Saints Row: The Third preview
A piece of high art. A fine sunset. The dew glistening on a petal at dawn. A shakespearian declamation. A furrowed brow on a politician making a serious ethical statement. An old maid cycling over cobblestones on her way to communion. Good taste.
All these are things that would not appear in Saints Row 3.
Instead we’ve seen; a car the shape of Johnny Gat’s head, including a flamethrower tongue. Giant hands that fit over your own hands and disintegrate humans on impact. A SWAT team that surround you guns blazing, all the time asking for your autograph. The purple dildo sword. A VTOL jet with guided missiles using a laser to disintegrate buildings. A bank heist where everyone, including Johnny Gat, is wearing promotional Johnny Gat headmasks. A thousand different crotch-targetting attacks. Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax cat-faced pick-up truck, which sucks up passing civilians and fires them out through its ‘manipult’ in a shower of cartoon stars.
Drew Holmes, writer (one of five writers); “Anything that’s stupid and ridiculous that you wanted to do in a video game, that’s really what we’re embracing... cartoony, over-the-top ridiculousness... We don’t want people to stop smiling.” Any inspirations? “Shoot-’em-up. Crank... movies where you’re like ‘why would that ever happen in real life?’” Notably, these are movies that are dumb-as-bricks but also curiously high-concept - like Crank, where the protagonist is forced by a mythical drug to do more and more ludicrous stuff. Similarly, Saints Row The Third takes as its precept that the Saints are now a global brand, merchandised to the hilt and famous with it - then runs with the idea of what would happen if something as despicable as a murderous gang is the most famous thing in the world.
It’s amazing that, while Rockstar actively seemd to court controversy, Saints Row hasn’t attracted any; as Drew says “when you’ve got a giant purple dildo sword or fists that turn people into red goo - no-one can take that seriously. It’s the style of the world itself. I’m sure someone will get angry at some point though.” Core to that is keeping the game fun, which itself requires a lot more hard work than you’d expect. “It’s all about design iteration; getting the mission in the game as early as possible, getting everyone to play it and getting feedback... the new engine and tools mean we’re able to really quickly iterate the design and find the balance between crazy, hard and fun...”
Even the story elements face that same iteration; we saw the lengthy first mission of the game, with the Saints attacking a bank vault, just to provide a method actor with accurate source material for his biopic of Johnny Gat. The action quickly escalates from a simple bank heist, complete with giant Johnny Gat bobblehead masks, to a massive firefight involving massed SWAT. As it progresses, the building is increasingly battered, until eventually you end up riding the vault as it’s airlifted out through the bank’s shattered roof; it doesn’t stop there either, with your heavy-lift chopper being taken down by another chopper and you being captured by SWAT...
“That first mission alone has gone through several iterations. Saints Row 2 was entirely built in 3DS Max so when a section of the city was built, that was it. This time around, if something’s not working, we just rip it out and build something new, because of that the level of polish.” That design iteration is the way that the best comedians have always worked - the way people like Eric Morecambe would work so hard to make everything seem spontaneous and casual.
Drew continues; “The way open world games work best is by building that system and adapting to what the player wants to do. Building that living breathing city... you can go round Steelport, sit at a corner, and eventually someone’s going to start a fight, and cars are going to go flying by... we just try to plan what the players are going to do and give them the tools to have fun doing it.” So the game supports drop-in, drop-out co-op, remembers which missions you've played together and focuses on co-op mini-games. (Perhaps including the Running Man-esque Japanese gameshow Professor Ganky’s Super Ethical Reality Climax - featuring the catchphrase "Murder Time, Fun Time.")
So much of Saints Row has that wrestling meme about it, the fake stupidity and aggression, the outrageous plots, that we’re a little surprised that the team aren’t more vocal in their smacktalk to Rockstar. “Don’t talk happy funball. They’re the giant gorilla, they sell ten million copies. Don’t pick on the big guy. At the same time, they make really, really good games; why would you smacktalk anyone who makes quality shit?” Not even parodying Rockstar’s famously constipated antiheroes? “The industry is so small, poking fun at someone will come back and bite you in the ass.”
With tank skydiving, satellite-airstrikes on Mexican wrestlers, entire gangs dressed in furry costumes and total character customisation, Saints Row 3 isn’t going to win any awards for aesthetic excellence or wow the critics on late night talk shows - but it is going to be a damn fun sandbox to just piss around in. It's due out November 15, 2011.