Saints Row: The Third preview: A feast of side dishes

We all take freedom for granted but, when you think about it, are any of us really free?

An unqualified "yes" is a lot simpler if you're playing Saints Row: The Third. I've seen it for myself. During my afternoon rendezvous to the city of Steelport, Volition's Drew Holmes riding shotgun on my tear through the gritty streets of the southwest district, I could do almost anything and be anyone.
%Gallery-130798% "We've blown customization out of the water," Holmes told me, making it clear this would be the focus of what I'd be seeing that day. "It's really all about giving players more options to pick and choose and play as the character they want to play as."

So naturally I ended up turning what was once a buff white dude into a gigantic, fat version of Blanka from Street Fighter -- you know, because I could. I even gave my shirtless monstrosity a bikini line, because we all know how much Blanka loves a tasteful two-piece. "That's what Saints Row is all about: customization. It's all about the crazy, wacky fun people have in the game and rewarding them for it." My reward was watching a fat, near-naked Blanka literally jumpkick a man out of his sports car. Point: Volition.

Of course, I couldn't be naked for long -- a badass gangster is drawn to bling like a moth to a flame. The clothing stores in Steelport offer tons of options, but I was more concerned with tweaking my inner beauty in the upgrades menu. As you complete tasks, kill people and generally do stuff, experience points are awarded, which can then be used to unlock abilities and strengthen your character. You can get extra gang members, outfit them with better weaponry, improve your health and do other standard-type upgrade stuff. Nothing revolutionary, but what it lacks in innovation it makes up for with a lot of stuff to unlock.

Volition has worked to keep the franchise rooted in what made it so endearing to fans in the first place

With the vehicular upgrades, I had the power to turn a rust bucket into a bitching race car thanks to the fat stacks of cash Volition hooked me up with. Most of it is cosmetic, like ground effects, spoilers and hoods, but performance upgrades can yield improved acceleration, handling and, most importantly, nitrous. There's a definite primal pleasure in launching a car off another car using nitrous, then ghost riding your airborne whip right on top of an old lady. At that time of night, it's really her own fault for wandering the streets alone.

But what if I want to kill people in a more conventional way, like with a gun? Where was my rocket launcher? Where was my AK-47? It's Saints Row, so instead of a machine gun, I had a launcher that fires out tiny little octopi which latch onto people's heads (think: brain slug) and can be remotely detonated. Another weapon called down massive airstrikes, which leveled, like half a city block. Then, of course, there was the massive purple dildo bat which, yes, does flail around sensually while you hold it.

Holmes did offer me compensation for not being able to sample any of the game's story: two different mini-missions, one in which I would commit insurance fraud, the other a murderous game show called Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax. The former is pretty straightforward: a timer ticks down to zero and players must jump in front of traffic to earn cash based on how hurt they get. The latter simply asks you to murder your way through room after room of gun-toting furries.

Based on my brief time with the game, it's obvious that Volition has worked to keep the franchise rooted in what made it so endearing to fans in the first place: crazy physics, characters and weaponry. While I would've liked to see all of those things work in the context of the game's story, I have no doubt that the third entry will serve up more to hungry fans.

Unless you're a furry. You guys ... well, you may want to play something else.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.