It probably needs to be said that Saint's Row 3 doesn't have limits. As a kooky satire of gang culture and idolization of the lifestyle, a boundary is the last thing it needs. Players rescue scantily clad sex slaves from shipping containers only to hand them over to the gang's pimp for a profit. There's a raid on a BDSM parlor that ends on a street chase in horse carriages “driven” by men in leather straps.
And those are in the first two acts. There's still another to go.
It's odd that a line feels crossed, though. Like its more serious ilk, Grand Theft Auto, much of Saint's Row 3 is spent driving to a location to initiate the next story-driven mission or side game. Despite the Third Street Saints gang being an international icon with helicopters and fighter jets at their disposal, cars remain primary.
That's where Saint's Row 3 lost me. Sure, its cartoony facade doesn't insinuate realism, but carjackings have a strict sense of violence about them. As I approached a vehicle, simply needed to get from point A to point B, my created character (replete with designated “porn 'stache”) reached in to punch an elderly woman in the face, called her a bitch, and threw her to the ground.
The combination of the jerky camera, visceral nature of the punch, and screams from the senior were just jarring. It's not necessarily the violence itself. Saint's Row uses goofy physics to send bodies scattering across the skyline when they're hit by cars or blown up by rocket launchers. It's the darkest of dark comedy; even Grand Theft Auto III — and the sequels — had memorable members of the elder generation.
It came down to not only how out of place it feels in something this ludicrous, but how focused the design is in that moment to ensure it's as vividly real as possible. Why take the time to to ensure something like that is so visibly true to life? I'm envisioning a developer in the midst of crunch time trying to figure out how to render a carjacking, and thinking it would be funny if there was a loud, terrified senior behind the wheel. There's something off about that.
No, it shouldn't be any different if it were a middle-aged man driving the car, but it is. Typically, there's a funny one-liner destined to poke fun at the stupidity of Saint's Row in general, and some of the screams from victims are clearly meant to be amusing. The nature of those events just sort of aligned to create something unnerving, and after playing games for 25 years, something like that should have been passe.
Maybe it's a good thing that it's not. A psychologist will have a field day analyzing a game about a guy who enjoys sitting around bombing the public in a futuristic jet and the game community will rabidly defend the industry as if it could never do anything wrong.
But, consider this: Most games understand their context, and for everything THQ's otherwise enjoyable farce does right to set a satire in place, it blows it all on one two-second, minor event. Go figure.