To save any embarrassment, later on I’ll tell you straight off the bat; I have never played a Saints Row game before. In fact, I barely knew what it was, other than a GTA with pimp outfits and a weaponized sex toy that one-upped San Andreas’. Sounds… original, but not quite enough to sway me into a purchase. However, at a first-look event a few months ago, I was shown a glimpse of Steelport and told three things: aliens have invaded, you have superpowers, and you are the president of the United States. Consider me converted.
Upon having one of the greatest premises to a sandbox game I’ve ever heard, Volition have quite a task ahead if this isn’t going to be a half-baked genre fusion that sounds like a lot more fun than it is. Infamous and Vice City are both great on their own, but cramming them both into one game would be no small feat.
As soon as I had hands on with the game, however, I was wondering whether I was still playing the same Saints Row IV that I had seen at the reveal. Suddenly it was all Middle Eastern terrorists, stealth kills and QTEs, as the opening mission includes infiltrating a nuke launch base out in a desert. After about twenty minutes of bog-standard shooting and stabbing for reasons I absolutely could not understand, the humour finally caught up when I found myself riding a nuclear missile while Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’ blasted out. It was funny, for sure, but it was still too little too late, the hilarity not quite saving the rather bizarre mediocrity of what I’d just played.
Still, a slow start aside, it wasn’t long before Saints Row found its feet. A wonderfully nonsensical cutscene later and I was inaugurated as the worst (or best) president of the USA ever, punching senators, turning the White House into a 24/7 nightclub, and signing bills such as ‘Fuck Cancer’. The action starts when alien spaceships begin bombarding the earth and taking prisoners. The run-and-gun isn’t anything to write home about, but fortunately it’s never long before Saints Row IV pushes you into more and more ridiculous situations, like jumping onto a star-spangled anti air gun and blasting alien ships out the sky. Finally being captured, the sandbox element comes into play when the president is forced into a virtual-reality simulation of Steelport to torture him into submission. References to The Matrix? Check. Justification for killing anyone without remorse? You betcha.
I had a chance to play around for a short while with some early story missions, and the verdict’s pretty good. It won’t blow your socks off from the very beginning, but the writing’s still as goofy and entertaining as previous entries, at least enough to tide you over during the mundane drive-here-do-this quests. The game opens up a hell of a lot, however, when super powers become an option.
I won’t bore you with explaining how they’re possible – heck, even the game basically tells you not to think about it too much – but they work much, much better than I expected. Considering this is a developer whose previous titled have pretty much only used running and driving, it’s pretty impressive how smoothly and responsively the flying, jumping and sprinting (at unbelievable speeds, Prototype eat your heart out) work. If I was directed to a particular skyscraper off on the horizon, it was an amazing feeling seeing myself effortlessly getting there in just a few seconds. If there is a problem that could develop from this, however, it’s that it can make you (surprise surprise) a little overpowered in combat. Being able to jump fifty feet into the air and do a huge slam back to earth whenever the gunfire gets a little heavy does make you virtually unstoppable, at least with the enemies I wound up against. Nevertheless if fun is a higher priority to you than challenge, then yes, by god it is fun.
I’m interested to see where Saints Row IV goes from here. Craziness and quality are not always correlative, and while the chunk I got to play was certainly enjoyable, I’m hoping the novelty of the ridiculousness doesn’t burn out quickly. Or they could just make a corridor shooter with that dubstep gun and I’d be sold.
Saints Row IV launches August 23rd for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.