Saints Row started its life as something of a lighter-hearted Grand Theft Auto clone that knew how much fun it was to go buck wild in a living city, but still had something of a serious undertone to it. Time has almost completely tossed aside that serious undertone, however; while the later games do hold onto something of a serious side at times, the franchise opted to stop even trying to compete with GTA in favor of embracing wild anarchy and flat-out comedy, and it works. By providing a plot that’s self-aware, silly and just serious enough to carry the experience while encouraging the player to be as absurd as they want to be, the Saints Row series stands out from the legions of also-ran sandbox games on the market, making it a unique experience, even if its elements aren’t. When THQ went up for auction, there was a certain degree of concern that the franchise might be picked up by a developer who wanted to retool it in ways the fanbase wouldn’t appreciate, or worse, that the franchise might simply fall to the wayside altogether. Well, as they did with Metro: Last Light, Deep Silver put those worries to rest by acquiring the franchise and basically letting the developers keep doing what they were doing. This shows in the recent demo build Deep Silver offered up via Steam to Diehard GameFAN, among others, as the demo is absolutely faithful to its roots while completely going off the deep end, and it’s pretty fabulous.
The demo build of Saints Row IV starts off with a big terrorist extermination mission that also acts as something of a basic tutorial, the end result of which is that your character, the leader of the Saints, disarms an ICBM in mid-air and somehow ends up President of the United States. This is only a backdrop for the main plot, however, as after a brief introduction to the life of the President, aliens invade and basically ruin everything. They kidnap your staff (including your Vice President, Keith David), blow up basically everything, beat you up and (after a hilariously failed first attempt) stuff you into a weird Matrix-esque version of Steelport, only it’s one where the Saints never existed. The objective of this virtual world is to break your character, but with some help from returning hacker associate Kinzie, you decide to fight back using all the tools at your disposal. As it turns out, that doesn’t just mean guns, cars and normal Saints Row silliness, as the nature of the world allows Kinzie to “hack” your character, giving them superhuman powers to turn the tide in their favor. This all culminates in a big escape sequence (in the demo) a couple hours in, complete with… interesting chase music as you rocket out into to space, presumably to attempt to save the Earth, somehow. While the demo basically seems to be accelerated plot-wise (the demo does all of this inside of three hours), it hits the high points pretty directly: aliens bad, you… less bad, kick alien ass. It also helps that the writing is hilarious and a little self-aware, to the point that there’s a voice acting option named “Nolan North,” which you would think means Nolan North is the voice actor, but no, you’re basically playing as Nolan North. Little details like that permeate the demo alone, so if the final game holds up (and it likely will) it’ll most likely be a laugh riot.
Fans of Saints Row will find that the core gameplay elements they’ve come to know and love are all here. The game is mechanically similar to GTA and its ilk, leaving the player to run around the city, jacking cars, acquiring goods, and doing whatever floats your boat when you’re not attempting to progress the plot. You can totally trick out your character however you see fit with various articles of clothing if you wish, including masks, jackets, backpacks and regular clothes, and as normal, you can wear any clothes on male or female models, so if you want to run around in a dress or a suit, regardless of your character, go nuts. Since the game is set in a digital landscape, some things are modified; you collect data from everything you do that can be used to buy everything, as well as perform upgrades, for example, and cars you store can be summoned to your location almost instantly by making the world render them next to you. Otherwise, though, fans should appreciate the mechanics as they all seem to work just fine, and newcomers should be able to adjust pretty easily if they’ve ever played a game in the genre before.
Saints Row IV doesn’t intend to stick to the basics the series is known for, however, as early on Kinsey discovers a way to hack your character in the digital world, allowing him or her to essentially develop super powers. The demo showcases three of these powers: super speed, which allows you to run around the map at high velocity for as long as you can sprint, super jumping, which allows you Prototype style high jumps, and ice blasts, which can be used to freeze enemies in place and break open fragile walls for power-ups and such. Though there will obviously be far more powers to unlock as the game progresses, what’s shown off in the demo is a lot of fun to play around with, and it makes the game feel different from its predecessors in a good way. There’s even some Assassin’s Creed styled training missions here to test out your powers in a vacuum, and glowing power-ups to pick up that can improve your powers in addition to your normal upgrades. You can even use the powers in unconventional ways, such as using super speed to charge at an enemy to grapple them and powerbomb them into oblivion, which, yeah, I definitely did more than a few times, because why not?
The demo leaves a few obvious questions unanswered, like “how much of the game is going to be spent switching between the real and virtual world?” and “will powers carry over from one world to the other?” among others, though the most obvious issue is that, well, the game is Crackdown now, basically. That’s not a bad thing, as Crackdown was fine, and if anything, Saints Row IV is shaping up to be a far better game than that was, but it feels like the franchise is becoming the “Vague Genre Movie” parody franchise for sandbox games. That’s not a bad thing by any means; Mel Brooks made the majority of his money and impact as a director by parodying things in a way that was funny even if you didn’t get the in-jokes. It’s just hard to know how Saints Row IV is going to turn out based on that concept. So far, it’s certainly a very good game, if the demo is any indication, and there aren’t very many games that use humor as their primary focus that aren’t adventure games. It’s definitely going to be a game that’s going to live or die based on its gimmick, though.
Saints Row IV will be dropping on August 20th in both normal and special editions (one of which includes a dubstep gun, which is basically awesome), and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it as it comes closer to release. Keep an eye out here for more information and the upcoming review as the game inches closer to release.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)