Saints Row – Gat out of Hell: There will be no Meatloaf jokes in this review

You guys probably don’t know me well enough to understand what a big day this is for me, but Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is out, and I am typing words that will, hopefully, say something about it.

I love these games. The Boss is right up there among my all-time favorite video game psychopaths, right up there with Brick, Cloud, and Toad (those evil eyes… nothing but pupil). I love Saints Row for so many reasons, from the near-perfect gender equality, to the almost endless character customization, to the absolute disregard for video game norms.

When THQ went under, I thought the 3rd Street Saints were gone forever. I also thought the Darksiders franchise was gone forever, but I didn’t care so much about that. I like War and Death fine enough, but The Boss, Pierce, and Shaundi are practically close, personal friends of mine, where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are more acquaintances. I was particularly sad considering how downright amazing the third Saints Row game had been. None of us had thought that Volition could possibly make a better game than Saints Row 2, and they’d proven us so very wrong.

You see, the primary concept to understand with these games is escalation. Unlike the teams making the games that provided the inspiration for Saints Row (which is pretty much just Grand Theft Auto), the team that makes Saints Row feels the compulsion to make each game more ridiculous and over-the-top than the one before it. GTA does the exact opposite, striving for more and more realism with each iteration. I don’t have a problem with this. In fact, I applaud Rockstar on this effort, if for no other reason than because they actually seem to be succeeding in making their games more realistic. However, I appreciate the absolutely bananas gameplay of Saints Row far more. The sheer complexity of the Chiliad Mystery has kept me fairly interested in GTA V for the last year and a half, but Saints Row has kept me playing their games on a regular basis with nothing more than a giant dildo and The Boss’s all-consuming love for professional wrestling moves.

So, here’s the (bare-bones) story of the 3rd Street Saints, so far. First game, they were nothing. Just a tiny gang that had control of little more than one street. This game followed their rise to power while taking over the city of Stillwater, growing from the smallest gang in town to the biggest. It began with the player character unexpectedly joining the crew and ended with your character becoming The Boss of The Saints. Already, in one game, a distressing amount of escalation has happened. The second game picked up right where the first left off, and chronicled The Saints’ rise to power, again, in Stillwater for reasons that make perfect sense if you’ve played the game and don’t matter if you haven’t. By the end of Saints Row 2, The Saints grow to even more insane levels of power with you, as The Boss, at the helm, and the future is much brighter than at the end of the first game. By the start of Saints Row: The Third, the 3rd Street Saints have, in essence, sold out. They’ve cashed in on their fame as the most badass street gang around and acquired sweet, sweet endorsement cash from energy drinks, clothing lines, and… movie deals? Shit escalates pretty hard. And this other, equally badass gang leader named Killbane calls up The Boss (who is you, by the way) on the phone and says something like, “Maaaaaaaan, you’re a pussy, now; I bet you couldn’t take over a paper bag cuz you’re so full from your fancy movie-food-service-people food,” and The Boss is all, “Nuh-uh,” and he or she and Pierce and Shaundi and Johnny Gat all hop on a plane to go smack some sense into Killbane. The game is spent taking over this man’s city because he called you mean names and you now have the money and resources to basically do whatever the hell you want. The game ends with a tough choice as the ending, and I’m fairly certain that both endings are canon. It ends on a bit more of a down note than Saints Row 2, but the Saints attain a ridiculous amount of fame and wealth. Watching their rampage on TV was the new national pastime, and the movie they filmed, Gangstas in Space, made billions of dollars even though it was godawful. Of course The Boss would win “their” run for president at the start of Saints Row 4, and of course the Earth would get blown up by aliens so you have to take over a city inside an alien simulation, and of course they would still be trying to make movies from their hybrid Matrix/Mass Effect ship. This is a street gang run by complete crazy people, and they survived the end of the world. It’s only natural.

You’re starting to see a trend, here, I hope. Every game escalates pretty hard, in the story department. But, the story is broken up into several familiar parts. First, and most accessible to us, we have the story attached to the gameplay. This is the obligatory “take over a city” part of the story that makes up almost everything you do in the game. It’s the sandbox, and it drives the way you explore the city. It gives you a reason to stop on the way to the next story mission and do a couple side-missions, maybe blow up a few buses, maybe put on a giant, furry mascot costume, maybe fall in front of a few buses to cash in on that insurance money. Every activity you perform earns you Respect, the game’s form of experience points, and most also have a visible impact on taking the city for yourself. Outposts of enemies slowly disappear and are replaced by glorious purple Saints NPCs as you conquer them. Turrets and things stay down, too. Any activity important enough to be on the map is likely to make a permanent change to that area when you complete it. It feels good. It’s rewarding in several ways, which makes it more appealing to do. And it was already pretty appealing to do. My group of friends has a tendency to use the phrase “chaos simulator” when describing GTA and its friends, and any chaos simulator that pays me for doing something I already wanted to do, like shoot something or blow something up or drive something off a cliff, is cool in my book.

The other story that runs beside the obligatory “take over this city because this style of game would make no sense otherwise” is the story of the player character’s personal glory. There are also the other side-stories about the other gangsters’ personal glories, but The Boss is definitely the focus, here. This story is generally conveyed through popularity, which has a tangible manifestation in Respect. Everything The Boss does earns it, and it is reflected in the story. He or she starts off as nothing, and not only becomes the leader of a gang, but also makes that gang the most well-known, far-reaching gang in the known universe. This story can be much more fluid than the story about taking over a city, since it isn’t directly tied to the style of game like the city takeover. There are many different ways to become popular, though, and murder seems to work pretty well. The Boss is about as morally ambivalent as they come, so his or her methods can get highly entertaining.

There is only one character whose story can rival that of The Boss, and that man is Johnny Gat. Johnny Gat is so badass. There is no way to describe Johnny Gat without using the word “badass.” You can’t even say it at a normal volume. It’s like there’s this kid riding a bear that’s pedaling a ten-speed and they all just backflipped over your head, and at the exact instant that the kid passed between you and the sun, he pulled out a bazooka and shot the Turkish drone that was about to take out the mayor, and you felt the words escape your lips in a whisper, “badass.” That’s the sort of shit Johnny Gat does. All you can do sometimes is whisper “badass.” And Mom, I know you hate gratuitous swearing, but I don’t know another word for the emotion that is evoked when someone, like, drives a tank through a plane in mid-air, and whose fault is that, huh!?

Consider all this when you think how excited I was to find out I would be playing as Johnny Gat in the standalone DLC for Saints Row 4, Gat out of Hell. Sure, I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be playing as The Boss, but I had become very used to the vaguely Hispanic female voice, anyway, and it’s either gone entirely and replaced with a French female voice, or it’s being done by a new voice actress who accidentally sounded too French. Playing as someone other than my sad, not-really-Hispanic-anymore character wouldn’t have bothered me no matter who I was playing as. Oh, by the way…

MAJOR FUCKING SPOILERS ARE ALL UP IN THIS BITCH

Seriously, you’re gonna read some shit if you keep going. So, if you haven’t played it yet and it’s gonna bother you to know some bare-bones ridiculous plot, stop reading immediately. I won’t be directly quoting the script, but half of the fun of the script is seeing how the hell they are gonna escalate from where things were, before. Without spoiling anything, though, I can tell you that the story in this game is very different from previous iterations in a lot of ways, and it’s paced a bit strangely. Rather than completing specific story missions from your phone or your PDA or whatever, a gauge fills up as you create chaos, and specific amounts of chaos trigger a small handful of scripted events. It ends up putting the climax roughly in the middle of your takeover of Hell City, which feels kind of soon, but there’s still so much to unlock after completing the story that you’ll be right back out there blowing things up. Anyway, let’s jump right into the spoilers.

Gat out of Hell starts with a birthday party for Kinzie, probably my favorite out of the new generation of characters. She’s fairly agoraphobic, and watching her have to be the center of attention during a party she never would have agreed to is pure schadenfreude. A not-Ouija board is brought out (pretty sure they call it a spirit board?) and the board, of course, opens a portal to Hell and kidnaps The Boss. Fairly straightforward. We knew it was called Gat out of Hell, at the very least, and we had to see some sort of image of Johnny Gat hanging out in the fiery abyss in order to download the game, so some expectations were in place. What we didn’t expect was for Johnny to pull out a gun, shoot a blank portion of the “spirit board,” and intimidate it into opening another portal to Hell so he can get his best friend back. And we definitely didn’t expect Kinzie to pull the “it’s my birthday” card to bully Gat into letting her come along. And NOTHING AT ALL could have prepared us to fly around Hell as Kinzie herself.

Within seconds of making it to Hell, Johnny spots a billboard for the Ultor Corporation, the primary antagonistic force in Saints Row 2. This doesn’t surprise Johnny in the slightest, and he does the only thing he knows how in response: steals a car, drives it into the door of Ultor’s headquarters, and puts a gun to the head of Ultor, Ultor’s head. Here’s a tip for all of you would-be writers of fiction: Give the company head a different name than the company. Makes talking about both of them in the same sentence end up sounding dumb, and apparently even more so when you’re trying to talk about putting a gun to the head’s head. Not everyone is so narcissistic that they’d name a corporation after themselves, and it makes way more sense for someone truly evil to take over an existing company than for them to build their own. Why, look at the 3rd Street Saints. They’re hyper-powerful and dangerously narcissistic, but they don’t spend a ton of time building new towns or naming these admittedly non-existent towns after themselves; they just take over a town that’s already there and paint it bright purple.

Ultor talks Johnny down and explains that he realized how similar The Saints were to himself and his own organization, and he decided after they killed him that he would try to help them out if they ever ended up in Hell. To that end, he gives Johnny Gat the halo that Lucifer lost when he was cast out of Heaven, and it gives him all-burny-lookin’ wings and a bunch of superpowers. This is unsurprising. Come on, guys. They let us have superpowers the whole way through Saints Row 4 and justified it as (pretend the following, in quotes, is said in a spooky, kinda wobbly voice) “part of the simulation,” so they certainly aren’t gonna take the superpowers away, now that we have them. It’s about escalation, people! Can’t escalate something you left out, gotta keep everything in! Just add more!

And add, it did.

Before we talk about gameplay improvements, let’s take a step back and recap something we talked about before, but with a little more emphasis. The main story of the Saints Row games will probably always be directly tied to the gameplay, and it will be about taking over a city. We would hate a Saints Row game that strayed from this formula. As a one-off? Sure! Maybe they could make another piece of standalone DLC, do something linear and super story-heavy. But as a main entry in the series? The fans would abandon this franchise faster than… why is every comparison I can think of about speed of abandonment absolutely horrifying? We’ll skip the metaphor. Suffice to say people would hate it. So, as a result of us, the consumers, flaying developers alive when they change their games too much, some portion of the story and the gameplay will never change. And this is just fine. They aren’t trying to make a life-changing experience in video game form, they’re trying to make something that’s fun to play. As a developer, you accomplish long-term franchise-level entertainment by hitting the sweet spot of fun-to-play for your franchise, then making slight, incremental changes to that formula. Saints Row hit the sweet spot pretty early on. Volition had the advantage of being a late addition to the chaos simulator genre (the first game came out for the Xbox 360, to give you an idea of the timeline), and this has allowed them to really fine-tune their formula. There’s not an awful lot that Volition really needs to change. A juiced-up melee system would be welcome, now that superpowers have rendered cars almost entirely obsolete, but I’m willing to let them cling to the fantasy for a while longer that I will drive anywhere when I can run up the sides of buildings. Seriously, though, if someone at Volition is reading this, you could just make some locations on the map for ridiculous driving minigames, and I bet no one would bat an eye if you mapped something that kicks or punches people to the “steal the nearest car” button. I need to get back on track before I go off about controller schemes, but remind me to talk about it, some time. We have some serious work to do in that regard, since no one has come up with a viable substitute apart from maybe Nintendo, and I am referring specifically to the DS and its touchscreen. I guess the Wii U can come, too.

Anyway, I guess the point is that we have to expect that the gameplay isn’t going to change, much. Luckily, it’s fun. Not much change needed. What matters now is what they do to improve it. And adding semi-realistic flying is quite possibly the best thing they could have done. Well, as someone who is not a man with magic angel wings, I have to assume, with the evidence I have at my disposal, that it is pretty close to the real thing if the real thing was possible. It’s damn fun, too. My biggest gripe with the superpowers in Saints Row 4 was that I had to touch the ground from time to time between super-jumps. Gat out of Hell has almost entirely eliminated the need to land. You can flap your wings a limited number of times each flight, and these “flaps” recharge when you land, which includes flying into a building so hard you sprint up the side of it. That honestly is enough of a rest for you to be able to flap your wings some more. If vertical sprinting is restful enough to recharge your flyin’ juice, how much fucking work is flying?

The guns have also escalated since the previous iteration, and this is mostly for the best. With how far the guns have escalated, though, it can feel counterintuitive to use them before they’re fully upgraded. The strangest gun I’ve unlocked, The Last Supper, shoots frosting at enemies so they eat each other, but I haven’t put any money into upgrades, so I can’t really tell if it’s doing anything at all. Most of the other truly badass guns have the same issue. One gun is so badass it talks to you, and that one also starts off woefully weak. I get why it happens like that, but it breaks the immersion to suddenly realize that the insane new gun you just got isn’t actually all that insane. If they’re gonna give us unlimited rockets at level 20 (which is fairly easy to attain), I don’t see any good reason to not allow one or two guns to be absolutely ridiculous while they still have limited ammo at level 10.

The new superpowers have escalated in a manner quite similar to the guns and, in the same way, this makes some counterintuitive things happen. Some of these superpowers are absolutely worthless until you get their top-end element, and the cost required to really flesh out a power and its elements is absolutely staggering. Unlike the previous iteration, each element is split into a tree in the upgrade menu, and must be upgraded independently, rather than having every upgrade affect all three elements, ala Saints Row 4. The overall cost for upgrades has been slightly lowered to compensate, but not enough, in my opinion. This is particularly noticable because powers like the Aura thingy are unimpressive until they become overpowered, and that can’t happen until you unlock the last element. The stomp power retains its usefulness from the moment you acquire it regardless of the element you’re using, and the new summon power is pretty cool, I guess, but it’s kinda wonky, much like the new projectile power. Some of the projectile’s elements don’t seem to do much, not when compared to the Aura element that makes nearby enemies kneel in reverence to you, allowing for easy melee kills or headshots.

So, the escalation in this game is mostly intact. Again, AND I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH, if you’re expecting anything other than a very slightly upgraded version of Saints Row 4, you will be disappointed, and should think about revisiting the notion of what “standalone DLC” means to you. I don’t know that it compares to the last standalone DLC most of us (I hope) have played, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (and if you haven’t, honestly, do yourself the favor), but it’s on the right track. In terms of the game’s size and the amount of things to do, find, and unlock, I’d say Gat out of Hell has the advantage on Blood Dragon, but all the stuff to do is a little more samey than Blood Dragon. The dozen or so carefully crafted outposts scattered about a couple mountainous islands seem far more engrossing and immersive than the hundred-odd copy/pasted missions in Gat out of Hell. And, maybe I’m just a masochist, but I’d rather spend time in a terrifying open world than a completely unthreatening one. Yet, I am not masochistic enough for one type of mission in Gat out of Hell. The Salvation mission type was a miserable experience every time I tried it. I’m kinda old and slow compared to the days when the NES and SNES really tested our reflexes, but I’m pretty sure Salvation is also insanely hard. There’s so much to manage, and very little time to react. These missions kept me from completing certain side-quests, and that kinda sucks, but none of the good items seem to be locked away behind these side-quests, so I can deal with it. I can’t complain too much about trivial issue like this, though, since it’s standalone DLC for a game that was already, in essence, standalone DLC.

Man, I wasn’t gonna bring that up. I kind of avoided it for a while, but I suppose we do, eventually, have to talk about the elephant in the room: Enter the Dominatrix. It is, after all, the reason for all of this, the single event that most shaped the Saints Row franchise.

In Saints Row: The Third, there was a pretty awesome mission in which The Boss got superpowers. Everyone went crazy over it, and the internet (that’s you guys) clamored for more. Volition responded that it would be nice, and obviously it would be fun to play, but they didn’t know how to pull it off without compromising the base concept of the game. Later, on April Fool’s Day 2012, THQ announced “Enter the Dominatrix,” some obviously fake, superpower-based DLC for Saints Row: The Third. But then, like some hideous mutant in a disturbed middle-school science teacher’s basement lab, it came to life. A while later, it was actually announced, and Enter the Dominatrix took its first shaky steps. Eventually, the project became too large, and the story was scrapped to make room for a new script, and suddenly the superpower-based DLC mutant that was Enter the Dominatrix metamorphosed into Saints Row 4. Out with the leather and whips, in with the aliens, and I guess just go ahead and leave all of those “leather and whips” character models in there, who are we kidding, this is a Saints Row game, we’ll find a use for them.

No shit, people, this happened. I am reviewing DLC for DLC that went way over budget and turned into a full release. Do I think this is acceptable? Yes and no. I think this is incredibly indicative of the current shape of the industry. I think we live in a world where DLC, an idea I abhor, is here to stay. I don’t want developers to spend their time milking an existing game for more money instead of just making the next game, and it happens anyway. We validated it by buying it, so we get to live with what that created. But, at the same time, this is pretty much how every game got a sequel back in the so-called “golden era” before DLC. The developers sat down with their old source code and tweaked it until it was a new game. If I can praise Mega Man, with its ridiculous number of similar games that mostly just made slight improvements over time, I can’t nitpick about how Saints Row, another game from the same school of thought, comes to life. I do recognize that this could impact how some people feel about buying this game, but I encourage those people to let it go. I am one of those stubborn, principled people who refuses to buy games for stuff like this, and I have no regrets on this purchase. It’s nearly as big as Saints Row 4, and an awful lot of new assets were created for this experience. Hell looks absolutely incredible, and you’ll have such a great time flying around on your stolen angel wings that you’ll entirely forget the convoluted development cycle that led to it. Also, the Volition guys don’t seem that greedy when compared to the rest of the industry. Saints Row 4 was released two years after the previous game and only had two sets of DLC released for it, and Gat out of Hell was released eighteen months after that. Maybe a hundred and twenty bucks total over a year and a half, and the drought between the third and fourth games takes a bit of the edge off. Compare that to the cost of annually renewing your ability to play Call of Duty with your friends, and I think you’ll find that Volition is on the low end of the Money Grubber Scale.

Oh, shit. I did it again. Look at all of those words. Jeepers. Sorry, everyone. I get pretty passionate about Saints Row and video games and stuff. It got this long and I didn’t even talk about how much I think Kinzie is doing for gender equality in games (SPOILER: it’s a lot) or who I think The Boss should actually marry (but I hope it’s me). Anyway, I think that Gat out of Hell is a pretty okay game, and worth almost exactly the twenty bucks I had to shell out for it. Maybe even a little more, since I’m sure I’ll crave the flying and revisit this game later on. I am a gigantic sucker for a fun movement system in a game, and this game has one. You ever play City of Heroes? It was like one long orgasm for me. So many options for movement.

Score? Score! For the next step in the Saints franchise, 8/10. In the grand scheme of things, maybe a 5 or a 6. It’s not changing the industry, and it’s a byproduct of the current greed that shapes games, but it’s still pretty great, all things considered. It’s comfortable. It’s cheap. I guess that can’t be a terrible thing.