"I love your story with the dragon," says executive producer Jim Boone, turning to design director Scott Phillips as I – having just played a demo asking me to choose between giving cancer the middle finger or curing world hunger – ask whether anything is off-limits in Saints Row 4. "I'll let you tell that one."
Phillips recalls a time during Saints Row 4's development when his team had developed a prototype of a flying dragon. "I got questions [asking], 'Do we want to put this in the game?' And there were follow-ups of like, 'This is not gonna fit, what are you talking about?' And my attitude was, we'll make anything fit. If it's a fun thing and you're going to enjoy it, we'll make it fit in the game. It'll make sense."
It'll make sense. A dragon - in Saints Row 4 - will make sense. I stop myself from laughing. Of course it won't. Nothing in Saints Row 4 makes any sense. It's a game about gangsters running the White House (or the 'White Crib' as it's been dubbed here), inflating enemies' heads until their eyes pop from their sockets, and blasting civilians with dubstep to make them dance themselves to death. It's absolute nonsense – but insanely good fun.
The E3 demo revealed little about the game that we didn't already know before. It opens in the White Crib, a linear prologue to the game that sees the player making their way past domesticated tigers, strippers pouring champagne into politicians' flutes and exhibits of over-sized weapons as the President of the United States. As the ruler of the free world you're presented with a number of increasingly foolish choices: do you cure cancer or world hunger; do you join your friends on a jolly to Camp David or leave them to it; and do you punch a man in the face or testicles?
And then you're attacked by aliens in a sequence that starts with a British-accented extra-terrestrial abducting Keith David, and ends with a turret section parodying Space Invaders. See, nonsense, and we've not even gotten to the virtual world bit yet.
The demo then skips ahead to later in the game, touching down in the virtual version of Steelport. "We can do whatever we want," continues Phillips, commenting on the opportunities provided by a world that exists outside the realms of reality. "[The virtual world] has made it the easiest it's ever been to just do exactly what we want and what we think is going to be best for the players without having to worry too much about how to travel into the Wild West or whatever. It just works."
Nevertheless, I don't get to see too much of it. The E3 slice is a mission-disabled, free-roam demo that, rather than letting players experience more of the madness, asks them to get to grips with Saints Row 4's new super-hero movement and abilities instead. The increased agility offered to the player appears to be heavily influenced by Radical's Prototype: you're now able to super jump, glide, and run up walls, with controls that allow you to seamlessly combine movement with super powers. "We definitely looked at everything else out there before we started down the path of super powers," continues Phillips. "It would be ridiculous not to look at what everybody else has done, see what pitfalls they hit, what things they did great and then improve on them. I think we really deliver the best controlling super-power game ever with our over-the-top flair and tone to it."
Super powers are divided between four different elements: Rock, Force, Freeze, and Fire, with multiple moves available within each. "You can customise it and tweak it to your play style," says Boone. "You've seen Blast, where you shoot it and freeze everyone. That won't do any damage to you when you get hit with it, but it freezes them, so [if] I shoot or hit him they immediately die. There's a different one, imagine I put a fire element on it, where it will do damage now, but they're a moving target because they're running around on fire. So it's a slightly more difficult shot to make, but it's doing damage along the way."
Combined with the weapons (the Dubstep Gun is clearly the fan-favourite, but the Singularity Gun – a black hole launcher – comes pretty close to topping it), Volition could have created the tools for the perfect sandbox. Its awkward launch timing means it'll find it difficult to escape GTA 5's pre-launch hype, but Saints Row 4's extreme lunacy and wildly entertaining mechanics may well do enough to set it apart - and provide a spectacularly stupid send-off to the current generation.