Imagine a modern day videogame in the mind of someone who has never played one. Imagine no longer, as Saints Row The Third is arguably that game; an overwhelming orgy of preposterous violence that would send a Daily Mail reader into paroxysms of indignant rage if they could ever grasp a sliver of what was happening.
As a snapshot of the action, the lead proponent walks down a busy street while smacking random pedestrians upside the head with a three foot purple dildo. He then gets into a jetfighter and starts casually torching people with its inbuilt flamethrower. And then for good measure, he robs a bank amidst a sky full of exploding helicopters. And then he goes and whacks someone in the nuts.
Subtlety is clearly not the buzzword for the third outing of the Matalan Grand Theft Auto, which is set to complete an improbable trilogy given that other ultra violent crime-based open world games are available. Whereas the achingly cool GTA series has established itself as a cultural touchstone through a combination of shrewd marketing and being quite good, Saints Row - despite offering essentially the same experience - is little more than a footnote, albeit a moderately successful one. So how do they differentiate it from 'other games'?
Writer Drew Holmes sums it up succinctly ahead of the first look: "Our goal for Saints Row The Third was pretty simple: make it the most ridiculous, outlandish, over the top, ridiculous again, open world experience that you've ever seen."
It's certainly the most ridiculous of the week so far, with the usual window-lickers crammed into a windowless room in a swanky Soho hotel for the Monday morning unveiling. While the world outside obliviously goes about its business, we're in the privileged position of having the developer demonstrate how the improved melee system enables you to more cinematically punch passers-by in the testicles, an example of the game's trademark Nut Shots.
Lovely stuff, but in terms of key narrative, who are you, and what's your motivation for scrotal attack? Well, since the end of the previous game, the Saints have ridden their wave of success to become a global brand to the extent that they have their own energy drink and even a movie in the works.
As Holmes tells us, "Everyone knows who the Saints are. They're celebrities, everyone loves them despite their murderous rampaging ways. Because that's the world the Saints exist in, this crazy ridiculous over-the-topness." It's certainly a departure from the traditional conceit of working your way up from a street thug, as Holmes concurs: "This time around you're not starting out from the bottom, you're starting out from the top. You've got all the tools at your disposal to go along with that."
However, not everyone is happy with that scenario, namely arch enemies The Syndicate, who want to take 60% of the Saints' earnings and incorporate them into their organisation. Clearly, the Saints are having none of this, and a battle for the city ensues, which largely makes up the sandbox element of the game. Taking out rival gang members can be a lot more dramatic than whacking them on a street corner however, hence the aforementioned jetfighter.
A VTOL (Vertical Take Off & Landing) affair, you can simply dive into the cockpit, take to the sky Harrier Jump Jet-style and literally go to war, tossing out the odd laser-guided rocket. Along with the Human Cannonball, another new weapon is the RC gun, enabling you to remotely take control of a vehicle, and should you wish, drive it off a cliff, killing its passengers instantly. Or for more traditional wheel-based action, you can now enter vehicles via the front windscreen.
Furthermore, cars can be tangibly customised, as indeed can people. The extensive customisation options are another area in which Saints Row distinguishes itself from 'other games' and the sky appears to be the limit - you can stroll into a shop and walk out wearing a spacesuit if you fancy. Body modification is also the order of the day, and as Holmes says: "If you want a super-fat woman with green skin and cat eyes, have it!" And get Channel Four to make a documentary about it while you're at it.
There is clearly a lot of fun to be had in simply pissing about, but if you want to 'win' the game, you will have to complete the missions, one of which we are privy to, namely "When Good Heists Go Bad." The somewhat convoluted story involves a method actor called Josh Burke who wants to experience some real life crime.
The Saints are now in the position where they rob for sport, not for money, and hence target a bank owned by The Syndicate, with everyone in Johnny Gat masks, and the hapless actor along for the ride. Predictably things go tits up, and it turns into an almighty gunfight, eventually featuring more exploding helicopters than Bruce Willis' golden period.
As ever, it's still played for laughs. As Holmes explains, "People have latched on to the humorous angle, making the game more cohesive and conducive to that sort of tone. Saints Row 2 had some darker, grittier storylines and felt a little schizophrenic in terms of what it wanted to be. This time everyone on the team knows exactly the tone we want to get across. Everything is about having lots of crazy fun."
In fairness to developer Volition, it looks like that could be the case. The new engine seems tight, and an extra year's development than usual appears to have yielded a visually impressive combat environment, with bodies and explosions being tossed all over the screen with something approaching aplomb.
And if you've got one friend, or can find a welcoming stranger, two-player drop-in/drop-out co-op will be on offer, with the game's writer boldly claiming that it will be "the most robust co-op experience in an open world game." Incidentally, for those who were horrified by the PC port of Saints Row 2, this time round it's being brought back in-house and hence should be an improvement (admittedly not difficult).
That's pretty much your first look at Saints Row The Third then, a grammatically dubious, morally reprehensible clusterf**k bathed in the blood of the innocent. Or just some silly cartoony game where you go around blowing stuff up for shits and giggles. As the man says, "When you take a step back and look at it, nothing is serious, everything is tongue-in-cheek. It's not realistic." You heard it here first.
Saints Row: The Third will be released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on November 18th 2011