In a mission midway through Saints Row: The Third called “Pimps Up, Hos Down,” your player character gets sold as a sex slave in order to infiltrate an enemy gang’s turf. When you regain control of your character, they are stripped naked, with only their privates being censored, and visibly reeling from likely having been drugged.
Far from being portrayed as horrifying, the mission, like the rest of the game, is played for laughs—laughs that rarely came. In my roughly 10 hours with the newly released Saints Row: The Third Remastered, there were moments when I fell into a groove while driving around Steelport City, shooting my assailants and causing mayhem in general. However, there were many more when the unwieldy controls and uninspired mission structure, combined with its sexist undertones, left me feeling frustrated, bored or just uncomfortable.
Many have commented on how certain topics “can’t” be joked about anymore. That’s ridiculous. We all have our first amendment rights, and just as developer Volition is allowed to publish a AAA game with jokes about sex slaves and mass murder, I’m free to write that I found most to be unfunny and some to be distasteful, even if that wasn’t the writers’ intention.
That’s not to say that Saints Row: The Third is filled with blatant chauvinism. One of the game’s most impressive features, even today, is the level of customization in almost every aspect, from your car to your outfit to every minute detail of your player character. You’re able to choose between seven voice actors for your character, three male, three female and one zombie, all of different tones and dialects which deliver full lines in gameplay and cutscenes. It’s an impressive feature, especially when considering how most games with such customization options opt for the silent protagonist to avoid needing to re-record so many lines.
But even though these options are welcome, they don’t erase the way the rest of its characters fall into old stereotypes. Even if you play as a fully clothed black woman, nearly all the other women in the game are in essentially lingerie, whether they’re prostitutes, assailants or even many pedestrians. Male nudity is certainly present, but not nearly to the same degree, and seems to be played for laughs whereas the former seems to shoot for titillation. It was jarring to play as a confident, cocky female gangster, only to find nearly every other female character fall into tired stereotypes. Needless to say, the game doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test.
The gameplay, too, seems like an outdated relic of its era. There’s a modest variety of weapons and the ability to instantly hijack any car off the streets has its fun, but with a handful of exceptions, each mission felt like either a standard shooter mission where I turned my brain off and shot anything that moved, or like a series of minigames.
Some were fun diversions, such as “Escort,” a Crazy Taxi-like mission where I drove sex workers (of course, casually called “hos” in the game) and their patrons around town while completing objectives and avoiding paparazzi, or “Mayhem,” where my goal was to destroy as much property as possible within a time limit. Others would be simple variations on the normal action, having me snipe an onslaught of opponents or shoot with other specialized weapons that quickly became a list of monotonous chores for me to complete.
Although the game’s few original tracks are repetitive and grating, it fortunately has a wide selection of licensed music, most of which are just as enjoyable to listen to now as they would have been in 2011. You choose between eight radio stations when operating a vehicle, so I was always able to switch to something that fit my tastes.
Saints Row: The Third Remastered gives the game cleaner graphics and lighting that help it look more like a game from the modern era. However, its tired structure and depiction of women remain entirely in place. For all its problems, videogames and the discussion around them have matured a lot in the near-decade since Saints Row: The Third’s release. We should be able to hold them to a higher standard and recognize how what seems fine to someone like me, a straight white male, may not sit as well with someone who is queer, a woman, or a person of color.
For those who can look past these faults, there’s a good amount of varied missions that can offer a real sense of catharsis. But its good ideas are too often marred by outdated sensibilities, both in terms of game design and in how it caters almost exclusively to the fantasies of the stereotypical straight white male.
Saints Row: The Third Remastered was developed by Volition and Sperasoft and published by Deep Silver. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It’s also available for Xbox One and PC.
Joseph Stanichar is a Paste intern.