Saints Row: The Third Preview (Xbox360)

Really, there was only two ways this was going to go down - with Saints Row's open-world nature bringing it into conflict with GTA (and on the outside, Just Cause et al), Volition were either going to have to start mimicking their competition, or taking one of their unique traits, in this case their light-hearted and anti-realistic tone, and expanding on it to the nth degree. What does that mean for the Saints Row franchise? Beating the crap out of people with big purple dildos, mainly.

No joke - realism is a thing of the past in Saints Row: The Third, and everything is now more over the top, from mêlée moves, to the weapons and vehicles you can get, to the story itself. "Guiltless fun" and "a box of toys" are the catch phrases being used with this game, and the team are really trying to provide a focused and entertaining game. The Saints are back, and this time they've sold out and made the big time, with their own movie coming out, branded memorabilia, you name it. They still do crime, but it's more for show than for any actual need.

Hail to the King Baby-wait, wrong franchise...

This instalment has mainly become a game of two halves - there's the city itself, which is open-world/sandbox in nature, and then there's the core story mission. The core story missions are more customized instances, providing experiences that are not available in the main game. The mission we were shown involved a bank heist gone wrong, and there was a massive shoot-out, with the safe eventually being hoisted away by a helicopter. These kinds of experiences wouldn't be available in the main sandbox game, and volition have taken advantage of that in a way by making them as over the top and action-packed as possible.

Aside from story missions, there's a couple of other types of activities you can do in the sand-box portions of the game to help you take over the city once more. Flashpoints are areas, that are filled with enemies that you'll have to take out to clear an area. A bit like how things were in Crackdown, these are one off combat zones that will clear when you've wiped everyone out. There's also 'activities', mini-games and tasks that you can do dotted about the city. These could range from races to hopping in a tank and taking out as much as possible.

Stop that. That's silly.

In terms of content, Volition have adopted the "less is more" approach many studios are taking at the moment. The city itself is smaller, but more densely packed with missions and 'stuff' to do. There are less story missions, but the missions themselves are longer and more complex. There'll still be a wide array of weapons and vehicles for you to choose from, all of which will be available at the start, and you can still go around causing mayhem whenever you want.

Multiplayer has been slated for this game, of course, although there won't be any competitive any more. Instead, the studio is focusing on the various co-op modes, none of which they are really talking about at the moment. The drop-in/drop-out nature of the mission co-op from Saints Row 2 will still be there, however.

Customization has been improved and streamlined. You can still make your character look however you want, dress however you want, and this time everything has been condensed into a central system. No driving around time to find that particular store you need. You can also customize the outfits of the other saints, and deck out any buildings you purchase around the city. Cars and Vehicles as well get their own makeovers, again improved and expanded from the previous game.

Move along people, nothing to see here...

Make no mistake, this game is silly. Anything that involves giant dildo bats is not meant to be taken seriously, and yet some of these characters have been around since the first game, so there's still that connection, and there's still a story to play through. Whether this game can stave off GTA-syndrome long enough for you to actually complete the story missions remains to be seen, but even the studio is aware that some players just like to mess around with the sand-box. It's just a shame the GeoMod technology from Red Faction couldn't have been included. Now THAT would have been interesting.

The Saints Row franchise has well and truly established itself in a genre previously dominated by Rockstar. We'll have to wait and see whether or not this latest game can topple the king, but the ideas are there, and it's not trying to be anything other than what it is, so who knows. Volition will need to make sure their new design choices work, especially as far as multiplayer is concerned, as that might just give them the edge to succeed. Saints Row: The Third is due out sometime during the Holiday period, 2012, on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Most Anticipated Feature: The VTOL Jet. 'Nuff Said.