For years, the Saints Row franchise has laboured under the sneers of those who consider it a poor man's Grand Theft Auto. And, to be fair, the games do follow Rockstar's winning formula a little too faithfully: you're a gangster. You nick people's cars. You drive around listening to the radio, pick up missions where you want, and eventually you take over the city.
This is not a poor man's GTA, though – this is a crazy man's GTA, gleefully offensive and wildly over the top. If this game was a person, it would start the day by eating its own socks.
Saints Row: The Third – Starts with a bang
The story starts with a bank robbery, in which you gun down perhaps 200 heavily armed SWAT team officers. You are captured, briefly imprisoned and then transferred to a plane, which you hijack and jump out of. Twice. It reinforces the point that if you've never played a Saints game before, you don't have to worry about catching up on the plot – all you need to know is that completely mad stuff is going to happen and there will be massive explosions.
Saints Row: The Third – Continues with another, larger bang
Combat is perhaps this game's strongest point: the targeting and weapon-swapping system is intuitive and effective, making the gunfights genuinely good fun. Which is just as well, because there are very few car journeys in this game that don't end in you jumping out of a burning car and hosing a rival gang with bullets.
The selection of guns is spiced up by insane novelty weapons; the rocket launcher that fires a mind-controlling octopus is good fun, but the one that will really divide opinion is a big, wobbly purple rubber sex toy, the size of a baseball bat. For the teenage boys at whom the humour in Saints Row is aimed, this weapon (and the shock it will induce in their parents when they see it being waved around) will be a cause for celebration. To be fair, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas got there first.
Saints Row: The Third – Call on me
As in the previous Saints Row games, your (in-game) smartphone provides a dashboard for choosing missions, calling for help, upgrading your skills and navigating to points on the map. You can also use it to make a mixtape of songs from the game's radio stations.
Saints Row: The Third – Loony vrooms
While Saints Row has gunplay that is the equal (or, dare we say it, the better) of GTA, the game's unrealistic physics mean there's none of the rolling, pitching, tyre-screeching realism that makes driving a pleasure in open-world games. Some cars are faster or more durable than others, but they don't handle all that differently; the difference between driving in this game and L.A. Noire is enormous.
That said, the radio stations have some decent tunes (all of which feel like they've been picked from a box labelled 'music that hard people listen to'), and the game rewards you with Respect points for near misses, driving on the wrong side of the road and generally being a lunatic.
Saints Row: The Third – Crazy, sexy… cool?
Saints Row: the Third is set to offend all kinds of people on all kinds of levels, but it redeems itself by being funny, constantly surprising and very playable indeed. In some ways, it's more true to the cartoon mayhem of the original GTA games than more recent versions. It's not the smartest game in the world, but it is a lot of fun.