Saints Row IV plans to go big on absolutely everything, and make its predecessors feel tame in comparison. But after the guided demonstration came to an end, we just had to know more about the super-powered sandbox.
Luckily, Saints Row Design Director Scott Phillips was on hand and eager to discuss his forthcoming fun factory. Over the course of fifteen minutes, I learned about the new abilities, presidential pursuits, multiplayer, upgrades, the new virtual city, and what it was like to be stuck in the middle of THQ's bankruptcy. If you're keen to find out more about Saints Row IV, you need look no further.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Thanks for talking to us, Scott. We'll get to the juicy new Saints Row IV details in a minute, but beforehand, I was wondering what it was like to be on the inside of THQ's collapse. Was it a scary time for you guys?
Scott Phillips (Volition): It was definitely weird, absolutely. It was scary to find out right before Christmas that your company was going bankrupt, but in the end we knew that Volition is a strong studio with a strong franchise, so we were pretty confident that we would survive no matter what the outcome. In the end, we knew THQ had been in trouble for several years. The month when Saints Row: The Third came out, THQ lost $100 million dollars on uDraw, and they never recovered from that. They were struggling to try and keep the studios going.
Jason Rubin came in over a year later and really tried to turn things around. I think he had a good plan, but the bankruptcy didn't work out for him.
Dealspwn: It was a pretty bold move.
Scott Phillips: I don't know much about business, but it seemed like a ballsy thing to do to take us bankrupt and try to get us bought by an investment group. Obviously now in hindsight I bet he wishes he'd tried something different, but we were purchased by Deep Silver in the auction and very quickly, Klemens [Kundratitz], the CEO, came down to Champaign and met with us - the whole studio - answered every question we had. It was nice to see them come out really quickly... there was a lot of unease before the bankruptcy, people didn't know what was going to happen. Since then, they've been very nice to us, they've allowed us to work on Saints Row IV without trying to assert themselves in the process, we don't have time changes etc.
Dealspwn: So it's a match made in heaven, then?
Scott Phillips: So far, yeah, it's working out really well for us.
Dealspwn: Good to hear. So, let's get onto Saints Row IV proper. There has been some call for Saints Row to lose some of its more ridiculous and OTT elements...
Scott Phillips: Clearly we're not doing that! [laughs] I disagree with the idea that "all games need to be the same, " or "everything needs to be serious." There are lots of genres of movies for a reason, lots of genres of books and TV shows. People don't always want the same thing. Sometimes they just want a release. That's what our game is: it's just there to be fun, it's a guilty pleasure game that when you've had a bad day and want to kick the shit out of something, Saints Row is the game you play.
Dealspwn: Or, indeed, freeze something, burn something, run something over... right, time to get down to brass tacks. You seem to have taken everything in Saints Row: The Third to its illogical conclusion, and players are now the President of the United States. What new opportunities does that provide?
Scott Phillips: We're not really going to go into details about how you become the president, it happens in the very early part of the game. But once you become the president, you make some changes to the White House... things the Saints would do...
Dealspwn: Subtle things, then.
Scott Phillips: Oh yeah, very very subtle things. They're very classy. There's some gameplay with being the president in the beginning of the game. We struggled with, "what the hell does a politician do that's going to be as fun as picking someone up with your mind and throwing them halfway across the city?" So we really focused down on a couple of moments to make you feel presidential. But in terms of why you're even the president, it felt like a logical step. You were the gang leader in Saints Row 2, it felt like, from the end of The Third when you could choose to be a hardcore gangster or more of a celebrity, we wanted to take another leap of "where would this go?" And not just like a baby step, let's go big. Yes, that's absurd, but people are going to want to play that.
Dealspwn: Okay, speaking of "going big," we have superpowers now. So, that's happening. Could you talk about some of the new abilities and how they affect gameplay?
Scott Phillips: Sure! You obviously have super movement so you can sprint faster than cars, you can jump higher than the tallest buildings, you can climb them by leaping or running up them. In addition to movement, you also have offensive superpowers. The two we showed today were freeze blast, which is an area of effect that freezes everyone and every car and everything in the area that it hits. You can then run up and shatter people and they'll shatter, push things into them, shoot them, it's a really nice stop to combat. When you've got a lot of enemies and you want to stop them from attacking you, you just freeze them all.
Then there's telekinesis, which is my personal favourite. Basically you'll pick up any object, vehicle or person in the city and toss it anywhere. One of my favourite things to do for letting off steam is grabbing a pedestrian from the side of the road, ramming them into a building, ramming them into the building again, ramming them over and over again... it's just a really nice relief.
We've got many more that we're going to announce over the coming months, and a lot of variety.
Dealspwn: So will there be a progression or upgrade system for superpowers? Especially traversal: why would we want to use cars when we could run faster than sound?
Scott Phillips: Yeah. You'll get the sprint and jump fairly quick, but at a fairly low level. You won't be able to jump anywhere near as high as we showed in the demo. As you go around the city and collect... collectibles... that's your currency to be able to upgrade your powers. You'll need to explore the city in order to get more superpowers. Eventually you'll be able to jump taller than buildings and sprint faster than cars, but you definitely can't do it right away.
There'll also get more superpowers, that you'll receive over the course of the game, and collect by doing optional gameplay or additional events.
Dealspwn: Again, speaking of events, there was a Mech suit in that presentation. We like mechs. This was apparently one of the new retooled events that Saints Row IV will bring to the table, so what sort of extra-curricular pursuits can we expect?
Scott Phillips: So, Mech Suit Mayhem was a take on, in the last game we had Tank Mayhem, so we wanted to take the next logical step. You'll also get the mech suit later in the game, you'll be able to stomp around and have some fun with it.
We've got a lot of new activities that are focused on the superpowers, you know, getting you more skilled with them. There's various races, jumping activities. There are also alien things in the world: giant towers you'll want to climb, alien structures you'll need to destroy in order to take over the city. The culmination of all that is the battle arena, in which you'll face off against multiple superpowered enemies, using their superpowers against your superpowers. So it's a really great training scenario. Within that, you'll get to see old characters from past Saints Rows.
Dealspwn: Which brings us nicely onto the subject of the aliens. Apparently we'll be running around a virtual simulation of Steelport - what does that involve?
Scott Phillips: So, the aliens kidnap the player and a whole bunch of his friends, and put them all into simulations. So this is sort of a simulation, but there are also other areas you go to, and other people you recover from their own simulations which are sort of nightmares, so the player's nightmare is this city that has been invaded by the Zin. The city is a computer system, and that's how we give you the superpowers, because you can break the rules, it will let you do what you want to do.
Dealspwn: And it will let us brutalise pedestrians with no sense of remorse or guilt whatsoever...
Scott Phillips: [Laughs] If you had any remorse previously, there's none now!
Dealspwn: So now that we have all these superpowers, how has that affected Steelport's design? Is it any bigger or more vertical?
Scott Phillips: Two-dimensionally, the city is not any bigger than it was in Saints Row: The Third. It's that third dimension, the vertical, that we've made a lot of changes to in terms of bringing in the alien towers that have platforms all over the city to assist with navigation, or to just explore. Then there's other alien structures tied into gameplay. When you need to upgrade your superpowers, it's all about travelling about the city and discovering new locations, there's a lot of stuff bringing that third dimension into gameplay which we didn't really have in Saints Row 3.
Dealspwn: How dynamic is the city? Will it radically change depending on your actions?
Scott Phillips: It definitely lends itself towards being a playground, where the player is pushing the narrative forward. It's not as if the world does things on its own... I mean, there are systems that will trigger and do different things for you within the city, so you're not always going to be seeing the same stuff. But the main way that you interact with the city is by taking it over, and as you do that the city will change, the colours will change, you'll see more glitching so different characters will look weirder and there'll be new stuff to explore. It's more about doing gameplay within the city in order to change it, so as you start gliding around the city after taking it over, you'll be able to see the areas you've taken over because it looks different.
Dealspwn: How difficult is to balance the superpowers with the core Saints Row gameplay, such as the driving and gunplay?
Scott Phillips: What we found was, at the beginning of the game, your superpowers are not all that super. You'll still need to use cars a little bit. But pretty quickly you'll be able to transition fully to superpowers if you want to, which is what we found most players will do. Logically, if you can jump over a building, why wouldn't you?
But we've still got all the vehicles that we've had in the past games. There's helicopters, boats, cars, airplanes, all that sort of stuff. There's all that variety, and we use that in some of the missions, but primarily in the city you're going to want to traverse with your superpowers.
Dealspwn: I could see this lending itself to some crazy multiplayer shenanigans.
Scott Phillips: We've got the same from Saints Row: The Third. We've got the two-player co-op, and that's our primary area of focus because we wanted to make the main exploration gameplay, the main city and the main open world gameplay something that's always rewarding for both players. Anything you do in co-op with your friend is carried back to your game, so you're not wasting any time by playing with them. You're actually making yourself better. You can jump forward and play certain missions with them, or they can jump in with you, play early missions and bring in their high powered upgraded character to help you out.
Dealspwn: Sounds good. Customisation has always been one of the most compelling aspects of the Saints Row experience for many playes. How do you plan on kicking that up a notch?
Scott Phillips: So the major thing we've added with customisation is the weapon costumes. You can roleplay with your character and now you can roleplay with your weapon. A lot of our weapons have Wild West versions or futuristic Sci-Fi versions, so you can make your character look like something you've seen in a TV show or movie, and then you can empower them with a weapon. Our main goal was to let the player look how they want to look and play how they want to play.
The upgrade system has also been improved to be more granular, in that you can upgrade specific things. You can spend your money making the RPG more damaging, you can do that, whereas in Saints Row: The Third you couldn't do that. There are also Ultimate Upgrades that brings crazy new functionality to all of the weapons. There's a lot of stuff you can do just within the weapons to make them more powerful.
Beyond that, it's all about assets. It's all about the amount of stuff you have. So there are more weapons, more costumes, more vehicles, just more stuff for you to play with.
Dealspwn: What lessons did you learn and take away from Saints Row: The Third?
Scott Phillips: We felt like people really enjoyed the direction, and felt it was a breath of fresh air. It was a game that didn't take itself as seriously as a lot of other games out there. We were focused on making it fun. Beyond that, it was nice hearing people say, "I'm really glad that this game is fun and you've got crazy stuff going on, but we love it." That sort of feedback was fantastic and we wanted to push forward in Saints Row IV.
Dealspwn: [Glances at gesticulating PR rep] I think we're running out of time, but we'll end with a question that we love to ask developers. Mainly because we're usually shocked by the answer. What, that you can tell us about - or better yet, can't tell us about - is the most awesome, badass and ridiculous thing players can do in Saints Row IV?
Scott Phillips: It's kind of silly, but my favourite thing is to pick someone up with [telekinesis], smash them into a wall, and then grab their body and start rolling it along the street. It creates blood decals, so there's blood all over the street and you can start painting with it. It's kinda dark, but in practice it's actually hilarious. It's a simulation!
Dealspwn: We might see players collaborating on disgusting blood murals, then...
Scott Phillips: Exactly, it's just good clean fun!
Saints Row IV is set to release on August 23rd for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. More details available in our Saints Row IV preview.