Three games in, and Saints Row is now much more than a Grand Theft Auto tribute act, growing from a feeble, shameless copycat into the gaudy celebration of wanton debauchery the tabloids believe Rockstar's game to be. Now it's no more like GTA than Mario; indeed, the comparison with Nintendo's series isn't entirely unwarranted, as Volition's game shares the same generosity of ideas, and avoids being hamstrung by the need to conform to the rules of a pseudo-realistic gameworld. This is a game that constantly prioritises the needs of the player. It's very smart at being stupid.
That said, the first hour or so creates a false impression. Sure, it begins with a bang: a crazy gunfight inside (and out of) a cargo plane flying over the city of Steelport, involving two daring airborne rescues and a moment where your protagonist skydives through the cockpit of the falling craft to beat up a single enemy at the back. But the early game settles into a very familiar rhythm as you attempt to rebuild the Saints' empire in a new city, taking on a series of tasks that amount to little more than driving to a place and shooting a lot of people on arrival.
It's not helped by a stream of lowbrow gags. Though there's nothing to compare with Saints Row 2's scatological high/lowlight (the sewage-spraying sequence), it's all very puerile, with giant dildo bats, BDSM Clubs, testicle punches, a chain of mechanics called Rim Jobs, and other sniggering schoolboy humour. Elsewhere one penthouse raid set to Kanye West's 'Power' falls slightly flat thanks to said song being used in just about every other bit of video game trailer footage in the past six months.
Yet it's not long before Volition finds its feet, with a series of smart design decisions that underpin the mayhem that follows. While side missions are clumsily integrated into the story, these asides add variety to the early game, and they're over in a matter of minutes, so even if you're not a fan it's not long before you can move on. The GPS system is terrific – set a waypoint, and huge floating neon markers pop up along the route to tell you where to turn, like an old-school arcade racer.
A neat smartphone menu system allows easy access to everything you'll need, from a world map to selecting your next mission to upgrading your abilities and calling your homies for backup. You can even input cheat codes or activate a camera to take screenshots at any time by tapping down on the d-pad. Meanwhile, car handling is tight and responsive, and the new melee combat system is satisfyingly chunky, even if the game seems to do the occasional quick time event prompts for you half the time.
There's a constant feeling of progression. Buying buildings not only expands your property empire and the associated cash boost you'll receive per hour, but eats into the territorial percentage of that area's gang. It also provides a place to instantly reduce your notoriety. If and when the action escalates to unmanageable levels, you can simply drive or run to your nearest owned building and nip inside to get out of harm's way.