When Saints Row 4 begins, you are no less than the leader of the free world, and your first walk through the White House (complete with scantily dressed staffers and chained-up pet tigers) is like a congratulations for a job well done. You get to choose between making healthcare free or ending the deficit, you get re-introduced to a bunch of familiar faces from the series (who now all have cabinet-level positions in your administration), and the biggest prize of all is that you're on a first-name basis with your Vice President, Keith David (yes, the Keith David, brilliantly playing himself). Starting Saints Row 4 feels like you've just finished a long journey, and you've won the day once and for all.
And that's when the aliens show up to kidnap your friends. You order the turrets raised from underneath the South Lawn, you get in a fistfight with the alien overlord, and – oh – you get superpowers.
"It was hard, man," says the game's creative director, Steve Jaros. "It was one of those things where Saints Row 3 was pretty far, and how do we top that?" The two mantras for Volition, Jaros says, are "embrace the crazy, and fun trumps all. And when you start thinking about that, it's like, the superpowers feel really good."
Jaros wasn't completely forthcoming with the story just yet, but yes, eventually you're kidnapped by the space invaders, and then placed in some kind of virtual reality prison where aliens still descend out of the skies to fight you. In there you can jump over buildings, glide through the air, telekinetically throw cars and people, and just generally make a mess of things. "The open world is all in that simulation," says Jaros, "but the main story takes place in both the real world and the virtual one."
The superpowers do feel good. Once you've learned the buttons, it's easy to fling yourself around the world with ease, and smash down into a group of pedestrians or enemies as you like. But it also changes the open world exploration dramatically. A city that you can jump and glide around is very different from the cities that you drove and flew through in the first few games. Jaros says it's just another option. "We're adding another layer for players to choose to go and play with," he says. "Personally I think the superpowers add a really cool dimension to the game. But if you're a player that really likes driving, we're not taking that away from you."
With only two side missions on display in a recent showcase (a Professor Genki-style arcade mission, and a super speed running race), it's hard to tell just what shenanigans Volition is planning in Saints Row 4.
Jaros says the point of the series was always parody, but the first two games had players wondering if the game was supposed to be funny or not. "When you're too close to parody," he says, "people start wondering if you're out of touch. 'Do they know they're being funny or is it kind of an awkward accident?'"
In Saints Row 2, the team got close to the tone they wanted, but players were still confused. When they went overboard in Saints Row 3, "people responded really well to that."
Jaros hints, however, that there might be one more surprise in the new Saints Row game: A deeper story than we've seen from the series in the past. "In a weird way," he says, "Saints Row 4's story makes the most sense over any of the other games, and that's fuckin' gonzo. The game where you're the president fighting aliens is the most coherent of the Saints Row titles? I think that is a kind of beautiful thing."