Here's a hypothetical: What if you were floating through space with the last remnants of humanity when a Ouija board came to life, opened a portal into Hell, sucked the President of the United States through, and informed you that (s)he's to marry the devil's daughter? What would you do?
If your answer is "Fly into Hell with a .45 strapped to your waist and plan to punch Satan in the face," congratulations, your name is secretly Johnny Gat and we've all been waiting for you. Our hero.
Saints Row does Event Horizon
So yeah, in Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell you play as lovable murder addict Johnny Gat—or (surprise) you can switch over and play as genius murder addict Kinzie Kensington. You've got to rescue the President of the United States a.k.a. the boss of the Saints from marrying Satan's daughter Jezebel.
To do that, you have to indulge in what the Saints do best: Rampant [insert swear word] Chaos. Satan's only in control of Hell because somebody bigger and badder hasn't come along to take it from him yet. You can be that bigger, badder someone. Shoot guns! Blow things up! Murder demons! Murder civilian-souls! You don't even have to feel bad because everyone here must've done some horrible things to land in Hell, so just murder away!
Gat Out of Hell is in many ways far more ambitious even as a "standalone expansion" than Saints Row IV proper. Where Saints Row IV basically copy-pasted the Steelport map from Saints Row the Third and added in superpowers, Gat Out of Hell's city of New Hades is a creative and ludicrous version of Hell that's crafted specifically to take advantage of the aforementioned powers.
Flight in particular has been overhauled. Saints Row IV contained a half-baked gliding mechanic that felt kind-of-almost-but-not-really-like flying. Gat Out of Hell, you literally control Johnny Gat like an airplane or like an enormous bird. And New Hades takes full advantage. This is a vertical city—skyscrapers giving way to apartment buildings giving way to strip malls and residential suburbs giving way to street level giving way to tunnels, all surrounded by massive cliffs above an unending lava sea.
It's a fantastic sandbox, which makes it all the more strange that something so ambitious is left so empty.
Here's the deal: I understand Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell is billed as a standalone expansion and sold for a standalone expansion price ($20). For what it's worth, I think there's plenty of content here to justify that price. I finished everything except for some of the weapon/power challenges (i.e. kill [blank] number of enemies with [blank]) in about seven hours.
If you're a Saints Row fan and just wondering "Is this worth my time?" then yes, it is.
But what's so strange about Gat Out of Hell is that there's so much potential that goes unused because of the small scope of a standalone expansion. The biggest problem with Gat Out of Hell isn't what's here, it's what's not.
Namely, missions. Each Saints Row game has a gaggle of side missions for you, and it even does that annoying thing where it forces you to play through those side missions for various rewards. But if I asked you to name your favorite Saints Row moment, you'd almost undoubtedly throw back a unique setpiece instead—blasting off on a missile while Aerosmith plays in the background, or recreating the movie They Live, or your character singing Biz Markie on the way to an objective, or the entirety of the "Deckers Die" mission in Saints Row the Third.
The writing in Saints Row is its strength. It's sharp. It's smart. It's silly. It's lewd. It breaks the fourth wall. It's unique. It's weird. It's absurd. Whatever adjective you'd use to describe it, it's the situational comedy in Saints Row that stands out.
Gat Out of Hell has no real missions, and thus a lot of its potential is wasted. For instance, you meet Blackbeard, famed pirate and scourge of the seven seas. He lives on a recreation of the Queen Anne's Revenge. In Hell.
In a real Saints Row game (read: not an expansion) this would be the start of a fantastic line of quests, perhaps culminating in your sailing the Queen Anne's Revenge into a statue of Satan or fighting Blackbeard in a beard-growing contest or hell I don't know. Anything. Maybe you'd sing a rousing sea-chanty version of Biz Markie together.
In Gat Out of Hell, by contrast, you have one sort-of mission with Blackbeard. Imps (the easiest enemies in the game) are invading and you have to kill a certain number. That's it. It takes five minutes, and doing so unlocks one of your superpowers (Summon Imps) and gives you a new Blackbeard Loyalty mission. The loyalty missions are the same as they were in Saints Row IV—complete side quests. Then you finish those side quests and Blackbeard goes "Great, thanks for doing that," and then you basically never hear from Blackbeard again.
Gat Out of Hell is a lot of setup without the payoff its jokes really deserve. It's a game built around the middling-to-decent side activities from previous Saints Row titles, without the opportunity to go off and do a "real" mission with "real" writing. For instance, the "Insurance Fraud" activity is back, but now you're controlling a soul condemned to hell, and the more points you score, the more years are taken off that soul's condemnation.
Reviewing a Saints Row title is weird though,because the developers always do this thing: The game knows that you know that something doesn't quite work, and it acknowledges its own failings. You could look at it as an apology of sorts, or simply as an attempt at lampshading, but either way it's there.
Gat Out of Hell does it. After you trigger the second of three major "events" in the game (by causing enough chaos to draw Satan's attention) there's a cutscene where Johnny Gat is literally sitting in the Volition offices scratching his head while the narrator says that "He accepted the fact that without traditional missions [going off to do arbitrary side content for an arbitrary amount of time] was the best way to further the story."
So what am I doing writing this review? Calling out something that Volition already knew was potentially a problem while working on Gat Out of Hell?
The other big letdown for me: No licensed soundtrack. Music is expensive, and that's clearly one of the areas where Volition saved on budget this time. If you were hoping to hear Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell while playing Gat Out of Hell, I hope you have Spotify loaded up in the background. (I certainly did.)
I stand by what I said in my preview: Gat Out of Hell is a hell of a lot of fun. The flight mechanics are fantastic, the new arsenal of weapons is as creative as any other Saints Row title's, and the game basically fixes all the problems I had with Saints Row IV as an open-world game. It's a bite-sized portion to hold you over until the inevitable (and larger) Saints Row V.
The only thing that sucks is looking at what's here—the setting, the characters, the various storylines, the weapons, the powers—and thinking of what could've been done with them had they been given a full-sized, numbered-sequel budget. In other words, if Saints Row V had been set in Hell and followed the same plot, but expanded on its characters and world. In other other words, if Volition had done with Gat Out of Hell what it did with Saints Row IV (which was originally scoped to be a Saints Row the Third expansion).
But if Volition considers this wealth of jokes "B-side" content, hopefully that means we're in for something really special with the actual Saints Row V? I can dream.