Saints Row: The Third is the most fun you can have in co-op.

It took a fair bit of convincing. EB wasn’t really sold on the whole “Saints Row 2” thing. Probably because it didn’t have Halo or Call of Duty at the front of it. I kept telling him it was his loss. As our stable of back-catalog games diminished, and his interest in the latest FPS’es waned, he finally came around to my point of view and we both picked it up. I’d rented it, and beaten it, and I was willing to replay it, which is really saying something. It’s rare that I’m interested enough in a game to go back and play it again.

It took a couple of nights to get the rhythm down and get a feel for the game, but we had a blast. The game was ridiculous, over the top, and completely crazy in every way imaginable. We crashed helicopters, we stole cars, we made lewd gestures and above all, we blew @#^% up. Saints Row 2 was the game GTA 4 tried and failed to be.

Needless to say, when Saints Row 3 was announced, we both pre-ordered immediately. I’ll admit, though, that I was worried when I saw the first “B+” reviews. I was a bit afraid that there was no way they could make a more fun co-op game than Saints Row 2. I am happy to say that my fears were completely and totally unfounded. By far, Saints Row: The Third is the best co-op game I think I’ve ever played.

The co-op action and the careful attention to detail in the co-op mechanics are masterful. It’s easy to drop in and out of a friend’s game, and the way progress is tracked is very smart. If you join a game where the other person is further along in the plot than you are, you can still play a plot mission with them. If the two of you complete it and later you make it to that plot mission in single player, you’re given the option to skip it if you so choose. It sounds simple, but it removes so much hassle and repetition in situations where you can’t always be online to play co-op together. Missions that are challenging or frustrating in single player become simply “fun” in co-op, where you can share responsibilities (one driver and one gunner, for example) and bring double the pain to the enemies.

The game itself is very well built and a ton of fun to play. The weapons are varied, and each class of weapon manages to feel different and worth keeping, even the traditionally low-end classes of “melee weapons” and “pistols.” There are some clear winners, including the “special” weapons that range from a CoD-style Predator Missile strike and Halo Reach-style target locator to a weapon that can remote control (and detonate!) vehicles in the game.

Speaking of vehicles, they’re certainly core to this genre of game, and there’s quite a variety here. Most fun are the military vehicles, and with the introduction of a sizable military force partway through the plot, a wide array of heavy-duty combat options are opened up. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let me just leave you with the concept of a “flamethrower laser.” It’s real, and it’s magnificent.

The game’s got a role-playing-game-lite system for tracking “sidequests” (such as the genre standard assassination and vehicle delivery diversion) and “perks” in the form of upgrades. At certain respect and cash levels, you can pick special abilities that transform you from “just” a lowly badass into an unkillable, bullet and explosive spewing demigod of destruction. Although you can become nearly invincible and extraordinarily powerful, the game’s enemies are so varied, tough, and plentiful that it never feels too easy and manages to stay fun.

There are a few things that I can nitpick, and they’re only worth mentioning to show the level of polish.

One thing is the wanted level, especially in co-op. It can be really tricky sometimes to get rid of it, for a couple of reasons. One is that in order to get rid of your wanted level, you have to both be inside a building that you own. This can sometimes be tricky, especially closer to the start of the game when cash is tight and you don’t own very many locations. Second is that it is really easy to upset the gangs and police again after you’ve lost your wanted level.

Another thing is the friendly AI. This is really a game where you’re doing all the heavy lifting, and we knew that going in. However, sometimes I got really frustrated by my so-called “homies.” I’d call them to deliver a helicopter or VTOL, and they’d glitch out and just refuse to land. Sometimes I could take over control of the craft and land it for them, but it just seems like they should be able to figure it out. Other times in a pitched firefight, they’d turn on me and start shooting. Some amount of friendly fire is to be expected, but I really just don’t need my allies beating me senseless when we’re surrounded by hostiles.

Finally, the plot. There’s really very little in the way of story, and a good percentage of the story missions are actually “intro to activity” missions instead of story missions proper. I can’t give them too much heat for this though, since the story missions that are unique are well executed and most of them are spectacular set pieces that are super entertaining to play.

The only question I’m left with is – how will they top this for Saints Row 4? Every time I laugh out loud or stare, agape at the spectacle, It just doesn’t seem possible.

Then again, that’s what I said about trying to top Saints Row 2.