And it wasn't the extensive customisation available. Nor was it the outlandish, varied, thoroughly entertaining missions on offer. They were the sponge and filling of a delicious cake of game, but the icing was far simpler. Elegant, even. There's a button in Saints Row: The Third whose entire function, reason for being, very existence is to allow you to smack people in their genitals. In a multi-platform release for which the entire range of possible interactive options has to be laid out on a sixteen button controller, where you can wield triple-barrelled shotguns, fly hover-bikes equipped with miniguns and do the splits in front of strangers to win their applause, dedicating one of those buttons to a single function not only shows you where the developers' priorities lie, but it means they put a lot of effort into making genital-smacking look damn good.

That's the whole point of SR:TT. The game seems to stick to a simple formula: is it fun? If so, it's in. If not, it's out. This can often materialise at the expense of the world's coherency, the player's suspension of disbelief and the laws of physics. But, outside of a game maker's own artistic ego, nothing appreciable is lost. To hell with the laws of physics, they were just getting in my way.

This approach has led to a few facets of what we've come to expect from a city sandbox title (or GTA clone, if you like) being jettisoned, and though such decisions may initially seem questionable, the longer I played, the more I understood and agreed with them. Take your wanted level (or Notoriety, as Saints Row calls it). This is a feature of a lot of titles in this genre, and each game seems to have its own variation on how its employed. Grand Theft Auto IV used a search radius system, where individual police officers and patrol cars were identified on your map at the centre of a circle that encompassed a few blocks. To get rid of all the heat and return the cops to a non-hostile state you needed to escape that circle and remain outside of it for a period of time, upon which your wanted level would reset to zero.

It wasn't a bad system, and it was certainly a lot better than the old GTA titles which mostly necessitated flooring it to a Pay 'N' Spray or memorising the locations of wanted level-removing power-ups, but it often got annoying, especially when you gained a wanted level unintentionally, which demanded your full attention at the expense of whatever you were doing. Getting a wanted level is a lot like hitting a hornet's nest with a stick: suddenly a million furious menaces make attack runs at you and if you don't make a hasty retreat you're going to get maimed. SR:TT doesn't like it, either, which is why it's almost pathetically easy to calm the fuzz (and rival gangs, represented by their own notoriety indicator) here. No matter how many innocent bystanders adorn your front bumper and how many SWAT cars, army tanks and attack helicopters are furiously charging at you, step into any building you own and they'll suddenly become miraculously disinterested in the whole affair, calmly popping back into their vehicles and bumbling back to their bases. Later on in the game, with the stakes often accelerating more quickly, you can unlock an option in the menu screen to instantly remove all the heat at no cost (though it does operate on a cooldown). If only hornets were so easy to placate.

This does not make the game a pushover. It does, however, make it so you can play on your terms. There's a ton of missions and activities to activate at your leisure that'll really light a fire under your arse, throwing all manner of crazed gangsters, lawmen and military might at you, but if you want to play in this big city created for your convenience there's very little to slap you on the wrist and chide you for trying to have fun. This example carries to almost all conceivable areas of gameplay.

The liberal interpretation of sandbox creation is complemented by some excellently implemented mechanics. The shooting feels punchy and responsive, of a high enough standard that SR:TT could excel as a linear third-person shooter. It's comparable to the gun play in Red Faction: Armageddon, unsurprisingly. Driving is equally taut, and another area of the game that's been given a good going-over with the "fun" stick. The city of Steelport is packed with speedy cars with great handling, and it doesn't take long until you're able to slickly execute a 90-degree turn, handbrake on, at high speed and with precision. It is immensely satisfying, and never renders city navigation tedious. However, what I have been most surprised by is the excellent narrative within the game, filled with superb characters, witty writing and genuinely exciting twists. I have rarely been more involved in a game's story as I was towards the end of SR:TT, cheering on the Saints and whooping at my triumphs. Considering the majority of sandbox games' plots are just elaborate excuses to nudge you towards new locations and equipment, this was the last place I was expecting to be so thoroughly entertained by a storyline.

There are points where the game sags, and where it falls victim to the more common vices of the genre. A lot of the side-missions are introduced in the same manner as story-driven missions, which, when contrasted to the knowledgeable hand at work elsewhere, seems like a lazy way to explain them to the player, and jar with the much more fleshed out story missions. Also, the game's capacity for lewdness sometimes trips it up when applied with an uncharacteristic lack of finesse. A few of the missions' objectives and portrayals of criminality and gang culture come across as just plain crass, if not offensive. I felt extremely uncomfortable undertaking the mission "The Ho Boat", and Zimos - a significant character - was almost unlikeable and often creepy, every sentence uttered relating to "hos" or "bitches". Then again, he is a pimp, but he's a two-dimensional, detestable cliché of a pimp, and his personality is accepted by all the other characters without question and he's warmly welcomed into your gang.

These are minor blemishes, though, greatly outweighed by the plethora of great gaming available within SR:TT. Everything else about the game is thoughtfully designed, written and implemented and add up to an experience that's extremely fun and refreshingly lacking in cynicism. Playing it reminded me a lot of why I love games, and it's not so I can follow more rules. There's enough of those in life already. Saints Row: The Third lets me run riot.

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