What are you expecting from Saints Row: The Third? From the promotional material so far, it's probably an awful lot. They're promising the moon. I've had a good long play of the early stages of what's obviously a huge game, so I'm beginning to get an idea of quite how it's balancing it all.
Obviously copied from Grand Theft Auto III onward, the first Saints Row was a pointless game. If you're like me, when you play GTA there comes a point where you stop following the story, stop checking the missions, and just go insane. Run over as many people as you can, see how many cars you can blow up, and act like a wrecking ball. Then it's out of your system and you're back to the game. Saints Row has tried to embrace that space, to create a game within those moments of madness. But the first was too tied down to its own self-belief, an idea that it was supposed to be the wacky thing, that if it was outlandish enough, you'd experience the same. And it didn't work. It was just a weak GTA in a sea of foul puns and deeply unpleasant stereotypes.
Then along came Saints Row 2, without much expectation from us, and it was remarkable. It figured it out. It had to let the player be the one having the fun. But at the same time, it structured spraying shit on neighbourhoods within a strong, solid story of gang rivalry, and the characters within it. Suffering barely forgivable issues in a crappy PC conversion, however, meant that we always felt detached from the fun we should be having, staggering framerates and poor textures keeping the joy at arm's length.
Third time lucky? Well, Saints Row 3 is aiming to be something else, too. If you've seen any of the trailers, then you'll know Volition's presented aim is to go even deeper into that crazy space, to let the whole game be an outlandish mess of mayhem, crammed with three-foot dildos, wrestling giants and airstrikes. It's interesting to discover quite how much of that is pomp, a veneer hiding a second thoughtful, smart and structured game.
Whether you want to hear that or not will probably determine how much you'll want to play. But I get the impression that it's all for everyone's own good. Because like giving a kid the key to the sweet shop, eventually you'll be sticky, sick and miserable, desperate for a sensible cheese and ham sandwich. It's as if Volition can't help but be clever, while desperately hoping the cooler kids won't notice.
So pretty much straight away, after going through the absolutely incredible character creator (I've never seen such astonishing detail letting you craft every feature to intricate detail), you're deeply involved in the plot. This begins in Stilwater, the frustratingly spelt hometown of the first two games, where the Saints have become the dominant gang to a massive degree. You're taking part in a bank heist, during which the police and hostages beg you for your autograph. A heist in which you're all wearing masks of your leader, Johnny Gatt, including Johnny Gatt. You're at the top of your game, rather than a lowly grunt working their way up the ranks.
Then weirdly that all comes to an end. For various reasons you find yourself in a new town, Steelport, where the Saints are not nearly so revered. It's a strange move, since there has been so much noise made by the developers about how they don't want you to feel on the bottom rung again. However, once again, it's cleverer than that. Steelport is ruled by the Syndicate, a collective of other gangs who control various sections of the large city, and they're not pleased by the arrival of the Saints. Because, your reputation comes with you. So it's sort of both, really. Yes, you're starting the domination of another city, but I've never felt like I'm on the bottom rung.
Pretty much straight away the game starts throwing toys at you. That catapult vehicle, that vacuums up pedestrians and then lets you fire them at buildings/cars/police, is almost instantly available. Within the first hour you're equipped with a tool that lets you call down airstrikes, even controlling missiles. There's no question that you're instantly powerful. But of course this means the opposing gangs have also stepped things up. You'll perhaps not be prepared for a game which involves genetic experiments and science fiction technology. Because Saints Row 3 isn't held back by anything petty like reality.
And yet, at the same time, so far it feels like a very structured game. While I can have mad moments tearing up the city, I'm finding myself far more drawn to completing the chains of missions I'm offered via my cellphone. Because here, even in those missions that are really just introducing some of the side-games, comes a ton of brilliant character-driven action. Superbly crafted companions provide awesome cutscene entertainment, as well as enjoyable banter as they join you in a task. Banter that, sadly, repeats identically if you need to restart a mission, which in an especially tricky one can grow to grate rather deeply. Talking of which, character barks are so idiotically sparse that I grew to hate them within the first couple of hours, especially when they're spurted completely out of context. Pedestrian barks are similarly misplaced, with people screaming at me about the speed I'm driving when I crawl gently down the road. Which inevitably gives me the license I require to run them over.
I'll get onto the side-games, the tone of the missions, and the more extreme madness, in a second preview next week. This time I'm hoping to convey a more general atmosphere of the game, that exists in that peculiar space between all-you-can-eat playground and structured, almost linear game. A space I think that couldn't have been much better chosen. But that also brings me onto that other issue of Saints Row: taste.
It's so strange. Like Saints Row 2, everything about SR3 seems to be designed to be massively offensive, and yet completely fails to be. Missions involving rounding up "hos", strip clubs, endless references to "bitches", and the like, are so peculiarly powerless. The portrayal of men isn't much more rounded, really, which certainly creates a feeling teetering toward balance (but still a long way off), and I'm left feeling confused and hypocritical about it all. I think it really helps that I'm playing a female character, whom I designed to be overweight and have dressed deliberately slobbily. That she's voiced by a great actor, and treated by the other characters in the game not only as their boss, something they greatly respect, but also as a woman, makes a difference. I don't want to get too distracted by this here - I think this is a matter for a much longer, more thought-through piece after the game is out. But I just want to report that somehow, within the extreme attempts to be offensive, it's not really doing a great job of that. It does, however, seem to be doing a pretty good job of everything else.
I'll be back with lots more specifics next week.