Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Hands-on Preview: Saints Row IV (PC)

 There seems to be no limit to what developer Volition won't explore and there's no piece of the "familiar" that isn't somehow warped and given a distinctive "Saints" bent. This is the hallmark of Saints Row and the series has made the most of it by carving out its own open world niche.

At the same time, the first couple of hours was enough to make me wonder how Volition will keep up the pace and deliver action insanity at that same level for an entire game. At least during the story sections, Saints Row IV doesn't waste any opportunity to poke fun at itself, other games, and a myriad of other topics. The dialogue is as sharp (and self-aware) as ever and in the span of couple of hours it took to play through the preview version I laughed more than few times.

Saints Row IV streamlines some of the clunkiness that I never really noticed about Saints Row III, like the navigation and weapon selection. Now to switch weapons it's a simple scroll of the mouse wheel. The action pauses momentarily and after a half-second of being highlighted the switch happens. This feels way better than Saints Row: The Third, which happened in real-time (i.e. under heavy fire) while you spun the wheel.

Vehicle delivery is instantaneous thanks to the fact you're stuck inside a computer. (Adding vehicles to your roster is just as easy -- hold down "N" for a few seconds and the vehicle is added.)

The game opens -- after an interlude that includes the best ever nod to the movie Armageddon -- with a Saints-populated White House under attack by aliens. Quickly overrun, the player is captured and inserted into a digital version of Steelport, with some obvious alien changes.

Speaking of changes, the biggest one is your character's superhero abilities, which ramped-up quickly in the preview build.

Though most of the game appears to take place inside a big computer, the player will "escape" the confines of the digital Steelport, though for how long and what areas players get to explore remains to be seen. The contrast between the "fake" and "real" worlds is stark and I missed the super powers right away when I was transported to the "real" world.
Early on, Super Jump and Super Sprint (be sure to upgrade to Wall Running as soon as possible) are added to your roster of weapons, each of which can be further upgraded. Reminiscent of the Crackdown and Prototype games (with an honourable mention given to Destroy All Humans!), the power fantasy is definitely there and it seems like the game makes some accommodations for these extra powers. Early on, slobbering monsters called "Wardens" drop-in for challenging fights and can then be absorbed to acquire some of their power.

Many characters from Saints Row: The Third return, most of them with important government jobs.
To upgrade the super powers, you spend "clusters" which are spread over an environment that ripples and flickers constantly (on purpose) like the code is being re-written. They're easily spotted because they're bright blue and there are plenty of them. I can see a bit of a "grind" for players that want to top out their powers, which includes Freeze, Fire, and Mind Control. These powers seem to replace grenades. That's a trade-off I'm okay with, unlike when grenades were removed from Team Fortress 2. I prefer the instant
freeze effect so I can get up close and personal to turn enemies into ice cubes.

One of the problems with open world super hero games, which comic books never seem to mention, is the danger of outcroppings and overhangs. In Saints Row IV, these still pose a "snag" danger while leap-frogging up the side of a building.

More traditional methods of death-dealing are still present. You'll still hit Friendly Fire stores to upgrade weapons and buy more ammo (spending "cache"), though this time you'll be able to customize the weapons just a little more with colours and skins. Though I didn't come across it in the preview section, the Dub-Step gun looks like it'll cause some goofy mayhem..

If all those offensive options aren't enough there's always the melee fall-back of kicking and whacking dudes with a baseball bat. Thanks to the super powers, both are cranked-up substantially. Landing on a rooftop and wasting alien monsters by serving up some really hard landings is actually more satisfying than point-blank shotgun work.

This screenshot is from early on in the game, during the defence of the White House, but it goes a long way to exemplify the over-the-top action that kicks-off Saints Row IV.
The in-world diversions don't seem to deviate too much from the side quests of Saints Row: The Third, as you'll still walk out into traffic or try to cause as much damage as possible in a short time frame; however, there are events that are tailored to your powers. Just like Crackdown and Prototype, there are running/jumping courses to navigate with Gold, Silver and Bronze rankings for the taking. From the activities I took part in, it definitely feels like you'll want to level up a bit and unlock additional or upgraded powers before being able to grab the Gold each time.

My only concern at this stage -- a couple of months from the launch of the full game -- is that Volition won't be able to keep up the level of craziness that I saw in the preview version for an entire game. Everything else would appear to be more of what I liked so much about Saints Row: The Third, plus super powers because why the hell not? Saints Row: The Third concluded with a stage on Mars for crying out loud! And that was after a wrestling match that included a very active chainsaw!

If that's the least of my concerns -- and Saints Row: The Third as evidence tends to allay those concerns -- then I'm pretty sure the fourth game in the series will cement a fifth.

Saints Row IV launches August 20, 2013 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

- Aaron Simmer

Looking forward to Saints Row IV? Have questions the preview didn't answer? Talk about it below!