Let's get something cleared up. If you object to the idea of someone being walloped with a giant comedy phallus, then Saints Row: The Third isn't going to be the game for you. Volition aren't making any attempt to clean their act up. Not after Saints Row 2's crude novelty-crammed sandbox swooped in from nowhere and stole away GTA fans disillusioned with the fourth game's po-faced posturing. Equally though, the wobble-physics 'dildo bat' was the most traditionally shocking thing I saw in an extensive demo. If you can swallow the huge purple pecker – figuratively, that is – then Saints Row: The Third is likely to be the guilty pleasure to rule them all.
Much like the previous game, fun takes priority over all else, but this time Volition look to have the technical ability to pull it off. Whereas Saints Row 2 committed the cardinal sin of both looking like a PS2 game and still requiring a hefty spec, this instalment is far more densely detailed and the PC version is now being handled in-house to ensure the best possible performance. The previous city of Stilwater and all its crude geometry have been binned in favour of the genuinely beautiful, meticulously crafted Steelport. It's exactly the kind of bustling, living city that used to be the sole preserve of Rockstar.
The reason you find yourself on new turf is fresh series antagonists the Syndicate, an organisation made up of several gangs, each of whom takes care of certain aspects of running Steelport. After a bank job goes wrong in Stilwater, the Saints, who have become media darlings since the events of the previous game, end up in the slammer. They're bailed out by the Syndicate, specifically Phillipe Loren of the Morning Star gang who invites them to a meeting on his private jet. Loren offers the Saints a place in the Syndicate in exchange for two thirds of their profits. Deeming it a terrible deal, you shoot your way out, kicking off the mission that serves as your introduction to Steelport. That introduction is skydiving out of the plane, gunning down pursuing goons and attempting to catch up with returning character Shaundi as she tumbles towards the city's unyielding asphalt.
The challenge this poses is unique to that objective and Volition are aiming to ensure that three-quarters of all the missions have some distinct activity, rather than just offering up a typical sandbox shooting gallery. Of course on the occasions you do have to ventilate some goons, Saints Row: The Third will cater for you with an impressive selection of armaments. While there are more standard weapons such as shotguns, pistols and assault rifles, it's not long before the game's latent lunacy rears its head. Early into the story, you'll get your hands on astonishingly destructive military hardware such as a laser designator for calling in airstrikes and a steerable missile, a la Call of Duty. The most amusing addition to the armoury so far, though, is a gadget that allows you to assume remote control of vehicles. Upgrade it fully and you'll be able to hijack a helicopter from the ground and turn its firepower against your enemies.
Much like the previous game, you're facing off against colourful, comic-book gangs rather than realistic career criminals. The Morning Star are described as 21st century pimps, who have turned prostitution into a lucrative business and are led by Loren and Harvard-educated vixens, the De Winter sisters. The muscle is provided by the Luchadores, inspired by masked Mexican wrestlers and led by the flamboyant Killbane, who is little more than an ego on steroids. Finally there are the British Deckers whose skills lie in cybercrime. They are led by obnoxious internet-raised upstart Matt Miller, who is mouthy over the web and phone but wilts like an unwatered pansy in person.
Increase your grip on the city and you'll actually be able to shape its skyline. Every time you flush out a gang from its hideout, you'll have the opportunity to replace it with an enormous skyscraper, permanently altering how the city looks as you cruise around it. As in Saints Row 2, customisation is a huge part of the appeal and altering your character, playing dress up and modifying your vehicles all return as ways to entertain yourself when you don't fancy pushing the story along.
Tackle the campaign, though, and you'll find that the story ventures into an area that few sandbox games dare to tread. The added layer of complexity created by a branching plot, with decisions that the team promise will carry plenty of emotional gravitas demonstrates that among all the ridiculousness, Volition has a quiet but resolute ambition to make a sophisticated game. Be assured, for all the dildos and fart gags, from what we've seen, this is a clever game playing dumb rather than the other way around.