Where can you take a series after the most recent instalment featured dildo baseball bats, psychopathic furries and a dedicated testicular punch button? Saints Row IV attempts to answer that very question. Using natural, logical evolution, the game's main character is promoted to President of the United States, given superhuman powers and is tasked with fighting off an army of invading aliens. The quote that, "there is a fine line between genius and insanity", certainly springs to mind and that is not necessarily a good thing.
Saints Row: The Third was an attempt to move the series beyond its original, gang-crime roots and focus instead on the crazy elements that had, at times, popped up in the second game. While it fundamentally remained an open-world third-person gang-based shooter, it was as radically removed from its Grand Theft Auto-inspired origins as it could have been. The formula clearly worked with the third chapter selling over four million copies but it was not without its limitations. The endless focus on wackiness and humour grated over time and a lack in core gameplay variation proved disappointing after only a few hours.
Equally, the financial woes of the now-defunct former publisher THQ did not help the franchise with expansions and downloadable content being changed, cancelled or re-appropriated for future instalments. With Deep Silver saving Saints Row IV from the ashes of THQ's collapse there is a lot for the game to achieve and it is certainly moving in a new direction with the overt sci-fi overtones (and parodies).
Our hands-on with the game began by jumping into the shoes, once again, of the customisable leader of the Third Streets Saints as he wanders the corridors of the White House (or its Steelport equivalent) after being elected President. After strolling meaningfully through several hallways and rooms with his faithful entourage we were assigned a goal of making an address to the nation. Beforehand though, several people were eager to catch our attention and gain some Presidential advice forcing us to make several decisions.
If you are worried that Saints Row IV might be trying to get serious with some kind of moral choice system, do not fear things are familiar as always. Our first choice was whether to cure cancer or end world hunger before then being asked whether to punch an annoying Senator in the face or his groin. These "humorous" diversions took a little too long and felt fairly forced, lacking the spontaneity and originality that made a lot of the previous titles' best jokes work so well. Arriving to deliver the speech, it took mere seconds before the White House was attacked by hordes of alien invaders who proceeded to abduct most of your crew.
After retreating to your office, in order to activate a hidden switch and retrieve a concealed weapons cache, the President then began clearing the building of the invaders with the help of a rocket launcher. Here the gameplay was at its most basic, with an entirely linear and very basic third-person shooting system. The fact that the rocket launcher killed groups of enemies in a single hit also made it rather dull and repetitive and when the President made it outside there was a sense of relief that it was over.
However, the game seemed reluctant to break from cliché and our next task was to man a special missile turret and protect the lawn of the White House from scores of spacecraft. It was a basic and uninspired turret section that again, lasted for just a little too long to be fun or entertaining. Once this was over, we then entered into a quick-time-based cutscene battling the leader of the aliens, the Zin emperor. This was the one time during the demonstration where we chuckled and the alien overlord had some genuinely intelligent and funny lines. Despite seemingly gaining the upper hand, the President is beaten in combat and knocked unconscious entering into a virtual simulation of Steelport and prompting the main game to begin properly.
Jumping ahead to a later point in the game, the President had acquired a number of super powers and abilities and several customised weapons. Our initial feelings were disappointment, the map and environments seemed almost identical to Saints Row: The Third and the graphics and sound have remained the same. To begin with, we hit the streets to try out some of the new powers and here the game began to feel different. The President can now run at insane speeds, jump buildings and glide through the air.
Thankfully, these powers are easy to control, largely with a single button on the controller's bumpers assigned to sprinting and gliding. Whilst airborne it is also possible to target the ground and perform a smash which stuns any nearby enemies that is useful in combat. Heading to an area where a group of aliens monitored the population, we were able to test out the rest of our new skills.
The President can use Telekinesis to pick up both enemies and vehicles, Stomp to send anything around him flying into the air, Buff which makes anything burst into flames when struck and Blast which freezes anyone causing them to shatter. The powers were straightforward to use and made short work of the aliens clearing the area and completing a challenge. It seems that there will be more of these locations scattered across the map to clear and unlock extra content in a manner similar to Far Cry 3's outposts.
All of the powers have an individual cooldown timer, encouraging the player to use a diverse range and to combine and mix them up for increased variation. While they were entertaining enough, their inclusion feels like a bastardised fusion of ideas from other, recent sandbox games like inFAMOUS, Prototype and even Crackdown. They do not feel original, fresh or particularly unique and feel out of place in Saints Row despite the crazy direction the last game took.
Similarly the new weapons Volition have included are oddly familiar, especially the Singularity Gun which is very reminiscent of weapons and powers from The Darkness II and Ratchet & Clank. Most of the time we found we barely used them due to how overpowered the President's abilities were. It will be interesting to see how the developers set about trying to balance this discrepancy out and make the guns a more valid option in combat.
We got to try out two of the new activities that Steelport had to offer, including a new Professor Genki Telekinesis game and a checkpoint racing challenge utilising the President's newfound super speed. Professor Genki's new game involves travelling to a number of locations on the map and using Telekinesis to pick up and throw colour-coded enemies, vehicles and large animal heads through corresponding hovering hoops. While this occurs, waves of furry-suited baddies on quad-bikes appear to try and kill you. Despite sounding like a lot of fun, after completing the first one or two areas it quickly became repetitive and the larger-than-life accompanying commentary was not as hilarious as it clearly thought.
Racing around Steelport in the checkpoint activity was also disappointingly lacklustre. Essentially, the President now acts as a vehicle as his sprint speed is equivalent to some of the fastest race cars. However, he has the added benefit of being able to knock other vehicles out of the way but also the drawback of handling like a drunken amputee hedgehog while at top speed. The challenge involved hitting checkpoints while collecting speed boost orbs and brought to mind the kind of activity seen in Grand Theft Auto III. In short, it was hardly new or fresh.
Saints Row IV clearly is trying hard and the inclusion of the new abilities and powers is definitely a change to the series. However, it feels like the franchise is trying to catch the success and popularity of a score of other open-world sandbox titles by copying their unique elements and inserting them into Steelport. The relentless barrage of jokes, madcap antics and cock-punching will not be for everyone. While it is clearly true there is a fine line between insanity and genius, the same could be said for the relationship between insanity and repetition for Saints Row IV. Expect to find out which side of the divide the game lies when it released for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 in August.