There are two different ways to look at the Switch port of Saints Row: The Third’. From a glass half full perspective, what you’re getting an exceptionally close conversion of the PS3 original, closer still if you play in handheld mode. But viewed in a glass half empty way, all of the failings of the last-gen console versions remain in full effect on this new release: let’s make no bones about it, performance is poor and the controls have severe input lag issues.
Let’s focus initially on the positives. Playing Saints Row: The Third in Switch’s handheld mode is definitely the best way to experience the game. It renders at a full 720p – making it a pin-sharp native experience on Switch’s six-inch screen, while performance seems to be more consistent than the docked mode. As usual, the smaller screen does a good job of hiding some of the cut-backs and compromises and to all intents and purposes, it is indeed the PS3 version in the palm of your hand. And to be clear, this game has always been hilarious fun – and this was the main reason why we were so looking forward to the Switch port, and most likely why we’ve had so many requests to look at it.
Much of the charm wears off when playing docked, as despite migrating Saints Row: The Third to full 1080p resolution, it feels like a step too far for the Switch’s mobile hardware. Blown up on a big living room display, the extra resolution is welcome, but just about any major use of alpha transparency effects clearly reveals ugly sawtooth edges – a sign of lower resolution buffers in play. These were already cut back on the last-gen consoles versions, but the compromise is even more pronounced on Switch with even lower resolution artefacts. There’s also an impact to performance: the frame-rate lows feel worse than they do in handheld mode – making the experience feel even more uneven.
And this leads us on to what is undoubtedly the biggest disappointment with this conversion – it doesn’t address what is by far the most unsatisfactory aspect of the original release: the frame-rate. Saints Row: The Third’s history here is a real issue. The Xbox 360 version played relatively consistently, but did so accompanied by some hideous screen-tearing. Curiously, v-sync could be forced on within the options, but performance could plummet as a consequence. Its PlayStation 3 counterpart used a triple-buffer v-sync to remove the tearing, but swapped in wobbly frame-times as a consequence. Back in the day, there was no satisfactory way to play this game on consoles – only the PC version was capable of delivering smooth gameplay.
There are further options in the here and now, though. Saints Row: The Third always ran on consoles with an unlocked frame-rate, meaning that running the original game on Xbox One back-compat sees a welcome lift to performance, with all of the tearing banished. Indeed, run the game on Xbox One X and the frame-rate usually settles between 50 to 60 frames per second, with the odd deviation into the 40s. It’s not ideal, but it’s still a night and day improvement over every other console rendition (though given the choice, PC is still the preferred option for revisiting the game).
For Switch users, the combination of an unlocked frame-rate with performance lows well below 20fps produces an excessively jarring experience – illustrated perfectly in the game’s opening moments, taking you through a series of set-piece action scenes where the refresh can careen from a jerky slideshow to nigh-on 60fps depending on where the camera’s pointing. Handheld does seem to feel more consistent – possibly because mobile mode has 50 per cent of the GPU power driving 44 per cent of the pixels rendered in the docked configuration. Interestingly though, using an exploited Switch, upping CPU power by 75 per cent and increasing GPU and memory bandwidth by 20 per cent didn’t produce a game-changing experience. The prevalance of low resolution buffers may hint at a bandwidth-bound experience.
Our understanding is that a new patch for Saints Row: The Third is incoming, which may or may not boost performance – but to be frank, any improvement to the game’s frame-rate lows would be very welcome indeed. However, with that said, addressing the input lag situation is also of crucial importance in getting this port into shape. The analogue sticks are exceptionally heavy to the point where pulling off headshots is very difficult indeed, with general play feeling cumbersome. Meanwhile, the same tests in the same situations on the PlayStation 3 version reveal a much tighter response. Right now, the only to get any kind of improvement at all on Switch is to increase horizontal and vertical stick sensitivity all the way up to 100 per cent – but even then, control remains muggy and not a patch on the game’s original release.
Unfortunately, the poor controller response paired with dodgy frame-rates actually means that the game is less enjoyable to play than it was on the last-gen console systems – and overall, there’s the sense that this conversion is a missed opportunity. Docked resolution boost aside, there’s little more to differentiate the experience from what came before – shadow dithering tweaks and lower resolution alpha buffers aside, the game looks much the same as it always did. Even the level of detail pop-in travelling at speed through the city is a match for the PS3 version of the game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on a title with a stylised look like this, but addressing the key issues with the older releases is fundamentally the main reason for this port to exist – and it doesn’t deliver in its current state.
It’s a disappointment, then. In fact, perhaps more so because bringing Saints Row: The Third to Switch was an inspired choice by Deep Silver – the original delivered so much hilarity, but the console versions were let down on the technical side, stifling some of the fun factor. Based on what we’ve seen from other Switch conversions of last-gen games, we were looking for a genuine improvement here, but to be served up the same compromised experience with extra issues almost eight years on is a let-down. Can the developers continuing to work on the game and releasing a new patch address these problems? I hope so – but in the meantime, the PC rendition and Xbox One back-compat are our picks for playing Saints Row: The Third at its best.