Saints Row: The Third Remastered review: the best of the worst gets better

My buddy Pierce calls me with half of an idea, and the next thing I know I’m hanging out of a helicopter, dressed like a wizard — big, floppy Gandalf hat; black robes fringed with purple; stars-and-moons pattern, naturally — giving the side-eye to a rooftop swimming pool atop a skyscraper.

Kanye West’s “Power” is playing in the background. I scope out the landscape.

So what does the Remastered treatment give the 9-year-old game? I played on a PC hooked up to my TV, and watched the mayhem explode in 4K at a glorious 60 frames per second. It looks, for all of its age, like a modern game with pretty lighting and high-resolution textures. This is a version of Saints Row: The Third that matches what I remember from the original launch — maybe not immediately visually dazzling but, with this modern restoration, it still holds its own against the competition.

If the Remastered version of Saints Row: The Third were released as a brand-new game today, I’d accept it as such. The only real disappointment comes from the console versions, which are locked at a 30 fps frame rate. The Windows PC version, on the other hand, can run as fast as your system can handle.

The technical information is interesting, but I’m here to party.

Guests mingle and dance at a penthouse party, but I’m not invited. Neither are my friends in 3rd Street Saints, a gang with fame, merchandise, and PR that would make Disney blush. I’m their leader. I’m also an outlaw, but a citizen-approved, internet-famous outlaw, which means I get to do whatever I want in Steelport, the city that stretches out as far as I can see in every direction below me.

It’s lowbrow in the same way as pro wrestling. If you’re going to enjoy it (and I enjoy both), you’ve got to make peace with the cognitive dissonance constantly poking you in the eye. And the in-universe reason you get away with just about everything has very little to do with just winking at the camera; the game is very explicit that you are untouchable in this world due to being a celebrity, giving everything a darker subtext in 2020. The more famous you are, and the more money you have, the more you can get away with.

So I jump.

I plan my entrance during a few seconds of free fall, yank the ripcord, and steer my way into the splashiest (GET IT?) landing I can imagine — dead center in the pool. Nice.

But nobody notices, which is weird. Also, I want my friends to join in the fun, so I grab a dude and “interrogate” the elevator code out of him.

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Someone notices the shakedown, so I turn my informant into a human shield just as the bullets start flying. Civilians run and scream in terror, rival gang members grab their own human shields, and I chuck the meat puppet soaking up the bullets meant for me into the pool for a posthumous splash of his own.

Kanye is telling me that “no one man should have all that power,” and he’d be right in the real world, but having all that power is the whole point in the very fake world of Saints Row: The Third Remastered. Acting with impunity and embracing silliness is what makes the game so damn good — despite all the often uncomfortable absurdity that remains the better part of a decade after its original release, recontextualized and almost remixed by everything that’s gone on since then.

Saints Row: The Third is a game utterly preoccupied with making sure that I have fun in seemingly endless ways, and it’s great as long as I don’t think too much about what I’m doing.

The Saints are marching

Saints Row: The Third Remastered is a third-person open-world game that looks like Grand Theft Auto but behaves like the digital incarnation of a 12-year-old boy’s fever dream. The character creation tool is the work of madness, especially with so much content unlocked from the very beginning. I steal cars, hang out with my friends, take selfies with strangers; watch 10 minutes of my life disappear after I realize that I can take all of my clothes off and press a button to go streaking; do some murder, steal, and brutalize the world in every silly way the game’s creative team could come up with.

Saints Row: The Third Remastered is utterly preoccupied with forcing you to have fun. And it succeeds. But for nearly a decade now, there’s been a war brewing inside my head about the game, too, which is that it derives some of its fun from the weirdest, grossest places. This is the game, after all, that turned a gigantic, floppy purple dildo into a weapon.

I’d probably recoil like Dracula at sunrise at seeing that in basically any other game — not so much because it was offensive or too “edgy,” but because it seems like such a cheap, surface-level thrill. And it is. But this is the wild part: Saints Row is all surface, so even the gross stuff seems to slide off the sides of the polished machine designed to thrill and empower me.

Rewards for even the most mundane acts appear, feeling like endless incentives to make sure that I’m never bored and that I get some kind of reward for my destruction. Might as well steer into incoming traffic, nearly hit every car I pass, and drift my way around corners — because each of these actions fills a meter, and every filled meter gives me more reputation, and I want that reputation before I even know what the point is. Using my cash to buy unlocked abilities due to my respect level is fun, sure, but who doesn’t want respect on its own merits? I win either way.

I am an untouchable agent of chaos, and I am wearing a goldfish bowl-style space helmet because I want to. The rooftop battle set to Kanye West’s “Power” gives you a sense of the game’s scale and grandeur, but it’s also an example of the attention to detail throughout. The budget just for the music rights must have been as astronomical as it is justifiable, because Saints Row: The Third Remastered wants to light up every pleasure center of your brain, but it wants to do so with production values, dammit.

Image: Deep Silver Volition, Sperasoft/Deep Silver

After I let my friends up through the elevator and we eliminate all of the “bad” guys, wouldn’t you know that we learn that there’s a bomb, and this whole penthouse is going to blow. What’s a celebrity gangster to do?

Simple: I hijack a helicopter, engage in a high-speed midair chase with another chopper, shoot and grenade my way through a warehouse, interrogate the dude I chased out of the helicopter about disarming the bomb, snap his neck with the press of a button, and tell my friends to cut the red wire.

This takes place in the span of maybe 10 minutes, and it’s emblematic of the stunning, baffling, audacious amount of variety in Saints Row: The Third Remastered.

This is the video game equivalent of a sped-up improv comedy show, where the sheer volume of jokes flies by at such a breakneck speed that it’s difficult to remember the details, but easy to remember that it was a good time.

The game is relentless. Each new set-piece that raises the stakes, each new mission that involves me shooting (literally) a movie or escorting a surreal cat mascot to his destination while using my car’s flamethrowers to roast random pedestrians so that I can fill up the cat’s “pleasure” bar at the top of the screen because dammit, he just loves watching innocent people burn … it all adds to the strange sense that this game can and will do anything possible to put me through something that’s novel and ridiculous, but ultimately enjoyable on some level, even if it should make me supremely uncomfortable.

A sense of absurd, chaotic joy springs from these Saints who sing along to Sublime in a car while headed to the next caper. Steelport is a grand playground when you happen to be one of the people who matter. Everyone else is a target or is barely worth thinking about. Unless they’re a celebrity guest star.

Saints Row: The Third Remastered does a trillion stupid things, and everything is deliberately over the top, but it’s so much fun that I never dwell on the the parts that might otherwise make me uncomfortable, because it is fully, beautifully committed to its absurdity. It punches up, it punches down, and it punches every which way except at me, because me? I’m cool.

Subtlety is dead in Steelport. There is no childhood sled called Rosebud here. But there is a giant, purple dildo and a certain amount of shameful joy to be found in swinging it at countless faces. And you bet your ass that’s what I do, as I also do my best not to think about it too much.

Saints Row: The Third Remastered will be released May 22 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a final “retail” download code provided by Deep Silver. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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