Until now Saints Row was always a series about dynamic mirth. More than any other sandbox adventure, its strength lay in letting you loose with toys to go and amuse yourself.
Sure, some activities saw you pumping streams of sewage into the faces of tourists or hurling old grannies into helicopter blades while naked as the day you were born, but the story quests were often nothing more than contained moments of action you could quite easily have replicated outside of the mission structure.
Drive, shoot, drive some more, shoot some more... when you stop and think about it, the only way most sand-boxers distinguish their campaign missions from the free-form wackiness is by book-ending small moments of planned action with a couple of cut-scenes. Things have changed. Heading into our Saints demo we were on the lookout for the new tools to make dicking about in the open world better than ever.
Instead, Volition blindsided us with a glorious opening mission positioned to redefine how we judge sandbox stories. Early on in The Third's development, Volition identified that the campaign had to stand apart from the rest of the game. And with that thought firmly in mind, the studio set about crafting a fully customised and utterly unique set of story missions.
The game begins with a bank job - one in which your whole team wears giant bobbling Johnny Gat heads. The preposterousness of the wibbling faces is enough to make us chuckle, and we're flat out cackling when, midheist, hostages start running over and begging for the Saints' autographs.
As the team works its way through the bank to the vault we notice plenty of little touches: scripted bits of building deformation as our bullets catch a couple of statues and they topple down onto guards, and surprising levels of gore as partner Shaundi presses somebody against a wall and showers the scene in red globules by emptying an assault rifle clip into their chest.
When the Saints arrive above the vault the real action begins. SWAT agents rappelling down from the rooftop and bursting through the windows make life tricky, but there's still time to blow holes in the ceiling with satchel charges, call in a friendly helicopter and hook the vault to the dangling chains ready to hoist it away. The player character is actually locked onto the vault top as it's being raised, gunning down the SWAT teams and the 'copters they're arriving in.
Things don't go to plan. The Saints' helicopter struggles under fire and ends up dragging the vault through bank walls and into nearby buildings. The scene's reminiscent of Wheatley's cumbersome chamber movement in Portal 2's epic opening, and all the while you're rolling about on top of the vault, grabbing hold of chains and gunning down the enemy.
Two of the links shatter and the entire vault swings onto its side and still you're on top, clinging onto an edge and firing away. Throughout everything the camera's swooping in and around the scene, always giving you a viewing point.
The cinematography's extraordinary and the entire sequence is an on-rails thrill-piece that leaves us breathless at the close. It's all heavily scripted and that's just fine, because it delivers a relentless string of over-the-top moments you simply cannot replicate at any other point in the game.
Every story mission will follow this template and provide standout scripted set-pieces to deliver unique moments - and the more playground fun is left alone to pad out the activity missions. It's hard to believe no one's thought of balancing their sandbox game in this way before, really.