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.