I’ve talked a bit about the Saints Row games before, and on this occasion I’m going to talk about them again, and at some point give you my opinion on the latest one, the numberless Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell, which launched just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, let me give it to you right now: Buy it if you’re a Saints Row fan or have at least really enjoyed either SR3 or SR4. Don’t buy it if you’ve never played a Saints Row game before (because you’ll be lost, and it’s not a great way to start the series), don’t buy it if any of your arguments about why GTA V is the best thing ever end in ‘lol’ (because they’re not good arguments), and definitely don’t buy it if you think the series lost its way after SR2 (because you really, really won’t like it).
Okay, great, review over. Well, almost over. I’ll talk a bit more about Gat Out of Hell’s graphics and gameplay and whatnot in a minute, but in much the same way that Gat is a standalone expansion pack (or ‘expandalone’ — love that word), this is not so much a review as the condensation of a series of thoughts on the SR series, with a bit of opinion on the new one glued to the end. (Also — SPOILERS!)
Johnny is uncompromising in his quest to rescue you. Brilliantly, your relationship can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on which sex you chose for your SR4 character. (On PC at least, Gat will import your Boss if it finds an SR4 save game).
Let’s begin with some context. The original Saints Row was an X360 exclusive back in 2006. It was an open-world crime sim that sought to improve on the GTA formula while still retaining all of its straight-faced urban grit. Crucially though, it tried to ground itself not in the GTA series’ early lone-wolf machismo, but in a more group-oriented gang culture that lent itself well to colour-coding and a more fun, musical streak that’s become a hallmark of the series. It also did an incredibly good job of establishing its world, which is something you increasingly realise as you play through each game in the series, noticing not only all the little physical details, in-jokes, easter eggs and sight gags that call back to the previous entries, but also the soap opera-esque plotting and detailed now-a-friend, now-a-foe character development. Delightfully, there are things that were set up in this first game that are only now being fully paid off in Gat Out of Hell, nine years later. But this richness was only really partially visible at the time, and it didn’t always sit well with the ‘gritty’ tone, and so Saints Row released to only mild acclaim (indeed, many saw it as somewhat seedy, misogynistic and dour). Still, it did indeed offer some innovations, including shooting and melee systems that were leagues ahead of GTA III‘s notoriously crap combat controls.
Saints Row 2 then emerged in 2008, with the PC port arriving in 2009 (there was also a pretty good SR2 mobile game from THQ Wireless in-between). Despite being SR’s first appearance on the PC, for many of us – I’d dare say even most of us – this is where Saints Row history begins. Carrying on the story established in the first game, it was still all about guns, gangs and girls, but had now realised that the whole murdering, fucking and exploding genre belonged not at the top, but slightly over it. It pushed the colourful, musical gang culture elements further, balancing them with lauded, free-ranging player character creation and customisation systems that allowed you to play as pretty much any combination of sex, ethnicity and body shape you could imagine, dressed in an unparalleled array of costumes, outfits and accessories. In other words, it came closer to the gaming ideal of allowing you to play as you than any other game to that point. SR2 laid out a solid plot with good writing and strong characterisation, based on gang warfare and city control, and ultimately was a palpable success. It’s developers, then known as Volition, Inc., knuckled down to do a proper sequel, taking full advantage of the PC’s extra power to bring us a continuation of the story in 2011 (and whilst that was cooking, we had Saints Row: Total Control, a now-defunct Facebook game to tide us over).
You’re free to switch characters whenever you like. Although Johnny is ostensibly the hero, you could play the entire thing just as Kinzie — everything is set up to still make sense when Johnny-specific cut-scenes are triggered.
The X360/PS3/PC Saints Row: The Third was the Spinal Tap of the series, turning everything up to 11, because if your obese, cross-dressing clown-clothed avatar is going to leap off a skyscraper shooting bazookas at laser-firing VTOL attack jets as you plummet to the ground in a shower of comedy wigs and hand grenades, you may as well acknowledge that reality is now so far behind you that adding in a giant dildo bat and a gun that causes sharks to erupt out of the ground and eat people whole is small change indeed. Of course, for some people the sharks and dildos were a step too far away from whatever bizarre reality they lived in where games like GTA III and SR2 were reasonable simulacrums of their existence, and this is where the big schism in the Saints Row fanbase occurred. On balance though, SR3 was still reasonably well grounded, in a kind of criminal soap opera-like way, and it almost goes without saying that it was an even bigger success, critically and financially.
(Part of the marketing plan for SR3 had included an NDS/XBLA/PSN spin-off, Saints Row: Money Shot, that would bridge the story between SR2 and SR3. It was cancelled before release, although the unlockable goodies were later incorporated into SR3 DLC (of which there is a ton)).
2013 then saw Saints Row IV. Despite the gravity lent to it by the use of the number, this was the first SR3-based expandalone (this year’s Gat being the other). By that I mean that it was a new game, with a new story, and all-new systems and mechanics, but built in a tweaked SR3 engine using the existing map as a basis. If I tell you that the story involves an alien invasion and a Matrix-like simulation of the city of Steelport from SR3, this will perhaps make more sense. Saints Row IV was critically very well received on launch, with most reviews praising the superbly fluid, comfortable controls and ludicrously good fun that could be had running, jumping and flying like a proper Neo/Superman. Arguably, SR4 did super-powered movement and combat better than any previous game (including you, City of Heroes, my dear old friend). Of course, everyone felt obliged to point out that it was a re-use of the engine and map of the previous game, but only the very sour, missing the po-faced action of GTA: Smack Your Bitch Up and SR: Gunz R Kool really touted this as a reason not to buy or enjoy it.
In terms of tone, while SR3 had crystalized the soap opera aspects of the series, SR4 polished and buffed them to a retina-searing shine. Three and Four (and Gat) together form a more coherent whole than 2-3-4-Gat. Partly this is down to the 3-4-Gat run chiefly coming from the pens of designer Scott Philips and writer Steve Jaros, something that Gat playfully acknowledges with a bit of dialogue about how “the boss” (always your character) was a much more violent, volatile person back in SR2 (at least 10-15 years pass between the end of SR1 and the beginning of SR4). And again, SR4 sold well, moving one million units in its first week of sale alone.
Gat Out of Hell was then announced in August 2014, and as you know, released on January 23rd of this year here in the EU. It too is an expandalone that re-uses the existing Havok engine, but this time with a significantly cut-down and altered map from Three and Four, re-using only some parts of it (including, most glaringly, the skyscraper-like central structure from Zinyak’s ship/base in SR4, minus the umbrella-like top part). But by now, the engine is looking a bit old. What it gains in smoothness and high frame rates, it loses most noticeably in draw distance, which is especially apparent given Gat’s new flying and gliding mechanics. You see the giant ‘angel wings’ Johnny’s sporting in the cover art? Yeah. And they’re awesome. As much of a game-changer as SR4’s super movement and super powers (some of which also return in Gat largely unchanged, but with a more supernatural rationale). Also returning is the concept of collectible blobs that power up your skills and abilities. In SR3 they were data clusters, while here they’re soul clusters.
The story picks up from the ending of SR4 (ignoring the implications of SR3’s Enter The Dominatrix and How The Saints Saved Christmas DLC), with the Saints celebrating Kinzie Kensington’s birthday aboard their Zin spaceship (pleasingly, Zinyak is now a happy member of the Row). Other new-old characters include Jane Austen, who resumes her narrating duties in Gat with the use of a lavishly illustrated book, the pictures in which serve as segues to and from the usual fantastically well-done in-engine cutscenes. But the game’s key strength is its story. If you’re buying Gat, you’re not buying it because it’s a huge new experience (it’s only about 5-6 hours long, with lots of side-tracking) or because it’s a good alternative to GTA V (it isn’t; GTA V is going to decimate the genre when it arrives on PC), but because you fell in love with the Saints themselves long ago, and are desperate to meet them again – particularly given the somewhat nihilistic SR4. (The bleakness of which conversely, and brilliantly, served to highlight the depth of feeling that the Saints have for each other, and us for them. In living memory, I can think of no other game that made me sob uncontrollably while laughing hysterically and feeling so elated and empowered, all at the same time as when… well, driving to a dock-side mission doing this).
The sometimes heated debate about whether the series lost its way after SR2, or instead found it, seems quite clearly cut down a line that is surprisingly rarely expressed – those who love the 3-4-G run do so because they love the characters and their convoluted, Die Hard-meets-Laurel-and-Hardy world, and those who don’t, don’t for those same reasons. The fans who stopped at SR2 don’t seem to care about the bond between the Saints (and therefore, between the Saints and the players), or how they’ve survived everything that’s been thrown at them precisely because of that closeness – while nevertheless being accepting of new members, regardless of their history (except you, Dex, screw you man). And in fairness, SR3 did end up being quite a curve ball after SR2’s solid, stolid action. To extend the analogy, it was the same ball, pitched by the same team in the same park, but it found the catcher’s mitt quite comfortable and didn’t want to be thrown back. The fact that that mitt happened to be attached to Professor Genki’s murderous pink paw is only unfortunate for them (but probably good news for Rockstar’s sales figures).
So, an unapologetic defence of the series’ wackiness, with a recommendation not to buy Gat Out of Hell unless you’ve already come this far with nothing but smiles and heart pangs for your own Boss, goofy, earnest Pierce, the two Shaundis (linked by tragedy, let’s face it), the sexy sociopath Kinzi, loose cannon Johnny and the Spy-vs-Spy pairing of Matt and Asha, as well as all the other shady characters you know and love (and Gat has a few cool surprises in that department). And if you’ve never played a Saints Row but have somehow read (or scrolled) through this far, well, you’ve got some new best friends to make.
One for the fans.
- Visuals – 70
- Sound – 80
- Playability – 90
- Writing – 100
The engine creaks and the graphics are somewhat lacking, but it’s all about the writing and story. Saints Row fans will be delighted by the return of old characters, and surprised by the appearance of some awesome new ones. It’s a short, sweet experience that you won’t want to miss. (You, yes you, the one having flashbacks every time you hear that Biz Markie song).