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The ‘Saints Row 3’ remaster is so good, it’s almost a remake

(Deep Silver)

A lot of “Saints Row” fans hold the third one in higher regard than I do. For me, the game felt a bit confused, too busy with distraction work, and the crude, offensive humor was already cringe-inducing back in 2011.

So I played “Saints Row: The Third Remastered” with some trepidation. Remasters, after all, have an uneven reputation. Sometimes, as with “Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection," remasters do more than just preserve the game; they improve it by adding more frames of animation and higher resolution graphics. On the other end of the spectrum, the recent “Mafia 2” remaster shows how little work can be done, with the developers barely touching the game’s textures.

Imagine my surprise when I booted up the “Saints Row” remaster to see brand new textures, particle effects, advanced screen space reflections and “god ray” effects that bathe the city of Steelport in a warm orange and purple vaporwave hue.

The third “Saints Row” is the weird one of the four games. While the second competed directly with the billion-dollar “Grand Theft Auto” franchise, the third game had developer Volition taking the story to ludicrous levels. This meant cruder, more self-referential humor, and absurdist mission design.

“We feel that the franchise found its voice and recognizable look [in this game],” said Nikolay Stoyanov, lead art director for Koch Media and Deep Silver, the current publisher for the series.

The Washington Post asked Stoyanov if any of these graphical upgrades provide hints for “Saints Row 5,” which has been in development for more than a year. Studio Sperasoft, known for collaborating on big projects like “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed,” created this remaster, but are not involved with the sequel.

“It was an obvious choice to give [Sperasoft] the challenge, leaving Volition to focus on their day jobs,” Stoyanov said. “But of course, each project yields learnings that can help with other projects. With this Remaster, we wanted to fully tap into the advantages that the current generation of hardware lends us in terms of world density.”

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We’re not just talking about touching up some images here and there. Sperasoft might have undersold this as a “remaster,” as it almost fits the definition of a full, fat remake. There are more characters and cars in the Steelport streets than ever before. All the character and weapon models have been remade from scratch.

“We had to pay close attention to the look of its characters and setting to not lose the recognizable look and vibe,” Stoyanov said. “To achieve this, we familiarized ourselves on the existing marketing images from the original, which are still present in players’ memories, and reworked, for example, the main story characters to fit those looks.”

Sperasoft’s approach is notable in that the game tries to match what our mind’s eye remembers about the game. The best remasters, like “The Last of Us,” often work hard to make graphics match how impressive our minds perceived them to be the first time around.

“Every part of the vehicles was fully remastered, this includes undercarriages, engines, interior, damage models, lights, grills and bumpers,” Stoyanov said. “Some custom rims received a complete redesign to make them more modern. The materials, colors and decals of the cars now respond better to the various lighting conditions.”

The game’s new global illumination lighting system is the remaster’s star. Everything in the city, from the characters to the windows, bounce light realistically, making the different times of day look even more striking.

The new remaster looks better than its original PC edition, and the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X versions both feature a “performance” mode that offer a higher frame count for smoother play.

PlayStation and Xbox are not in a ‘console war.’ They’re racing in different directions.

Otherwise, the game is really the same. The same cheats, the same tricks still work. Playing the game in 2020, your mileage may vary. The game is still a nonstop parade of minigames, which felt like lazy game design even when the game first released. But after recent epics like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” it was refreshing to play an open-world game that’s more interested in being a video game than a long, personal and stressful odyssey.

Volition’s work on the next “Saints Row” title began after it finished 2017′s “Agents of Mayhem,” Stoyanov said. And Deep Silver is open to remastering other “Saints Row” titles, “if the time was right and we felt there was an appetite for it.”

Open-world gaming really hasn’t been the same since we last saw the Saints. It’s about time they came back to show us what we’ve been missing. In the meantime, “Saints Row: The Third Remaster” reminds us of the fun we used to have.

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