While the Grand Theft Auto series has taken a more "realistic" angle over the last few releases, the developers at Volition have taken a completely different approach on the open world genre. That approach: to deliver an absolutely over the top experience that is just a whole lot of fun from beginning to end, and deliver a few laughs along the way. With Saints Row: The Third, they're certainly well on their way to delivering on that promise.
At E3 this year, we got an early look at the game in a brief video. At a recent event in Los Angeles, we had an opportunity to get an extensive hands on look at the game and spend a few hours playing through the campaign and the recently announced instant-action "Whored Mode". To give you an example of the depth of the campaign, through six hours or so of co-operative play we only managed to complete around thirty-five percent of the campaign, along with a small handful of the side missions and activities.
In the campaign, you're thrown right into the action without any hesitation. Since the conclusion of Saints Row 2, the Saints have skyrocketed in popularity and become celebrities; their faces are on everything from billboards to their own energy drink. The first mission in the game has you walking into a bank with guns blazing. A bumbling gang member accidentally alerts the police, and after a failed attempt to airlift the bank vault right out of the building, the Saints are captured by the cops. It's only afterwards that they learn the bank is run by a major international crime organization known as the Syndicate.
After bribing the cops, the leader of the Syndicate brings the Saints leader Johnny Gat and Shaundi aboard and a gunfight ensues mid-air. You and Shaundi manage an exciting escape, with Johnny presumed dead after staying behind to buy you a few extra minutes. With the Syndicate in full control of Stillwater, the Saints begin to set up in the new city of Steelport.
Throughout the campaign, you'll battle through three gangs - The Morning Star, Luchadores, and Deckers - before taking on the Syndicate. In fact, most of the biggest and most powerful weaponry and vehicles won't be unlocked until over halfway through the game, when you eventually face the military brought in by the mayor to combat the rising gang violence in the city.
The missions themselves are quite varied, and many have objectives or scenes that will leave you laughing your butt off. In one example, an enemy is trying to ram you with a private jet, sparking the line "don't get upset, but I think they're trying to ram us with that plane". You subsequently kick your way through the windscreen, knock out the pilot, and in one fell swoop fly out through the loading bay. According to the lead designer on the game, this specific scene was inspired from a scene in the Schwarzenegger thriller "Eraser". Another great example is a mission where, in an effort to "face your fear", you're required to drive around the city with a tiger in the passenger seat, which feels the need to maul you whenever you collide with pretty much anything. In the co-operative campaign, the second player can try and comfort the tiger, but it won't help much when he's clawing your face off. This scene in particular reminded us of "The Hangover", and left us on the floor laughing. You'll even recognize specific tie-ins to previous games in the series. In one of the missions you'll hear a character referencing a time when a sewage truck went out of control and starting spraying crap all over the place, an obvious reference to one of the activities in the second game.
Speaking of activities, through completing odd jobs and side missions you're able to earn extra cash and respect. Many of the popular activities from the previous Saints games have returned. My personal favourites: insurance fraud where your goal is to "ragdoll" in front of oncoming vehicles and collect the insurance money, trail blazing where you drive a flaming ATV across the city, causing anything and everything you touch to explode, and guardian angel where you're tasked with protecting a person of interest with a sniper rifle and rocket launchers. You'll also find new activities such as Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, a Japanese game show where you're goal is to kill as many people as possible while traversing through a studio of death.
The gameplay itself is where we've seen one of the biggest improvements since Saints Row 2. Steelport is incredibly well designed, and unlike previous games you'll be able to drive on long stretches of sidewalk completely unobstructed by trees and other immoveable objects. Blazing through crowds of pedestrians in a cop car has never felt so satisfying. The designers have really taken the feedback from Saints 2 to heart and made the world much more fluid. The driving mechanics are far from realistic but extremely solid, and you'll never need to open a door again with the ability to drop kick in through a side window. The "over the top" theme carries through even in basic combat, where nut shots are proudly rewarded, and you're free to slam civilians' and enemies' heads into objects and the ground. Everything in this game bleeds "ridiculous", and the developers are certainly proud of it.
Graphically, Saints Row: The Third is gorgeous, extremely smooth, and technically impressive. In co-operative online play, the two players are completely untethered and can go anywhere in the massive world with absolutely no load times. In fact, load times were pretty much only encountered when starting a mission, and even then were short enough that they barely disrupted the flow.
The creativity in Saints Row: The Third is unmatched, and this is really evident in the weapons. For starters, one of the primary melee weapons in the game is a giant floppy purple dildo with ridiculous "wobble" physics, and capable of knocking an enemy flying backwards. As well, you be able to fire a mind controlling squid-like brain slug that is capable of turning an enemy into an ally, and a cop into a crook. Alongside your typical arsenal of chainsaws, pistols, shotguns, rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades, you'll also get access to airstrikes and predator drones later in the game. Finally, we've heard through our sources of a zero-day DLC release to the game which will allow you to pull out a shark and devour an enemy. Yeah, you read that right, you can use a random shark as a weapon. Very sweet.
Vehicles are plentiful, and you're able to drive anything from sports cars and motorcycles to street cleaners. You'll also be able to fly Leer style jets, and lethal military strike helicopters armed with rockets and miniguns. Later in the game, you'll also gain access to a collection of high powered military vehicles, tanks, and large very powerful aircraft. Finally, we can't forget the outrageous Professor Genki's Super Ballistic Manapult, which allows you to vacuum people up into the mounted cannon and use them as human cannonballs. Satisfying doesn't fully describe the feeling.
While the single player campaign is a blast, we also got to spend some time with the all-new "Whored" mode. Playable in both single player and two-player co-op, you're tasked with facing off against waves and waves of enemies. What makes it unique is the variations between each wave, in some cases you're taking on waves of whores, in other cases you're taking on naked brutes, and it just gets weirder from there. You'll find the entire assortment of weapons, from the purple dildo to plastic explosives, pre-selected for you in each wave. In some levels, you're tasked with killing enemies in a certain way, for example nut shots only, where you're only able to kill an enemy with a specifically targeted round. And it just gets more odd as your progress through the waves.
To simply describe Saint's Row: The Third as off the wall doesn't do it justice. In fact, in our time with the game, it's easily a huge improvement over the second game, and simply a blast to play. Graphically beautiful, the designers have really spent a lot of time delivering an over the top experience that will leave a smile on your face. Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, we can't wait to get a better look around Steelport when the game ships November 15th. Check back for our full review of the game in the next couple of weeks.