Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell arrives later this week, but we’ve been annoying Satan before that. And in the game. Unfortunately review code was all-too-familiarly later than promised, so this review is written before I’ve managed to complete the whole game. We’ll update it with anything crucial if necessary. Here’s wot I think:
The question, “Where can they possibly go next?” is one that has always been remarkably well answered by Volition’s Saints Row games. After the lunatic frenzy of Saints Row: The Third, they somehow stepped it up in SR4’s mad-faced computer-simulated alien interpretation of Earth, taking leave of all reality and adding in super powers, as well as emphasising city exploration and activities over extended scripted missions. On paper, the declaration that this expandalone of SR4 would take place in Hell rather sounded like they’d found somewhere even more extreme to take it.
Well, hopefully they’re saving that up for Saints Row 5. Because while Gat Out Of Hell is definitely splendid, it’s a sideways move from the fourth game, rather than presenting any sense of a step forward. And as is the case with sideways steps, it’s harder to appreciate what you’ve still got when things start to feel derivative.
But remember, it’s important to appreciate what you’ve got! And in GOOH, it’s a whole new pile of Saints Row nonsense, in a new skin, with a new script, and most of all, songs. The President (you, in the previous game) gets sucked into a hell portal after the Saints muck about with a Ouija board, so Gat and Kinzie set after him to launch a rescue. You can play as either (although I suspect this was a later decision, since cutscenes and tutorial sequences assume you’re Gat), with your goal being to piss Satan off as much as you possibly can.
A smaller-than-usual city is still huge, and jam-packed with activities and challenges. All new enemy types take the form of demons, while the civilians are once again eminently run-over-able thanks to being grey, staggering husks. Although of course, just as with 4, the chances of your ever actually driving a car are very slim – you’re very quickly bestowed with super-speed and this time the ability to fly, along with a cluster of other superpowers unlocked as you progress.
Flying is the really important change here. And it’s mostly very well implemented. Rather than just handing you wings and letting you flit as you please, you have to earn your way to that by mastering its tricky techniques. Flying requires a combination of sustained momentum, and stamina. Flapping your wings is apparently extremely costly, and heavily restricted, so you need to ensure you’re swooping and diving to pick up speed. And with upgrades coming at a tremendous pace, this all works well, and it soon feels a very rewarding way to move about the city. Apart from tight turns, which are unfortunately always awkward, hindered by a sluggish camera when playing with a 360 pad.
(I’ve adopted my previous Frankensteinian control options for GOOH, using the controller for general play, then jumping over to mouse/keyboard for gun-based combat. That it lets me be this odd is a credit to the game.)
It is, however, looking very tired. The 2013 SR4 engine was a polished version of SR3’s, and it just about got away with it. Four years on from its first outing, it’s no longer really good enough. And that’s not helped by a peculiarly dreary palette of greys and dull reds, some extremely bland textures, and half-finished looking buildings. Removing the screaming cartoon colour horror of previous outings leaves a significant gap. SR4 was extremely guilty of a same-ish city, but it’s nothing compared to the confusing ubiquity of Hell’s concrete nothingness.
The map is also inexcusably dated, to the point of being entirely useless. After the sheer glee of Far Cry 4’s specificity, this feels awful to use.
But the important question is: is it funny? SR4 is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, with a post-credits gag that had me genuinely unable to breathe with laughter. Well… yeah, it’s okay. Which is to say, it’s about five hundred thousand times more humorous than any other open city game, but falls a little short of what I’d hoped for. The writing is good, and despite Gat being the least likeable and least interesting character they’ve created, and their continued fascination with him hard to comprehend, the dialogue is still strong. The songs, meanwhile, are wonderful. What a fantastic sentence to be able to type.
You’re assisted on your attempts to rescue the President from Hell by new characters, Blackbeard, Vlad The Impaler, and of course, Shakespeare. Rather than having specifically crafted challenges of their own, as before their individual quest chains are based on completing city-based activities. It feels far more artificial and incongruous this time out, but it’s hard to care too much since it’s invariably fun to do. And the cutscenes surrounding it all are little rewards for getting things done. (Gosh, remember when cutscenes would often feel rewarding, rather than the thing you were desperately trying to skip? Thank you Volition for remembering this is possible.)
While there are a great deal of collectables, and the city offers many extra challenges to complete as you progress (lots of them flying themed, like finding small gaps to swoop through), the overall content is pretty brief here. It isn't going to take you more than five or six hours to get through to the end, and that's with a fair amount of going off track along the way. £15 is a fair price, with it being at least half the size of the regular entries.
But despite the extraordinary opportunity the setting provides, it doesn't really seem to go to any extremes to surprise. It's important to be clear that there's lots that is unique, not least the flying mechanics, and a number of the challenges (swooping around to collect falling souls is a peculiar one, certainly). But an armchair with machine guns in the arms is about as exciting as it sounds, and that's the game's big comedy weapon this time out. It's hardly a dubstep gun, or wobbly giant dildo. Although I think an armchair with guns neatly sums up Gat Out Of Hell. It's a comfortable game, lots to do, very silly, definitely fun to play. But it's also sitting still, putting its feet up, rather than surprising us with something delightfully new.