Saints Row The Third is simply unabashed fun. Before our hands-on preview got started, one of the developers mentioned that the design team’s philosophy was, “If it’s fun, let’s put it in.” That could mean having a shootout with a helicopter while dangling from a suspended bank vault, fending off a group of hooker assassins at a party gone wrong, or a low-speed rickshaw chase sequence being pulled along by persons is pony fetish gear. Fun trumps everything in Saints Row: The Third, and with so many other high-profile releases this fall, it’s this unrestrained over-the-top gameplay that’s really going to help it stand out.

The game kicks off rather cleverly so with a bank heist. Because of the giant mascot masks and voice modulation that characters are using to conceal their identities, the game can dump you right into the action without having your first experience be spending half an hour or more wading through menus and sliders. This is a great choice for Saints Row, especially for hooking newcomers. From the end of the second game to the start of the third, The Saints have risen beyond street gang to multi-media icons complete with branded stores. The cops at the bank heist don’t so much want you to stop for stealing as much as they plead for you to go easy on the SWAT team this time and that their kids want autographs. Without spoiling too much, the first few hours and missions serve both to teach you the game and to give narrative reasons for essentially a hard reset to your assets. You’ll need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps again, one giant purple dildo-bludgeoned gang member at a time.

Perhaps one of the most impressive elements of Saints Row: The Third is how surprisingly well the player’s freedom maintains context; it’s a testament to how flexible the experience can be. The game works equally well if you approach it as a straight up adventure, but the same event can be unintentionally befitting if you embrace the crazier side. For example, between the character creation and the myriad of shops in the world, you can craft personas like a steampunk gunman, hard boiled ex-cop, gang banger, or fat naked guy wearing only a woman’s bra. Buried between the usual customization settings for things like eye distance or ear angle you’ll have a slider for sex appeal(I’ll leave that up to your imagination what that effects) or the option to only speak in the groans and grunts of a zombie. Even with these completely zany characters, you’re put into often times equally crazy situations, which either works to emphasize the goofy approach you’re taking or heighten the over-the-top situations a relatively normal character is subjected to.

What constantly drives all this over-the-top action is the Respect system. Nearly every action in the game will net you Respect – killing enemies, narrowly dodging traffic in the oncoming lane, and even buying the latest threads at the store. As your Respect increases you’ll unlock new traits and perks, like calling your gang to deliver your favorite car to you or being able to duel wield pistols. The trick becomes that you’ll earn more Respect as you chain and sustain actions and multipliers. This compels you to always be playing on that next level. Sure, driving slowly on the correct side of the road might be safer and more likely to get you to the mission without incident, but where’s the fun, or Respect, in that? There are even a few story elements to net you some increased cred. One mission had me choosing between letting a bomb go off in rival gang’s headquarters, which would give me a permanent percentage increase on all further Respect gains, or to keep the building for myself, which unlocked some fancy tech pilfered from within.

This level of player choice extends into many facets beyond these few story sequences. As well as being able to customize and upgrade your character, you can also customize your vehicles, your weapons, and your gang, in addition to buying property to expand your criminal empire. In a way it really pulls you into the setting as you throw down your stacks of cash to live the high life with the latest and greatest toys.

There is also so much to see and do in Saints Row: The Third. You can follow the story missions, participate in repeatable activity missions, accomplish specific goals for your gang or just roll around and find trouble for yourself. Shaking off that trouble was one issue I did have with the game; I found it a little too hard to lower my ratings with rival gangs in particular as they continually set road blocks and kept appearing to hunt me down. Ducking into a property you own will instantly reduce all built up attention from the police or gangs, so there is some more incentive to buy shops beyond just the discounts and the hourly income. The repeatable missions are also great if you’re simply looking to dive into some instant structured fun or trying to grind some extra respect and cash for a new upgrade. They vary from tasking you to deal X number of dollars of property damage with a tank to racing and fighting other gangs to retrieve hookers. And then there’s Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax which is akin to a Japanese game show’s take on Running Man.

If that wasn’t enough, you can also double your fun by taking someone else along with you. At the event there was a heavy emphasis on trying out the game’s co-op modes. Players can drop into each others games, reaping the benefits of completing missions and activities together. Though you can only join someone’s game if they are not currently participating in a mission, which can make it just slightly annoying to meet up as one person either has to restart their mission or the other needs to wait. There is also a cooperative wave-based mode that’s befittingly titled “Whorde Mode.” The individual waves did feel a bit short before you’d hit the loading screen and be sent to the next one, but fighting off a wave a miniaturized Saints Row energy drink mascots helps keep it fairly interesting and entertaining.

If you were always the kind of player who liked to find their own fun in open world games and you hadn’t already checked out the first two or if you’re simply down with the idea of embracing fun again in a videogame, then Saints Row The Third should definitely be on your watch-list.

Saints Row: The Third will be out for PC, 360, PS3 and Onlive on November 15.

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