When Volition's Saints Row franchise debuted on the Xbox 360 in 2006, it was seen by many as inspired by Grand Theft Auto 3, albeit with a bit more humor. Saints Row 2 turned up the heat, offering an experience that was bigger and better all around. Saints Row the Third cranked the insanity up to 11, focusing on the humor and absurdity of it all. While some moments worked amazingly well (Kanye West's "Power" will forever be linked with that game), the overall pace of Saints Row the Third suffered somewhat because of the overall craziness. Now, with Saints Row IV, Volition is trying to one-up itself once again.
We sat down to play an extended preview build of the game that offered up the open-world city of Steelport as well as a handful of the story missions. Exploring the city was fun, and all of the individual elements of a Saints Row game were in place, but in those early missions, it never really felt like a Saints Row game. Instead, it's something different.
Much like the previous game, Saints Row IV opens with a stand-alone mission that is designed to introduce the characters. A crack commando team out to eliminate a terrorist cell, the introduction feels like a rehashed version of The Third's opening. You start out by fighting your way through tight corridors before heading outside, but this time, you're going up (instead of down) while dodging debris.
Oddly enough, what stood out the most wasn't the gameplay, but rather the content of the mission. The Saints Row franchise has never been afraid of crass humor, but it was difficult to shake the feeling that the developers had crossed the line from humor to simple offensiveness. The terrorists in that first level were stereotypical Arabs, taken to an extreme — complete with graffiti indicating that they're Islamists reveling in any chance to kill Westerners. At the same time, they watch porn and keep score with a murder list.
It made it seem like Volition was trying too hard, much like a stand-up comedian who resorts to offending his audience because the jokes are falling flat. Emphasizing the point of Arabs as outsiders was the fact that right after killing all the Arabs, you can create your custom character, and there is no default Arab ethnicity.
Once past that initial cognitive dissonance, Saints Row IV offers the same customization options found in The Third. When it comes to creating your ideal character, you're really only limited by time. As expected, there are multiple voices to choose from, though they're not very generic. One of those voices is video game voice actor Nolan North, and it's labeled as such in the menu. Design your character right, and you can tear through virtual Steelport as a badass Nathan Drake. After character creation is done, there's another structured story level, and then the game dumps you into the open world. It's here that Saints Row IV starts to show off its differences.
Soon after landing in the virtual Steelport, you'll start collecting upgrades to unlock your super powers. Before you know it, you're running faster than the Flash, jumping like Neo from "The Matrix," and flying through the sky like a low-rent version of Superman. It's the powers that really change the feel of the game, with Saints Row IV feeling more like a new Crackdown game than another entry in the Saints franchise.
With the change in feel comes a new take on the city. When you can leap over buildings, exploring the city with vertical movement quickly becomes second nature. Super-speed means that, at least in the early part of the game, guns are complete overkill unless you're fighting a mini-boss. For most enemies, it is faster and easier to simply run up to each one and take them out with one-hit kills. In a crowd, it is possible to bounce from one to another, chaining your kills in a natural manner. Since every enemy drops health, the "in your face" aggressiveness is encouraged by the game.
As you gain experience and complete missions, new abilities and powers are unlocked. The specific abilities differ a bit from The Third, but the method of unlocking and purchasing upgrades remains the same. Other elements have been streamlined. For example, instead of bringing cars back to your garage to store them, you now just "scan" a car to digitally store an image that can be recalled for use at any time. Stores are player-owned from the start.
Activities also make a reappearance, with old favorites mixed in with new experiences. These run the gamut from a telekinetic version of color matching to racing though the world on foot, trying to beat the clock. Co-op is also here, should you wish to play with a friend, locally via system link or online via Xbox Live.
Though the game allowed us free reign in virtual Steelport, we pressed on with the story missions to find the rest of the gang. With Kinzie's help, we were able to escape the Matrix-like prison and emerge (complete with pixelated naughty bits) onto an alien ship. This was a simple "KILL ALL THE THINGS" mission, leading up to a reunion of old friends and a space escape.
It was right at the reunion point when Saints Row IV started to feel like it was hitting its stride. Rather than being forced, the dry humor of the character interactions was allowed to shine. And the epic music choices of The Third were back in full force. Think back to the escape from the alien mothership in "Independence Day." Now, toss in a quick reference to "Star Wars," blast Haddaway's "What is Love" over the background, and you have an idea of what it felt like to play that segment.
And just when things were getting good, the preview hit its end. They say it's always good to go out on a high note, and the Saints Row IV preview did just that.
Although Saints Row IV was slow to start, we're cautiously optimistic that it'll impress when the final version drops in August.
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