Saints Row IV – Preview
From lowly street punks to celebrity icons, it’s been a strange and storied history for the Third Street Saints, and this August it’s going to grow one chapter longer and a hell of a lot crazier. The leader of the one-time hood-rats now finds themselves as the leader of the free nation, opposing a foe far deadlier than the previous rival gangs when aliens attack our planet and wipe the floor with the once-unstoppable Saints. Locked up in a virtual prison and stripped of both your crew and your presidential powers, it’s up to you to power up, break out, and welcome these aliens to Earth.
Set several years after the “happy” ending of Saints Row The Third, the rapid ascent of the Third Streets Saints has seen them rise in power, with your playable avatar becoming the President of the United States and the actor Keith David – playing himself – becoming your second in command. While the final release will tell the tale of how you managed to become one of the most powerful people in the world, our demo began shortly after taking the White House by storm. Approval ratings have fallen through the floor after your recent gaffe in which you rather unwisely proclaimed “I’m the patron saint of America! We should probably look into changing the Pledge of Allegiance to One Nation, Under Me”. After lamenting how life was easier when you were roughing up the streets, you’re lead to the conference room to explain your quote to the population. Being the President isn’t just about explaining your antics to the public, it’s also about making tough decisions, and as you set off down the corridor to amend your comments, you’re faced with the most difficult one anyone could ever face. With your approval ratings so low, you’ll only be able to get one of two bills passed; do you solve world hunger, or do you cure a deadly disease forever with the aptly titled “Fuck Cancer” bill?
Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders after such a monumental decision, the player is immediately confronted with an angry politician who is all-too-eager to chew you out and you’re given another difficult choice – do you punch a dick in the head, or punch a man’s dick? Reeling from another tough choice, the player is then soon approached by TV’s Nyte Blayde with a further proposition – do you want to hang out at his place later and chill with your homies? As your cohort is either high-fived or left hanging, the player is left to reel with this intense confrontation- yet forced to move on towards the speaker’s podium – when aliens suddenly appear from nowhere and start abducting all of your buddies. Well, I didn’t see it coming.
Fortunately for Earth, but unfortunately for the aliens, they picked the wrong President to fuck with, as the leader of the Saints begins to start taking the fight back to the invading Zin one crushed ball-sack at a time. Bravely diving towards the commander attempting to abduct Kinzie, you’re subdued by your Secret Service, at least until you start hammering the buttons, throwing them off and making a charge towards the Oval Office to start your counter-attack. Those familiar with the shooting mechanics of Saints Row The Third will be well at home here, and although there’s been some refinement it’s not a case of daring to reinvent the wheel, which was a welcome discovery as I began blasting my way through the invading forces.
I found myself a big fan of the gun-play in the previous entry, so to see that IV continues in the same vein and keeping an “if it ain’t broke” mentality – rather than forcing in some awful cover-based antics or restricting player choice – was a delight to see, and allows for a comfortable transition between the two for those who’ve played The Third to death.
Taking a brief respite in the Oval Office and initiating the emergency protocol, it’s almost like a scene from the Matrix as suddenly guns seem to pour out from everywhere and our trusty Saint makes a quip about his love for the second amendment. Locked, stocked and with more than a few smoking barrels, the fight is thoroughly taken back to the Zin as more of your friends are slowly abducted, with one errant aide almost flooring me with laughter as his last words echoed throughout the corridor. Before long, the White House begins to stink of corpses, so it’s time to get some fresh air, take a seat and man one of the newly-deployed turrets to start re-enacting a more authentic version of Space Invaders.
The enemy fleet was swiftly being reduced to nothing but scrap metal, and with the debris just falling from the mothership, it too began to take a severe beating, until slowly and inevitably crashing on to the Presidential lawn. Now it was on; the leader of the Zin empire versus the leader of the free world. Despite the latter’s violent battle to the top, your prowess and power are nothing compared to that of your foe – especially as his telekinetic powers allow him to bounce you off the walls like a tennis ball, and no matter how adept your fingers are at hammering the quick-time event commands, there’s nothing you can do to stop your defeat.
As someone who isn’t the fondest fan of the ever-dreaded quick-time sequence, the fact that they were used here to help demonstrate the utter futility of the fight at hand – much like how the moral choices earlier on stopped making a lick of difference less than a minute later – means that it’s not just conventional logic and sanity Volition are turning on their heads, but even the mechanics themselves.
Losing the fight against the Zin would potentially have turned this into the shortest Saints Row yet, but in an attempt to break your will and indoctrinate you into their insidious leagues, the aliens cobble together a virtual representation of Steelport and throw you inside it, not expecting you to start planning your break-out. To do so, you’ll need to find and re-recruit your own allies and take the fight to the machines, but instead of starting us from scratch, the developers took the gloves off and threw us much further into the events of the story, although we wouldn’t be tackling any more missions. Instead, we’d been essentially given the keys to the city, with a whole hoard of weapons, infinite ammo, and every superpower to toy with for the remainder of the demo. Seeing as the Saints are locked in nothing more than a virtual reality, their stalwart leader is soon able to exploit this to his will and ends up endowed with a series of super-abilities, and this is when the open-world formula is well and truly turned on its head.
Those familiar with the Trouble With Clones downloadable content in The Third will already be accustomed to the super-strength and lightning-fast sprinting speed that leaves vehicles utterly destroyed in your wake, but there’s now a few more skills to play with. For the player who often finds themselves running out of ammo there’s telekinesis, allowing you to use the unwitting holographic representation of vehicles as a more extreme destructive manoeuvre on your foes.
Anyone wanting something a little more concussive will be ecstatic at the blast, which can be combined with a variety of elemental options including ice, which will no doubt satiate the inherent desire within all of us to make terrible puns and can be used in conjunction with your super-stomp to obliterate everyone around you into tiny pixelated pieces. Finally, for the Buzz Lightyear in all of us, there’s the ability to not exactly fly, but to fall in style, with the glide and super-jump, and you can even deploy a force-field should you so wish.
That’s not to say the guns have fallen to the wayside as a consequence; if anything, they’ve been given just as much love and attention, and now players can customise the look of some of their weapons – for example, making your machine guns look like super-soakers – and some of the new weapons are some of the most hilariously-destructive yet. However, as soon as I saw two of the new additions I decided to forgo everything else and wreak havoc. Fans of inter-dimensional ruin will get a lot of love out of the Black Hole gun that can be used to quickly obliterate larger groups of alien scum, but for the connoisseur who wants phat beats with his mass murder, there’s the ultimate combination – the Dubstep Gun. Now, I’m a man who can’t stand dubstep at the best of times, and yet the fact that I found myself with my finger firmly squeezing the trigger for five whole minutes before I was interrupted by both a car colliding with me and the end of the demo should speak volumes to its quality as a tool of audiological warfare. The magic of the Dubstep Gun doesn’t come in short bursts, but rather through extended fire, as you start to notice just how much effort has gone into making this weapon more than just a funny idea. Everything comes down to the song playing off the gun itself, and both the rate of fire and the environment around you are altered by the track; faster sections will see a flurry of destruction head towards your foes with breakdowns causing it to fluctuate wildly, and all the while every beat will cause both the civilians and the vehicles around you to start dancing and moving in time to the music, making it a veritable party of destruction every time you pull the trigger.
The new version of Steelport is a visual masterpiece as well, with the environments and art aesthetic combining virtual reality, no-futuristic design and a twist on the familiar in a way that breathes new life into a city that some will have spent more hours in than they could ever possibly remember. Areas you haven’t conquered yet will be covered in a red tinge, and to stake your claim and take over you need to wipe out the inhabitants of the many flashpoints scattered around the city, wiping out the interstellar scourge contained within and flooding the area with a more pleasing blue hue to mark your success.
The soundtrack has also kicked it up a notch, with an audio score that reacts to your actions around the world and aims to fit your actions as much as possible. For example, you could stand at the top of a skyscraper and hear very little, but then jump off and hear each layer kick in as you start to approach the ground, or hear the music speed up as you initiate your super-sprint. As for licensed tracks, the developers were all-too-aware that providing players with superpowers would probably cause them to spend less time driving, and so now you can listen to your radio while on-foot as well as in vehicles. I can’t remember many of the tracks that were available to choose from, but after picking one of the only songs I actually knew and setting off into the sandbox before me, I can safely say that wreaking super-powered carnage on the city to Blur’s Song 2 was one of the most cathartic moments of my year in gaming so far.
In fact, if there was one word to describe precisely why found it impossible to take the smile off of my face during or long after my time with Saints Row IV, it would be that: catharsis. Saints Row IV doesn’t concern itself with trying to have the best shooting mechanics or the best storyline, and neither does it worry about eeking every single bit of power from the processors to look ultra-realistic; instead, all that development time between The Third and now feels like it’s been put solely into making the experience as fun as possible, and it’s paid off in dividends. No matter what else I played throughout the expo, my mind would always find itself wandering back to the total bliss that came with an array of superpowers, total freedom and the ability to fire the physical representation of dubstep at my enemies. Nothing could compare to the absolute joy that I felt during my time with Volition’s latest, and that joy stayed with me throughout the entire expo and even remains now, weeks after getting my hands on it.
There are very few moments in gaming when everything just seems to click into the right place, but Saints Row IV is full of them. Running around an entire city souped up with superpowers and able to cause mayhem at your own behest is one of the most freeing experiences that comes to mind, and being able to run at super-speed, glide through the air majestically and throw objects about with your mind doesn’t just keep the action feeling fresh, but alters it in unprecedented ways and completely changes everything you knew about open-world gaming.
There simply isn’t anything else like this, and I can’t imagine myself having as much fun with anything else this year as I will Saints Row IV. That’s precisely why Volition’s epic was the game of E3; it’s pure, hilarious and unprecedented chaos, and absolutely nothing compares to it. It’s time to hail to the Saints, baby.
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