By Darren Franich
Updated November 15, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

If videogames were judged on everything except for their actual gameplay, then Saints Row: The Third would be a masterpiece. Set in a candy-colored neon-grit city that resembles Detroit mashed with Hong Kong, The Third is a triumph of ambience. You could spend a few hours just admiring the tiny details: The glittery casinos, the hooker-gangs toting mini-guns, the dildo-as-melee-weapon, the bald mutant hulks you can only kill by stuffing a grenade down their throat, the endearing fact that the game actually tabulates how often you shoot dudes in their private parts. When you ram your car straight into another car, you will never get tired of seeing the other driver go flying through their windshield. Technically a sequel, The Third is simultaneously a hyperdrive reboot and a sly satire of the earlier games in the series. Where Saints Row 1 and 2 were (relatively) straightforward tales about (relatively) realistic street gangs, The Third imagines a world where those gangs have become media icons, beloved by the public for their homicidal shenanigans.

With fame has come better funding: You’re driving tanks and helicopters almost immediately. Fighter jets and hoverbikes await the deep player. There’s a rollicking “more is more” sensibility at work in The Third: On a typical mission, you ride in a helicopter firing a bazooka down at enemy cars, and then you rappel down the side of a skyscraper to snipe at some enemies who are lurking across the river. There’s a great mission early in the game where you have to sky-dive onto the rooftop penthouse of a skyscraper. In the penthouse, the bad guys are hosting a strippers ‘n’ uzis pool party. Immediately before you make your jump, as you peek down onto the gleaming metropolis, Kanye West’s “Power” starts playing. It’s a moment of pure pop — an Afro-funk chorus filtered through West’s brilliantly self-lacerating narcissism, all of it doubly reconfigured as an epic action-movie anthem.

I’ve played enough Saints Row: The Third to develop a great respect for the game’s basic vibe — if this were a movie, it would be Fast Five directed by Paul Verhoeven starring an all-Kardashian cast with a screenplay by Edgar Wright. Unfortunately, it’s not a movie, and once you’ve gotten over the exciting design, you’ll start to notice that the game has a fundamental rhythm: Awesome set-up, terrible follow-through. Every mission sounds cool in theory. What’s not fun about firing a bazooka out of a helicopter, or machine-gunning your way through a BDSM club?

But when the gameplay isn’t beset with glitches, it just gets repetitive. The Third offers you tons of mini-games which sound fun initially: Driving a flaming dune buggy into cars to blow them up, or standing in front of moving cars to collect insurance money. In practice, these mini-games are all just the same mechanic repeated over and over, on city streets that seem curiously depopulated.

In an interview with, one of the game’s producers says that the operating philosophy with The Third was that “everything had to be over the top this time around,” which explains the game’s willingness to give you the keys to the tank and a full stock of rocket-launcher ammo almost immediately. The problem is that the game isn’t challenging enough to justify all the accessories. Because you’re so well-stocked, you sashay through most missions. It feels a little bit like Cheat Code: The Videogame. And as everyone who ever owned a Game Genie knows, cheat codes stop being fun after about ten minutes.

The game’s willingness to frontload the insanity is admirable. I laughed out loud during the second level, when your character takes off a parachute in mid-air to kick into the cockpit of a burning plane to tackle a bad guy and take his parachute. But it makes the more rote parts of the game’s middle section — drive the hookers around! protect your drug dealer! — feel boringly tossed-off. If you’re gonna make everything over the top, then everything has to be over the top.

There’s an elephant in the room when we talk about Saints Row: That other open-world metropolitan All-American satirical crime-game franchise. But I think it’s missing the point to call The Third a clone of Grand Theft Auto. The GTA series is based on the classic American narrative: The Horatio Alger tale. The protagonists in the GTA series — Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, CJ in San Andreas, and Niko Bellic in GTA IV — all begin with nothing. The great thing about GTA is that the story and the gameplay both perfectly map their rise to power: It took a long time in Vice City to get your own chain-gun helicopter, but by god, when you got it, you felt like you had earned that thing.

In a funny way, though, I think The Third has its finger on the pulse of a decidedly more modern — and more cynical — vision of our country. At a basic level, The Third is a game about immensely privileged people fighting other immensely privileged people. That might sound bad, but it’s not a bad story — that basically describes The Social Network, a modern masterwork about Ivy Leaguers arguing over who gets to be more famous. There are some moments in The Third that achieve an operatic bourgeois serenity that feels genuinely distinctive from GTA.

More to the point, whereas GTA always approaches America from the outside — either through the lens of history or from the eyes of a newcomer — The Third feels gloriously tapped in to our reality TV era. If GTA is about becoming a superstar, The Third argues that you are already a superstar; other people just haven’t recognized you yet. All of which makes it oddly perfect that Lindsay Lohan made headlines for her poor dental hygiene at a Saints Row launch party.

There’s some great potential here, if the Saints Row creators can unbound their imaginations and figure out how to make the rote gameplay as fun/insane as the vibe. (We have every reason to believe that that is the case: There’s some additional Downloadable Content coming this Winter called “Gangstas in Space.”) If you’re looking for a few hours of fun followed by long hours of diminishing returns, then you might enjoy Saints Row: The Third. This might be a missed opportunity, but as I put the game aside, I found myself hoping that the game sells really well, if only so the creators can get a big enough budget to make Saints Row 4 much, much better.

Grade: C+

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich