are free to go anywhere in the world they'd like while in co-op. Players are also able to revive each other when down, which will help on some of the more difficult missions and activities. You can vote to skip cutscenes and complete missions and activities together. Another very welcome feature: Each player is able to obtain collectibles or purchase properties in their respective games while still in co-op. It's co-op done right, and I'd love to see more games take this free-reign approach to it.

As fun as life in Steelport can be, it feels very limited in how you can interact with the world. There are buildings you can enter but for the most part these are the locations that you'll visit for missions and unfortunately they don't offer additional gameplay outside of those missions. For example, there are casinos in the game that you can explore, but none of the gambling games are playable. SRTT doesn't feature nightclubs or convenience stores like in the previous game either.

The gameplay is overall very smooth but can still be a little buggy at times, like when driving over objects or unlucky pedestrians, they sometimes get stuck in the body of the vehicle. Also while the controls are well thought out, there is too much assigned to certain buttons. You'll use one button to get into a vehicle and also rely on that same button to grab an enemy as a human shield. The setup causes things to get messy when you're in the middle of a gun battle and trying to reach for an enemy who is hiding behind an open car door.

Crazy, outrageous, completely inappropriate, and incredibly entertaining, SRTT is not a game that takes itself seriously at all. If you're looking for a game that is pure fun, SRTT delivers. With its adrenaline-packed madness, stellar co-op experience and slated DLC releases coming up, Saints Row: The Third is sure to keep you entertained this holiday season. SRTT is out now for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Initiation Station is also available as a free download on XBLM, PSN and Steam.