Thursday, 29 December 2011

Top Ten Games of 2011

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets pedantic, this is my list of the best games that I played during 2011 rather than were released during 2011 (although this is the same in many cases).

Really there were a whole bunch of excellent releases during 2011. 
Here's the ten best games that I came across during 2011. 
Starting with the worst-of-the-best at number 10 
and working up to my Game of the Year at number 1.

10: ANNO 1404 [PC]
Gorgeous and deep, this city management adventure balances story with gameplay perfectly.
Growing your city is not simply a matter of patience, but one of skill, practice and keen attentiveness. Pay attention to the world events, and turn a disastrous incident into a profitable venture. 

Spent many, many happy hours creating huge and advanced cities - learning when to expand and when to focus on moving supplies around. Surprisingly rewarding too - cities and armies look spectacular and offer a truly grand sense of achievement.

9: From Dust [PSN]
Made me giggle like a schoolchild when I saw the water effects in action. This wonderful puzzler puts you in the role of a deity who has the power to move sand, water and lava. Using this skill to change the landscape around you, you must guide your followers to safety.

Water cascades down hillsides and runs according to the lie of the land - add some sand to direct the flow and pile some lava on to create new rocks. It works beautifully and it's only the lack of much other to do than the 10 or so story missions that holds this back from a higher position in the chart.

8: Wipeout HD & Fury [PSN]
So fast I genuinely wonder if my brain works too slow to process this stuff. If there is a series that needed a high definition reboot, it's Wipeout. Works perfectly - visuals, sounds and controls are all crisp and well-implemented.

Loads of missions on 3 different difficulty settings to be getting on with before you even consider heading online or for some co-op racing action. A brilliant entertainment package that as an added bonus I got for free.

7: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn [DS]
A charming kids RPG which boasts clever use of special abilities, massive range of fighting styles and options and a fantastic visual presentation - this really has it all. One of the best games on the DS.

Kept me hooked for days and days - loads of hidden routes and secrets to find, loads of creatures to capture ready to summon in battle (it's not quite as Pokemon as it sounds), basically there's loads on offer here. Shame the story is so fixed - but at least it's interesting enough to keep you going.

6: Portal 2 [PS3]
Had a hard time from the start by trying to live up to its predecessor, but it doesn't do too bad a job. The single player campaign doesn't quite have the same charm, but the humour and creativity are still oozing out of the walls. 

The puzzle additions in both single and co-op modes are welcome, and opened up the game in ways I hadn't imagined. Both my old flame GlaDOS and newcomer Wheatley had me in stitches the whole way through - definitely the funniest game of 2011. 

5: L.A. Noire [PS3]
Now I will be the first to agree that L.A. Noire was a long way off perfect. The characters bodies didn't seem to move along with their heads, the action sequences were second-rate and the plot jumped as if playing on a scratched vinyl.

But in terms of the investigations, the interrogations and the technology on show - walking down the street and watching each passer-by comment and chatter with full facial movements to back it up - this was a landmark step in gaming. 

All it needed was to have more confidence to do what it did best a bit more and to leave out all the other crap that it was using to draw in a wider market.

4: Skyrim [PS3]
A sprawling and organic world that has a multitude of options for how you want to find your way through it. Magic FEELS powerful. Towns FEEL alive. Giants, dragons and trolls roam the landscape. 

Although prone to glitches and slightly deceptive restrictiveness, the negative points didn't ever stop me playing. Hopefully this will be at least partially resolved in an upcoming patch.

With a main quest that will last you upwards of 50 hours (and making your own adventures can last you for hundreds of hours longer), this is truly EPIC in every sense of the word, and you won't find another fantasy that looks and plays quite as good as it.

3: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus [Classics HD]
Two of the best (and sadly most overlooked) PS2 titles ever. This collection restores them to better than their former glory - offering an update that reminds you what made them stand out in the first place.

The unorthodox but tight control system, the beautiful aesthetic style, the sense of scale to the castle and collosi - all of these things mark these two out as videogaming gems.

Both are unique experiences, clearing influencing a lot of subsequent gaming but offering a perfectly-designed blueprint to follow. Play them for a rewarding, challenging and artistic gaming experience.

2: Saint's Row: The Third [PS3]
Brilliant fun - lots to play around with and smash to pieces. Expanding on the great parts of Saints Row 2 and adding in some crazy-stupid new ones - this game is 25 hours of explosions, dick jokes and gangsta action. 

Take it online to share the stupidity with the friends you know well enough for them to not run away screaming and this is an absolute riot. If only there was some better long-term features, this may well have been in the top spot.

1: Batman: Arkham City [PS3]
Every other game this year had 2 or 3 clear areas where it could have been improved. Arkham City was virtually problem-free. Minor combat gripes did nothing to detract from the joy of taking out crowds of baddies in comic-book fashion. Having too many villains in one space was both a good and a bad thing - and worked well in the comic-book setting.

The story plays out at a perfect pace, allowing you to build your skills while keeping challenges and extra side-quests available. A steady bunch of upgrades expands your options until you are finally  loose around the city, and it's oh so brilliantly fun. As close as we'll get to GTA: Gotham... for now.

Add to that a bunch of extra combat and stealth missions at the end and an extra, harder story mode to complete if you fancy it - this is the definitive Bat experience, and one of the best videogames in the past few years. 

Totally deserving of the title of my GAME OF THE YEAR.

So what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree?
What are your top games of 2011? 
Feel free to comment below and let me know.

Bottom Ten Games of 2011

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets pedantic, this is my list of the worst games that I played during 2011 rather than were released during 2011 (although this is the same in many cases).

So, really there were a whole bunch of excellent releases during 2011 - but every year has its bad games. 
Here is the ten crappiest games that I came across during 2011. 
Starting with the least offensive at number 10 and working to the absolute shitheap that is number 1.

10: Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie [DS]
This game was mainly disappointing because of the contrast to it's chronological predecessor, Sentinels of the Starry Skies. Sentinels... was an absolute belter of a game - with the story, graphics and gameplay to keep you playing throughout its 70-hour lifespan.

Realms... is almost like a more basic, stripped-down version. I can honestly say that there is nothing in this title which comes close to the brilliance of Sentinels. The graphics aren't as polished and well-presented, the gameplay is nowhere near as engaging, and the story is totally bland in comparison.

If the game was released with a different title, I would have played this and gotten bored. As I hoped to have more of the Sentinels experience, this infuriated me.

9: Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light [DS]
A torture device disguised as a children's adventure. 

This has all the simplified look and interface of an accessible kid's title, only with the difficulty level of the toughest of the Final Fantasy series. Once you get used to this and endure several dozen dungeons where your party is annihilated in minutes, you gain some jewels which can be used to upgrade you characters. 

After applying a couple of upgrades and finding the right combinations, the rest of the game is an absolute bore. Running backwards and forwards across areas already traversed, battling enemies that take 2 hits each and die, then sifting through pages and pages of appalling and soppy dialogue - this just goes from bad to worse.

Would be of interest to die hard Final Fantasy fans who just wish to complete the collection, and probably not anybody else.

8: Yoostar: In The Movies [PS3]
A genuinely fantastic concept, let down by execution and content.

Gives you the ability to put yourself in famous scenes from movies and deliver classic lines, or to improvise your own. Sadly, the camera doesn't capture your image properly and so you are often left looking at a picture of your houseplants playing the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Combine this with the fact that only a quarter of the clips are actually worth acting - the other clips you might want to appear in are available as downloadable content for prices upwards of £2 each.

A better clip selection and better camera capture may have meant I spent more than a hour playing this - which I payed nearly £30 for. Total rip-off.

7: R.U.S.E. - Don't Believe What You See [PS3]
Horrendously annoying for both difficulty level and gameplay. One of the few games that I have simply given up on before finishing.

I spent several hours on the early missions trying to figure out how I was meant to progress (using obscure "spy" features such as infiltration) only to have my arse handed to me by giant tanks appearing out of nowhere when my forces were weak. The game never gave me the opportunity to get to grips with the features during the single player campaign, even when playing on the easiest difficulty. 

To top that off, the controls were awkward on the regular controller and were just unworkable using the Move controllers. Truly disappointing considering this game was toted as "reinventing the RTS genre".

6: Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure [DS]
I really shouldn't have expected much from this, given that it has a princess on the cover.

Was recommended by geeks who played this title when it was first released a few years ago. When the title is marketed as "A musical RPG", I hoped that both elements would play a significant role. 

The reality is that the RPG side is ridiculously easy and basic, requiring no tactics or strategy to progress. The musical side is utterly disturbing - sort of like a Disney film done Japanese style. There's a song around the end of each chapter and they range from a soppy love song between giant-eyed children, to a bizarre anthem sung by frogs.

5: Infinite Space [DS]
A space RPG that relies too heavily on the player being engaged enough to carry on with the story, which I was not.

The battles between enormous space craft should be epic and tense, but due to the ridiculous gameplay end up dragging on into boredom. You need to move your craft in and out of range, and this takes far too long and is needed far too often.

Between battles, you are required to travel back and forth from galaxy to galaxy to advance the story. You travel to planet A to speak to a bloke who says there is someone who can help you on planet B. When you speak to the guy on planet B, he tells you to head to speak to the guy on planet A again - this time asking him for help. Well, duh. I had to travel halfway to the edge of the universe and back again to hear a guy talk bollocks at me.

4: Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest [PS3]
Yes, I have myself to blame on this one. I should have guessed, based on the movie spin-off genre and child-focus. 

The reason this still deserves to be in the top ten worst of 2011 is that it defaces several different concepts at once. This is an original LOTR title that not only fails to be interesting, but also dilutes the charm of the original story. This is also yet another Playstation Move title that fails to utilise the technology on offer - setting the control system even further back.

Crap controls, crap story and crap gameplay - I played this for a few hours before realising that I was getting nothing out of this, save for a very sore arm.

3: Pokemon Black [DS]
If only this series would step outside the box a little! Surprise, surprise - you start as a young trainer, then Professor Boring gives you a Pokemon, then you go off to beat some gym leader, then an evil Pokemon-trainer group attacks you, then you go off to the Pokemon League to beat the Pokemon champions.

So what is different in Pokemon Black? Well, they've changed the name and designs of the Pokemon. Oh, and you can carry out surveys. Surveys. Hold me back! I have to play some more of this! Asking passers-by about their favourite books! Awesome!

Depressingly, I actually played right through to the final stages of this game hoping that something would be different. Just as I did with HeartGold. And Platinum before that. And Sapphire before that. And Silver before.... well, you get the point.

2: Skate 3 [PS3]
Again, another title that is shamed when compared to its predecessor. The original Skate game was a breath of fresh air compared to the stale fumes of the Tony Hawk series. It had a brilliantly conceived (albeit inaccessible) control system that was as close as you can get to real-life skateboarding. Skate 2 extended this with some fantastic new environments, my favourite being an over-the-top stunt ramp to launch off.

Then comes the third instalment, and what does it have to offer? No idea. Nothing new, that I can see. Same old moves, same old environments, same old missions.

I'm pretty sure that they recoloured and renamed everything from Skate 2 and then charged everyone £30 to play it. Both thoroughly boring and disappointing.

1: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood [PS3]
Just see my full review for the huge list of reasons why this is the worst game I played in 2011. In short: it is dull, glitchy and impossible to take seriously.

What's worse is that I have now started playing its sequel, Revelations, and within the first hour of play Revelations has entertained me more than the entirety of Brotherhood and is still not very good! 

A shameful sequel that hopes to dazzle you with poorly-executed new features to obscure the shallow, repetitive nature of the rest of the game. Brotherhood is without a doubt the worst Assassin's Creed game so far (a series which has 1 good game out of 4 anyway). 

More than happy to give a whole-hearted thumbs down to my 

So what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree?
What are your games of 2011? 
Feel free to comment below and let me know.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bulletstorm [PS3]

The latest offering from "People Can Fly" studios may not quite live up to Painkiller, but it is bold, explosive and most of all: FUN.

Boom, Blast and Ruin
There's big explosions, gorgeous scenery which crumbles around you, glass shatters to tiny pieces - and that's before I've started on the enemies! There has been a lot of thought as to how to make this a visually-impressive experience, from the scale of the buildings you shoot your way through to the dust hanging in the air - this all screams massive destruction.

The environments are generally a bunch of buildings which start out ruined and end up as rubble. You and your chums make your way across half-destroyed cities, paying no care as to what you destroy in the process. It is this attitude which sets up the story in the second half of the game - your cavalier attitude means that you smash your way through a nest of giant eggs and - Surprise, Surprise - Mommy doesn't like that.

Bear in mind that the ruined city isn't just there for aesthetics - the broken fences, open chasms and damaged gas tanks all offer more choice for killing your enemies in new and exciting ways (see the "Skillz" section).

The planet you fight on was once an urban centre - until you and your mates showed up.

Kicking, Sliding and Whipping - Indiana Jones Would Be Proud
Each of the enemies has a unique weakness that can be exploited to quickly make them into passata, although just going wild with the trigger normally works too. Using the controls to your advantage means that you won't run out of ammo quite so often, and allows the game to flow a bit smoother.

Kicking means that enemies float in slow motion in front of you (something to do with an electro-sci-fi boot or something - do you really care about the logistics of this?). As your targets hang limply in the air, you are then free to target whichever body part will deal the most damage. 

Sliding is nicely implemented, and can either offer you a quick escape from a dangerous encounter or a quick approach to a vicious enemy. On sliding into certain enemies, you boot them into the air and they then hang in slow motion - allowing you to carefully aim at their gonads.

The whip is an electrified punishment device which allows you to grab far off baddies and pull them back towards you (again triggering the slow-mo). Another option with the whip is to lift your enemies into the air before crashing them back down into the ground, causing a shockwave which stuns nearby foes.

So, as you can see, each of the player controls gives you more options when it comes to blasting your attackers apart, and you will be rewarded for looking for more options in Bulletstorm thanks to the "Skillshot" system.

These are "Burnouts" - mutated creatures with glowing areas on their bodies. Guess where you aim for.

You Got Mad Whack Skillz, Boi
Each of the many, many ways you can kill enemies has its own Skillshot and points bonus associated with it: shooting an enemy in the throat gets you the "Gag Reflex" bonus (50pts), while impaling 2 or more airborne enemies with a drill gets you the "Wingman Bonus" (100pts). 

It is both entertaining and rewarding to go out trying new ways to blast the baddies to bits, and you get bonus points for finding a skillshot you haven't used before. These are tracked in a very handy little menu that can be brought up at any time, and also can be filtered to show only skillshots you haven't achieved yet - well thought through there.

These points are then used on upgrades to your weaponry, such as increasing ammunition capacity. You upgrade in game by visiting one of many handy "Drop Pods" scattered around the landscape. Later upgrades add in "Charge Shots", and these vary from weapon to weapon: the assault rifle gains a powerful blast shot whereas the sniper rifle gets an explosive bullet option. Once you have unlocked charge shots, you are then able to carry out the associated skillshots, e.g. set off your explosive sniper bullet before it hits its target to earn the "Premature" skillshot.

Above is a video of all possible sniper skillshots in Bulletstorm, kindly provided by Czis16

The Little Boy Inside Me Smirked...
Humour plays a large part in Bulletstorm - the characters crack one-liners more often than Lindsay Lohan puffs crack. I could mention a whole bunch of good examples, but that would ruin them before you have gotten a chance to hear them yourselves, so I'll just mention one:

During a section where you control a giant mechanised dinosaur, the dino gets tragically blown up. The main character then declares, with exaggerated sadness in his voice, "I named him Waggleton P. Tallylicker, but I never got the chance to tell him. He will be remembered".

It's this sort of cheesy, corny, terribly-infantile humour that makes me smile throughout the game - although no lines are ever quite as good as the memorial for Waggleton.

Multiplayer Madness
The multiplayer in Bulletstorm is novel, and quite enjoyable for a while - but fundamentally flawed. 

The idea is that you and 3 online buddies go into an arena and take on waves of bad guys - no competition, just killing. "Awesome", I thought to myself, "Put me in with some guys at my level and let us work together, rather than elite losers picking off noobs like grains of dust from their coats".

The problem is that to advance to the next wave, you need to earn a certain amount of points. These are earned in exactly the same way as in single player (with a few multiplayer special kills). In each of the games that I tried (4 before giving up disappointedly), I was put with a bunch of absolute idiots who kept shooting all the enemies to death in the most boring, low-point-earning ways. So we kept failing the wave. Try again, and yet again they kept being ridiculously stupid and not using any creative kills whatsoever.

This is one game where I would have appreciated headset functionality, just to scream "NO  DUMB-ASS! KICK HIM INTO THE AIR AND SNIPE HIM! DON'T JUST SHOOT HIM WHILE HE'S STANDING STILL! WE'VE LOST AGAIN THANKS TO YOU, Super1337Anus! GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!"

Rat-A-Tat-Tat All The Way Back To The Shop
Although there is a great deal of scope for being creative, the game does try to force you down the "clever kills" path by giving you absolutely sod-all ammunition. You are never without ways to kill the swarms of baddies heading your way, but the good weapons (sniper, flailgun etc.) all have a capacity of around 10 shots - so you are constantly searching for more bullets.

When you use the Drop Pods to upgrade, you can also buy some more ammunition. The problem is that it costs so bloody much to buy bullets that you have no money left for upgrades. And yes, by the end of the game you'll probably have earned enough points to upgrade all your weapons to the max anyway, but it's still annoying that you have to spend so much of your time restocking at the shop rather than re-killing in the city. This is one game where an unlimited ammo cheat would have been welcomed.

Oooh Yay! Ten Minutes Of Boredom!
As exciting as a giant wheel smashing its way towards you may be - this is still a dull rail shooter section

And then, out of nowhere, come an enormous bringer of doom. There it is in the image above. Yes, boys and girls, there is a rail shooter section.

WHY!?!?!?!?!?!?! You were doing so well, Bulletstorm! 

I was running, sliding and whipping everything to destruction with a gleeful smile upon my face! Why did you have to force me to play a rail shooter section in the middle of it!?!

So in a game where I can't get enough of the freedom to kill enemies in my own special way, the game decides to throw in a section where I'm pinned to the spot and given one gun to use. For ten minutes. Urgh.

I would've rather had a video showing me the action from this section and not had to play through it. I can at least put a cup of tea on during cutscenes.

Bulletstorm gets a lot of things right: it has variety, humour, and explosions aplenty. It rewards creativity in your play, and keeps adding in new ways to be creative as you progress through the game.

The downsides are that while you are never really challenged, you can't just run and gun freely. Ammo limitations mean that you have to follow the play style that the developers intended. 

So Bulletstorm gets a hearty recommendation - just prepare yourself for a lot of ammo shopping, some rail shooting, and multiplayer that may make you scream at the television.

Images used in this review are copyright of Epic Games, and can be found at:

Monday, 26 December 2011

Wipeout HD and Fury [PS3]

A fun, frantic, furious racer that requires skill, lightning-reflexes and a thirst for revenge!
Super visuals and polish make this a true high-definition experience
There are plenty of explosions and crashes to enjoy/avoid/photograph

His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest rocket ship in the West
This is the world of Wipeout - about a dozen race teams get together on ridiculously enormous tracks to race, battle play 3D space invaders to show who is the best.

There are a small handful of fairly similar-looking rocket cars to razz around in, and sticking with one particular race team earns you "loyalty points". 

What are these for? Not a clue.

My favourite ship models at the first play were exactly the same as on the last play

You can unlock indistinguishably similar versions of other ships and new chrome paint jobs and blah blah blah - this isn't the fun bit of the game. Don't go hoping for cool upgrades and unlocks because - basically - you don't get any. You just need to get better at the racing as you progress through the game. In doing so the "speed class", which race speeds are set at, gradually increases from slow to oh-my-god-where-the-*SMASH* speeds.

The meat of the game is learning your way around each of the twisting, turning and looping tracks at each of the different speed classes. Earlier on you can generally pick up a lot of the boost and weapon pads scattered around the tracks, but at higher speed classes and with tougher opponents this can turn into a tense crash-fest. 

Crashing, taking damage and using special moves loses you energy
 Hit Zero and you explode, which is game over and means starting the race again

Break it down. Stop! Picture time.
As you will notice, and as you can see from the presence of pictures on the blog - there is a full photo mode for the game which gloriously automatically saves as high-definition jpegs on your hard drive. 

Bravo, Wipeout. Nicely done. 

As you can see from the statue and explosion image sets below, you can change various image settings before taking your shot - leading to a vast array of clever, confusing and trippy options on these futuristic HD tracks.

The soundtrack complements this perfectly - trance, dance and drum and bass anthems aplenty - that not only fit the atmosphere but truly enhance it. The Zone and Zone Battle game modes in particular seem to be made to go with the big bass tunes in the game.

An explosion set off just behind my ship, with super motion blur in image 1 and focus switched and colour dulled on image 2

A statue on the track side with contrast, colour intensity, saturation, motion blur and focus settings adjusted, with original below.

Mummy! Look at me! I'm riding with stabilisers on!
The difficulty level is notoriously high in Wipeout games - I remember some of the earlier incarnations on PS One actually made me weep as I came in mere hundredths of a second too slow.

In Wipeout HD there are 3 difficulty levels - novice, skilled and elite - which can be viewed as - easy, challenging, god-like. Each of the parameters for the race gets modified to be more of a challenge - enemy AI, lap times, lap requirements etc.

The novice missions can be achieved with gold medals in the first play through, then the skilled missions make you work for bronze medals, taking several tries each. The elite missions are just that - frikkin' hard - and I doubt I'll be getting all gold medals on those any time soon.

The only way that I found I was able to get myself up to speed with all the game modes - both on and offline - was to use Pilot Assist, a new feature where the ship is automatically adjusted away from the track sides - greatly reducing the amount of times that damage is taken. This is about the only way that I found I could get to grips with the difficulty curve, and even then it was damn tough to move through the skilled races.

The difficulty curve here is pretty steep
The new Pilot Assist feature eases this considerably

Campaign medals and Online cred
Streaking round the corner and knowing my opponents are about to blow themselves up  makes me happy

There is a nice variety of tracks and game modes available across WipeoutHD and the Fury add-on pack. In single player you get the chance to try out missions against progressively better AI players on game modes ranging from basic missions like Races and Time Trials to awesome modes like Detonator (akin to a side scrolling shooter) and Zone/Zone Battle modes (trippy races which I still don't fully understand the rules of).

Getting all golds on novice difficulty will give you enough to take the game online - where you can try your skills against real players. I'm not sure if I'm just not very good at this but it took me absolutely ages to get my first online win, and a further dozen races to get my second. 

The achievements for this game include things like "Win 50 online races" and I just don't think I have enough time left in my life to get that sucker. The people that I have raced against are just too damn good for me. It's not so much of a criticism as it is a backhanded compliment: it shows that you can hone your game to get much better at it but you may not have the patience in order to achieve that.

In all game modes, the tables can turn on you in an instant

Get your money for nothing and your kicks for free
And the final bonus in this enjoyable, lasting and polished experience was that it was FREE! Good old hackers for shutting down Playstation Network for a month this year, Sony gave this as one of the free games as part of the "Welcome Back" grovelling package.

Yes, it was annoying at the time. Yes, I felt my trust was violated by Sony. 

But just look at it!

Surprisingly enough, this massive blast did very little damage to me
It's futuristic, gorgeous and runs beautifully - even during 8-person online tournaments


Pretty much everything you knew and loved from the old Wipeout games, now in glorious High-Definition and with plenty to keep you entertained.

It's difficult - really difficult at times - but that only serves to highlight how tight and clever the controls and track design are.

Earn some shiny medals offline, play with different game modes to tune your skills, take it online to test your mettle and take pictures of your adventure. It's like if GT5 was set in space in the year 2048.

Even if you can't get it for free, this is worth £20 of anyone's money - if you need any more convincing then just take another look at the screenshots.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Saints Row: The Third [PS3]

Over the top and utterly bombastic in every aspect of the game. Sadly, the shiny transvestite gangster show can get a little stale later on.

Welcome to Steelport - here's your complementary dildo
From the very first mission, you are thrust into a frantic, explosive world where one-liners and innuendo are your bread and butter. Painting the gritty, violent Third Street Saints gang from previous games now as media sell-outs, this game begins on television commercial sets brushing shoulders with other in-game celebrities. 

"Oh no! (You might shout) My beloved Saints! What has happened to them!?!"
Well worry not, pathetic losers, they are still the filthy turds you know and adore.

About five minutes later the building starts exploding and you end up being captured and taken on a jumbo jet. This jet is then, of course, blown out of the sky with the Saints leaping out the back in spectacular action movie-esque fashion.

After returning to Earth, the Saints then have to make their name in the new city of Steelport. This basically means that all the cars, guns and safe houses from previous games are lost and you'll have to go and earn some new ones. This is acheived by playing through the main missions to progress the story or by completing side-missions which are based on a theme of "Tank Mayhem", "Helicopter Assaults" etc. Each mission earns you some respect and cash, which is then used to purchase new customisation options, new player skills or other upgrades.

The respect you earn now also adds to an RPG-style player level. Certain guns and upgrades can only be accessed once you are at certain levels, e.g. at Level 21 you can get a "revive health 30% quicker" upgrade, but not before. This all works fine and gives extra incentive to play enough to unlock just one more level, but sadly the count stops at level 50. Once you reach level 50, all respect just vanishes in a puff of air with nothing bothering to keep count. Why, exactly? Surely just keeping track of all the additional respect earnt would offer online bragging rights, or some sort of validation for all your hard work chainsawing pedestrians in half? A missed opportunity, I feel.

Up for a challenge
You are free to find your own fun (although the developers have clearly done it all before you did, so no thinking you're clever).

Pretty much everything you can do has a statistic tracking your depravity, from the length of time you have spent running around naked to the number of people you have gassed with the "Fart-in-a-jar".

This crosses over very well into multiplayer, allowing you to make your own fun based on who can whack as many people with a dildo-on-a-baseball-bat in five minutes (current record being just under 300).

The downside, even if a very minor one, is that with all the counters keeping score of your behaviour, you can feel like you're not actually doing anything wrong. In fact, it feels as though you are being positively encouraged to be a dick. This takes away a little bit of the childish fun on offer here: in previous games you could run over police officers and gleefully laugh as they rolled down the road knowing that thousands more are heading over to try and stop you. In this game, you run them over and it's more like: "Cops run over score: 500. Well done. Good boy. There's some more down the road, and you are perfectly allowed to do the same to them"

Get your friends round for a violent, cross-dressing party
(or just stay in playing Saints Row 3)
As mentioned above, the multiplayer in this offering is great fun to muck around in. You can get an online friend to join you for story missions, for side missions, or for the free-roam antics available throughout the city. This is both fun and functional, and adds a great deal to the game's lifespan.

Not only can you speed around the city totally independantly, taking jet planes off in opposite directions and then maybe bumping into each other later, but you can also get in the same vehicle to maximise the local destruction. While burning up everything in sight with rockets and laser guns, there was virtually no difference in frame rate or visual effects, which is quite an acheivement given the ridiculous amount of explosions occuring per second.

Given the amount of hilarity on offer in terms of the costumes you can dress players up in, a round of "See who has the funniest outfit" was called for. Seeing what other people had decided to wear to run around the city in was great fun. It was only a little later on I realised that without the boobs, guns and swearing we were playing 6-year-old girl's dolly dress-up. Bugger. Oh fuck it, time for a killing spree.

Just how ridiculous can I act/look/sound?
So, I'll explain a little more about how I found the outfit customisation. My first appearance was as a butch, moustached, Cockney gentleman wearing a floral dress. This is my standard look for the Saints Row games, basically because it means I can laugh my way through the cutscenes, rather than try to translate all the ghetto euphemisms for "murder people in a helicopter".

My second, and new favourite, look cranked it up a notch with a shocking pink policeman's uniform, complete with cowboy boots. I was scarily close to buying a real-life version of this baby.

Next, I decided to snip certain manly bits off and stick some womanly bits on and went out into town as a blue-skinned, boobsy, nudey lady. 

In each of my incarnations, the giant purple dildo is the perfect accessory: delicately complementing the colour tones of my outfits and wobbling around as if to show the world who's boss. 

My final outift, unlocked much later on in the game, was a toilet. Yes, they went there. After going about as far as I could go with the cross-dressing and the nude aliens, they offered the option to run around the town and beat up pedestrians looking exactly like a toilet. Kudos, Saints Row, kudos.

So, basically, in answer to the question posed in the heading: You can look stupider than the African-American Gay Men's choir at an Alabama barn dance.

Stalemate Steelport
Later side-missions and collectible-hunting can turn into a rather dreary completion quest. Once you have "No bullet/explosion/vehicle damage" and "Infinite ammunition/No reload times" then most tasks turn into "Hold the trigger button down and stay in the same place for half an hour".

Putting in these kind of cheats is as much a blessing as a curse. It is great to be able to start shoot-outs with the cops and the only thing you have to worry about being their smouldering corpses slowing you down, but it removes all the challenge from the later missions.

The harder "Professor Genki" missions are much more manageable with bullet damage switched off and so slightly less frustrating, but the survival missions (which go on for 10 - 20 minutes each) just stagnate when there is no threat whatsoever.

What I feel may have worked is for the final level of cheats - such as no bullet damage, no explosion damage, infinite ammo, no reload times - could only be used in free-roaming and were switched off during all missions. Then you could still use the penultimate level of upgrades -  75% reduction in damage and near-infinite ammunition - but there would still be the possibility that you could die, meaning the game might actually expect you to do something in order to complete the section.

Really, there's very little to be upset by in Saints Row: The Third (other than if you are offended by murder, swearing or nudity). If you are a fan of the Saints games then most of the good stuff is still here and most of the new stuff is welcome. 

The only downsides are when you have been playing a long, long time. The repetative nature of the tasks you carry out is only exacerbated by the infinite life cheats, meaning that a lot of the spark of the game is in the beginning. That is not to say that you won't have a looooooot of fun in Steelport - there's enough to keep even the shortest attention spans happy for 30 hours or more. 

REALLY VIRTUAL - Happily does away with reality to offer an enjoyable gaming experience.

With perhaps a little more thought as to how the long-term gameplay may have panned out, this could have been game of the year.