It’s been several months since Saints Row: The Third has been released, so I think now would be the best time to make a relevant article on the subject. Some think SR3 is just as good as SR2, while others liken it to something a vagrant might leave in a dumpster; the consensus is divided. Now, I don’t like to take sides, but I’m taking sides. Specifically, I’m siding with the latter group, although not for the usual reasons.
Most of the points people made against the game tended to center around content. There aren’t as many story missions, aren’t as many activities, not as many clothing options, the world is too small, not enough weapon variety, and it goes on. People complained that the characters weren’t as likeable, the story was too railroaded, the villains weren’t very good, all these things as well. See, while all of these points are entirely valid, there is a much bigger problem that lies underneath the surface.
The game mechanics themselves.
That might seem a bit of a bold statement. They spent so long working on this new engine, with all this cool new stuff. Can I really say that that is the game’s main issue? Well, I’m important enough to be writing an article on a video game website, so I’m sure I can get away with scandal such as this.
You see, the change in mechanics from SR2 to SR3 actually removes an absurd amount of challenge, in several different ways. Challenge is the basis on which the concept of a game is built; the greater the challenge, the greater the reward as well as satisfaction. Beating a game on the highest difficulty setting will naturally be more rewarding than beating it on the easiest. By removing challenge, they make it a less enjoyable game as a whole. The most interesting aspect of how this is done is actually the subtlety in which it is done in some parts of the game.
A great example of challenge-gimping is how the custom radio station changes between the two, as an example in and of itself, as well as a metaphor for the entire process of challenge-gimping. In SR2, players could create a custom playlist of songs consisting of songs already available in the game. To do this, however, each song had to be purchased at a music store, going for $30 a pop. In the beginning of the game, buying songs is a waste of money, as it can be used to buy much-needed weapons, vehicles, cribs, and the like. Thankfully, there is an alternative. Scattered around the city, there are 50 hidden CDs that the player can collect. At certain collection milestones, the player unlocks hidden songs, and when fully collected, it is found that songs at the music store are now $0 each, a massive reward of savings for all your arduous work. Similarly in SR3, players are also allowed to create a custom radio station. The big difference here is that all the songs in the game are available to the player through their smartphone as soon as they hit the ground. There’s no buying them, no unlocking a 100% discount, they just GET them.
Can you see how that’s extremely less rewarding? It’s the same with carjacking. In SR2, the only way to get a car is to play chicken with one and let it drive straight at you. Most of the time, said car will stop right before you, allowing you to toss the owner out and take it for yourself. But on the highway and in certain missions, it requires a bit more work, and you put yourself at risk for being flung halfway across the city, ragdoll style. In SR3, playing chicken is possible, but becomes obsolete because of Bo-Duken. Bo-Duken is the method of entering a vehicle by jumping through the window. This might have been an interesting mechanic if you were required to aim yourself through the window, but sadly, all it is is an uncontrollable animation of you jumping in the car. The worst part about this is all you have to do is run at a car and press the Enter Vehicle button. It doesn’t matter the speed, the type of vehicle, or anything. You just get it.
Removing the minimal challenge in such common tasks doesn’t do much in singular cases. Play long enough though, say the entire campaign, and it compounds, leaving you to discover that it is much too easy to steal any car you see. Partner this with the fact that all cars in the game were either sports-car -fast or dump-truck-slow, supplemented with reduced customization availability and options, and you’ll find your SR3 garage empty compared to your SR2 garage. This is how game mechanics change your playing habits, and in SR3’s case, changes them for the worst.
After all this, though, plenty of people still call it better than SR2. How could this be? Simple. They made it look good. And it’s something they certainly did well. The graphical quality, the QTEs, the animations all look good, and it’s reasonable to be fooled by the flashy showmanship the game presents. But that’s all it is; flashy. I’ll admit, I got carried away by the trailer and gameplay preview hype, because that is what they were designed for. They look good when you see a ten minute preview, and even stay good-looking well into your first few hours of gameplay. But eventually, to the discerning player, the game becomes shallow and uninteresting.
But after all this, what does this mean to you?
Go buy Saints Row 2.