PREVIEW: Saints Row IV [PS3/X360/PC]

You might be forgiven for wondering how Volition could become even wilder and more absurd than they did with Saints Row The Third. After all, once you’ve substituted baseball bats with giant purple love toys and introduced naked BASE jumping, what else is there to do? Well, try making the leader of the Third Street Saints the President of the USA, introduce an alien invasion and cap it all off with a Matrix-style alternate reality angle, and there you have Saints Row IV.

In the past three games in the series, we have played a gangster-themed open world with gradually increasing doses of mindblowing crazy. We have (repeatedly) followed the rising fortunes of the Third Street Saints who don purple as their primary colour, and battled other gangs and hyper-militarised corporations for control of the streets. The series has steadily pursued its main target, and we might well wonder if the highly visible collapse of THQ and its sale of this IP to Deep Silver might derail the franchise in any way. Of course we will have to wait until the game’s release, but it looks on track to continue in its own well-worn tradition.

In the new game, the boss of the Third Street Saints (i.e. you) has achieved such meteoric levels of popularity that he is now the President, and thus a prime target for the evil alien invaders, the Zin, to imprison in a false virtual reality. This allows for superpowers to bring new elements into the gameplay repertoire, so we might expect more Force Unleashed-style gameplay to have a role.

In our hands-on demo, the new superpower mechanic was definitely a lot of fun. With everything unlocked we were able to boost around the streets faster than any car, which should eliminate the tiresome exercise of walking and running. It is also possible to jump as high as any building, speed-dash mid-air, and glide towards your destination. This brought to mind one of the best additions to the most recent game: The VTOL aircraft, except it requires no vehicle (oh, and there’s no miniguns or rockets).

Offensive powers are even more fun and lead to high levels of destruction. Telekinesis is good for not only throwing hapless citizens around the streets: it also allows you to use vehicles and enemies themselves (dead or alive) to dispatch your opponents. A freeze blast turns any object or person in its range to ice, ripe for shattering, and a fire burn ability turn you into a literal human torch, incinerating anything in your path.

[img_big]center,10912,2013-03-15/sriv_01_scenic_sc.jpg,Saints Row IV[/img_big]

Gunplay and driving have not received any major overhaul: Guns are not particularly meaty, and cars are still rather floaty – but neither of these systems was particularly broken to start with. This may speak to the fact that SR4 was originally conceived as DLC for the last game, and some may see SRIV as not fully adequate for a whole new release. What is new is a variety of wacky new weapons to inspire guffaws of laughter: The inflate-a-ray causes the target’s head to expand and expand until it pops, and the much-vaunted dubstep gun fires rays of lethal beat drops until its victims expire in paroxysms of dancing.

We also have a new enemy type in the Zin, our very ugly alien invaders, the leader of whom sports a cultivated British accent and lays a verbal smackdown on our protagonist for his hubris. The Zin pack more diverse firepower but not much more brainpower than the street thugs we are used to dispatching, and if they are to provide any real challenge they will need to have better AI than to stand and absorb bullets, or freeze rays, or cars. A suggested brute-class enemy type might provide some much welcome variety and avoid the shooting-gallery experience that the demo offered.

Cutscenes indicate that we can expect exactly the same brand of humour from Saints Row 4: Lowbrow slapstick full of cheesy one-liners. If this is not to your taste, you won’t be converted. What is potentially more interesting is a distinct change of tone: Instead of sending up gangster street culture (admittedly an easy target), Volition has now turned the same satirical edge to its own nation-state and the military-political establishment of the US. This could be risky for some audiences, but as always the franchise provides some refreshing humour to gamers who might be tired of the usual jingoism that (amazingly) still pervades military shooters.

Our main question about Saints Row 4 is whether it has enough newness to keep fans coming back, because it’s unlikely to win any new ones. For those (like me) who felt that the last instalment in the series was starting to become a bit repetitive, we may doubt that a promotion to President, some superpowers and new alien enemies will be enough to carry the franchise on. Nonetheless, I did laugh maniacally more than once during the demo, so it probably has what it takes.

Saints Row IV releases in Australia on all major platforms on the 22nd of August, 2013.

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