E3 isn't just a showcase for shiny new hardware and DRM debates; it's also packed with great games, including a few that will come out this year for current-gen consoles. A playable version of Saint's Row 4 is tucked away in publisher Deep Silver's E3 suite, and the demo showcases the sort of over-the-top action and ridiculous characters that make the Saint's Row series stand out.
The latest entry doesn't seem to deviate much from the Saints Row formula--it offers a bombastic narrative with lurid, larger-than-life characters wielding ridiculous weaponry. Saints Row 4 opens with the protagonist from previous games ascending from Steelport gang life to become President of the United States, filling the White House with her former cronies and generally making the life of POTUS look good before alien invaders land on earth and start wrecking shop.
Cleaning house as the Commander-in-Chief
Your character gets forcibly jacked into a virtual simulation of Steelport, where you inexplicably gain superpowers. It's a Matrix-like plot twist that affords you the freedom to run around the city at superhuman speeds, hoist and throw cars and people using telekinesis, and leap across the skyline with supercharged jumps.
It sounds ridiculous in theory, but in practice it plays like the lovechild of Saints Row and Crackdown. I spent much of my Saints Row 4 demo jumping from rooftop to rooftop in search of hidden items or mucking around in combat with alien thugs. The new superpowers allow you to freeze and burn enemies, levitate, and generally cause all sorts of trouble for your opponents, but using them drains a recharging power bar that you can upgrade through the Saints Row 4 character upgrade system.
The game has plenty of good old-fashioned firearms to wield as well, though aiming in Saints Row 4 with the Xbox 360 controller feels a little imprecise. This was rarely a problem in the demo, though, since many of the weapons and powers deliver broad swathes of destruction.
It's a ludicrous game that rewards players with ludicrously thrilling action during short gameplay sessions, but developer Volition has to fill out the game with charming writing and innovative missions to keep people interested after the thrill wears off.
Firing a portable black hole launcher or freezing aliens with your mind are all well and good, but Saints Row 4 needs to be more than just a fun romp; it needs to match and surpass the sublime self-effacing humor that made Saints Row The Third one of the best games of 2011. We'll find out for sure when the game hits Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on August 20th.