What other President had to grapple with the infinitely difficult decision to either say “*%&K CANCER” or “LET THEM EAT CAKE?” Some say it is the hardest decisions that defines us as humans. Certainly The Boss is someone of immeasurable depth of character for making the hard choice between curing cancer or solving world hunger. As Amuricans settle down to celebrate the day of our nation’s independence on July 4, what better way to celebrate our freedom (outside of eatin’ some burgers or brats with a nice brew and watchin’ some things make purdy lights in the sky and go boom) then to settle in for a hands-on preview of the Saints Row 4 PC version. Get that salutin’ hand ready because a bald eagle-shaped mech is about to fly past everyone with an American flag in tow.
The special PC preview build of Saints Row 4 allowed access to the first couple hours of the game’s campaign, from a wildly outlandish opening mission to a white-knuckling escape. If there was ever any doubt about the Saints Row series not having its own specific tone and voice, Saints Row 4 will squelch any lingering doubts. The game begins with an introduction that sees a man (the default sex for the game) in elaborate full armor sitting on a metal throne with winding thorns. He looks forlorn and contemplative. A serious voiceover by a vaguely British woman recounts the story of the Third Street Saints as the man sits atop the throne. This voice over properly tells how the Saints Row series began in 2006, then viewed as a pretender to the throne (of violent, gang-inspired sandbox games), and how people did not know if the Saints were mindless killers or cheeky jokers. They lacked clarity of purpose, thus the path was set turning them from a mere street gang to ultra post-modern pop icons. The new motto for the Saints became “more fun, less mercy killing.” Saints Row 4 lives up to that motto within the first ten minutes of the game.
The major question of Saints Row 4, outside of “Why Aliens?”, is how does The Boss go from mild-mannered media darling to the President of the United States. That gets answered immediately as Shaundi, Pierce and The Boss fly over several oil pumps tirelessly working in the Middle East. It is all very Apocalypse Now-ish, Charlie don’t invade foreign countries on false evidence.
While the crew is arguing over the particulars of the mission, Kinzie breaks in to tell them where they will meet up with their contact, Asha, who gave them the intel for the mission. The Boss and the gang need to invade a bunker full of terrorists to prevent a nuclear launch. How The Boss prevents this terrorist plot figures in heavily to him/her becoming president. Not to spoil anything, but the act is a combination of Slim Pickens meets Bruce Willis from that movie with a big rock.
Straight after the opening’s climax, players unlock several rewards including the Adoration of America, the Presidency of the United States, Chief of Staff Benjamin *%&king King and Vice President Keith David (which makes a whole lot of sense after spending enough time in Bizarro Steelport). After checking out the sweet unlocks, players get into the nitty gritty of character creation. At the beginning, the game features a solid selection of pre-made models that feature a good variety of different sexes, body types and ethnicities. Players can also import old bosses. Presets can be customized to fit players’ personal vibe.
The Boss is POTUS five years later, with the Third Street Saints occupying offices of the Executive Branch. Deep Silver released a video showing off the 10 minutes section demonstrated at E3, which makes up the bulk of the introductory presidential mission. As The Boss prepares to address the press, an alien named Zinyak and the Zin burst into the White House. In a short cut scene, Zinyak declares his intent to take over Earth and collect the best and brightest humans to be sent to the Zin mothership. As Zin start crawling all over the White House, it is up to The Boss to save it. Before that happens, The Boss needs guns. If anyone was wondering if The Boss would have a bronze bust of Johnny Gat that had a hidden button to reveal a secret cache of weapons in the Oval Office, rest easy, he does.
As The Boss battles through hordes of Zin, he eventually makes it outside to see alien ships destroying Washington, D.C. The White House has one last line of the defense, the insanely elaborate and deadly White House Turret. Eventually, The Boss shoots down a giant ship that crashes onto the lawn of The White House. He runs into it and does battle with Zinyak, but ultimately loses.
From the ashes of the American Dream comes the violent resurgence of the 1950s American Dream deferred. Waking up in a saccharine nightmare of the American Dream triumphant, The Boss find himself in a horrible Leave it to Beaver world complete with poodle skirts and Andy Griffith-esque sheriffs. The Boss is in a fog and acts like everything is normal. Quickly, it becomes clear that things are wrong. Soon, The Boss figures out that this is a dream. As he does, Kinzie breaks into his fantasy to tell him he needs to ramp up the mayhem to break out. After doing enough damage to the simulation, Zinyak gets fed up and inserts The Boss into a simulation that is more appropriate for the puckish rogue.
The new world is familiar, but with a different texture. Zinyak’s answer to The Boss’ disapproval of Pleasantville is to transport him into a Bizarro Steelport. This is a virtual version of Steelport that allows The Boss to bend the rules of physics and reality, which is how he gains super powers. It seems there is aberrant code within the simulation. Kinzie informs The Boss that it can be used to gain extra power. By collecting more codes scattered around the world, the player is able to upgrade the various powers The Boss can use. Since the E3 demo was a concentrated focus of in-game sandbox gameplay, many of the later powers and weapons were unlocked. However, in the actual build of the game, players will only be able to use Super Speed and Super Jump powers and a minor pistol, shotgun and assault rifle at the start of the game. Players will unlock upgrade-able skills, access to newer guns (like alien pistols and alien rocket launchers) and some new powers like the Freeze Blast during the first few hours of gameplay.
Saints Row 4’s gameplay is not radically different than Saints The Third, but the super powers add a new dimension to gameplay. Using the Super Speed and Super Jump to get around the world is incredible. Players now travel faster than any car ever could and can use the speed and jump in tandem to clear huge distances easily. As powers are upgraded, the speed of travel is faster, the jump height is further and the addition of glide makes it seem like players can fly.
Gunplay is much the same as before, which is competent bordering on great. As more powers and crazier guns become usable, the game will open up. Using the super powers in combat and to travel around the world works quite smoothly and intuitively. They also add some extra depth to combat when engaging with Wardens that have shields only disarmed by a Freeze Blast. The recharge time on the blast is lengthy at first, so missing makes the fight much tougher. It is nice that developer Volition seems to hint at some minor variety in the combat.
Playing around the sandbox of Bizarro Steelport is extremely fun and the side missions in the open world provide a worthy distraction from the main storyline, which has gone off the rails in the best way possible. By focusing on story missions, The Boss can eventually break out of the simulation. He wakes up in a container full of pink goo on a Zin mothership with tons of other containers, and falls out covered in the sticky pink substance. It is up to him to escape the ship without dying. The Boss must rendezvous at an extraction point where Kinzie will pick him up and head back to Earth. The preview build ended with a funny spaceship escape from the mothership complete with Keith David saving the Boss and barrel roll references. Also, it has a fitting musical cue.
Saints Row 4 on the PC does not seem to have any of the frame rate issues that seemed to be a concern with the console version. If this preview only hints at the sheer ridiculousness that the full version of Saints Row 4 will offer gamers, it is going to be memorable. The soundtrack seems to be full of jams that make wiping out Zin a transcendental experience that reveals the mysteries of the cosmos. For a story that positions a president fighting aliens and trades freely in pop culture references, it is surprising that no Independence Day allusions were made. It is disappointing when The Boss fights Zinyak he never slips in a “welcome to Earth.” That is a minor quibble because Saints Row 4 is a candidate for Game of the Year for having a pancake eating QTE and Keith David as Vice President. Oh and if you were wondering, yes making a Boss that looks like William Howard Taft is a thing that can occur and it is glorious.