The concept of an open-world title is relatively simple, for all the complexity it conjures.
Take a large space inhabited with marginally sentient characters, throw in a mixture of crazy vehicles, high-rise buildings and a smattering of suitably impressive views, and leave it over to the player as to their level of involvement. It's a concept utilized by developers extensively since the ground-breaking Grand Theft Auto III, released ten years ago this very weekend.
Saints Row may have started down this path, but instead of competing with the gritty Grand Theft Auto series head-to-head, developers Volition opted instead to focus on providing the most outlandish action conceivable. There's no real pretence to anything approaching reality from the outset, and happily, Saints Row: The Third continues down the same path to insanity forged by Saints Row 2 in 2008.
Making a welcome return, the initial character customisation routine is even more extensive than before. By choosing between pre-set characters that form the nexus of the world-famous 3rd Street Saints gang, virtually all elements of appearance can be defined, and further tweaked. No customisation is truly permanent – in-game plastic surgeons and clothing outlets masquerade as the proverbial eraser on a pencil, allowing changes to be made at any point. Indeed, the options available are so extensive they could essentially form the basis of a rewarding game in their own right, particularly as the outcome can be uploaded and shared online.
It is difficult to justify spending so long on such trivialities when they're attached to such an extensive game however. Saints Row: The Third isn't unique in its execution of the open-world genre; players are encouraged to pick up missions, participate in challenges, or merely drive around the world exploring the finer details. There's no appreciable difference to Saints Row 2 in the overall structure of the game, but as most will have come to expect from Volition, the devil is in the details.
The opening stages consist of a bank heist that fails in a fairly spectacular fashion, setting up the story behind Steelport's favourite street gang. Dodging bullets and autograph seekers, the crew disguise themselves with masks crafted in the image of lieutenant Johnny Gat. Because, as Gat himself attests – who wouldn't want to look like Johnny Gat? It's a valid introduction to a maddening circle of anti-logic that pours from every seam, at every opportunity. A kind of juvenile satire designed to entertain, rather than relay any deep meaning. Many people will recognise it by a looser definition: "fun".
Fun is driving at reckless speeds along crowded streets bowling over as many pedestrians as possible while wearing nothing but a cowboy hat. Fun is attaching spinning hub spikes and nitrous oxide to a car and shredding anything that moves. Fun is even falling out of an aircraft, shooting enemy henchmen in mid-air, then falling back through the windscreen of the same aircraft, shooting everyone inside, falling back out again and landing safely on terra firma after picking up a hot chick on the way down. It's perfectly valid to assume there is more fun in ten minutes of Saints Row: The Third than many other open-world titles manage in an hour.
Indeed, the pace is relentless. Upon completing a mission and receiving payment, as well as a boost to respect used to unlock additional content, another mission is only a phone call away. Deviation from the main story arc is available at any time, affording the ability to free-roam throughout Steelport causing as much mayhem as possible. Recreational activities abound; using Professor Genki's cat-themed vacuum cannon to suck pedestrians in and launch them at a suitably bone-crunching speed towards the nearest structure should prove popular. Likewise, using the right stick to zero in on a victims genitals before delivering a power kick will likely cause many to subliminally cross their legs, and what exactly can be said for a game that allows the player to shove a grenade down the throat of a thug and watch it explode?
For all the insanity at hand, Volition have carefully ensured that combat remains fluid and easy to participate in. The shooting mechanics provide surprisingly little lock-on, requiring an attention to accuracy at all times, and despite a fairly structured AI experience there's little suggestion of whack-a-mole tedium. Driving is surprisingly well crafted; vehicles are solid and influenced well by gravity, with no floaty suspension or tendency to flip over when cornering on a twig.
Once launching airstrikes at tanks, participating in illicit underground fighting matches, firing mind-alerting squid at enemies and parachuting into pool parties hosted by prostitutes becomes tiresome – impossible as that may seem – accumulated respect can be used to unlock additional content in the form of RPG-style weapon modifications, and character skills. These are tiered, allowing incremental updates to, for example, improve weapon accuracy by 25 percent, or perhaps increase fire rates by a similar margin. These are purchased using the in-game gold, and in addition, the weapons themselves can be modified to accept grenade launchers, red dot sights, and all manner of explosive ammunition. The options available are extensive, and it seems likely Volition are keen to provide an incentive to continue to accumulate gold, presumably to avoid the somewhat stagnant end-game economy in Saints Row 2.
The series' trademark lampooning continues with the inclusion of "Whored Mode". This allows either single, or co-op play to defeat multiple waves of inbound enemies sporting a variety of weapons and special attributes. One wave may consist of hookers sporting guns, while the next may see the player intoxicated and attempting to take on hordes of men in gimp outfits with his own fists. Each wave varies from blindingly simple to outrageously difficult, and whilst entertaining in solo play is clearly aimed towards groups.
Saints Row: The Third manages to offer a truly spectacular level of detail, both on a small scale with the mind-numbingly comprehensive customisation options and RPG-themed character progression, and on a larger scale with a fully realised world jam-packed with missions, colourful characters, slick cinematics and near limitless opportunities to misbehave. Volition has cleverly identified that for all intents and purposes, games should offer escapism; the opportunity to be and do absolutely anything appears paramount to their philosophy.
Despite having little competition within its genre come the November 15 release, Saints Row: The Third will likely cause gamers to take temporary respite from a couple of hotly anticipated titles due around the same time.
Watch out for it.