Saints Row IV Hands-On Preview

A sandbox takes the familiar and makes it unusual. A sandbox takes dull dirt and meager piles of sand, and turns them into castles and cities. Of course, the human response to cities made out of sand is almost always to crush them under heel, and the great thing about the sandbox is that there’s no disapproving adult present to press you with the moral implications of destroying Sand City so pointlessly. In a sandbox, you are king, or queen, or even a pirate lord. Truly, with a bit of imagination, you can be what you like. Perhaps you’d like to be president of the United States, and perhaps you’d like to fight aliens with superpowers? Well the sandbox, or rather Saints Row IV, can make it so.

The Saints Row franchise has become more intense and absurd with each release, starting life as a second-rate Grand Theft Auto and steadily growing with each release into a different beast entirely – the purple-suited jester to Grand Theft Auto’s somber faced king. Saints Row 2 was realistic if splendidly anarchic. Saints Row: The Third paid occasional lip service to the idea of reality while taking frequent joyrides with genetically modified superhumans and zombies. Saints Row IV, by comparison, is the kind of game that cackles wildly while it ritualistically sacrifices all pretenses of reality to its mad god of chaos.

Saints Row IV is the destructive force that crushes the sand castle under its heel. It just wants to watch the world burn, or rather it knows that the player does, and is all too willing to pass them the matches, and the gasoline, as well as a box of fireworks for effect. The effects this time round are some of the most dazzling yet.

After an opening mission that sees the Third Street Saints taking part in an anti-terrorist operation (cue opportunities for Call of Duty parodies) The Boss becomes President of the United States of America. Five years later, sauntering down the West Wing, you get to hastily choose between two contracts to pass into law. Do you cure cancer or end world hunger — or as it’s phrased: “Fuck Cancer” or “Let them eat cake” — because in the world of Saints Row it really is that simple. Not that this choice appears to have much impact. It doesn’t need to. It’s there to illustrate that the anarchic, if sincere, Saint’s Row humor is still here in force. And then an alien invasion begins, and The Boss has to sprint to the lawn of the “White Crib” to clamber into his gaudy, red and white, star-spangled mega-turret to take down a handful of alien airships, because in the world of Saints Row, it really is that over the top.

The bulk of my preview time with the game was set in Steelport: the same city from Saints Row: The Third. A lot in IV seems similar to The Third at first. It’s the same game engine, same controls, the same city. Alien Lord Zinyak has trapped The Boss in a simulation of Steelport, though, in which his alien henchmen replace the gangs of the previous games, and the city’s horizon is dominated by the floating retro-futuristic towers of the Zin Empire. Aside from the grim new aesthetic, however, not much has changed.

That is, until I’m given superpowers.

One of the standout game missions in The Third was an excursion into a Tron-inspired digital void, where The Boss briefly got to take on the form of a talking toilet, or an inflatable sex doll. In Saints Row IV, the cyber trip is a little more permanent, and Volition is having fun with the more outlandish new tools the developer can deliver to the player. A few mission in and The Boss gets abilities of super speed and super jump, instantly changing how I can traverse the city. Charge up a super jump, ping myself onto the side of a skyscraper, and just keep hopping up until I’m at the very top. Then hold down sprint to dash off the side, gracefully flutter down into the streets, or come crashing down to the concrete with a bone-crunching ground pound. Then a mission or two later I’m given access to an ice blast, useful for freezing cars, swatting hover-bikes out the air, and for smashing pedestrians to bits.

There are more super powers to come, too. Fire and telekinesis powers hang tantalizingly in the unlock menu for the time being, but there are slots available for many more. No doubt there will be many available, and no doubt they’ll be as wacky and outlandish as the Saints Row pedigree would imply.

However, among all the madness and carnage, among the intensity of super powers, dub-step guns, and hulking monster aliens, it’s worth wondering if Saints Row IV can keep any of this up for the duration of an entire game. The sandbox takes the ordinary and makes it unusual, but when you make the unusual the norm, it could easily lose its magic. Weren’t the crazy moments in Saints Row 2 or The Third all the better exactly because they stood in direct contrast to the realism?

The few hours I got to spend with the game bodes well for the final product, nonetheless. I still laughed at the jokes, and smiled with glee whenever something outlandish was happening, which was most of the time. Even when Saints Row IV is tripping over itself to deliver gratuitous empowerment, it still seems to have a heart, whether in its selection of excellent licensed music, or in its frequent excursions into parody.

By the end of my time with Saints Row IV, as I was piloting a stolen alien ship out of a base with Haddaway’s “What Is Love” pumping on the radio, I was having enough fun to feel disappointment when the preview ended. I guess there’s something to be said for restraint among the madness, but then again there’s also a lot to be said for a gun that gets people abducted by aliens, and a game that lets you punch people in the crotch at the speed of sound.

Saints Row IV hits shelves August 20 on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.


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Author: Aled Morgan View all posts by
Aled has served with distinction as a UNSC Spartan, become a Pokemon master, and saved the kingdom/world/galaxy more times than he can remember. Mixing a passion for gaming with a passion for writing since he was a child, Aled will play anything and everything he can get his hands on. When he isn’t trawling through virtual worlds or pawing at a keyboard to make words happen, he plays Ultimate Frisbee.

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