This is the first time Volition has ever shown off the PS3 version of upcoming GTA 4 rival Saints Row 2. Up to this point it's been the Xbox 360 version that's been shown to press, that's been played by press. This is an important moment in the development of the game, and you can tell the developer is delighted by it. "The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game are about a day apart right now," beams associate producer Dan Sutton.
Why is this important? Because the PS3 port of the first Saints Row never came to fruition. It was cancelled, in fact, so that the sequel could be concentrated on. And now the fruits of Volition's labour are here in front of us.
Regulars will already know what sets Saints Row 2 apart from GTA4. In our preview from THQ'S San Francisco Gamers' Day event in April, we outlined them one by one - the many insane and hilarious customisation options ("Ever seen a ninja tea bagging? You will in SR2!"), the online cooperative campaign, the over the top, unrealistic combat and the in your face, unashamedly titillating marketing campaign to name but a few. So, what's to be discovered by playing four of the game's missions during this latest hands-on? That the PS3 version actually works? Yes, there is that. But more importantly, that all those ideas, those features that set it apart from the competition, are coming together to form a cohesive, nonsensically fun action game.
A case in point. The first thing you'll do in SR2 is kill a completely innocent doctor, the very same doctor who brought you out of a coma that's kept you out of action for five years. We calmly punch and kick him until he lies motionless on the cold, white hospital floor, a strange feeling creeping into the pit of our stomach. But that feeling quickly dissipates as we make our escape - in SR2 the consequences of your actions never stick in your mind for long. The action is thick, fast, insanely brutal and feels very arcadey.
'In SR2 the consequences of your actions never stick in your mind for long. The action is thick, fast, insanely brutal and feels very arcadey.'
This kind of gameplay is of course completely intentional. Rockstar took the GTA series in a much more realistic, slower and more considered direction with the fourth game. Volition is turning the madness up a notch. It's a point of difference - and one of the reasons why it's lazy to say SR2 is little more than a GTA4 clone.
With a rocket launcher we lay waste to cop cars, vans and anything else that stands in our way. There's even a laser guided version, with which you can target, shoot in the sky and count the seconds until the inevitable explosion sends rag dolls flying. Airborne Assault - a mission where we reign bullet death with a machine gun turret down at rival gang Sons of Samedi from a speeding helicopter - feels like something out of Time Crisis. Using the Sixaxis to control a jet ski in a customisable river race, weaving in and out of arrows planted on the water, rekindles memories of the N64 classic Wave Race. Comparisons with GTA 4 are obvious, but the differences are no less marked.
The best example of this is in the respect system - the game's currency. Fart in GTA4 and the cops will come down on you like a ton of bricks. SR2 wants you to not only fart, but reach around with an aerosol can too. In a Stronghold mission, where we're sent in to an airport hanger to intercept a wire transfer, we stick five of the new satchel charges on a screaming enemy, press the remote detonator and watch him fly. We grab someone and throw them as far as we can - further than would be humanly possible, and are told the distance on screen we achieve in metres. We attach satchel charges to aeroplanes, trucks, pretty much everything, and watch the pretty explosions as we run towards the camera, without nary a care for the cops.
There are concerns of course. One is that the darker story we're promised by Volition will jar with the completely over the top gameplay that will form the bulk of your time with the game. How are we going to take anything our overweight female character says seriously when her voice is that of a man's?
SR2's graphics won't blow anyone away, and, when viewed next to Volition's other open world game Red Faction Guerrilla, surprisingly look poor, considering both games are being made by the same developer. There are some nice effects in there - the night time storm is worthy of praise. We notice rain and wind and a surging tide as we jet ski around a river (some stunt jumps are designed to make use of the rising tide). And for the PS3 owners among you worried about Volition's ability to develop for Sony's console, fear not - SR2 looks no worse on PS3 than it does on 360.
Saints Row 2 isn't intended to be a graphical tour de force. What it is intended to be is a fun open world gangster game that doesn't take itself seriously, encourages you to mess about, isn't particularly punishing and, with its two player cooperative campaign mode, is just the kind of mush for brains have a laugh video game you'd want to boot up when you get home from the pub.
Saints Row 2 is due out for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on October 17 2008.