The Price of Freedom: Hands on with Saints Row IV

PROLOGUE

In April, Steve Jaros from Volition invited me to Los Angeles for some “Saints Row Shenanigans.” All that Steve would tell me is that I would get some hands on time with Saints Row IV, and a chance to “offer input and see the recording process.” There was no way I could possibly resist such an intriguing offer, and made all the necessary arrangements. After a nine hour drive and a whirlwind three days of playing the game and hanging out in the recording studio with the voice cast, I emerged a changed man.

The tale I am about to tell is one of expectations and resolutions. It has intrigue, drama, and pathos. There is laughter and tears and personal battles, and… fuck it. Everyone just wants to hear new info about Saints Row IV, so let’s get down to it.

NOTE: There will be no story spoilers of any kind, so breathe easy. This is going to focus strictly on open world features and mechanics.

BAD NEWS FIRST

The first thing that needs to be addressed are the features that didn’t make it back into the game from previous Saints Row titles or player mods.

Character and clothing customization in Saints Row IV is largely carried over directly from Saints Row: The Third. This means we still do not have clothing layering, logos, custom walks/expressions, or the Saints Row 2 sliders with more dynamic range.

Vehicle customization remains unchanged from SRTT, so there are once again no hydraulics options. There is also still no sign of either plane, heli, or boat mechanics which have been a fan favorite mod since Saints Row 2.

The diversions from SR2 like taxi, fire fighting, tow truck, etc are not returning.

There is still no npc air traffic or water traffic like SR2 had, so the airport and waterways are devoid of life.

There are no player idle nodes like in SR2 where special animations would play if the controller is left idle long enough. i.e. smoking, drinking, fishing, etc.

Crib customization has been removed completely due to the story and how the open world itself is now handled.

Food/drink/drugs from SR2 are sadly not returning.

There is no sign of the tagging diversion.

Fuzz will not be returning. I’m pretty disappointed since it was my absolute favorite activity from Saints Row 2. According to Steve Jaros, it was cut because it was a “scripting nightmare.”

Player upgrades are still not able to be toggled on and off which is something fans have been asking for since the launch of SRTT. This means you will once again be stuck dual wielding after upgrading.

There is sadly still no day/night cycle which is probably my biggest disappointment with both SRTT and SRIV. For a player like me who loves spending hours in the open world, it really sucks to be stuck in one single time of day while I mess around. It makes everything feel and look static and the same after a while. Saints Row IV is even a step further back where most of the Steelport open world simulation is played at nighttime with different evolving lighting changes as you progress after each mission. While each of these changes do look fantastic, I jokingly mentioned to the devs that at times it felt like I was playing “Dark City: The Game.”

Mission replay and cutscene replay were not in the build I played, but Steve did tell me they were working hard to overcome some technical difficulties to include it. I touched base with him on Saturday though, and he didn’t think they actually made it in.

So, that sounds pretty grim, huh? A lot of the features that we all desperately wanted back aren’t happening. You’re also probably wondering why the hell I’m still so excited about the game, so let’s move on to the new features.

NEW FEATURES

Superpowers are awesome. No wait, they are FUCKING AWESOME. I initially came in with pretty low expectations and thought they would be similar to the Trouble with Clones DLC. What I got were 8 super powers; 4 passive and 4 active. These powers unlock over the course of the story and start off fairly weak with long cooldown timers. All of the powers have multiple upgrades to increase their usefulness and use code fragment collectibles as the upgrade currency. These fragments are similar to the agility orbs in Crackdown, only you get to choose which feature of a power to upgrade with them. My jaw just about hit the floor when I collected the first one and found out how many of these things are tucked away in the open world.

The four passive superpowers are Glide, Super Sprint, Super Jump, and Death From Above. The first three all have a fantastic synergy with how you keep the player character in motion. There is such a fluid feel to starting off with a sprint and then launching yourself forward with a jump into a glide. As the glide slowly loses altitude you can charge up the jump on the way down and land into a sprint to immediately jump again. I was reminded of the low gravity jumping in John Carter of Mars with how smooth and elegant it looked, and how he was able to launch himself back into the air the moment that he touched down in a kind of perpetual motion. The Death From Above passive allows you to pause while hovering in mid-air and redirect your landing location. Once you release, the player comes hurtling down with his fist and causes a huge AOE shockwave.

Some of the later upgrades for passive powers are incredibly cool. Glide upgrades allow for air dashes to gain even more forward momentum. Super Sprint has an upgrade that creates a maelstrom behind you which sucks in and whips around debris like trash cans, signs, etc while you run. It is seriously the coolest thing to see in action. I was completely mesmerized by running towards the camera and watching the violent vortex of junk swirling along behind me in my wake. Eventually you will also be able to run up walls as well.

The four active powers are Blast, Telekinesis, Stomp, and Buff. The active powers are selected with the dpad and replace the grenade select ring from SRTT (formerly food and drugs in SR2.) Each active power is on its own separate cooldown timer so you can easily combo into other powers with a flick of the dpad while the former recharges. The real killer part about the active super powers that blew my mind is that they are actually customizable. Would you like to shoot a fireball instead of a freeze blast? Done. Stop for a moment and just imagine customizing your telekinesis with lightning and using it on npcs like some deranged gangsta version of The Emperor. Got chills yet?

Blast starts off customized with the Freeze element, and is probably the handiest of all the active powers. Freezing an enemy results in double damage and the ability to shatter foes. There were actually quite a few different ways you could shatter them from simple punches while in close, shooting them, or even super sprinting straight through them. A really nice feature is that clicking the right thumbstick while in close will punch and shatter foes, so you can still keep your actual weapon equipped and not have to bother switching to your fists on the weapon wheel.

The Telekinesis active power was an incredible amount of fun to use. It allows you to interact and pick up all sorts of environmental objects like fire hydrants, sign posts, etc and throw them as weapons. It really feels like a buffed and upgraded version of the SR2 impromptu props you could wield. You can also use telekinesis on npcs which results in them screaming their heads off while you hold them in mid-air with your mind. I was giggling like a schoolgirl when I picked up a car and started super sprinting to see all the doors fly open from the force and the npcs all come tumbling out.

Stomp is exactly what it sounds like, and creates a quick AOE attack that knocks back enemies, while Buff gives you a temporary personal shield bubble while you Sprint, and attaches an element to it like fire so you can zip around the enemy ranks and set them aflame. The element that you choose to customize Buff with has the added benefit of also attaching that effect to your bullets as well. For example, if you customize Buff with fire then all your ammo is incendiary while Buff is active.

The active power upgrades mostly involved decreasing the cooldown timer, and increasing the damage, duration, distance, or force of the attacks. One really handy upgrade makes your homies fire-proof so you don’t have to worry about accidentally setting them on fire if you’re using fire Buff.

Control for all the super powers was spot on and a pure joy to play. Within an hour or so, I felt like I had complete accuracy and was making some impressive pinpoint landings on things like the top of tiny spires to grab fragments. The jumping and mid-air directional control reminded me a bit of the original Crackdown, but much more refined. The camera also worked really well even when I was jumping at really crazy angles and high speeds. I rarely had to adjust it or even think about it. I honestly haven’t felt this giddy about game controls since Super Mario 64. It seriously feels and plays that good.

To dispel some rumors I’ve been seeing, you do not actually have to activate/deactivate super powers while in the simulation. You get them as part of the story and they are always on permanently. Also, using them does not forcibly change your player outfit like many have been speculating after the PAX demo video footage.

Weapon customization is much better than I had anticipated. I went in expecting 2-3 skins per weapon and got ~12 for each human weapon. According to Steve Jaros, additional new skins are arriving in builds daily so we’re going to get even more choice and diversity. It was really awesome being able to skin my pistol as the revolver from SR2, and my smg as an old 1920s Thompson. The alien versions of weapons do not have skins, but that doesn’t seem like any kind of a detriment since there are multiple earth weapons of each class; each of which have their own unique skin set. A nice step up from SRTT is that The skin of the weapon and the damage upgrades themselves are completely independent; i.e. you will always be able to choose whatever look you want (that you have unlocked so far.)

NOTE: I just received a final count from Steve Jaros, and there is a grand total of 211 weapon customization options! 56 of these are “weapon costumes” (i.e. unique meshes like the super soaker, guitar case, etc) and the other 155 are “weapon skins” (i.e. textures like gold/silver plated, decals, etc.)

Speaking of weapons, super powers do not make weapons useless like I had originally feared. I was always using weapons throughout the entire game even with extremely upgraded super powers. In fact, many of the weapons like the auto-shottie synergize beautifully with certain super powers like the freeze blast. The dubstep gun and the inflate-o ray are both an absolute riot to use and work pretty much the way we’ve all seen in the PAX demo footage. The Blackhole gun that was shown in the E3 War For Humanity trailer is definitely my favorite new weapon though. The singularity that it creates slowly sucks everything in; cars, npcs, trash, etc. If you fire it too close, it knocks you over and starts pulling you in too. The effect is really neat because everything starts to elongate and stretch the closer it gets to the actual rift, including you! It also has a cooldown timer so you can’t just spam it. I found that I was using the Blackhole gun occasionally in between the super powers and more normal weapon usage when things got intense. Overall, the combat felt really nicely balanced. The only gripe I had was that the weapon wheel now pauses the game which does seem to break the flow at times. According to Steve Jaros, the pausing only happens in single player and not coop. I really wish there was a control option to turn it off and make weapon switching work in real time like the previous games. There are also two other new crazy weapons that haven’t been shown yet; one of which is a hilarious nod to one of the more awesome SR2 cheats.

The difficulty is a big step up from the previous Saints Row games since the player no longer has regenerating health. Now, the only way you can heal is by collecting orbs that are dropped by the enemy on death. This results in having to play much more aggressively to keep your health up. I’m a really big fan of this change since it results in intense fights, and also requires you to play much more strategically during those story points where you are without your powers. There are also player upgrades that boost the amount of health received, and another that causes regular civilian npcs to drop orbs on death so you can use them as healing fodder. Temporarily sprinting away from battle to kill regular npcs to heal up was also kind of wonderfully evil.

A cool new character customization feature in SRIV is the pitch slider for character voice. You can now make your character sound like anything from Barry White to a squeaky helium inhaler or anything in between. There are still 7 different voices to choose from, and this new slider can be applied to any of them. You will also be able to import your previous SRTT character.

Racing is back in a big way, and this time you are actually doing it on-foot with superpowers in an activity named Blazing. I really loved the racing diversion from SR2, and Blazing feels like a shiny updated new version with a lot of cool vertical checkpoints and paths.

Mech Mayhem is pretty much what you would expect if you’ve played Mayhem in previous Saints Row games; blow a ton of shit up in an awesome mech with a combo multiplier to beat a score. Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds. Having jump jets and more mobility makes it a hell of a lot more dynamic than either tank mayhem or the original on-foot version. Sadly, I did not have a chance to try the mech out in the open world, but Steve did confirm that it is an unlock.

There is an awesome new activity that uses telekinesis named Professor Genki’s Mind Over Murder. It presents the player with different colored hoop targets in the open world where each color represents a class of object that needs to be thrown through it using tk; cars, people, etc. To accomplish this, you wind up running around trying to grab what you need like some kind of insane scavenger hunt. Near the end, I needed a car for one of the final ones, and there was nothing close by. While the timer counted down I was desperately trying to tk grab one down this long alleyway and kept getting all the wrong stuff; random crap, garbage cans, mascots, old ladies, etc. It was so wonderfully ridiculous that I began laughing out loud while forcefully discarding old ladies into brick walls thinking “Bah. Worthless.” I can only imagine just how much crazier this will be in coop. There is also another new activity that Volition hasn’t revealed yet that was an unrealized dream for all of us Saints Row 2 modders from back in the day on the official forums.

An interesting twist with all the new activities is that there are bronze, silver, and gold scores to beat which really boosts the replayability factor. I had to tear myself away while trying to beat gold levels in order to complete the story before my time in LA was up.

Basic fast travel is in… well, kind of… but it’s not from taxis like SR2. I can’t really say much more than that without spoiling things.

Since most of the game takes place in virtual reality, you now have access to your garage from anywhere on the game map and can spawn vehicles in directly at your location. You can also digitize any vehicle you are driving to add it to your personal collection without having to visit a garage or rim jobs. Speaking of Rim Jobs, it’s actually useful again since it’s the only place you can customize vehicles. There are also new alien hover vehicles as well as returning ones from SR1 and SR2 like the Infuego XL (now a monster truck,) La Fuerza, and D-Stroy to name a few.

Property and store ownership is now based on a hacking minigame. Each store initially has a locked icon on the map, and can only be accessed after you have successfully hacked it. The hacking game is like a cross between Pipe Dreams and a combination lock with symbols. I don’t know if I would really call it fun, but it was certainly nowhere near as annoying as, say, the original Bioshock vending machine hacking. It’s more like an interesting little twist and something extra to do.

Chop Shop is improved since you now are searching for specific and unique looking infected vehicles. Once you deliver the target it is actually added to your garage for you to use. I scored a sweet looking neon striped Tron-esque monster truck this way.

On-foot radio is back in from the original Saints Row!

There are some unlocks that I can’t talk about without story spoilers, but I will say that they were a fan favorite feature of the Gentlemen of the Row mod and it was awesome to finally see them show up in the actual vanilla game.

Going in, I was initially worried about the city itself which felt pretty boring and lifeless in Saints Row: The Third. The new virtual Steelport still has the same basic layout but it feels like it has been radically changed in certain ways. There is a lot more verticality and I spent most of my game in the air, on rooftops, etc. A lot of new detail has been put into this stuff instead of at ground level, and store interiors have also had a makeover as well. My initial impression is that it is a definite improvement over the SRTT Steelport, but still doesn’t have the kind of diversity and enterable buildings of Stilwater from SR2. The city is kind of a sticking point since I would really need a lot more time with the game and open world exploration to make a final judgment on how well it will keep my interest after the story. Steve Jaros did assure me that new world assets were being added in and updated daily which should help to give it even more of a unique flavor.

Most of the old npc peds are returning, but there are definitely a few new ones I encountered; both in story missions and in the open world. There are also glitched areas in the open world where some incredibly weird npc shit happens and was absolutely hilariously awesome to encounter. This alone feels like it breathes a lot of new life into the city. It actually reminded me of the amazing npc behavior and spawn mod for SRTT in some ways.

Unfortunately the clothing system in the build I played was in a very buggy state. The game would crash after browsing only a few items, so I didn’t get to see many of the new clothes. Steve Jaros assured me that there is going to be a larger selection of them in an attempt to make up for the lack of layering; a feature that Steve Jaros himself fought for. Steve got me a final count over the weekend and there is a grand total of 600 unique clothing options.

Sadly I did not get a chance to try out any of the preorder DLC items like the Screaming Eagle jet or the ‘Merica gun. None of the radio stations were in yet either, though certain missions did have amazing music moments similar to Power and Holding out for a Hero in SRTT.

VOICE CAST

Player character voices:
Laura Bailey – Female Voice 1 (Caucasian)
Troy Baker – Male Voice 1 (Caucasian)
Robin Atkin Downes – Male Voice 2 (Cockney)
Kenn Michaels – Male Voice 3 (African American)
Special voice – (I can’t talk about but it’s AWESOME)

Other voices:
Arif S. Kinchen – Pierce
Natalie Lander – Kinzie
Danielle Nicolet – Shaundi
JB Blanc – Zinyak
Terry Crews – Benjamin “Motherfucking” King

Tara Platt has confirmed via twitter that she will not be returning as the Russian female voice. There are some huge surprises in store with the rest of the voice cast.

MISSIONS AND STORY

The mission count in SRIV seems to be about the same as SRTT, and most of them feel incredibly unique and a blast to play. One huge improvement is that missions are now in a quest log format and clearly sorted under Primary Missions and Side Quests. This really opens things up and gives the player a lot of mission options at any one time. The story itself is well written and a step up from SRTT with a lot of character development/exploration and much better pacing. Zinyak, the villain of SRIV, is also worthy of a Saints Row title since he is intelligent, cultured, and truly menacing; unlike some of the schmucks we had to deal with in the third game. One thing I found really interesting is that the virtual reality simulations and the alien invasion are actually treated seriously, despite the concept being very sci-fi. Saints Row: The Third at times felt like it was almost… trying too hard to be wacky. While there are still a lot of lighter moments and satire/parody in SRIV, it feels like a much better balance this time around between badass and funny. The boss also acts stronger and like more of a proactive leader. I can’t really think of any moments where he was getting pushed around like a doofus and just reacting to the stupid bullshit he was being put through like in SRTT.

One of my biggest problems with SRTT was that so many characters and events from previous games were either ignored or radically changed (for the worse.) It seemed like Volition tried to create a new set of characters for a new fanbase and forgot about existing ones like Tobias, Donnie, etc. Even Shaundi was radically changed from her look, to her personality, to even her voice actress. Johnny Gat is the best damn character in the entire series and he winds up getting killed offscreen like a chump in mission 2. It really felt like a slap in the face to hardcore fans, and made it difficult for me to care about any of the new cast or be invested in the story. I can’t really divulge any story details for SRIV, nor do I want to be responsible for spoiling some of the most awesome moments in the entire series. I will simply say that fans of both Saints Row and Saints Row 2, like myself, have a lot to look forward to. Saints Row IV feels like a love letter to the original hardcore fans of the franchise. It even somehow manages to bridge the gap and fill in some of the spaces from the SRTT story that were sorely lacking. There were moments throughout the Saints Row IV story where I was so deeply moved as a fan that I had tears of pure joy. Honest truth.

THE FUTURE OF SAINTS ROW MODDING

In case you’ve been living under rock, I got the green light yesterday to announce that Volition is now officially supporting modding and our forum at http://saintsrowmods.com for all the Saints Row PC games! Jeff Thompson, the Studio Director of Programming at Volition, is now working directly with us and assembling documentation, tools, support for all the file formats in the games. Things are going to start happening this week with SRTT as something of a “test run” for the release of Saints Row IV. Saints Row 2 info is going to come later since Volition didn’t do the port and it will be a bit of work to actually dig up the info we need. To the end user, this means that modders will now be able to create new clothing, new vehicles, new npcs, new weapons, new missions, and even world geometry that will all greatly extend the life of the game!

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

Steve Jaros also took the time to answer some of the Saints Row questions that I’ve been wondering about for years.

The PC port of Saints Row 2 and what went horribly wrong

The port of Saints Row 2 PC didn’t have anything at all to do with Volition. In fact, up until the final push for release they had assumed that it was only going to be releasing on 360 and PS3. THQ informed them at the last minute that a PC port was going to happen and that they had found another studio to take care of it.

The death of Johnny Gat

Having Gat die in Saints Row: The Third was something that was hotly debated internally at Volition, but once it was decided they totally went for it. In the original version of the cutscene, Johnny Gat died a hero’s death; getting shot and stabbed dozens of times while continuing to fight Loren and his goons for control of the plane. All of this was cut because there was concern from corporate that it was “too dark.” Gat’s death also had absolutely nothing to do with his voice actor (Daniel Dae Kim) being too expensive or unavailable.

Nu-Shaundi’s personality

In the original version of the SRTT story, Shaundi had a character arc where she mourned the death of Johnny Gat, and wasn’t just a raging bitch all the time. Ultimately there was concern from corporate about how appropriate themes like “survivors guilt” were in Saints Row, and as a result the story and her character was rewritten.

Missing characters

The reason that many previous characters were not referenced in SRTT, was partially due to the original SRTT story. In the original draft, Killbane did not actually blow up the bridge and take out Gat’s funeral procession. Instead, he set off a dirty nuke in Stilwater which resulted in the death of many beloved characters like Laura and Tobias. This was supposed to result in even further motivation for the player to go after him. The story was changed late in the development process (once again for being “too dark”) and so a lot of character references simply never made it back into the game with the freshly revised story.

What’s the deal with Red Faction

The IP rights to Red Faction were auctioned off to another company during the THQ dissolution, but Volition did keep the rights to any tech that was developed in-house like the Geomod engine. Geomod is extremely cpu intensive which is why the open world of Mars needed to be so sparse in Red Faction Guerrilla and why it’s been almost impossible to incorporate into the Saints Row series yet with the current console limitations.

Missing game features

Volition are one of the smaller AAA developers in the industry with a staff of only around 200 employees, so they need to be extremely selective about where to focus their time and effort for each game. One of the ways that they can justify working on things are through the metrics (statistics) they get back regarding everything that players do while playing. This isn’t a simple case where the metrics are the law for what goes into the next game though. For example, only a very low percentage of players use coop mode, but including that feature is something that the majority of the devs believe in, and is worked on despite the low numbers and the extra time and effort required.

Character customization and clothing player metrics show that only a small percentage of players spend any time actually using it. Unfortunately, the skeletal system in the new engine means it would require an exponential amount of additional work to add layering compared to Saints Row 2, so the extra time and effort could not be justified, no matter how much they wanted to include it.

Competitive multiplayer was only included in Saints Row and Saints Row 2 because Volition felt obligated to do so. According to Alex Mejia, they were operating under a misguided assumption that “Multiplayer is what all AAA games should have.” The metrics showed that only a very small percentage of players used it, so it was dropped with no plans for it to ever return. I did ask about free roam multiplayer with 4+ players, and it is something that Volition has considered. It’s a real problem for consoles though since the player characters with all the customization and clothing is very costly to memory for even just 2 player coop. I suggested that they simply allow players to use any static npc model for free roam instead, and that problem would be solved. The npc morphs included with the Gentlemen of the Row mod were a fan favorite and I received a huge amount of positive feedback regarding them. Everyone seemed to love being able to play as Carlos, Gat, Jyunichi, etc (including me.)

In short, Volition isn’t just willfully ignorant of what features the fans are asking for. These are tough decisions that the devs personally fight for to include. Often, it ends up being a give and take situation where they have to decide to focus effort on a certain new feature at the expense of an old one. Deep Silver has also given Volition the freedom and control to make the games they want to make without imposing any kind of executive level nonsense that led to some of the previous issues with SRTT.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I went in to this situation with low expectations and a laundry list of problems I had with Saints Row: The Third. I was completely and brutally honest about everything that bothered me, and really let Volition have it despite a nagging feeling that I might be burning some bridges. To their credit, they welcomed and encouraged all the criticism and we discussed these issues at length with an incredible amount of candor on why things happened the way they did and the outside factors that influenced events. Steve Jaros, Alex Mejia, and Jeff Bielawski are some of the most genuine and real people in the industry I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They are the good guys with the big hearts that love Saints Row as much as the fans do and fight to make the best game they can. One of the big things we talked about were ways to bridge the gap between the developers and the fans, and I think this event was a first tentative step down that road. Steve Jaros also just informed me over the weekend that Volition will be doing a Reddit AMA this Summer before the release of Saints Row IV so anyone can directly ask them questions and get answers. I think this is another great way for Volition to become more involved with the fan community as well.

Regarding the game itself, Saints Row IV feels like a 100% fully fledged sequel with a meaty campaign and a ton of open world extra content. It is much more fleshed out than Saints Row: Third, and did not feel like a dlc expansion or cash grab to me in any way. Despite the “wacky” sci-fi premise, the story and characters are treated with respect to the original two games, and the simulation aspect is simply a brilliant way to bring in a ton of fanservice using the world’s own internal logic. It is also quite compelling and has much better rewards for doing side content this time. The new features and gameplay give it a unique voice in the series and it has a wide variety of options that even surpasses SR2′s open world toolbox in some ways. I’m actually kind of shocked at how my opinion flipped after spending time with the game. I even preordered the game myself they very moment it became available on Steam. I cannot wait to play it again.

DISCLAIMER

The build I played was very much work in progress and not yet finalized. Features may possibly change between now and the actual release. I paid my own way for the trip and there was no swag involved or anything like that. In no way did it seem like Volition was trying to influence me in any way. The Volition guys actively encouraged me to be honest and candid both good and bad. “Keep it real” was the mantra of the whole experience. I’m also not aware of any mind altering chemicals that were administered or any kind of alien control device implanted without my knowledge.

887 Responses to “The Price of Freedom: Hands on with Saints Row IV”

  1. Brandon says:

    How will importing your character work

    • IdolNinja says:

      That part isn’t live yet, but it’s looking like through the website character download. There is no save import option if that’s what you’re asking.

  2. That guy that has questions says:

    Are the controls fairly different than the controls in saints row the third

  3. Brandino says:

    I have a question. Is the free roam map just the steelport simulation. Are there other maps to explore in free roam or are they just used for 1 mission.