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Funland - Saints Row the Third first look in London

The Saints don't care if you find them offensive; they just want you to have fun. Stace Harman went along to the unveiling of Volition's Marmite-esque title.

This Saints Row the Third eyes-only demo session displayed some of the strongest and weakest elements of videogames. Those unfamiliar with how sophisticated videogames can be would feel all their suspicions about our pastime were justified upon witnessing Saints Row's casual, over-the-top violence, free-flowing profanities and crude imagery - traits that the initiated know are not just expected from the franchise, but are an integral part of its identity. To be fair to those not in the know, Saints Row could be justifiably described as puerile, derivative, distasteful and with no significant purpose.

However, it's exactly these qualities that had the assembled press laughing at the lunacy of it all and that make Saints Row good, old fashioned, escapist entertainment. Volition and THQ look to be on-track to fulfil their aim to deliver a dollop of pure fantasy in which the player is very much the king of the castle and holds the keys to a giant concrete playground ready to be filled with murder, mayhem, madness and no small amount of tomfoolery.

"Our goal with Saints Row the Third is pretty simple," states Saints Row writer, Drew Holmes. "It's to make it the most ridiculous, outlandish, over the top, ridiculous-again experience that you've ever played."

More power to them, we say.

Once Upon A Time

It's reasonable to assume that Volition isn't looking to win a BAFTA for Saints Row's narrative.

This is the story of how the eponymous Saints have gone global thanks to their antics in the first two games. Everyone now knows who the Saints are; they have their own range of merchandise, including energy drinks, bobble heads and a movie on the way (if she weren't such a secure and confident individual a certain Ms Croft might feel someone was poking fun at her).

As such, the Saints no longer commit their crimes for money, but for sport as they try to take over Stilwater, one block at a time.

The section we're shown depicts the Saints holding up a bank, wearing huge, floppy headed Johhny Gat bobble head masks. Unfortunately for the Saints it transpires that this is a mob bank owned by the shady Syndicate and, consequently, everyone inside the bank is armed to the teeth.

Several waves of enemy goons later and the team are preparing the bank vault for extraction by way of a military-grade chopper that extricates it through the brickwork of the building with your character astride it, but that ends with the chopper crashing and you surrounded by armed guards. It's an exaggerated, busy, high-action 15 minute sequence filled with comedic touches, in-jokes and a high body count, thanks to the heavy weaponry on offer.

"We don't want Saints Row the Third to be the kind of game where you really have to work for that first pistol," explains the game's associate producer, James Torbit. "We'd like to start the player out with all the toys and then just give them more and more, instead of you having to work up to that level. We want the sandbox element of the city to be available straight away."

To facilitate this feeling of diving straight into the action, the city has been scaled down in size, effectively further concentrating the instances of insanity.

"There were two reasons for [making the city smaller]," Torbit tells us.

"One is that we have a new engine, so the smaller city means we can have increased activity on the streets and make the game a lot prettier; the second thing is that we wanted there to be an activity or fun thing to do around every corner so that you don't have to look for it, it's just always there."

Torbit's confident that this smaller city will not shorten the game, telling us that the 30-40 hours that players might have spent with Saints Row 2 will be matched here. It's not revealed how much of that will be taken up by the main narrative and how much will be spent on the extra activities, side missions, customisation options and just messing with people in the streets using the overhauled melee system.

An example of the latter includes beating random passersby over the head with a weapon that Holmes describes as the "Purple-headed floppy hammer of justice" - an oversized purple dildo.

Pimp My Everything

In fact, the colour of the dildo is one of the few elements of Saints Row the Third that cannot be customised. During the demo we see how this area has been expanded upon from the previous games with customisation options for outfits, gender and male/female physical attributes - yes, those attributes - joined by the tweaking of appearance and handling of many of the vehicles and even the structural size and amount of bling with which you can endow the buildings that you acquire in your takeover of the city.

"One of the great things about Saints Row is the notion of taking over a city," he insists. "We've added some new ways of doing this, called 'flash points'. So, you see a gang hanging out somewhere and if you can take these guys out you'll gain control of that part of the city and also gain respect."

Another way take over the city is through 'activities', which make a return from Saints Row 2. A brief flavour of the activities on offer include taking a tank for a spin and causing a set amount of damage on a rival gang's turf, and over the top ways to commit insurance fraud.

Like everything else in the Saints Row universe these simply add to the cacophony of madness, ensuring that the dial marked 'mental' is set to 11 at all times. Online drop-in/drop-out co-op is promised too, which is unlikely to do anything to calm the tone of the game.

Where Grand Theft Auto has become increasingly defined by its characters, narrative and more serious tone, Saints Row is running as fast as it can in the opposite direction

With so much to do, see, play with and laugh at during the relatively short demo it's easy to forget just how silly the whole thing is. Simply put, this game will not be for everyone and for better or worse will inevitably draw comparisons with Rockstar's output when, really, the comparisons are pointless: where Grand Theft Auto has become increasingly defined by its characters, narrative and more serious tone, Saints Row is running as fast as it can in the opposite direction and seemingly not deigning to put a limit on how bat-s**t mental you can choose to be when you step into its universe.

Of course, chucking myriad toys and fancy dress options at players does not a great game make, but it's apparent that Volition are attempting to ensure that everything you do in Saints Row the Third is fun and so it sticks two fingers up at such highbrow notions of 'games as art' and simply invites you to come in a let it all hang loose. Like Family Guy, Itchy & Scratchy and Frankie Boyle, Saints Row is deliberately provocative, frivolously absurd and so over the top as to almost be inoffensive in its extravagance. That's not to say it won't touch a few nerves, but then Volition wouldn't be doing its job properly if it didn't.

"We try to be an equal opportunities offender," Torbit succinctly sums up, tongue firmly in cheek. "We try to offend everyone as much as possible and not leave anyone out, because that would be rude."

And so, in its own unique way, Saints Row the Third looks to be bringing the best and worst of videogames to the table. It's not a game to show off the finesse or beauty of what games are capable of but, as the lights come up at the end of the demo, the wry amusement on many a face around the room suggests this slice of pure escapism could be one hell of a guilty pleasure.

Saints Row: The Third will be coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on 18 November in the UK.

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