The Saints Row series might have a new publisher, but you wouldn’t be able to tell after watching the gameplay demonstration for Saints Row IV we received at PAX. Everything about the demonstration felt like classic, crazy Saints Row from the beginning, most likely because the change in publisher did not result with a change to the development studio responsible for the series. Volition is still in charge and ready to bring a whole new level of off the wall absurdity to the newest title in the series. In a class of samey, generic shooters, the Saints Row series has always been that crazy kid sitting in the corner, eating paste and screaming about aliens. The developers knew that this is the precise reason people love these games so much, and this next installment looks to amp up both the huge sandbox and crazy, borderline absurd gameplay.
The big trend in shooters for the past decade or so has been to focus on making the games feel as realistic as possible, putting you in real world type environments and providing you with an arsenal of actual guns. Saints Row 4 laughs at realism, and knows that any time spent in realistic gunplay is time you could spend slapping on a purple thong and pelvic thrusting into the face of enemies and common sense. Instead, Saints Row IV prefers to provide you with incredibly unique and wonderfully bizarre weapons like the Dubstep Gun before howling like a maniac and throwing you right into the action. “What is a Dubstep Gun?” you might ask the game, to which the game will respond with, “WUBWUBWUBWUBWUBWUBWUBWUB GET OUT THERE WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN YET?” The Dubstep Gun sends out all dubstep wub wubs you can handle, and it forces those in its target range to bust out their sweetest dance moves and cars to immediately start operating their hydraulics. It is absolutely insane and I need to get my hands on one immediately (in the game of course). Early previews have also shown off an Inflate-O-Ray, which causes an enemy’s head and eyes to balloon to cartoonish proportions before exploding in a rain of blood and guts. Every shooting game ever has pistols. None of them have anything like this, and it is the pure absurdity combined with an unparallelled entertainment value that has always made the Saints Row series an absolute must play.
Another huge selling point for Saints Row has been the insane level of customization the game allows. Why would anyone want to take control of a generic soldier in combat fatigues when you can play as a man in a hot dog suit running around with a chainsaw? Saints Row 4 looks to take this customization even further, and for the first time will allow guns to be modified to a level that is almost unprecedented in all of gaming. We’re not talking about putting on a little racing stripe or shiny decal on the side of your weapon, but unleashing the entire power of your imagination. Saints Row: The Third introduced weapon upgrades, which is something this game will keep. Guns can be given upgrades for more damage or ammo, but in the past there was no way to change the guns superficially. “BUT I WANT MY ROCKET LAUNCHER TO BE A GUITAR CASE!” I would shout. And since the developers of Saints Row always listen to any psychopath that sends them a note scrawled out in blood, this time you can do just that. The gun will work exactly the same and all upgrades that you apply to it will be carried over to the variants, but it just allows for that extra little bit of customization that will further make the character your own.
Activities, which are essentially Saints Row’s take on minigames, are returning but with a bit of a twist. While some old favorites will be coming back, Saints Row IV will also offer a bevy of new ones that look to be bigger and better than anything offered previously. And because it wouldn’t be Saints Row if they didn’t try to outdo the crazy in the last game, one of the new minigames has you piloting a mech suit with miniguns and rocket launchers. Some of the returning activities have been modified so they don’t feel entirely like retreads from the previous game, and all activities in this game will now have various completion levels. You can get scored as bronze, silver, or gold depending on your performance, giving you a reason to go back and try and improve your previous runs. Performing well will help to unlock various upgrades and extra content, one of which appears to be the mech suit itself, allowing you to use it outside of the activities to just run around and terrorize the city to your heart’s content.
I held back on talking about the story until now, because without the proper frame of crazy it sounds like the ramblings of someone suffering from paranoid delusions and Tourette’s. The leader of the Saints is now the president of the United States and he and his fellow Saints (who are members in his presidential cabinet, of course) have all been abducted by an alien race known as the Zin. Sure, this might sound like the plot was cobbled together using a Mad Libs book, but honestly when your game has a Dubstep Gun and a rocket launcher guitar case, you can’t really have a story showing the gritty realities of a war zone. Aliens capturing the president, however, sounds like it should fit just about perfectly. Unfortunately, aliens kidnapping the leader of the Saints/president of the USA, while weird, doesn’t quite reach the levels of bonkers yahoo crazy that the developers were going for. So, to top it off, this time around you have super powers and are inserted into a computer simulation program by the Zin. The game is divided into both real world and simulation sessions, and the simulation sessions themselves are further differentiated depending on which of your cabinet members the simulation belongs to. Super powers only work in the simulation world, because obviously if they worked in the real world it would just be silly.
The addition of super powers is really somewhat bizarre, even for the next game in a series that pretty much sets the gold standard for bizarre. It feels more like the developers were like “hey, super powers are awesome, let’s put those in too” and the story people were left to work it in however they wanted later. However, early returns look extremely promising and the variety of super powers they’ve added should add even more variety to the gameplay. In the gameplay session we sat through, they actually demoed a decent amount of super powers that will be used in the game, but by no means is this meant to be the final tally. The blast power allows you to freeze your foes in a case of ice and then shatter them into thousands of pieces if you are feeling particularly vicious, while telekinesis allows you to pick up people and objects and just fling them where ever you want. Other common super powers like flight and super speed are also available, but I’m sure there will be a whole slew of bizarre and wacky ones that they just haven’t revealed yet.
The map in Saints Row IV appears to be largely the same as what was offered in Saints Row: The Third. The focus was not on expanding the map horizontally, so the boundaries will largely be the same. Instead, due to the new powers the game is letting you play around with, the map has been expanded vertically. Gameplay is being tied to various alien towers floating around, and the developers are counting on the new exploration to keep the experience fresh and feeling new. Instead of just driving around on the grid, the game wants you flying, leaping, and crashing down on things vertically and diagonally, with the new layers of depth giving you so much more to explore and do. There seems to be a lot of shared geography from the third game, but you are exploring areas that you weren’t able to get to in the previous game. Furthermore, you will be looking at a lot of variants of the same map, giving you even more to look through and explore. There is the real world map, and then the simulation based version of the map which will be different for each member of your cabinet. We will withhold final judgment until we actually get the game into our hands, but the fact that you can explore whole new swaths of the city that were inaccessible in the third game helps support their claims that this won’t just feel like Saints Row: The Third Point Five.
The multiplayer component has also been tweaked a bit as well, building upon what was offered in the previous titles. The co-op gameplay is still there, and allows for quick and easy jump in and jump out action that fits into the fast pace of the game. Competitive modes are present as well, including the return of the cat and mouse mode from the last game and a modified version of death tag from the second title. While similar to the previous version of death tag, Saints Row IV will integrate the use of super powers and give each of the players one super power before sending them off to fight each other. How deep the combat will be remains to be seen, but wailing on friends with super powers is the kind of stuff that dream games are made of.
The Saints Row series has always been about customization and continuous, non-stop, crazy fun and Saints Row 4 looks to take the already high bar set by the third game and fly off with it yelling in deranged gibberish. This was without a doubt the most insane game at PAX, but it was also one of the most interesting as well. It looked hard to top what was offered in Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, but this looks to do so with ease, adding new levels of customization and gameplay that we never would’ve expected. Giant mechs and Dubstep Guns? Aliens and super powered presidents? Why can’t we play this yet? The game is currently slated for an August 20 release date in the US and August 23 almost everywhere else, but that date can’t come soon enough. Feel free to check out the launch trailer below and marvel in its insanity. We’ll be busy trying to design our own Dubstep Gun.