One of the questions surrounding the bankruptcy of THQ was who was going to pick up the company’s franchises, especially Saints Row. Gamers had fallen in love with Saints Row: The Third, and there was concern that the financial woes could lead to issues with the upcoming sequel. Many of those fears were alleviated when Deep Silver bought the franchise, especially when it brought the Volition team over to continue working on the over-the-top series featuring everyone’s favorite gang from Steelport…
And after getting a chance to get some hands on time with a preview build of Saints Row IV, I can honestly say there is no need to worry. This game is going to be the game fans have been hoping it will be.
Hail to the Saints
Saints Row IV starts out with a ridiculously insane premise, even for this series. If you have been following the development of the game, you already know that, but allow me to set the scene, as it will help explain the gameplay. You are the head of the Third Street Saints, who, after a rather crazy opening sequence that features a hilarious use of a certain overly-schmaltzy song off the Armageddon soundtrack, has become the President of the United States. Five years into your term, the Earth is attacked by an alien race called the Zin. You and your fellow Saints are trapped in a virtual reality version of Steelport, and it is up to you to find a way to get out and take the fight to the Zin.
Like I said, the premise is ridiculous, but that ridiculous premise ends up being a good thing. Each game in the Saints Row franchise has become more and more of a parody of open world crime games, and Saints Row IV is no different. The great part about the completely ludicrous premise is it gives Volition the excuse to go completely unrealistic with the gameplay, and that is exactly what the developer did. So just what do I mean by that? Remember how I mentioned you were trying to break free from the Matrix-like virtual Steelport? Well, part of how you do that is by creating as much chaos as possible. You create this chaos by introducing viruses into the system, attacking alien-controlled Flashpoints or grabbing Data Clusters to increase your super powers.
That’s right. Early in the game, you are given super powers thanks to your trusty, hyper-intelligent Saint Kinzie hacking into the system. The first two you unlock are super speed and the ability to jump great heights. Having your character trapped in a virtual world gave Volition the freedom to do pretty much whatever it wanted, and from what I got to play of the game, the company did just that.
Doing Your Superman Thing
So just what happens when you introduce super powers to Saints Row? You end up with a game that plays like a cross between the standard open world gameplay the series is known for and the original Crackdown. Trust me when I say this is a good thing. Once I unlocked the ability to run faster than most vehicles and jump to ridiculous heights, I could not stop doing just that. I was launching myself all over Steelport looking for new missions. I was also constantly on the lookout for Data Clusters, which are scattered throughout the city much like the agility orbs of the aforementioned 360 exclusive. The more clusters you find, the more you can upgrade your powers. By the time I finished, I was able to jump over just about any building in town, run insane speeds for extended periods of time and actually launch myself into a glide after jumping, allowing for quick traversing of the city.
The super powers do more than just help you move around the city, however. They can also aid you in combat. One of my favorite maneuvers was to run full speed towards and enemy, attacking them just as I reached them. This move would trigger a vicious super-powered beat-down that was both very satisfying and a rather efficient way to take down certain enemies. The other power I unlocked in the preview was the ability to freeze enemies, giving me the ability to shatter them or disrupt their shields.
Part of what makes combat so much fun in the Saints Row series is the over-the-top weaponry, and when it comes to that, this game does not disappoint. Along with your standard shotgun, pistols and other typical weapons, there is a host of alien weapons at your disposal that are rather unique. Two of my favorites were the Violator and the Abduct-O-Matic. The Violator is a giant tentacle bat, similar to the infamous purple weapon in the previous game though not as crude. The Abduct-O-Matic allows you to target an area and have aliens use a tractor beam to snatch away enemies. It takes a fair amount of time to charge between uses, but if you use your powers while you are waiting, you can have an absolute blast with it.
No Saints Row game would be complete without the ability to steal and customize vehicles, and Saints Row IV definitely has plenty of that. There have been some changes to the standard “steal a car, drive it to your garage” gameplay this time around, and they are rather welcome. For example, you no longer have to drive a vehicle to a garage in order to add it to your collection; as you are in a simulation, you just hack into the car, saving its data for use later. You also have access to various alien vehicles, though some of them handle a little strangely. To be honest, once I unlocked the abilities to run, jump and glide all over the city, I found myself avoiding using vehicles unless I had to for a mission. The driving mechanic has never been the selling point of the Saints Row series, and unfortunately this one does not buck that trend. The good news is the joy of using your powers to traverse the city more than makes up for the lackluster vehicle controls.
Toward the end of the demo, I was able to escape the simulation. While I expect this segment will be a much later part of the game when it releases, I feel I need to mention it now for one reason: the game does not fall apart when you get out of virtual reality. While you may no longer have access to your super powers, you are still the leader of the Saints, and that is good enough to make you a dangerous character. It will be interesting to see how much that sequence changes in the retail release.
When the Saints Go Marching In
If you were worried at all about whether or not the change in publishers would negatively impact Saints Row IV, I can vouch for the fact it has not. If you think I am exaggerating, consider this: I spent seven hours in the preview, and most of that was spent just roaming Steelport looking for trouble. While the preview was not without its faults, like the fact that I was not able to edit my appearance as a female character for some reason, I believe most of them will be ironed out by the time the game releases next month. The preview gave me just enough of a taste of the game to leave me wanting more, and I think that’s about the best thing anyone can say about a game preview or demo. Whether you are a long-time fan of the series or are wondering what all the hype is about, Saints Row IV is shaping up to be a game you will not want to miss.