Remember when Saints Row was all about colour-coded street gangs? How long ago it seems, with bombing through the netherworld in Gat Out of Hell now a natural enough progression from alien invasions and virtual reality shooting galleries. If there's a problem with the setting, it's that it's far too grand for a game perched right between DLC and full release, and much of the potential is almost inevitably left on the table - some bits more unfortunately than others.
The premise is typically fine Saints Row insanity, with the President/Boss/Emperor/Etc. falling afoul of a ouija board that sucks them into Hell, where Satan plans to marry them off to his daughter Jezebel. Walking apocalypse Johnny Gat and team hacker Kinzie Kensington give chase, him to 'put one in Satan's head' and her because, well, it's her birthday and she really wants to go. Soon, both are in the city of New Hades, on a quest to get the Boss back by both raising and razing Hell. "It kinda reminds me of Steelport," Kinzie comments - and that sums things up pretty well. As bizarre as the new location is in theory, most of this new adventure is extremely familiar throughout.
There's often a split in mid-price games between what would be ideal and what's reasonable to expect. For that reason, Gat Out Of Hell's limitations can't really be called disappointments, since they shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. New Hades, for instance, has some fun visual flourishes and a decrepit look, but it isn't a huge jump from Virtual Steelport. The cars are still regular beaten-up cars, and most of the weapons are familiar firearms. At the same time though, it's done with enough details, twists and welcome additions that it doesn't feel like a simple cash-in. There are new minigames. A new flight mechanic. It's a game that all but apologetically resorts to largely illustrated cutscenes instead of fully choreographed and acted ones, but which still takes time to do multiple endings and a complex Disney style musical number spoiled only by it having been sacrificed to the gods of marketing last year.
The result is that while this is very obviously a budget Saints Row adventure, it's a likeable one, where both time and pennies have been spent wisely. You can play as both Gat or Kinzie for instance, with script variants kicking in accordingly. The map is big and decently detailed, not just a wasteland with a few obsidian blocks thrown on top. There's quite a few characters, old and new, and a lot of casual dialogue and observations. The new mechanics have been well implemented, and some obvious shortcuts mostly avoided. While the superpowers from Saints Row 4 are immediately familiar, they're at least in new flavours. Blast's first element now turns enemies to stone, which is similar to Freeze but with the advantage of instantly smashing the regular flying enemies that you face this time around, while Telekinesis is replaced by Summons that start with Overlord/The Darkness style imps and escalate to heavier classes of demons with subsequent unlocks.
There have however been some major cuts to the experience. There's no clothing shops to play dress-up with, despite the rich potential for crazy Hell costumes, no homies to call up and fight alongside, and no in-game radio at all. So much for the devil having all the best tunes. Most painfully though, there are no missions. The goal is simply to fill a 'Satan's Wrath' bar to unlock the ending, done mostly with a straight rehash of Saints Row 4's Loyalty system - win a handful of unconnected, plotless mini-games and move on. This filler was already a low-point, saved by being intercut with far more interesting scripted stuff. Here, alone, it's both boring and a total waste of the characters involved - such as a spymaster version of Shakespeare who gets introduced with flavour and then unceremoniously shelved.
Some back and forth banter between the characters and the player during the mini-games would at least have added some personality that would normally be carried by the scripted missions, and whose presence is sorely missed. Even having Gat and Kinzie together to trade barbs and comments throughout would have been an improvement, instead of leaving one sitting around and twiddling their thumbs. Too often, the result is a comedy with no jokes.
The actual minigames are a mix of old and new, though none feel particularly exciting at this point. Mayhem returns unchanged, though it's not as though it needed to be anything else. Fraud is now Torment Fraud, and about knocking off centuries from the damned's sentences with concentrated punishment. It's exactly the same ragdoll nonsense as ever, but with a neat touch that each one is introduced with talk of their crimes.
New additions include an irritating capture-and-hold mode for taking bases that's too short to require tactics but requires too much back and forth to be satisfying, hunting for glyphs to open chests that make you wonder why you bothered, a few one-shot things like fights around altars to unlock powers you won't use, and a deeply awful game called Pledge Drive, which is essentially Saint's Row 4's telekinesis game as designed by Fisher Price. Thankfully, in what feels like a tacit acceptance that it stinks, you only have to play the stupid thing once, and the majority of the time is spent on the more fun activities. Speaking of which: wings.
The wings are easily the best addition to the game, and inevitably pressed into service for the new racing mode, Hellblazing. Early on, they're rubbish offering no distance, poor control, and a pretty miserable exchange for Saint's Row 4's super-powers. With stamina boosts and couple of upgrades, however, screaming around the city becomes awesome fun - diving to build up speed, flapping for bursts of energy, and collecting soul clusters that make up little mini-courses of collectible caches to try and get in one go. It's a great flight mechanic, spoiled only by the mid-game addition of anti-aircraft spires that will shoot you down unless you waste time landing and dismantling them one by one. That gets tedious, fast. There's also a second flight game called Salvation that involves catching falling souls, which is okay, but a little fiddly due to a tendency to sometimes drop flight or not register power blasts quickly enough. The real flying fun comes at the end of the game, when the city is an open playground to swoop around without even having to think about stamina limits or other distance restrictions.
While the games are basically fine, there's no getting away from the fact that this kind of stuff was already getting dull by Saints Row 3, and couldn't even carry the Loyalty missions of Saints Row 4. Without even being tied to the characters or served up with the promise of meatier fare, they're just not enough. To properly get with an open approach that felt like a new spin rather than an excuse for the lack of missions, Gat Out Of Hell really needed to take more cues from other games, like Crackdown, or to change the state of the world more with victories, or at least to find some new ways to squeeze in jokes and memorable moments to compensate for not being able to see things like, say, Kinzie checking out a demon club, or Gat barely getting a couple of minutes with Satan.
Again though, Gat Out Of Hell tries to compensate where it can, especially on the violence side. It offers new superpowers, including a Summon ability and new elements for returning skills Blast and Stomp, with Blast now starting by turning enemies to stone and Stomp being able to suck enemies into one spot. While most of the guns are disappointingly banal firearms, you can also unlock the 7 Deadly Weapons, including an armchair with guns and rockets, the Ark of the Covenant as reimagined by someone who's seen Ghostbusters too often, and a talking zapper that practically drools at the chance to cause a little chaos.
Getting through the main story, what little of it there is, is going to take about three to four hours depending on how much you bother seeking the collectibles and going for gold medals. After that, there's a little more fun to be had playing with the flight powers and collecting the 7 Deadly Weapons and doing more specific challenges, though probably not too much. Audio logs and commentary from the characters is also scattered around, but rarely funny or of much interest - the latter especially usually just some throwaway comment like "I've been to Reno, this isn't so bad!" They'd be fine as ambient barks, but aren't worth actively tracking down.
For all the things Gat Out Of Hell could or ideally would do though, it's important to remember what it is - a standalone expansion. Go in remembering that, and knowing about the lack of missions, and it's a pleasant surprise how much it at least tries to offer within its limits. Just don't expect it to be a sequel, or even a full slice of Saints Row 4 at its best.