If Saints Row 1 was a GTA “tribute”, and Saints Row 2 was Volition discovering how they wanted to approach the genre for themselves, then Saints Row: The Third is the complete rejection of anything that originally influenced it. It is the most anarchic, vile, hilarious and puerile approach anyone has taken to a sandbox game. It’s the silliest and foulest game of E3. It’s the one I’ve enjoyed seeing the most.
This is the city-based, car-stealing, gang-being-in-em-up in which you can call down an airstrike on opposing gang members. It’s the one whose character customiser features a “Sex Appeal” slider. It’s the one where you drive a “Manapult”, a canon that sucks up pedestrians and then fires them into the sky. Ideally such that they splat against a distant building.
If you played Saints Row 2, and unless you’re offended by anything at all you should, then you’ll know that Volition’s approach to creating the dumbest, most immature world is an incredibly smart one. While anyone of a suitable mind will have adored spraying shit on stretches of the town for hours on end, they’ll also have noticed a superbly written game with some exquisite storytelling. Saints Row: The Third, from the sections we’ve seen, seems to suggest improvements on both sides.
The open world, sandbox stuff is so beyond ludicrous as to defy even the expectations of a fan of the series. Mayhem challenges, in which you must cause as much damage as possible in a short time, now give you a tank. Vehicles in the game include a V-TOL, a vertically taking off hovering jet that fires microwave lasers and homing missiles. Later in the game, RPS was exclusively told, there are weapons that will be so powerful they’ll effect vast areas of the city at once. It’s a sandbox belonging to a lunatic child who likes blowing up his toys.
And that looks incredible fun. The brutality of what you can casually muck around with makes GTA, Mafia and all their kind look like carehome simulators. Saints Row: The Third is a bit more like that care home on Panorama. You can run up to a pedestrian, leap toward them grabbing them by their face, and then swing yourself around as you slam them backward into the pavement. All manner of wrestling moves appear to be on offer, each gruesomely delivered. But nothing so gruesome as the Apocofists – oversized boxing gloves that will pulverise an innocent passerby in a single punch, leaving nothing but a cloud of blood and viscera.
But of course there’s a script too. The Third is a bit of a fresh start all round for Volition. A new engine, and a game set in a new city, means there’s room to allow things to be more anarchic, but also give a different angle on the story. New arrivals in Steelport, the Saints quickly become local heroes, based on their reputation from Stilwater. It’s a brilliant decision, because it hugely changes how it feels to be a player. You’re not at the bottom of the ladder, fighting your way to being recognised. You’re the top dogs, people love you. They love you so much, in fact, that they’ll continue cheering for you in the streets as you run them over with your car.
During a bank heist near the start, people ask for your autograph as you threaten them with guns. And it’s in this bank heist that one of the cleverest jokes I’ve seen in forever appears. In a consistently funny cutscene your gang, including leader Johnny Gat, prepares for the robbery by putting on large rubber masks. Of Johnny Gat. So adored, and so self-adoring.
Saints Row 2 was odd in that its greatest weakness was the driving. While I’ve not had a chance to get behind a wheel yet, what we were shown of The Third’s vehicles seems to have dramatically improved this. In fact, now you can go FAST. A new engine means they’ve been able to work hard on this, making sure it’s a fun way to get around, and of course cars are capable of ridiculous and impossible stunts. Including stealing them, where while you can still boringly just break open the lock, now you can just dive through the closed window.
It will be very interesting to see how the massively destructive and over-powerful sandbox play works in the finished game. Will they really let us have that much fun all the time? It seems possible. That seems to be the motivation behind this one. To actually let you have the sorts of fun sandbox games always insinuate they’ll have, but perhaps only give you a glimpse of near the end. Perhaps this could be the one to offer it from the start?