Saints Row: The Third

Ridiculous, by their own volition

What with the emotional weight of GTA IV and the straight-faced authenticity of L.A. Noire, Rockstar have taken the urban open-world genre a long way from its care-free roots. And while 1940's L.A. and contemporary Liberty City may offer their own brand of thrills, you can't help but think that something was lost along the way.

The chaotic sandbox of open-world games has been passed over. Where carnage was once rewarded, an all-new sense of responsibility has emerged.

But not in the Saints Row franchise. Existing to fill the void left by Rockstar's newfound ambitions Saints Row is stuffed with balls-out silliness. It's all about gleefully cathartic violence, not verisimilitude. The result is a series that may not inspire chin-stroking essays or critical plaudits, but instead gets it right exactly where it matters. Saints Row is puerile and vacuous and juvenile and brilliant and fun and utterly entertaining.

Developers Volition understand this better than anyone. That's why they're taking the opportunity with Saints Row: The Third to amplify everything about the series that you either hate or love. The third time out Volition are turning everything up to 11.

What that means in practical terms is that within 30 seconds of our demo, the game's (still unnamed) protagonist has viciously assaulted a passer-by with a four-foot purple dildo sword. As statements of intent go it's a pretty powerful one.

Elsewhere, the game's looking no less sensible. Over the course of a giggle-filled ten minutes the demoer had reduced members of the public to a fine bloody mist with a pair of giant foam hands called the "Apocafists," kicked several people straight in the nuts, acrobatically clotheslined a few more and then jumped on board a futuristic VTOL jet fighter equipped with lasers.

The highlight, however, was a vehicle promoting the deranged game show "Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax." Looking precisely like the victim of a cat-based Pimp My Ride mishap, this car allows you to suck up passing pedestrians and then fling them across the skyline via the "Manipult." Splatting people against distant buildings looks oh-so-fun.

Saints Row: The Third isn't entirely about silliness, however. Volition have introduced a whole raft of improvements and additions to the formula. The most noticeable of these is the game's new setting. Smaller than the series' traditional home of Stilwater, Steelport is nevertheless tightly packed, a bustling hive of activity sprinkled with billboards and commercials all sporting images of the Saints gang, who now enjoy a degree of celebrity.

But the Saints don't control Stilwater. The city is a run-down industrial area in the grip of The Syndicate, a nefarious criminal gang comprised of three distinct groups. The prostitute ring-running "Morning Star," the money-laundering hacktivist "Deckers" and the drug pedalling masked Luchadores can all be found lording it up on each street corner. Saints Row: The Third tasks you with taking over.

As well as a relocating the action, Volition have taken time to vastly increase the degree of customisation available to you. Encouraged by some of the user-made characters created by the community in previous titles, you can now do all manner of ridiculous stuff. They've opened up the doors, allowing you to change everything from gender to hair style to skin colour and build. Typically perhaps, these options aren't especially serious. So if you want a six-foot tall, green-skinned, skirt-wearing muscle man knock yourself out.

Rather amusingly you can also adjust sexiness too, a manipulative slip of a slider sees rippling muscles appear on your previously tubby protagonist.

Similarly, this new level of customisation also extends to your vehicles. Now instead of just a few scant options, you can adjust everything from the density of your car's armour, to its speed, alloys, colour and look. In just about every way possible Saints Row: The Third goes out of its way to offer a proliferation of guiltily enjoyable personal expression.

Then there's the missions. Built into the narrative of the game, these have always been present, but this time out they've been injected with an extra dose of adrenaline. The mission we were shown followed the Saints on a daring bank heist that goes spectacularly wrong. All while wearing a giant bobble-head mask. Obviously.

Beginning in the bank itself, the robbery goes almost immediately awry when instead of calmly handing over the cash, the staff leap onto the counter wielding enough weaponry to arm a small country. A firefight erupts, escalating in scale as it spreads to the roof and then the skyline of Stilwater as you dangle perilously from a helicopter, blasting at a stream of police, SWAT teams and choppers as you go. It's utterly breathless.

And really quite enjoyable. That's the point of Saints Row: The Third, you see. It's not attempting to push boundaries and it's certainly not trying to win over anyone who thinks that the medium is flooded with juvenilia. It's just a laugh.

Remember the tanks in GTA 1? Rockstar never really matched the joy of them in later iterations of the game. But Volition may have done it in Saints Row: The Third with the mini-game 'Tank Mayhem.' Here you are tasked with creating as much havoc as possible within a short period of time.

It's completely and utterly bonkers, with pedestrians, electricity poles, cars and bits of buildings erupting all over the place. There's no weight of responsibility, no moral quandaries and no concerns over realism. It's reflective of the rest of the experience. Saints Row: The Third just hopes to entertain, and based on what we've seen so far, it looks well on track to do just that.

Saints Row: The Third hits the streets on November 15th in North America and November 18th in Europe.

E3 Trailer