Developers: Volition Inc.
Publishers: Deep Silver
Why is The Boss now President of the United States? Why does he find himself trapped within a virtual version of Steelport reminiscent of The Matrix? Where did these B-movie aliens and their impeccable English accents come from? Do I punch a guy in the balls or in the head for being a git? These are all questions that my hands-on time with the E3 demo for Saints Row IV threw up, and for the most part, they're all questions that I ignored.
We loved Prototype, as much as you can love a game that has The Most Bland Protagonist Ever Created as its central character. But it was the sandbox freedom that we enjoyed, helping along to no small extent by creating fantastic traversal systems and plenty of fun mechanics and powers to play (murder people) with. New York was reliably boring, but that didn't matter so much to us when we were whipping apaches out of the sky with tentacles and beating tanks into submission with their own turrets. Radical Entertainment gave us a whole bunch of fun tools and told us to go play with them.
It's an approach that Volition took to heart with Saints Row: The Third, to mixed reactions. Some embraced the silliness; others lamented that the series hadn't iterated more on the choice-laden empire building of Saints Row 2. For my part, I heartily enjoyed both games, but for admittedly different reasons.
One thing is for certain, if you found Saints Row 3 too silly for your liking, it might be best if you look away now.
The demo I played for about an hour had us start off in the White Crib at the top of chapter two. For some reason the Saints are now running the US of A, you are, as the Boss, now Mr. President, and the White House has been transformed into a den of purple decadence, where semi-naked dancers drift about, policies are rather sweatily issued, and a tiger roams the corridors.
Then aliens invade, just because as far we can tell. In true Star Trek fashion they speak the finest Queen's English, and look like burly humans wearing prosthetics on their heads. This last point is important it means later on you'll be ale to punch them in the nuts. Immensely powerful and strong, they swiftly begin enslaving humans, tossing returning series stalwarts about with telekinetic powers, and generally being a nuisance.
Being the President, naturally you retreat to the Oval Office, whip out more weaponry than an army could carry, and start busting caps. Then you leap into a star-spangled gun turret and start single-handedly blowing the alien fleet out of your skies before eventually being overwhelmed by their leader and waking up in a virtual recreation of Steelport, armed with superpowers.
And a dub step gun.
It's at this point that the traditional Saints Row gameplay goes completely out of the window. You can jump higher than skyscrapers and glide about with merry abandon. You can run faster than most cars and if you meet any traffic, your momentum will send it flying. You have a gun that can create black holes out of thin air, sucking enemies and cars and innocent street lamps into a dark void of nothingness. You can inflate people's heads to bursting point and slice others up with a laser katana.
And then there's the dub step cannon.
I spent my first five minutes resolutely forcing pedestrians to bust shapes, cars sprouted massive hydraulics instantly, beams issuing forth from my enormous firearm. But although it looks funny, made me giggle a bit, and kept me entertained for the short term, it didn't have much of an impact. For a weapon with enormous aesthetic spread, it's ironically quiet a precise, underpowered gun.
Expanded out, it becomes a metaphor for the game as a whole, as much as I could tell from my limited time with it. There's a lot of style here, plenty to keep folks amused as you dip in and out of the game in the short term, but there doesn't seem to be much substance. The narrative in Saints Row: The Third took a backseat, and that's fine; but there was little underneath the silliness. Given fresh and funky tools with which to interact with the world is one thing, but if you can't provide lasting context for them, their impact is rather quickly lost. That doesn't have to be through story, but rather good design, narrative or otherwise. Prototype fell down by having lazy mission structures and a fairly unimaginative setting. It's impossible to tell from a hour of mucking about (and it was pretty fun), but it is to be hoped that Volition have made being a superhero President worthwhile for longer than sixty minutes.
There were little quests to engage in, alien outposts to clear out, enemy comms towers that required some platforming skill to climb, glide, and wall run to the top. A little checkpoint race saw us frantically grabbing speed orbs to go from A to B in a set time, and there was a spot of Genki Ball fun to be had, using the Pres' telekinetic powers to hurl people, cars, and bobbing, gurning Genki balloons through colour-coded hoops. One of the reps informed us that atop one of the towers there was a witch's broom to be found, but we had to abandon our merrily rampant abuse of power shortly afterwards, resolving to find the artefact once the review code arrived later this year. These are all fun little bits and pieces, but as President you rather hope that they'll come together in some meaningful fashion and allow you to affect some serious change in the game world, change that we had no hint of in our demo.
That may have been the fault of the demo, though, as it arrived with the President fully buffed and outfitted with infinite amounts of everything. It allowed us to see the silly sandbox in all of it's ridiculous glory and I for one absolutely loved it, leaving proceedings with an enormous grin etched into my face. If you want big dumb fun, it doesn't really get more big or dumb or fun than this... If doing a 100m power slide through someone's legs for a photo-finish cock punch is your idea of fun, that is. Seriously, the super powered melee takedowns are hilariously over the top.
The reason I liked Saints Row: The Third is because actually, sometimes I really do want big dumb fun. I'd still love for Volition to make a follow-up along the lines of SR2, but its precisely because that game already exists that I'm able to enjoy something like this. However, in order for Saints Row IV to be more than just an occasional distraction, and become something great, it's going to need a little more context, more things to do, and more impact on your surroundings. Yes, I want my cake, and to eat it as well, but that's what Volition should be aiming for. Not just a silly sideshow, but a gloriously comedic main event extravaganza. Saints Row IV has the potential to be that game, but we'll need to see much more of it to be sure.