I've played Saints Row IV before. At E3 2013, I got the chance to spend a little time with the game, playing the demo they were showing off. Since it was a small vertical slice of the game made to show off the new Matrix-style super powers, your character was already jacked up and ready to go.
Honestly, it was kind of boring.
I enjoyed Saints Row: The Third immensely, but for some reason the E3 demo of its sequel did absolutely nothing for me. This is not only a problem with Saints Row IV, and it's been an issue with other titles I've previewed. Part of the magic of new abilities is the gradual accumulation of power; it gives contrast and make the new content look even better. So when I had the chance to preview Saints Row IV from the beginning, I decided to give the game another go.
Volition's crazy array of customization options for the Boss (now the President of the United States) continues to impress, with a few new items and costumes to spruce things up a bit. If you've played Saints Row: The Third, you may not even notice a difference. I skipped through this part of the game without spending my normal 45 minutes-worth of customization, eager to get to the meat of the game.
The opening to the game explains how you end up in an alien-controlled virtual environment. It's schizophrenic, hopping from style to style in each new scene. From the Conan-style opening shot, to the Ghost Recon-esque first mission, complete with slow-motion door breach maneuvers, overtly-jingoistic mission prompts like "kill terrorists", a few QTEs, and a tearful goodbye sequence over a certain popular Aerosmith song. I get the feeling that Volition is saying to other developers, "Yeah, we can do that, too. We just don’t want to."
Following that, the game begins to introduce you slowly to classic Saints Row gameplay, while setting up the larger battle against the alien Zin Empire. One can definitely see Saints Row IV's genesis as downloadable content for the previous game: outside of the new powers/weapons and some slight graphical improvements, I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two titles. But more of a good thing isn't bad, right?
You're not given all of your new powers from the outset. The first few missions leave you with the same abilities you've always had in Saints Row, familiarize you with the world, and teach you to search for data clusters, which act as currency for buying your superpowers. Through these missions, you're given the bread-and-butter powers: Super-Speed, Super-Jump, and Super-Strength. Collecting more data clusters allows you to buy upgrades for your powers, and most of these clusters are on rooftops.
I spent damn near an hour just jumping from rooftop to rooftop collecting clusters, ignoring most of the other missions. It was zen-like experience: run, jump, grab a cluster, scan the horizon, find another, repeat. Occasionally, my quest for clusters was interrupted by the police or Zin soldiers. These fights were fun, but for me, they were distractions in my overall quest for clusters. Sometimes I didn’t even bother with them, super-leaping away or stealing a nearby vehicle to make a hasty getaway. It all seemed very familiar to me.
And then it hit me that I was playing Saints Row IV like I played Crackdown.
If Saints Row is chocolate and Crackdown is peanut butter, then Saints Row IV is a delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
The crazy super-powers, the scaling of buildings to collect more widgets to make those super-powers stronger, the wanton disregard for the lives of the assorted citizenry; these are all things I loved in Crackdown. This is not a problem for me. Developers can come up with similar ideas just through the simple process of design and beyond that, I haven’t had a Crackdown game in three years. If someone else wants to reap the rewards of my love for super-powered carnage, then I’m certainly prepared to give them my money. The fact that this is all in a Saints Row game just means I’ve already given them my money before and felt good about it.
If Saints Row is chocolate and Crackdown is peanut butter, then Saints Row IV is a delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. It’s better because it’s two awesome things are in a single package.
The only problem I found in Saints Row IV is that your super-speed and super-jump make driving a vehicle completely unnecessary. Your top running speed is equal (or greater) than the speed of a car and while you’re in super-speed mode, you bowl over other cars and pedestrians. The only drawback is the stamina requirement. You won’t be able to run forever, but upgrades to the ability can lower the stamina cost. On bright side, you can save vehicles to your collection from anywhere and summon them whenever you feel like it.
Outside of the Crackdown-ness of it all, a number of Saints Row staples make their return in Saints Row IV, albeit with some tweaks. Virus missions have you defending a certain point for a period of time while waves of enemies converge on your position. Tank missions (now called UFO Mayhem) now have a Tron-style hover tank instead of the classic, green, military model. They’re the missions you’ve come to expect and understand in Saints Row: The Third with brand-new sci-fi themes.
There’s some new missions in the mix as well. Blazin’ has you racing through glowing checkpoints with your super-speed. There are also shielded hotspots around the city that require a multiple stage takedowns to finish. You begin by disabling a hotspot’s three shield generators, then take down the main tower. Once that’s done, a Warden enters the picture. The Wardens have super-powers just like you and require different techniques in order to take down, unlike the cops that you crush under your mighty fist with a mere punch. Finishing off a Warden awards you with a new power, like the Freeze Blast. The Blast is only one of a few elemental Blast powers and lets you freeze and shatter those who would speak against your Presidential proclivities.
So from one preview to the next, I’ve made a complete 180 on Saints Row IV, and I’m glad I got the chance to enjoy the game from the beginning. I'd count that as a win for Volition and Deep Silver. A demo doesn't always show the game in the best light, and in Saints Row IV's case the full experience is much better. Keep that in mind if you’ve recently had the chance to play the game at a recent event like PAX Australia or San Diego Comic-Con.
Saints Row IV is coming August 20 to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.