Engaging the sandbox is the term Volition uses to describe the free-form adventures players can get up to in the developer's Saints Row series of open-world action games. It's a strangely innocuous phrase, isn't it? We're talking about a series where you can throw pedestrians into traffic, skydive from a helicopter while completely naked, and hijack a sewage truck to spray down any hapless soul unfortunate enough to get caught in your path. We wouldn't say that the sandboxes in previous Saints Row games were engaged so much as they were tormented. And with the upcoming third entry in the Saints Row franchise, the potential for torment is about to get much larger.
The goal for Saints Row: The Third, according to Volition, is to create "the most ridiculous, over-the-top guilty pleasure ever found in video games." The demo we were shown would seem to indicate that the goal is well within the realm of possibility. The basic backstory is this: The titular Saints, the gang you've helped build up in the first two games, is now so popular and well known that Hollywood is making a movie about them. Crazier still, their image is all over town, thanks to a robust product licensing deal. Not bad for a gang of petty criminals. It's an absurd setup that dares to explain why, in an early story mission, your crew sets off on a high-stakes bank robbery along with a Hollywood method actor training for his role in the upcoming movie about the Saints; why this idiot botches the whole job; and why this subsequently leads to you falling out with the Saints when you're inevitably busted by a swarm of cops.
The takeaway from all of this is that you're forced to relocate to a new city, Steelport, and go on a quest to build yourself back up as a…whatever it is you call the particular species of criminal-meets-circus-act that Saints Row games tend to breed. Steelport, like the city of Stillwater from the first two games, is a metropolis full of civilians just waiting to be antagonized. Well, civilians and rival gangs. One such group we got to see in this demo was called the Lucha Gang, a band of violent thugs drawn together by a common interest in vibrant wrestling attire. They belong to a group of gangs called the Syndicate, a criminal conglomerate that essentially owns and operates all of Steel Town. So in a way, you don't need to worry about terrorizing the city. Not that you would anyhow.
Said antagonizing can be done in numerous ways. You can, among other things, bat people around with a giant purple sex toy; pummel them with giant toy fists; or simply throw them to the ground and taunt them by lying down next to them like you're posing for a magazine cover. Speaking of that latter option, there seems to be all sorts of new animations for interacting with pedestrians. In Saints Row 2, you could literally pick up and throw people into the water, cars, or just a brick wall. It seems that Saints Row: The Third now wants you to go beyond simply hurting people and revel in your chaos, giving you a variety of new animations for taunting and gloating when you're especially proud of your work.
And then there are the vehicles. Like any open-world action game worth its salt, Saints Row: The Third offers a variety of cars, boats, and aircraft for getting around the city. If sheer efficiency is your thing, you can hop into a VTOL (vertical takeoff or landing) jet fighter to tear across the skies and get to where you need to go right away and maybe fire off a few missiles while you're doing so. If you'd rather stick to the ground, perhaps you'll be interested in a new vehicle called the manapult. This truck has a giant vacuum for sucking up pedestrians and a cannon for launching them out of it. Get it? Manapult.
Yes, Saints Row: The Third is an exceedingly silly game. At this point, Volition seems to be well aware that it can't realistically contend with Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series in terms of best-in-breed sandbox action games. So Volition's tactic is to move in another direction, where players are encouraged to act as ridiculously as possible and given plenty of tools to do so. From an expanded character editor that now features a "sexual magnetism" slider to a story bold enough to have you believe that a criminal gang can license itself out into a line of clothing, action figures, or movies, Saints Row: The Third is a game that does a lot of crazy things, but taking itself seriously is certainly not one of them. We're looking forward to seeing a few more ways you can engage this sandbox before the game arrives on November 15.