Saints Row The Third and Saints Row 4 are two of my all-time favourite games. The absolutely ridiculous world of Steelport and larger-than-life cast of gang members are just perfect, and I always got a lot more from the series than I did with Grand Theft Auto.
It's a series that doesn't take itself too seriously, at least in my time with it. Jumping out of a helicopter onto a penthouse and taking it over with my gangmates, all while Power by Kanye West blasts at full volume is the quintessential Saints Row experience for me.
This is why I was pretty worried when it came to the series reboot. Am I going to see the heart and soul of this silly gang simulator with its banging soundtrack and quirky cast start scowling at the thought of running up to someone and laying them out with a DDT straight out of the WWE?
My Boss Isn't Your Boss
Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about this for long. As soon as the character creator booted up, I began crafting my utter monstrosity. My giant baby man with a ludicrously-proportioned body and a voice that sounded like Dame Helen Mirren was just the start. Looking around at other people's fantastic creations during my preview, it became clear Saints Row is a game that is, above all else, anti-boring. You can even create your character pre-release with Boss Factory, a real treat for anyone who wants to get a taste of the action before playing.
Of course, making a terrifying monster is far from the only thing you can do with such robust tools. I spoke to Damien Allen, principal designer over at Volition, about the character creation and its potential to help with inclusivity in the game.
"I was in discussions about what we can do to make it as inclusive as possible, and that is including the wackiness! We want people to be able to embrace that wacky side of themselves and be able to represent themselves as much as they possibly can, and represent their inner self too - who they want to be or who they feel like they are."
It's all about potential in Saints Row. "Giving as many possibilities and trying to push the envelope as far as what you could do with a face and what you could do with a body type and everything. It was not a simple task."
You can change your character at will in Saints Row too, something many games have been unwilling to offer. At one point, I felt like my character could do with a posh English lady's voice, and so it was done. If I fancied changing it back to a classic New Yorker, it's as easy as a few button presses. It's a really nice touch when it comes to self-expression, as well as being massive fun when you fancy giving yourself the challenge of creating Shrek or Pitbull in-game.
It's Genuinely Fun, Too
This is a new group of Saints. I played the first few missions in which my pals and I went from being misfit outlaws to founding their intrepid gang, attempting to dominate Santo Ileso's criminal underworld. Like previous games in the Saints Row series, realism is replaced somewhat with the ability to be a bit of a superhero (although not as much as in Saints Row 4!).
It takes quite a lot of bullets to kill you on the default difficulty, and this helped me a lot when it came to plans of attack. You don't need to do the most intense strategising - going in guns blazing is what the Saints would do after all - but if you get yourself a bit too surrounded, you won't last a very long time at all. It somehow makes you both overpowered and human at the same time, with a load of fun abilities to unlock and use on baddies when your back's against the wall. It never feels unfair, and the times I did get killed by my enemies, it was absolutely my fault for wasting my character's ever-growing arsenal of skills.
It's tough leaving the old Saints for the new, but so far, the characters are a likeable, if a bit ditzy, bunch. Some of your pals are affiliated with the rival gangs in the area -one is a particularly good driver, one prefers the more businesslike side of criminal activity. It's not easy to replace the likes of Shaundi, Pierce, and Johnny Gat, given the amount of time we've had to get to know them, but in my time with the new Saints squad, they've been a delight. They're a wisecracking bunch who mostly manage to evade the Marvel cringe I associate with this sort of quippy behaviour, which is one hell of a feat.
I Want To Visit Santo Ileso
The actual world was a treat to explore, too. Santo Ileso is a gorgeous city based heavily on the American Southwest, featuring all kinds of lovely views and stuff to break. I really struggled to stay on track with the main story during my preview session as it was such a delight just driving around with my favourite radio station on - there's a brilliant selection.
Starting in a desert area outside the city, the world soon turns into a sprawling cityscape as you explore. Each area has unique stuff going on, and will be controlled by a different enemy faction too, so it'll hopefully be a satisfying journey to go around checking off baddies throughout the city.
It's one of those games that actually works with the 'map is full of stuff to do, go do it' approach, and that isn't easy to pull off in a post-Assassin's Creed world.
We'll be back with a full review upon Saints Row's release, but for now, get practising. I'll be jumping into co-op and wingsuiting around the city as soon as I can.