When TechnologyGuide last saw Saints Row IV, it noted that Volition is looking to set a benchmark for virtual absurdity. Here is a game that puts players in the shoes of a former gang leader-turned-president, when they are then faced with a deadly alien invasion, which then leads them to a warped virtual reality simulation of the franchise’s trademark city Steelport, where they then obtain superpowers.
Yeah, this isn’t the kind of thing that wants to be seriously, and that looked like a good thing. TG was able to get its hands on the open-world action title at E3 this week, and mostly came away impressed by Volition’s efforts to freshen up an aging template.
TG‘s demo started in the White Crib. No, not the White House, because the executive branch is Saints territory now. The Saints leader – who, like in the past SR games, is created and customized by the player – is met by various members of his cabinet as he struts to a press conference.
On the way, he punches a backtalking Senator in the head, and is presented with a choice – hit the left trigger to say “f— cancer” and cure it forever, or hit the right trigger to end hunger everywhere. TG cured cancer. This is presented with all the chuckle-worthy goofiness one would expect.
Then the aliens arrived. They’re called the Zin, and they do what all bad guy aliens do, foretelling humanity’s doom and abducting various characters from past Saints Row games. Naturally, the president takes action, and starts gunning them down.
The shooting here isn’t much different than it was in Saints Row: The Third, but that’s fine. It’s still fast and fluid, and TG cycled through Uzis, pump-action shotguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers and fists to take the baddies out. It can be cover-based or not, depending on how the player wants to play.
Afterwards, TG hopped in a machine gun turret and fired away at some alien gunships, watching as the president jumped for joy every time he destroyed a ship. This happened on the White Crib’s front lawn.
After a QTE-laden fight scene with the eloquently-spoken Zin leader, Zinyak, the screen faded to black, and TG was warped to the second part of the demo in the VR-ified Steelport. Here, the president was granted his set of superpowers and super weapons, which effectively give Saints Row IV a split personality.
Players can still hijack cars and navigate through town the old way, and that all works just as well as it did before. But with the ability to run superfast, leap hundreds of feet at a time, jump up the sides of buildings and glide through the air, it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to play the old way.
Yes, Saints Row IV is a superhero (or, super anti-hero) game now, just one that’s tinged with the wacky style and mayhem from previous series installments. Running at super speed lets players bowl through anything in their path, knocking cars and people and debris way off in the distance. Weapons like a cannon that shoots black holes, an overcharged katana and a “dubstep gun” that shoots killer bass beats are as ridiculous as they are mayhem-inducing. Setting the president on fire as he topples through everyone in his way or shooting ice and shockwaves from his hands makes up-close combat more viable too.
Those are all simple and quite fun to use, but the most enjoyable part of the demo was simply jumping and soaring through the city. Travelling through Steelport has a bit of a Spider-Man 2 or Infamous feel to it in that aimlessly leaping around can be just as much of a time suck as completing the game’s various missions and side quests. The more gimmicky weapons could feel tired after extensive use, but the sense of power and utility that comes from this sort of traversal is less likely to. It just felt great.
The VR version of Steelport isn’t dramatically different from past games, but it is appropriately gloomier. Dark red clouds hang overhead, street signs command citizens to obey the Zin, and the whole place is just as large as it used to be. Calling it a “simulation” of the city is a weak excuse to revisit the same old setting, but Volition’s tongue-in-cheek style makes TG think that it at least realizes what it is doing.
Even with the new powers, weapons and modified setting, this is still a Saints Row game at heart, so there are plenty of quests, collectibles and random happenings to attend to throughout the city. TG only got to play around with two side quests during its demo — a beat-the-clock race on foot and an arcade-style game — and both were generic. Same goes for the pile of collectibles and randomly generated smaller missions, the likes of which will please obsessives but are often used to artificially pad a game’s length.
Considering one of Saints Row: The Third’s biggest problems was its lack of mission variety, one would hope that Volition is taking strides to make its quests more worthwhile. The new abilities are great fun, but they can only go so far on their own. With such a small sample size, though, TG will reserve judgment until it plays the finished product.
Saints Row IV seems like it’ll be a parody of typical video game power fantasies, while still being one of the more extreme video game power fantasies in recent memory. At no point during TG‘s time with the game did Saints Row IV take itself seriously, and in an era where many titles overcompensate in their attempts to be an Important Game, that’s more than welcome.
Volition isn’t straying completely away from what’s worked for them in the past, but it is adding some notable changes on top of its open-world formula. In general, the series appears to have fully embraced its ridiculousness; its tone is now in sync with its mechanics after the addition of superpowers and some of the silliest virtual weapons out there. Players can literally go over-the-top now.
There are still plenty of unknowns here – Volition is keeping mum on most of the game’s narrative, for instance – but for now, Saints Row IV feels like a natural progression from Saints Row: The Third. It has the potential to win over new fans, but whether or not it does will have to wait until August 20, when the game launches for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.