Previewing Saints Row IV is a tricky proposition. There's a number of things I'd love to talk about, while at the same time understanding that these things are best experienced fresh…
For those unfamiliar with the series, Saint's Row may have started off as a surprisingly competent Grand Theft Auto competitor, but it's never had any issues with evolving in its own twisted manner—the massively improved second game in particular proved a huge hit for gamers put off by Grand Theft Auto IV's clumsy attempts at realism. Saints Row: The Third largely continued to jettison all the grit and street-level thuggery for a world where skydiving in tanks and fending off a zombie invasion at the behest of Burt Reynolds was an everyday matter.
As for Saints Row IV? Let's just say that Volition have really gone off the deep end this time.
It all kicks off when the leader of the Saints saves Washington DC from annihilation at the hands of a nuclear warhead. This one uncharacteristically selfless act earns the Saints the undying adulation of America and propels him—or her—straight into the White House. Literally. As in, clean through the roof.
Five years pass, the Boss of the Saints becomes the elected President of the United States of America, and public opinion is hovering at twenty points since the main issues have been getting stripper poles installed in the Oval Office and having guns available for use every five steps. This is only the least of their problems though—an alien race known as the Zin take this opportunity to invade earth, destroying the White House and capturing the Saints before locking them into a virtual version of Steelport to see what they can learn about humanity.
As the President becomes aware of being incarcerated in this virtual prison, it isn't long before it becomes possible to warp the laws of reality within the simulation to the benefit of the Saints through completing missions, activities and optional sidequests. Once these reality-bending superpowers are unlocked, the simple traversal of the game world suddenly becomes a thing of pure joy.
Moving around the city at breakneck speeds is as simple as holding down the sprint button. Taking to the skies and gliding around is similarly effortless and incredibly easy to control. Judging distances whilst moving at speed is a snap—there's no awkward flailing around with the controls while trying to land in a particular spot, and overshooting my mark was a surprisingly rare occurrence.
While these powers are somewhat limited at first, it isn't long before players are able to upgrade them through the use of collectable Data Clusters scattered around the city—1255 of them in total—and really start going to town with their superpowers. The boss starts off being able to sprint for about ten seconds before keeling over and coughing up a lung. A few hours and several upgrades later, that same sprint lasts four times as long and sucks objects and screaming pedestrians into the vortex created in its wake. There seems to be no practical reason for this at all other than the fact that it looks completely awesome.
Offensive powers were limited in this preview build, allowing only the use of an ice blast to freeze alien scumbags solid before shattering them apart with a single blow. Tougher enemies will take double damage whilst encased in ice, and a perfunctory check of the upgrade system reveals that the element of this power can be chosen at will—setting enemies aflame instead of encasing them in ice, for example. These offensive powers are—somewhat strangely—the only method of attacking whilst in midair, so bombarding enemies with them as players swoop in is a good way to start off each fight.
As in previous games, players can custom tailor the President's appearance to suit their preferences. The Boss can be male or female, muscular or slim, damn near jaundiced or reptilian in nature. Fans of Charles Shaughnessy's superb performance in the second game will be disappointed to learn that he hasn't reprised his role, though the available options are excellent alternatives—and while the zombie voice is missing in action, it's been replaced with the infinitely superior "Nolan North" option. Yep. The customization is a little more involved than it was in The Third, though it still falls short of the series standard established in Saints Row 2—for example, there’s no option to make the vanilla walking animation swan around like a lunatic.
Even so, there's still a fair amount of personal expression potential. Want that musclebound, steroid-enhanced hulk to wear a pretty dress whilst suplexing aliens out of the sky and booting their buddies into space? Feel free. Give him a female voice and ramp the pitch up for good measure. Even the guns are customizable this time out, so running around with a pair of Thomson submachine guns and a guitar case for a rocket launcher is as simple as walking into Friendly Fire to give them a once over.
Talking about guns, the combat in Saints Row IV's been given a bit of a tune up as well. Firearms now seem to have more of a kick to them, and enemies aren't quite as rubbery when it comes to hit reactions. The inclusion of those superpowers mean that beating a hasty escape and maneuvering around the battlefield is a snap, which comes in quite handy when the Boss gets a little too rowdy and the Zin call in a Warden to sort things out—a Warden in this case being an angry, savage beast that will hunt the players down around the game world and can also telekinetically chuck objects around to clobber them with.
The licensed soundtrack deserves special mention—there are some absolutely superb selections which kick in at key storyline moments, and best of all the radio stations can now be accessed whilst traversing the city on foot. It's a widely requested feature that's been missing in the series since the original game, and given that standard transportation is now largely meaningless since the Boss can outrun seemingly any vehicle in the game, this is undoubtedly a very good thing.
Returning gamers who've played through The Third may be disappointed to learn that there's no new city awaiting them this time out—Steelport was commonly viewed as a disappointing follow up to the more varied city of Stilwater from previous Saints Row titles. While it's kind of a shame that a new city wasn't built from the ground up to take advantage of the new traversal mechanics, Steelport looks and feels quite a bit different this time out—mainly because it's often viewed from the air or at supersonic speeds, and has now has alien technology looming over the cityscape as it pulses an angry, alien red.
The game may look a lot like The Third, using the same graphics engine and many of the assets, but it feels vastly different in action—it’s a combination of Crackdown and Prototype in many ways, but more satisfying to control. It's a shame that there's so many holdovers from the previous game—many of the costumes, for example, are the same ones found in The Third, but on the plus side it does mean that the game runs extremely well on even a mid-range PC.
One other potential area for concern involves the storyline. The Third unquestionably fell short in this regard—not because of its outlandish premise, but because it glossed over important, pivotal events without sufficiently fleshing them out in a satisfying manner. For instance, the deaths of several main characters went unnoticed in my own playthrough for quite some time. Saints Row IV seems to be a step up in this department so far, but whether it can maintain this level of commitment to the tale it spins throughout the entire duration of the game remains to be seen.
I guess the best way to judge the impact of a preview build comes from a player's initial reaction to the rest of the game being locked out. This is mine: first of all my jaw involuntarily clenched hard enough to atomize several molars at the sheer indignity of not being able to continue through the storyline. Then I headed straight back into virtual Steelport and began systematically knocking out each and every activity on the map before taking to the skies and hunting down any visible data clusters squirreled away on rooftops. A three hour preview build then became a ten hour session of leaping over buildings, destroying alien scum with superpowers and sucking blameless pedestrians into black holes just for the sheer hell of it.
Frankly, it's probably a good thing that Volition put a limit on my progress within the game or I'd have almost undoubtedly ended up playing it straight through to completion in a single session—and from where I'm standing, that's a pretty good sign of things to come for when the full retail release drops on August 20th in North America.