There's only two things in this world that manages to rubber-band people through the emotional spectrum so quickly, shooting past pained sympathy by way of appalled indecency and headfirst into
guilty amusement. One is Jackass. The other is Saints Row.
The figure on the screen in front of us is less Johnny Knoxville, more frightening amalgamation of every single male film star that you've voiced your wish to punch yet secretly wished to be. A movie heart-throb every bit as chiseled as a marketing department could hope. And so the perfect face for a gang that's shifted out of the ghetto and into the rapidly expanding globalisation of brand, which is where we find the Saints in the third game of THQ's successful sandbox series.
And with branding comes the endless marketing avenues and revenues. One obvious stop: movie adaptation. Which is were our preening actor, and his inflated ego come in, serving as our eyes, for the moment, to see the Saints as they are now: gun-wielding rock stars idolised by everyone bar the establishment.
Our boy is also a self-centred dick. So when he finds himself partaking in a real-life bank heist, such as the one that concludes our Saints Row presentation, he does want any movie darling would do; freaks out and runs out of the situation as fast as he can.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We've skipped over the lunacy, the bonkers customisation, the bawdy comedy that's Saints Row's heart and soul. Let's stick with the funny for the moment. Because Saints Row is very funny indeed. In that overly-violent-Joe Pesci-kinda way sure, but funny none the less.
It's the theme for the opening part of the presentation, as we're guided round a small section of Stillwater (smaller in terms of geographical size than the second game, we're told, but dwarfing it's predecessor in terms of density) which has been designed especially for today. It's a tour big on collateral damage, doctor's bills and, yes, laughs. Or, more sniggers. The type that's hidden behind notepads and hands to cover the fact that someone being crotch-punched with an enlarged rubber dildo (or "Big Purple Dildo Bat" as it's coined in the game) shouldn't be that hilarious to people over the age of thirteen. But for the record, it is.
That such things are on screen is due to Volition guiding us through the melee combat system, which has been massively overhauled for The Third. Attacks are packaged in a short and sweet cut scene as the camera angle sweeps in close to deliver a cinematic shot packing as much punch as the strike itself. Crotch shots are equal opportunities though obviously more painful for males, and head grabs transfer into face-plants on the cement with all the pantomime confidence of a WWE match. If you want to get really violent, you can dial up the Apoca-Fist, an oversized mitt that turns those faced with a knuckle sandwich into explosive meat chunks.
"Panto" is accurate. Saints Row has wilfully embraced its O.T.T leanings with greater glee in each new iteration, and by all accounts the five year old franchise is growing old disgracefully and loving it.
The developer has retained some sensibilities of the previous game engine model for its newest creation, creating an accented reality that's still more GTA than Crackdown. But neither of those had a cannon truck that allowed you to fire unwilling victims at road signs, walls, or in the case of the demo, between two chimney stacks at a local factory. While there's no indication of it on-screen, you can almost hear the iconic Achievement unlock noise firing up in the assembled crowd's heads.
Not happy with the cannon truck? How about a Johnny Gat-endorsed ride with a Johnny Gat-approved oversized face on-top and a ten-foot flamethrower attached to the bonnet (not endorsed by the DIA, but definitely approved by Johnny Gat). It's another nod to the Saints expansion to a global and marketable brand, and can roast pedestrians like marshmallows. No? How about a slick fighter jet with hover capabilities and death-dealing lasers that's more X-Men than RAF (and likely to only be unlocked late into the game).
All three are parked side-by-side for purposes of the demo, and give a clear indication that the developer is thinking even harder about the Activities, those optional missions that produced the simple equation "mass mayhem + total destruction = a whole heap of fun", this time round. Oh, we forgot about the tank, which is used to demo one such mission.
Throughout the missile launches and crunching metal as tank tracks grind against cars harder than a lap-dancer with a client in a dodgy Montreal nightclub, we're informed vehicle deformation is all new this year and is looking good. Following a spin around the city in a sports car that's more Burnout than, well, Burnout, we believe them. As an aside, the developer tells us that the car handling has been re-tuned as well to feel more like an arcade racer. Which one? We might have dropped a clue in this paragraph. As breaking and entering the car? Simple. A touch of a button and you flying-kick your way through the window and into the driver's seat. Bet they never taught that in Liberty City.
Gameplay as ever is unhinged, and interestingly has informed the city's architecture and design from the off, rather than trying to map the gameplay to the city.
But despite all the random and optional side-quests that made Saints Row 2 such a hoot, there is a central storyline in place, and these gameplay elements are when The Third shows its got substance alongside its irreverent style, the kind of substance summer blockbusters are made of.
The one that closes the demo is the bank heist that Josh Burke, Saints resident movie star, decides to bail out on late into the operation.
It's familiar ground to any that remember the courtroom escape that opened the second game, as Johnny Gat and his crew (disguised in oversized Johnny Gat heads, approved by Johnny Gat for heaven knows what) shoot their way to the vault. There's no cover system, Volition consciously wanting to keep combat aggressive, though we see sections were your character grabs civilians caught in the crossfire as meat shields. We notice as well the top right of the screen lists current members in your party, meaning you'll still have NPCs backing you up, and we're informed cooperative drop-in/drop-out is back in.
The sequence is big on set-piece, and climaxes with an on-rails section as you cling to the vault as its hoisted into the sky by a helicopter. As you shimmy from side to side shooting down police choppers and armed guards on the roof you see the bank's walls demolish in the firefight. Before long your ride crashes then plunges to the streets below, leaving you dragging yourself back into the building from a window ledge and facing a wall of police guns. Boom. End of mission.
What else can we tell you? Oh yes, customisation once more is a huge part of the Saints world. We still remember running amok a few years ago dressed as a fat clown with a diving helmet on and a katana blade in one hand. The third game in the series looks to continue the such bizarre tradition.
If you don't like the Hollywood brat look (and who would, really?) you can head into a body customisation shop ("Image as Designed") and get a makeover. Nicely all costume shops ("Let's Pretend") in Stillwater and Stillport (the city you'll eventually end up in) will carry the exact same clothing sets as they're unlocked, so you're not stuck trying to remember where you saw that superhero spandex or spacesuit. The customisation extends to vehicles, letting you re-colour and bling out your rides as you see fit. Many games offer similar services, but Saints Row is the only series in which we want to use them.
Gang warfare is still a big part of the game and serves as another layer to the experience, requiring you to clean out street corners of rival gangs to claim them as your own. The off-the-cuff way this is demoed, sandwiched between sticking dynamite on passing strangers and carpet-bombing pedestrians in the jet raises an interesting point.
Think about it; that process of sweeping a city of competition used to be top of the sandbox hierarchy in terms of gameplay years ago. There is a larger threat in the form of global criminal organisation The Syndicate, but that'll likely play more into the main story mode. Waging gang war now feels like a footnote underneath of all this other great stuff.
While gaining brand recognition mightn't sound as exciting as cleaning the city streets, it's a cool twist for a franchise that's only now finding it's feet in a genre gradually losing direction. Saints Row 2 proved mission for mission to be more entertaining and memorable than Grand Theft Auto Iv. In The Third, we've a title that something to say, but isn't looking to elevate itself above and beyond its audience. The funny stuff is built into its DNA, its very bone marrow. Be it satire, cultural, slapstick, dirty, or gory - funny is funny.
And like the last game, if you choose to you can ignore the comedy in favour of what's looking like a potent cocktail of gameplay variations. It's not as high-class as other examples of the genre trying to push the boundaries of gaming. But it never claimed to be. It just wants to have fun, offering you countless drinks to get you in the party mood. And you'd be fool to miss out on it. Even if the drinks glasses are purple and suspiciously shaped like dildos.