PAX Prime 2014: Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell is a Damn Good Time

Traversal is the single most important element of any sandbox game. From the grappling hook in Just Cause 2, to the neon dash in inFAMOUS: Second Son, to Franklin’s slo-mo power in GTA V, having a fun way to get around a game’s world elevates the whole experience. Conversely, sloppy or boring traversal systems – like the ice-driving in WATCH_DOGS or the awful bike in No More Heroes – can make a whole game feel like a chore, no matter how fun it is when you get where you’re going. The Saints Row franchise has thus far excelled in giving you plenty to do around the city of Steelport, but it’s never really nailed traversal. Driving in the games feels solid, sure, but it’s by-and-large dull. Saints Row IV introduced superpowers to the mix, some of which allowed you to zip around the city, but it still placed an emphasis on driving.

Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell, a standalone expansion for SRIV in the vein of Far Cry: Blood Dragon or inFAMOUS: First Light, is the first game in the series to break that mold. When the President of the United States and God Emperor for Life is sucked into a portal to Hell by Satan (who wants him to marry his daughter, Jezebel), Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington dive in after him. On the other side Johnny is imbued with demonic energy, which gives him all sorts of supernatural powers and – more importantly – a sick pair of demon wings. No longer shackled to a steering wheel, Gat is free to soar around Hell, wreaking havoc in an effort to piss off Satan.

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I can’t really overstate how good flight feels in Gat Out of Hell. Johnny moves fast, but not so fast that you ever lose control of him. The physics that govern the flight mechanics are intuitive, and within seconds of picking the game up you’ll be swooping and banking like it’s second nature. The ability to run at super-speeds – even up walls – helps to smooth out collisions, allowing you to course-correct with ease. That said, it’ll take plenty of time to master the system, and there are flight challenges throughout Hell that will really tax your abilities.

Hell itself has been designed from the ground down with flight in mind, divided up into four islands of towering obsidian skyscrapers, separated by a lake of fire. Compared to Steelport, the underworld has a very vertical design. Ledges stick out from nearly every building, and the supernatural landscape allows for physics-defying geography like floating islands and buildings. Though the map is roughly a quarter the size of Saints Row IV, this verticality allows for content to be layered more densely. You still shouldn’t expect nearly the same amount of content you’d see in a full-priced Saints game, but you might be surprised by how much Volition have packed in here.

Many fan-favorite activities from previous games have been brought back for Gat Out of Hell, albeit with some satanic twists. Rampage missions are still a core part of the game, though you’ll be fighting demons, warlocks, and succubi instead of soldiers and aliens. Insurance fraud returns as well, though instead of earning money (which isn’t particularly valuable in hell), you help damned souls to shave years off their sentences by… well, by putting them through Hell. It’s all full of the tongue-in-cheek humor you’d expect of Saints Row, but Gat Out of Hell brings some new ideas to the table as well. On top of flight challenges, there are territorial missions that see Johnny fighting through demonic hordes and taking down arch demons to capture waypoints. Doing so unlocks each waypoint for fast travel.

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Combat is as tight and frenetic as you’d expect of the Saints Row series, but the weapons you’ll use are crazier than ever before. Forget dubstep guns, Johnny and Kinzie can take on the forces of Hell with biblical plagues, like an SMG that shoots swarms of locusts, or a grenade launcher that lobs frogs. Additionally, there are seven legendary weapons in the game based on the seven deadly sins. In the demo at PAX, I got to try out slot, an armchair that shoots enemies for you and launches homing rockets whenever it reclines. It was a lot of fun to zip around mowing down enemies with a recliner, and I expect the rest of the sin weapons will be just as crazy. On top of guns, Johnny has access to a suite of Demonic powers, including the ability to summon exploding imps and a powerful energy attack that can be fired from the air.

Hell might not be the biggest venue the Third Street Saints have ever played, but it’s far and away the most enjoyable to explore. There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied around the main map, and plenty of surprises waiting as Gat’s battle against Satan progresses, but getting to these things is more than half the fun. With Gat Out of Hell, Volition have gotten one more sandbox fundamental right, and are on track to deliver one of the craziest, most enjoyable Saints Row games yet.