What’s better than holding sway over an entire city and turning your street gang into a worldwide cultural icon? Why, being the President of the United States, of course! That’s the central theme of Volition’s upcoming Saint’s Row IV, in which the Boss and the Third Street Saints become the world’s most hedonistic Presidential cabinet since Franklin Pierce drank his way through his term. Originally conceived as a downloadable expansion for Saint’s Row: The Third, the game has since been turned into a full release title simply because no add-on could contain the experience’s larger and more outrageous vision. With the game more than a month away, Volition and Deep Silver are showing off a new preview build that presents a small portion of the virtual reality madness players can expect. The demo differs from the one shown at PAX East, depicting what appears to be the first hour of the game. Set five years after Saints Row: The Third, Commander Cyrus Temple and his S.T.A.G. goons are threatening a retaliatory strike against the Third Street Saints. Armed to the teeth (and wearing a Crysis-esque super suit), the Boss, Shaundi, Pierce, Kinzie and a few other familiar faces take it upon themselves to stop his madness by attacking him directly in a mission reminiscent of Tom Clancy-style third-person action games. The Boss and Cyrus duke it out and with his last ounce of strength, the former military leader launches a nuke at Washington, D.C. Up until this point, I was noticeably worried. Where was the humor? Why hasn’t the game gone “off the rails” yet? My fears were allayed in the best way possible: after defeating Cyrus, the Boss slides down a ramp, jumps onto the missile and begins dismantling it in the air as Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” blasts through my speakers. With the missile successfully deflected, the Boss crashes into the Oval Office and kicks his/her feet up on the most powerful desk in the world.
Saints Row IV barely tips its hand as to what the player can expect from being President. En route to a press conference, Vice President Keith David wants you to decide which bill, cure cancer or end world hunger, should be passed. Other than an acknowledgement from the VP, the effect of this decision and the ramifications of punching a lobbyist in the head or below the belt are not made readily apparent. What ripple effects will these decisions cause? Or are these moments nothing more than goofy vignettes? The game doesn’t say. Unfortunately for the Boss and the Saints, the blissful presidential life is interrupted by an alien invasion from the Zin Empire. After a massive firefight in the White House that climaxes with the Boss shooting down alien ships in a “‘Murica”-branded anti-air cannon, The Boss is captured by the alien leader ZInyak and exiled into a computer simulated world designed after a 1960s family sitcom.
With Kinzie’s help, it’s not long before the Boss is able to break out of “Leave It To Beaver,” only to be captured again by Zinyak. Threatening to destroy the Earth if he/she doesn’t play nice, the Boss is sent into a digital Steelport, a red-tinged world filled with pro-Zin propaganda. With Kinzie taking on the role of Morpheus, she grants the player a series of upgradeable powers. Only three were made available for the preview: freeze blast, super sprint and super jump. Being able to run and jump like Superman brings a whole new gameplay dynamic to the Saints Row experience. Essentially, there’s absolutely no reason to use vehicles outside of player desire or Activities when super sprint can take you from one area of the city to another in moments. These powers can be boosted by collecting the appropriate number of Data Clusters to increase the duration of your sprint, increase jump height and even run on walls. What I really enjoyed most about sprinting was running against traffic and watching with glee as cars are shoved to one side by sheer force. Sprinting also makes the the Fraud Activity exponentially more fun!
Getting down to business, the Boss’ task in this simulated world is to disrupt the system’s programming by eliminating the presence of the Zin. These soldiers tend to congregate around hotspots that can be destroyed along with capturing towers and taking out shielded control stations. Despite the alien flair, these actions are essentially the territory control side missions from Saints Row: The Third. These gameplay tasks left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Despite the presence of wild, game breaking abilities, much of the game felt a little too similar to the last game. Character customization (which now includes a very special voice option), the weapon wheel and accepting missions all play out the same way they did before, only flashier in order to accommodate the game’s new aesthetic. Speaking of which, I really like what Volition has done to visually separate this Steelport from the “real” one. Close examination of the Virtual Steelport’s buildings reveals scrolling alien computer code running just underneath the textures. Furthermore, cops can “spawn” in during heated gun fights through floating orange orbs. Vehicles have been given a futuristic redesign as well and look sharply designed.
As I reached the end of the preview for Saints Row IV, my concerns over “sameness” was assuaged by a dramatic 180 degree turn as Kinzie leads the Boss out of virtual Steelport and into the real world, which is actually the belly of a Zin starship filled with the pink biochambers used by the Machines in the Wachowski brother’s film (sensing a theme by now?). After a daring escape and a dramatic call to return to Earth and stop Zinyak, these final moments got me excited for the potential and possibilities of a really unique Saints Row game that goes beyond a grandiose Matrix parody.
Saints Row IV will be available for PC, Xbox and PlayStation 3 on August 20th.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.