Saints Row IV preview: Ludicrous, preposterous, ridiculous fun

[Originally posted to my column on Examiner.com] There are probably a lot more -OUS words you could use to describe Saints Row IV. It’s quite possibly the funniest and most redonkulous open world game ever made.

The first 2 Saints Row games were generally good, open world games in the style of Grand Theft Auto, but didn’t really set themselves apart from GTA. Beginning with Saints Row IIIVolition took the series into decidedly stranger (masked wrestlers?!), funnier, and more interesting territory.

With Saints Row IV, Volition sets the preposterous to overload and jams the controls.

The Saints have basically shed their criminal origins to become a fully legitimate political party and global entity. This much is narrated. The rest, well…read on.

Somewhere in the Middle East a team of Saints acting as anti-terrorists arrive at a base hidden in the desert. Their mission is to dispatch a terrorist. One of the anti-terrorists—our protagonist i.e. you—is dressed head-to-toe in black, futuristic body armor.

The tutorial sequences that follow introduce combat mechanics through a series of brief skirmishes and gunfights. And in the end, you find and kill the terrorist—but not before he successfully launches a nuclear missile—presumably at America.

From Saint to Savior

With no way to stop the missile, you jump onto it as it rockets into the atmosphere. Dodging debris, you destroy a series of panels and controls, disable the missile, save America, and then jump (presumably) to a heroic death, sailing downward while delivering a thumbs up—all to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” in case you needed to feel nostalgia for Armageddon.

You don’t die, however. You crash through the roof of the White House, land in the President’s chair in the oval office, and kick back to enjoy the view.

Queue character creation, where you can customize virtually every aspect of your character through a series of sliders. In addition to various sliders for adjusting the size and shape of your body and facial features, there’s even a dedicated “sex appeal” slider that lets you increase the bulge in your underpants.

Fast forward five years. While you may not have crashed through the White House roof literally, you did save America, earn the boundless adoration of the American people, and get elected President of the United States. And Benjamin “Mother!@#$ing” King is your right-hand man.

“I’m more of a puckish rogue.”

Just because you’re the president doesn’t mean you’ve lost who you are. A brief walk through the Whitehouse to the impending press conference reveals stripper poles, perpetual partying, and the White House First Tiger. From the party to the press conference, you get to pick a bill to sign (choosing between “Feed the World” or “F*ck Cancer”) and then choose how to deal with an obnoxious senator—take “the high road” or “the low road”, but both choices involve punching him somewhere.

You arrive at the press conference. Kinzie, your secretary of state, stands bored before an array of inquiring press weasels.

And then the aliens invade.

Oh no you didn’t!

The roof is torn off, revealing a massive alien mother ship. Three aliens float down to the stage. After a brief introductory monologue by the enormous leader of the Zin empire, red tractor beams begin pulling your staff up into their ship.

You flee to the oval office and punch a hidden button. Several panels in the room flip around, revealing the Oval Arsenal: rocket launchers, shotguns, pistols, assault rifles. Locked and loaded, it’s time for a little Presidential alien ass-kicking.

Blazing a path through alien troops, you make your way through the crumbling White House, eventually reaching the Whitehouse lawn. The sky is lousy with alien fighters, and big mother(f***ing) ship looms overhead.

You call in on your radio to have the spirit of America—an enormous turret painted in the stars and stripes actually—rise out of the ground. Time to continue the carnage and blow some aliens out of the sky. Guns and rockets blazing, the never-say-die Mr. President continues his one-man assault against seemingly hopeless odds, eventually bringing down a battleship, which crashes to the ground. Tearing through the carapace, the Playah-in-Chief fights his way to the alien commander to face him mano-a-Zino.

Was he this big before? The Zin commander must be at least 12 feet tall. He speaks eloquently about the futility of resistance, but your bravado is unshaken. You let your fists do the talking to his enormous head.

Resistance IS futile

Despite landing some solid blows, you’re knocked unconscious.

Or were you? Maybe it was all a bad dream, because you wake up in The Land that Time Forgot—1950’s “Leave it to Beaver” world. You’re wearing a sweater vest. You’re cheerful. You happily strut downstairs. Actually, you happily strut everywhere. You always strut. Everywhere. Happily.

You sit at the breakfast table and eat pancakes by pressing “E” on the keyboard. You talk pleasantly to you your wife. Then you strut out to your car and meet a police officer waiting to go downtown with you. Apparently, you’re the mayor and you have an important meeting.

“Press W to Accelerate Cautiously” and “Press S to Brake Responsibly” the game tells us (or something close to that). But driving downtown, you begin notice something isn’t right… despite your best efforts to drive on the sidewalks and mow down pedestrians, you can’t. You’re not actually supposed to, but Volition clearly know you want to.

 “There’s something wrong with this car.”

“There’s something wrong with this car,” you mutter to yourself. Try to drive on the sidewalk, and it steers you back on the road.

You arrive at the diner, greeted by townsfolk—but something isn’t right. The patrons sputter and flash, like a television losing a signal. Then they start to get a little…creepy.

The ruse is revealed. You’re in a computer-generated reality. Thankfully Kinzie, your ever-present and brilliant voice of reason, manages to break in. She’s hacked into the program.

In order for Kinzie to help you escape the Leave it to Beaver Matrix, you have to basically wreck it—by driving around, mowing down police officers, and generally causing as much damage with cars and the weapons Kinzie materializes for you. Police and Zin descend upon your position. Kinzie materializes weapons for you—including rocket launchers.

It’s a nigh-orgasmic and guiltless release of violence and carnage. After all, you’re just murdering computer simulations (within a computer game no less).

And you finally stop strutting.

We tried it the nice way…

Eventually, you screw up the simulation and torque off the Zin commander, who removes you from his “nice” virtual reality, and then drops you into the gritty streets of virtual Steelport—the true beginnings of the game.

But Kinzie once again breaks in to lend you a hand, guiding you through all the nuances of the massive, open-world and the non-strutting, gritty streets of Steelport. Kinzie also guides you to all the tools and quests necessary to help you escape the matrix—namely guns, vehicles, and a new addition for Saints Row games: superpowers.

That’s right. Superpowers.

Fairly early on you gain super speed and super jumping. Later you gain the ability to freeze people—and there’s much more in store, including mind control, telekinesis, and fire-based powers that sheath you in flames.

Steelport is your oyster

Typical of open world games, you are free to go anywhere at any time, pursuing the main quest and countless side quests and challenges at your leisure. You can jack cars, mow down anyone and everything, and use all manner of guns to cause general mayhem in your virtual playground. Nearly everything you can do, drive, wear, or shoot can be upgraded and customized in some fashion.

Most importantly, you finally get out of that damn sweater vest when you buy some new clothes.

Like all open world games, you can pursue the main goal at your leisure, and embark on side quests and challenges to earn money (“cache”) and level up to buy new abilities and powers. There are also glowing clusters scattered throughout Steelport, which you can collect and use to upgrade your superpowers.

Some of the challenges in the preview include super-speed races, where run up and down buildings and leap across the city to earn the best time and the most cache. Even more fun, however, is hopping into an alien tank or UFO and then using them to cause the most collateral damage possible—the more destruction you cause in the time limit, the more cache you earn. (Once again, Volition knows their audience well.)

One of the funnier—and perhaps more interesting challenges—is called “Fraud”. Fraud lets you “rag doll” through the world—run at super speed, then click the mouse to hurl your body painfully and wildly for as long as possible—smashing into cars, buildings, etc. The higher, farther, and faster you can roll, flop, bang, fly, and bounce your body, the more cache you earn. (No, you don’t take any damage during this, although you do get some funny commentary.)

The alien presence in Virtual Steelport is there to maintain order and keep the simulation from breaking down. Ultimately, your job will be to bring it all crashing down by causing as much trouble as possible. Then it’s time to escape the Matrix, return to the real world, and show the Zin how diplomatic you can be with an arsenal of weapons and 80’s music.

Overall

Based on the preview, Saints Row IV is well-written, funny, and endlessly entertaining—a shining example of the best the genre has to offer. It’s rife with 80’s and 90’s movie and pop culture references, and completely aware of (and unapologetic for) its countless riffs and over-the-top silliness. It’s also one of the relatively few “GTA-style” games still made for us PC gamers since Rockstar abandoned us long ago.

Saints Row IV releases for PC, PS4, and Xbox 360 on August 20th

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