Saints Row: Gat out of Hell review: Shout at the Devil

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Saints Row: Gat out of Hell review: Shout at the Devil
Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Xbox One, PS4

If your best friend, a person who has saved your life countless times (often in super-cool, action movie fashion), was sucked into hell, would you go after them? Of course not, that's ludicrous. That poor schmuck is on their own. But you're not Johnny Gat, resident murder-happy antihero of the Third Street Saints. When Johnny's best pal is pulled into the netherworld, he jumps in after him, guns blazing. Through bat-winged demons, flaming monster trucks and historically questionable playwrights, Johnny will do whatever he can to save his friend, especially if it involves punching Satan in the face.

With that succinct intro, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell drops players into a netherworld that's equal parts Hieronymous Bosch, Megadeth album covers and the 1989 Beetlejuice cartoon series. Concrete roads crack and spiral around pits of molten lava while glowing obelisks hover ominously above crowds of shambling, doomed souls huddled within a twisted mockery of a human metropolis. It's gorgeous, in a grim sort of way, and is pocked with all kinds of neat diversions and fun excuses for Johnny to test his new demonic superpowers. Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is developer Volition's most successful attempt at proving that a license is not required for a great, open-world superhero game, though a too short run time, a few technical flaws and some odd design choices keep it from eclipsing Saints Row 4.It's best to think of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell as a continuation of the Saints Row 4 plot with new protagonists. After defeating Zinyak's alien hordes in Saints Row 4, we see The Boss (aka the custom character protagonist central to the Saints Row franchise) and friends hoping to relax at the birthday party of former FBI agent Kinzie Kensington. You've got balloons, party hats, 19th-century English novelist Jane Austen - everything you'd need for a great party. Sadly, it's not to be, as the ridiculous body count The Boss racked up over the course of the series has caught the eye of Satan, who is so impressed that he pulls The Boss through a portal to hell in the hopes of arranging a marriage between the leader of the Third Street Saints and his rebellious teenage daughter. Meanwhile, Johnny Gat threatens a mouthy ouija board with a pistol to summon his own hell portal while Kinzie insists she be allowed to join the adventure, not just because it gives the developers an excuse to include both male and female protagonists, but also because it's her birthday. Johnny Gat may be a murderous sociopath, but he's smart enough not to argue with the birthday girl.

Moments into the game, Johnny or Kinzie (players can freely switch between the two leads) receives an item that quickly becomes the cornerstone of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, The Devil's own Broken Halo. This allows players to sprout angelic wings that, with enough upgrades, can be used for proper flight, not just gliding as in earlier games. That's as solid a gameplay concept as it is ambitious, but Volition has a great sense for crafting movement mechanics that feel right and are entertaining on their own. When climbing into the air, players will lose speed, but gain speed as they dive. Lose too much speed and the wings cease to function. Mastering this concept is the key to long, sustained flight, but it's made easy by crisp, responsive controls and in-game physics that feel instinctively correct – like you're maneuvering a human-sized plane with the agility of a hummingbird.

It's a good thing in-game flight feels so natural, because players will be using it frequently. It's by far the best way to traverse the map (even after fast travel points are unlocked) and is the only way to gather the majority of the game's upgrade orbs. Much like Saints Row 4, the world of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is pocked with glowing blue orbs that serve as a currency toward unlocking demonic superpowers. For the most part these orbs are thoughtfully placed and provide players coming to grips with the freedom of flight a few dozen interesting aerial courses to follow, but here is where the game starts to shake apart. Once I'd upgraded my abilities sufficiently, I decided to take a long flight collecting as many orbs as I could. Within five minutes I'd collected over 100 orbs and traversed 80 percent of the map. What I saw on that flight was as lovely as fire and brimstone can be, and dodging missiles in flight is both acrobatic and fun, but the speed at which I picked up more than 10 percent of all of the orbs in Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is an early hint of how quickly the seeming wealth of content can run dry.

Though Volition constructed a wholly new map for Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, designed specifically for flying players, at its core the game is still an open-world crime sandbox. Demonic police patrol the streets in flaming monster trucks, while beaten up, burning cars roll down the asphalt, waiting for somebody to carjack the poor soul inside. It makes sense that these rusted-out metal wrecks wouldn't be able to pick up terrestrial radio stations, but the lack of real-world music (not to mention the series' hallmark singalong) is sorely felt every time you get behind the wheel. With the addition of flight, there's almost never any good reason to drive, and it seems that the developers put no effort into improving the series' driving mechanics. Cars are floatier than they were in Saints Row 4, and getting too close to level geometry can cause vehicles to completely ignore a player's commands. Since flight is both enjoyable and useful, it's hard to be too upset about these problems, but it's an element that could have been improved.

Mechanically, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell might be a mixed bag, but Volition's writing team has once again knocked the script out of the park. There's no single moment in Gat Out of Hell as unexpected as the Roddy Piper cameo from Saints Row 4, but it's rare that the game will go more than 30 seconds without a joke or inside reference. Long-time fans will especially love the nods to earlier games in the series, such as the visor-wearing soul of former Third Street Saint Dexter Jackson, whom players must kill over and over again, partly to balance the cosmic scales and partly because Johnny really hates Dexter. The plot, which centers on Satan's shotgun wedding of The Boss to his daughter, is clever – I'm convinced that Shakespeare , Vlad the Impaler and Blackbeard were included entirely so the writers could alternate esoteric historical references with the series' traditional scatological humor – though it's not quite as grandiose and hammy as Zinyak's alien invasion was. Furthermore, outside of delightfully theatrical musical interludes, the main characters are lost in a cast populated by quirky, likable faces who are far more familiar to fans.

That irreverent plot sets up gameplay that's not quite rote, but can seem like a rehash of earlier games in the series. As in Saints Row 4, players bounce back and forth between contacts who distribute missions, gaining experience points and new abilities along the way. Though the overall selection of mission types is a bit anemic, the events on offer are varied and interesting. Flying through checkpoints to set speed records is expected, but fun thanks to the impressively designed flight mechanic. Insurance fraud, a Saints Row standby, has been replaced by an event in which players attempt to launch a doomed soul into the path of oncoming traffic to pay for their earthly sins. And, of course, there's a multitude of missions that center around blowing up enemies, either by themselves, in groups, driving vehicles or in distinct waves. Between these diversions, players will hunt for orbs, shop for guns, tour the various hellish sights (complete with commentary from your character) and generally wreck up the place in the hopes that Satan will get so mad he'll show up for a fistfight. The gameplay itself isn't directly enhanced by the addition of another player - Gat out of Hell supports its two protagonists with omnipresent online co-op - but as in most open-world games, the mayhem you can inflict is exponentially increased with a pal. Co-op may not be the best way to experience the story, but with no notable lag to speak of, it's certainly the most entertaining way to destroy your surroundings.

While Volition's netherworld features an appealing design, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is rife with technical problems (this review was conducted on the Xbox One version). None of them are of the major, game-breaking variety, but you'll often see characters clip through solid objects or the camera attempt to capture the action through a building. Worst of all, the framerate is uneven, which makes looking around and navigating during flight all the more difficult and disorienting. These problems are only magnified in the PS4 and Xbox One re-release, Saints Row 4: Re-Elected. The bundle includes not only Gat out of Hell but also a remastered version of Saints Row 4, which fixes almost all of the technical problems in the original game. In comparison to the remaster, Gat out of Hell has an intriguing freshness, but it seems both paltry and glitchy.

Ultimately, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell occupies a weird middle ground, where it's too short to be a sequel yet adds too much new stuff to be a simple expansion. Despite including so many nods to earlier moments in the series, Gat out of Hell loses a number of hallmark gameplay elements, including the extensive customization options normally available for clothing, vehicles and weapons. That said, as a brief follow up to Saints Row 4, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is fantastic. It justifies its relatively low $20 price tag with solid (if not great) novelty and variety while not overstaying its welcome, though it can't compare to its predecessor, which can be had for the same price or less on most platforms.

  • Standalone: $20
  • PS4 / Xbox One bundle: $50
  • Online Co-op: Yes
  • Biz Markie Singalong: No
  • Odd Visual Glitches: Here and There
In Other Words

Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell is a noble concept. Building on the irreverent Saints Row gameplay formula, and it features a wholly new environment, clever writing and many things to see and do. It is, however, hamstrung by technical issues and an overall lack of polish. It's hard to recommend Saints Row: Gat out of Hell by itself to anyone but the most devoted owners of the original game, but the dual-pack that includes both Gat Out of Hell and Saints Row 4 is worthwhile and ranks among the most entertaining open-world games available.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox One version of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, provided by Deep Silver. Images: Deep Silver.
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