Previews

Saints Row: The Third - Massive hands-on amps our anticipation

The silliest sandbox yet is built for maximum pleasure...

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BIZARRO WORLD
Saints Row 2 wasn't perfect. Released six months after GTA IV, it was short on the technical grunt of Rockstar's engine. The tech was old, and it was often more glitch than game.

Far from being a problem, the bugs made the game that little bit stranger; AI characters would suddenly race cars off bridges, explosions would fling NPCs hundreds of feet, motorbikes would drive up walls like Val Kilmer's Batmobile. Saints Row's fun AI quirks and curious interpretation of real-world physics defined the game; without them, The Third just wouldn't be Saints Row. The AI is eccentric, but it has to be - it's dealing with a bare-assed man punching it in the balls.

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"Really whacky things happen when you have a system-driven game," says Donovan. "You've got these competing factions, pedestrian AI, rival gang AI, military AI, the Saints' AI. I ran over a pedestrian by mistake - it wasn't on purpose, I swear. Another ped started to take a photo of that accident, but he was clipped by the EMTs who arrived to help, sending him flying into one of the rival gangs. The rival gangs got upset at him and started fighting against the pedestrians; that excited the cops, so we ended up having an all-out street war. This stuff just happens. It's crazy."

The dark side of living in such a Bizarro World is the threat of falling out of the gameworld entirely and finding yourself trapped in some kind of limbo beneath the city. These occasional game-stoppers simply had to go, so Volition did what Volition do best - throw technology at the problem until it goes away.

"Honestly, the first two Saints Rows we made the world through (rendering software) 3DS Max," says Donovan. "That was our world editor! I mean it's a great authoring tool but it's hard to iterate quickly with it. If a designer spotted a building in the way of something critical for gameplay in SR2 that might have taken a day to fix. Now it's a matter of minutes. Our new engine is all about quick and rapid iteration. We can have multiple users check out the same file simultaneously.

"On Saints Row 2 a lot of the artists' time was spent optimising Stilwater for flying vehicles and other features," he adds. "With The Third we're just going crazy with this new technology. Let's make a game in a new city and make sure the gameplay is being put into the space with the artists' help. In SR2 we had to retrofit gameplay into a pre-existing space and that doesn't always make for a great gameplay experience. This new city is accommodating for the gameplay we wanted to put in."

HOLY SHIT
The game begins with an epic set-piece - the Saints, all wearing Johnny Gat masks, extracting the entire vault from a bank. The robbery angers the high-class thugs of The Syndicate and leads to a confrontation on a private jet high above the city of Steelport.

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Explosions ensue, and Johnny Gat stays behind while Shaundi is thrown from the plane;
you'll take off after her with a parachute on your back, chasing her towards the ground in a mid-air shootout which pauses briefly once you catch up. As the plane turns to ram you, the protagonist pulls an insane idea from his arse, tossing Shaundi away and smashing through the front window of the jet, flying through the cabin and out the back, and resuming the chase one more time before Shaundi hits the ground like a dart.

"We call them 'Holy Shit' moments," says Donovan with pride. "We want to have a 'Holy Shit' moment in every one of our missions so players say to themselves, 'I can't believe I'm experiencing this, I can't believe Volition did this. This is fucking awesome!' There's a mission where you have to rescue a pimp named Zimos; you'll find him held hostage in a BDSM dungeon where he's dressed in a gimp outfit and tied to a rickshaw.

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