It's hard to separate the reality of playing Saints Row: The Third from what I imagined playing Saints Row: The Third would be like. Because it's pretty much exactly the same. That is to say, it's what I remember playing Saints Row 2 was like - time, tall tales and fondness has seen me forget the busywork of the game and recall only the absurdities, the insanity, the just-because rampaging. Saints Row: The Third is all those absurdities pushed to the very front of the game, rather than hung around its sides: thus, it's the actualisation of what we think Saints Row games are rather than what they have been to date.
It is still a broadly GTA-structured game, but somehow the traditional driving'n'shooting thing doesn't seem terribly important. Not when I can fire a mind-controlling squid at an angry policeman then watch him stagger around like a happy drunk, emanating manga bursts of colour from his crustacean-topped bonce. Not when I can call down an air-strike on a pack of enemies, or just a lone, innocent civilian, then stand back and cackle. Not when I can sprint towards an oncoming vehicle and launch myself head-first through its windscreen. Not when I have a button specifically dedicated to punching/kicking someone in the groin.
It's hardly going to come as any surprise to anyone who's watched the trailers, but Saints Row has reached the point where it's basically parodying not just its sub-genre but itself. I don't think trying to draw any purpose or meaning from this would achieve anything. That's not the point. Saints Row is anarchy, nihilism, a rebel without a cause, satire without a target, a practical joke without a victim.
It's doing what it's doing because it can, and because it's entertaining itself. It's (and please do NOT visit the next link if you're of an even mildly sensitive disposition) The Aristocrats: the videogame. Be as stupid, vile, immoral, surreal and hilarious as you can, for as long as you like/can, and just don't worry about where it's going or what it all means. What the heck do you call an act like that? 'Saints Row!'
Even the plot and the lore, such as it is, looks to have thoroughly departed from the realm of gang warfare posturing and all-out into absurdity. The Saints, the criminal collective who've been the series' stars throughout, are now superstars: still criminals, but idolised by the city they've repeatedly devastated and even by the lawmen they ritually slay. 'Please autograph and then lay down your weapon!' shouts a star-struck officer in a police helicopter during the intro mission. This follows a bank job (I think it was a bank, anyway - again, it's important to not care about the why and what and just enjoy the circus) in which the Saints' leaders, including you, siege the place while all wearing giant, super-deformed Johnny Gat masks. Gat is the Saints' second-in-command. So they're not exactly doing this incognito. They're simply having a laugh. At what? Who knows? Who cares? 'Saints Row!'
The opening mission is a completely, deliriously different prospect for the game proper. A full-on action game indoors raid'n'escape, it makes you halfway invincible just for kicks then pours legions of SWAT guys at you to practice ultra-violence, nutshots, clotheslines and throws on. Then it moves you onto a helicopter, holding a minigun, shooting down other helicopters by the dozen, as a building collapses below you. It's noisy, bewildering, senseless, internally inconsistent, pointless. And that's the point. It's doing about ten Arnie movies at once just because it can, and just because it can state that Saints Row definitely isn't just THQ's GTA-style game anyway. Saints Row is Saints Row.
Can this delirious idiocy hold up an entire game? Well, there is a real risk of over-stimulation, of the toybox of happy horrors simply burning players out and seeing them hunt for something with more definite (and artificial) purpose, but I suspect we'll get more than enough out of it first.
Every time I popped into a clothes shop and redesigned my character's body and outfit as something yet more grotesque, performing flying tackles on passers-by was reinvigorated.
Every time I time I used the All Purpose Mollusc Launcher to turn a machinegun-wielding policeman into a halfwit alternately drunk-staggering aimlessly and taking potshots at his mates it turned a massive stand-off into a giggly farce.
Every time I found the vehicle that let me suck up pedestrians then launch them into the skies from a giant cannon I wanted to do it again.
Saints Row: The Third is what anti-game lobbyists think all games are like, and it knows it and makes light of it. Saints Row is what Postal thinks it's like, but so absolutely cartoonish about it that somehow the sadism evaporates. There are so many nasty things in it, but somehow it's not a nasty game. It's celebratory - celebratory about videogames and the possibilities thereof - no matter if what they can depict can often be totally pointless. The point is they can. It's a miracle Saints Row exists. I don't want any other game to be like it. I want Saints Row to be singular in its glorious craziness, undiluted by the presence or threat of rivals.
I'm not altogether sure I didn't just dream playing it, to be honest.
Saints Row: The Third, if really does exist and isn't just the fevered fantasy of a madman, will be released this November.