I’ve never really ‘got’ Johnny Gat. Maybe it’s because I came into the Saints Row series at number three, but it never really sold me on how heart-stoppingly awesome he was supposed to be. This is a slight shame, as that’s the plot of Saints Row IV’s standalone expansion, Gat Out of Hell, more than anything else. Yeah, alright, it’s technically about the boss of the Saints getting dragged to Hell, but really, it mainly consists of ‘Johnny Gat, Unstoppable God-King of the Universe’.
The actual storyline is that the President – the user-customised protagonist from Saints Row IV – is sucked through a portal to Hell after a mishap with a Ouija board, prompting Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington (who I suspect is mainly there for the sake of gender diversity) to dive in after him. After this set-up and the briefest of tutorials, the game pretty much dumps you in its open-world sandbox and goes: ‘Okay, yeah – go nuts.’
Within minutes of arriving in the afterlife, Gat is given a magical doodah that gives him the ability to sprout giant, burning angel wings and fly around the map. This impossibly cool mechanic is the single best feature in the game, and zooming around the map is endless fun. Developers Volition have built an entirely new sandbox with flight specifically in mind, and the physics-defying skyscrapers and floating platforms provide heaps of verticality.
The new location looks absolutely gorgeous, too, and if ever a game was crying out for a photo mode, this is it. The city itself is formed of five islands in a sea of lava, with cracked roads, decaying buildings and a red, storm-wracked sky creating a great sense of atmosphere. It’s an incredibly impressive setting, but it can at times feel a little empty, particularly once you’ve ploughed through most of the activities. It remains beautifully suited to the new travel mechanics, though, and I could happily spend another few hours flapping around it.
Although this new system is unquestionably the best thing to happen to the Saints in years, this latest title is by far the most simplistic in the series with regards to gameplay. Saints Row could hardly be described as mechanically complex, but Gat Out of Hell manages to shave the formula down even further, and distils the essence of the franchise.
In order get some face-time with Old Nick, you need to get his attention. Naturally, being a Saints Row game, this is principally accomplished through open-world shenanigans, and all your actions go towards a meter representing Satan’s wrath. Hit certain milestones, and it’ll trigger a cutscene and a new kind of enemy.
How you go about filling the meter is entirely up to you; with the lack of a traditional mission structure, it’s completely possible to reach the final scene by doing nothing other than repeatedly stomping on demon cops for a few hours. It’s the ultimate expression of Saints Row gameplay: blow shit up until you win.
Of course, that would be missing the point slightly, as there’s the usual brace of activities and diversions to keep you occupied. Most are direct imports of the mayhem and survival minigames from Saints Row IV, but there’s a few notable exceptions.
‘Torment Fraud’ switches up a perennial standby by having you pilot one of Hell’s resident shambling, damned husks into traffic, smacking them around in order to work off their spiritual debt. Similarly, the ‘Hellblazing’ activities are retooled instances of the previous game’s super-powered race challenges (not, as you might think, putting on a trenchcoat and taking up chain-smoking). These timed flight courses are a fantastic use of the new mechanics, and by far one of the most enjoyable activities.
There’s also the obligatory sets of collectibles to acquire, but the flight system makes them a lot of fun to pick up, rather than the tiresome chore that they are in a lot of games. There’s various audio logs, and Gat and Kinzie both have specific sights to see around Hell which provoke individual comments. As usual, the flavour text and incidental dialogue is entertaining and well-written, and actually gives players an incentive to pick up the extras.
The bulk of the collectibles, though, are made up of ‘soul clusters’, replacing the previous instalment’s data clusters. These enable you to level up your abilities, including your flight, super sprinting and a set of offensive powers mostly unique to Gat Out of Hell.
However, the sheer number of these pick-ups is wildly unnecessary – within a few minutes of exploration, you can find yourself with over a hundred of them, and once you’ve maxed out your flight ability and the one or two powers you actually use (which you can do without breaking a sweat), there’s not much point in bothering with the rest.
Being a standalone expansion of Saints Row IV, rather than a ‘true’ main series entry, the rest of the core gameplay remains pretty much unchanged. The driving is still a little unwieldy, but if you spend more than ten minutes in a car, you’re doing it wrong. It’s also business as usual in terms of the various methods of violence. There’s a standard set of close-quarters takedowns, mostly copy-pasted from the previous game – but for some reason, they don’t feel as entertainingly visceral.
One addition that really works is the new weapons. Interesting and unique armaments have long been a staple of the Saints Row franchise (number three’s four-foot dildo bat was especially inspired), and this outing is no exception. There’s a set of regular, bullet-based weapons if you’re boring and hate fun, or there’s also a set of demonic firearms, including an SMG that shoots locust plagues and a crossbow/shotgun hybrid.
These are all inventive and fun to use, but the crowning glory of your arsenal will undoubtedly be the ‘seven deadly weapons’. A set of unique, sin-based firearms, these awesome purveyors of death were featured heavily in the trailers and with damn good reason.
They’re an absolute blast to use, and none more so than the unbelievably fun (if slightly clunkily-named) Armchairmageddon. Representing sloth, it’s a recliner equipped with missiles and miniguns and yes, it’s exactly as awesome as it sounds. In fact, it’s currently a close second to the new Borderlands’ Boganella as my favourite ever video game weapon.
While not quite matching the lofty heights of Satan’s own La-Z-Boy, the enemies are similarly novel. The cops are demonic hellspawn that roll around in flaming monster trucks, and come in several flavours such as magical units, flying enemies, and demon frat boys. They have considerably more identity and variation than IV’s alien troops, and it’s certainly a welcome change for the series to be mowing down Satanic, popped-collar ‘dudebros’ instead of the genre-standard police officers.
One of the more interesting features widely touted by the game’s promotional material was the inclusion of various historical figures, such as Blackbeard, Shakespeare and Vlad The Impaler. Sadly, these are the only historical characters who appear, and their involvement is limited at best. After a brief mission to secure the allegiance of each, their only function is to give you a loyalty mission which consists solely of doing various open world activities, all of which were unlocked already.
This also highlights one of the game’s more unfortunate flaws. The ability to summon allies with a phone call is gone, which is a huge missed opportunity. As well as rendering each character’s loyalty mission pointless, it’s incredibly frustrating.
The fact that they introduce three historical badasses only to tell us we can’t team up with them is bad enough, but the Saints have lost plenty of allies as well. Why can’t we call some of them to help out? Hell, there’s a whole extra playable character back at HQ – what are they doing, sitting there eating biscuits?
The under-use of these characters is a shame, as is the wasted scope for including more. The setting provides the opportunities to use history’s greatest villains as mini-bosses, but instead we’re given arch-demons that are essentially palette-swaps of SRIV’s wardens, shattering my dreams of killing Napoleon with a rocket launcher in the process.
Also removed from Gat Out of Hell is the radio function, so no in-flight music for you, chump. In fact, there’s no pop music used at all. Despite shoehorning Rowdy Roddy Piper into the previous game for no other reason than they could, there’s not even a passing reference to a single dead musician. Biggy, Tupac, Jim Morrison, half of The Beatles; why none of these are even mentioned is an absolute mystery, which is to say nothing of the squandered musical potential. Sympathy For The Devil singalong, anyone?
The gameplay is predictably solid, as with previous titles, but those looking for more of Saints Row’s surprisingly well-written story will find themselves disappointed. There’s very little in the way of actual narrative and the ‘missions’ consist mostly of checklists for which open-world activities to do.
The cutscenes are also a disappointment, with most of the exposition handled through voice-over as part of a storybook framing device. The cutscenes are where the consistently funny writing of Saints Row really shines, and it’s a shame they’re not made more of, particularly given the wealth of subject matter inherent to the setting.
The last act also feels incredibly rushed. Once you’ve reached the seemingly arbitrary quota of destruction, the final mission is unlocked, and while this should be the big, dramatic payoff, it’s instead an incredibly brief and simplistic scene.
This scene leads to a short and highly anticlimactic boss fight with The Lord of the Damned, which feels like it was copied straight out of ‘boss fighting 101’, and chiefly consists of Big Red flinging fireballs at you and intermittently summoning groups of minions. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the fact remains that emptying endless clips into the Prince of Darkness for five minutes still isn’t particularly engaging.
The ending itself is also a little lacking. While the player is presented with a choice of five alternate endings, they’re all various degrees of (literal) Deus Ex Machina, and are all incredibly unsatisfying. They’re also insultingly brief, and going through the last mission an extra four times to see all the endings felt like a huge waste of time. Considering previous DLC Enter The Dominatrix ended with space velociraptors (no, really), it feels like a shame that we don’t get a bigger payoff in an actual standalone release.
There’s also, bafflingly, a full musical number. It admittedly has some chuckles, but it’s played mostly straight, and appears with no explanation whatsoever, and smacks unmistakably of something that was included for its own sake rather than any narrative merit. That’s arguably the core philosophy of a Saints Row game, but it just feels like it could have been a chance for some tighter scripting and bigger laughs.
In general, the writing continues the Saint’s Row tradition of taking a baseball bat to the fourth wall. The game is self-referential as hell, and has absolutely no problem lampooning its own video game status – one cutscene shows Gat at the Volition headquarters having an argument over the script.
It’s all very well-crafted, though, and fans of the series will be on familiar ground. Gat himself is a standout – although I still don’t quite share the game’s view of him as Superman, Jesus and the Terminator all rolled into one, I was definitely sold on him as a character by the end.
There are also a few other familiar faces dotted around Hell. Dane Vogel, CEO of Ultor and one-time antagonist pops up as a major power player, as do twins Viola and Kiki DeWynter. There’s also a recurring side mission involving the repeated murder of old enemy Dex.
However, given the franchise’s propensity for fan service and callbacks, it’s a little surprising that more old acquaintances don’t show up. Previous characters such as Killbane and Julius Little are referenced but not actually introduced, which seems like an admirable level of restraint in the circumstances.
One of Gat Out of Hell’s biggest drawbacks is its length, or rather the lack thereof. 11 hours is about the absolute maximum you’ll be able to get out of this game, and that’s if you take the time to collect all the audio logs, see all the endings and gold-medal every activity. The core story (if it can even be called that) can be breezed through in about six hours.
The game could benefit hugely from some narrative padding, and making things like the loyalty missions and collecting the seven deadly weapons integral to the plot would go a long way to giving it a bit more staying power. As it is, it runs the risk of feeling truncated even for the most rabid of completionists.
Above all, the smartest thing the developers of Gat Out of Hell did was to market the game as an expansion pack with a £15 price tag. For a direct sequel, the virtually-identical gameplay, almost non-existent story and trifling length would all be death sentences.
However, as standalone DLC, it’s pretty damn sterling. The gameplay is basic but enjoyable, the new aesthetic is a breath of sulphurous fresh air, and the flight mechanics could carry it virtually on their own. It’s got its flaws, and I worry that the franchise has backed itself into a corner for future instalments, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and if you want more Saints Row, this will happily scratch your itch.