I’m starting to wonder, on and off, if maybe Saints Row has finally gone too far.
I don’t mean in terms of it being ridiculous. Aliens? Superpowers? Dubstep guns? The Boss as the president of the USA? All of that I can live with. It’s just that I think mmmmaybe Saints Row 4 has shifted genre without us noticing.
Here’s the deal: for some reason (which Volition are being cagey about) the Boss has become President of the United States. It’s the usual day-to-day grind of punching people and partying and deciding whether to eliminate cancer or world hunger… and then aliens show up, because that’s just how the world works. Much as the Boss puts up a good fight with the aid of a gun-filled Oval Office and some stars-and-stripes themed artillery mounted on the lawn, he/she is overpowered and his/her entire cabinet is abducted by the extraterrestrial invaders.
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These Star Trek rejects have apparently been conquering different parts of the galaxy for some time, and their usual modus operandi is to subjugate people by plonking them into a virtual reality nightmare and breaking their will. For the Boss, this turns out to be a virtual Steelport. Unfortunately, the aliens didn’t count on the fact that the President of the United States is a raving psychopath, who appears able to control the virtual reality world. Sort of like The Matrix.
This means, essentially, that the Boss gets hold of superpowers. The Boss can glide, and fly, and sprint at super-speed through the streets of Virtual Steelport. The Boss can set him/herself on fire to immolate everyone around him/her, or freeze everyone solid, or send out powerful shockwaves.
The upshot of this is that, to some extent, the old Saints Row gameplay of driving around and shooting at things has become a bit passé. Why drive around in a car when you can sprint through the streets like Superman, bashing vehicles out of your way? Why carefully map out a route through roads and alleys when you can run up walls and leap buildings? Honestly, it’s starting to sound less Saints Row and more Prototype. No bad thing, necessarily, but certainly different to the Saints Row I’m used to.
Of course, I have no idea how much of the game is made up of this superpowered tomfoolery. Volition are still tight-lipped about how the Boss becomes the Commander-in-Chief, so it’s possible that the superpowered virtual reality is only one part of the game – although considering the focus given to it in what’s on show, it’s possibly a sizeable part. The other thing that makes me think/hope this is that this plot was essentially what was meant to happen in the cancelled Saints Row: The Third DLC, Enter the Dominatrix. We were told, back then, that this had been rolled into Saints Row 4, but Saints Row 4 wouldn’t just be an expanded version of that DLC. When it comes to superpowers and making vehicles pointless, pacing is going to be important. I guess we’ll see.
On the plus side, most of what I’ve seen looks very Saints Row. I called the aliens Star Trek rejects above, and for once I carefully chose those words – they’re humanoid in appearance, with silly foreheads. (Well, the early ones that I’ve seen are, at least.) This means that you can still kick them in the nuts, and takedowns are still ridiculous and are still based on human physiology. There are all sorts of insane weapons like the dubstep gun (which kills with sound) and the inflator ray (which inflates the targeted body part). I’d be very surprised if the usual side-missions don’t make a welcome reappearance; we know that Professor Genki will be back in, and I’m eager to see what violent insanity he’s got cooked up for us this time. The traversal superpowers might make it look more like a superhero game than a GTA game, but that doesn’t mean anything else has changed.
Superpowers aside, there are some other neat additions. There are still multiple voice options, including another silly one akin to Saints Row: The Third‘s Zombie voice. Vehicles can still be customised and upgraded as you like. Guns are now cosmetically customisable too: you can pick a different model and then apply different skins to that model. You can turn your machine gun into a neon Super-Soaker, or make your rocket launcher into a Desperado-inspired gold-plated guitar case
That’s fluff, though; Saints Row 4 really need two things to match up to the glorious heights of Saints Row 2. The first is the one thing Saints Row: The Third was roundly criticised for, and that’s variety; where the third game had less in the way of variety in both side and main missions, the second was packed with a variety of different things to do and this made it a world jam-packed with stuff to do.
The second is pacing. With superpowers taking the place of vehicles and with the Boss potentially becoming a smidge overpowered, everything needs to be doled out very, very carefully in order to maintain amusement. Freeing a game of limitations is fine, but boundless sandboxes tend to get boring within a few hours, and Saints Row 4 looks to be pushing this series’ bounds even further out. It’s the difference between a tough-but-fair shooter, and a shooter with God Mode and Infinite Ammo enabled; the latter’s fun for a little while, but quickly gets dull, and right now there’s no way of knowing how the powers and abilities of Saints Row 4 are balanced and dished out.
In food terms, Saints Row 2 was a buffet, while Saints Row: The Third was a big sack of Pic’n’Mix. Where Saints Row 2 was divergent and filling, The Third was a sweet and enjoyable experience that didn’t have that much in the way of staying power. I loved it, but not as much as its predecessor. We’ll have to wait until 20 August to find out which one Saints Row 4 is taking its inspiration from.