Saints Row: The Third distances itself from the seriousness of its competition, offering a sandbox that's as stupid as it is refined. There're so many things we wish we could say about Saints Row: The Third, but doing so would break the element of surprise. The latest entry in Volition's copycat sandbox series rips up the rulebook and smears excrement all over it, prompting a ludicrous outing that couldn't be further away from the stern-faced intensity of Grand Theft Auto IV. This is the game that, for the longest time, every highly-strung newspaper editor feared Rockstar's franchise was — and it's all the more enjoyable for it. Saints Row: The Third is more trashy than it is cynical, and if you'll forgive us one spoiler we'll paint you a picture: in one sequence you play as a toilet. Yup.

There was a time when you could reasonably describe the Saints Row series as a shameless Grand Theft Auto clone. Capitalising on the early years of the high definition era, THQ's franchise attempted to benefit from Rockstar's lengthy development cycles. "You want Grand Theft Auto on your new console," THQ teased shamelessly, "Here's Saints Row." But the series lacked identity. It felt like a high-school teenager trying to fit in. In a post-Grand Theft Auto IV market, Saints Row 2 did its best to break away, steering the series in an altogether sillier direction — a shrewd move given the burgeoning backlash to Rockstar's furrow-browed Grand Theft Auto entry.

Saints Row: The Third feels like the franchise's midlife crisis. This is a game devoid of consistency, sense or manners. It's a potty-mouthed outing that's justified by the sheer insanity of its content. While the Grand Theft Auto comparisons will persist from a mechanical stance, Saints Row: The Third really couldn't be further away from Rockstar's latest releases in terms of tone. While that sounds like it might be a recipe for disaster, the game's nonsensical style works because Volition's been allowed to go all the way. This isn't a partial step towards madness censored by concerned suits and the ESRB. This is a game left to its own devices, and it's a magical window of purity in that sense.

While Saints Row 2 struggled to tie its plot to the events of its predecessor, Saints Row: The Third eliminates that problem by simply ignoring it. Sure, there are familiar faces from previous Saints Row games — Johnny Gat and Shaundi both return — and, yes, there's an underlying plot involving your gang (the Saints) and an unwelcome cast of antagonistic groups, but that's really about as much narrative involvement as the game demands. All you really need to know is that enemies are encroaching on your turf — and hey, there's Burt Reynolds.

Saints Row: The Third has some of the most bizarre cameos we've ever witnessed in a game. The aforementioned Burt Reynolds joins Hulk Hogan and Daniel Dae Kim. There's even room for an appearance from former professional porn star Sasha Grey, whose inclusion appears to be based entirely on her line of work, rather than any recognisable dialect. But while Saints Row: The Third sounds like a ticking time-bomb, it emerges triumphant. Unlike other toilet humour-driven experiences, Volition's outing is smart and funny. The game is self-aware enough to avoid the pitfalls of Duke Nukem Forever. It's in on its own joke, and while it never quite crosses the line, it nearly always teeters on the edge.

The entire game's mood can be summarised by its thirty minute bank-robbery opening. In it, the titular Saints dress as themselves in order to avoid detection — before being rumbled and posing for photographs with fans while they loot the bank's vaults. The mission concludes with attack helicopters, streams of foes and big explosions — a taster of what's to come over the game's remaining 15 hour running time.

It's a shame that the pace of the opening isn't maintained throughout the course of its entire campaign. An early mission — which sees you diving from a jet while shooting out enemy gang members mid-flight — sets a precedent for the rest of the game, but while later missions definitely recapture the excitement of the game's opening moments, it all turns a bit sour somewhere in between.

Part of the problem with the game's middle third is its desire to show you everything. As with other sandbox games, Saints Row: The Third is littered with optional sub-objectives that extend the life of the game. Each of these fit in with the silly tone of the adventure — there's insurance fraud, the ridiculous Smash TV-inspired Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax show and more — but the problem is that these side flavours outstay their welcomes fairly quickly. It's fine that they are there, but it's a shame they aren't banished to optional activities, letting the main campaign find its own pace.

Once the game properly pushes down on the accelerator though, you'll find it difficult to apply the brakes. Its direction — and sheer lunacy — in later missions is a sight to behold. As we alluded to earlier in the review, we wished we could describe every act of mayhem that's included in Saints Row: The Third's campaign, but that would simply spoil the surprise. This is a game best observed from a fresh perspective, because it will almost certainly take you by surprise.

What we can discuss is the pleasant open-world Volition's crafted in Steelport. Like much of Saints Row: The Third, this sandbox is a canvas on which you can paint your own silly side. Running down back-streets performing wrestling moves on unsuspecting citizens is a guilty pleasure, as is calling airstrikes on rival gang gatherings. There's plenty to do in Saints Row: The Third's world, but you'll get the most fun out of simply toying with the game's outrageous arsenal of weaponry. Some of the explosive gifts Volition affords you are tantalisingly fun to use, such as the enormous fists that explode enemies upon impact or the pre-order exclusive mollusc launcher that attaches baby octopi onto the head of targets in streams of colour and glitter.

The range of ridiculous weaponry is enhanced by the manner in which character progression is handled in Saints Row: The Third. Killing targets, missing on-coming traffic and generally playing the game rewards you with respect. This essentially acts as your level in the game, which helps to pace the speed at which you unlock new abilities (or perks). Perks can then be bought with cash earned by completing missions or controlling the city. The more you play Saints Row: The Third, the more powerful you'll become, eventually unlocking invincibility and unlimited ammo. While it sounds like this might break the game, Volition expertly pace the unlocks. By the time you hit invincibility you'll be at the end-game, hunting for remaining collectibles and generally mucking around in the world. The game does a brilliant job of keeping you playing, and providing the sense of progression. It's not afraid to be binary and 'gamey' with its mechanics because it suits the tone, which leads to an experience that's much less tedious than its immediate competitors.

For a game that's so narratively inconsistent, Saints Row: The Third also manages to fuse its gameplay styles alarmingly well. The driving model has a loose, enjoyable feel to it, while the engine is equipped to cope with planes, tanks and everything else in between. Being an open world game, Saints Row: The Third is susceptible to its own breed of sandbox jank, but Volition's done an outstanding job of keeping everything together. Regardless of the scale of some of the battles of you'll enjoy, the game manages to maintain a consistent framerate throughout. It's quite a looker too — the game's cartoony style meshes well with the idiocy inside.

The package is complemented by online co-op, which allows you and a companion to happen upon the game's open world in pairs. You can choose to take on missions or simply goof about, either of which invokes a chaotic sense of fun. Your investment in the game's mechanics will affect your time spent here, but it's a nice inclusion none-the-less. Additionally, the suitably named Whored Mode adds a waves based co-operative component separate to the campaign, allowing you to fight off coloured bears, zombies and more with a buddy. It's hardly inventive stuff, but it emphasises the tight nature of Saints Row: The Third's combat. There are definitely a few hours of fun to be found here.

Conclusion

Saints Row: The Third's unlikely to appeal to everyone. Its brand of humour demands a specific sort of taste, and it's a flavour that will feel sour in the mouths of some. The game's preposterous brand of calamity, coupled with its sense of self-awareness and all-round excellent execution will win over more fans than it turns away, though. While it suffers from occasional moments of open world issues and a lousy middle third, the game's got enough legitimate shocks and surprises to overcome its issues. If you're willing to embrace the idea of an idiotic sandbox packed with infantile humour and downright nonsensical gameplay twists, then Saints Row: The Third is destined to become a guilty pleasure. It's cathartic, honest and, for the most part, a hoot.