Suddenly throwing in superpowers, aliens, VR simulations and a whole lot of meta humour, the game has well and truly changed in this latest entry. Fortunately, this also completely washes off the muck of the series’ beginnings as a rather shameless clone of Grand Theft Auto, making Saints Row IV completely break away from its crime-themed inspiration to become an experience entirely its own, and a highlight instalment in this beloved series of open-world games.
Ok, yes, Saints Row IV now takes gameplay inspiration from established super-powered favourites like Crackdown, inFamous and most notably Prototype in lieu of Grand Theft Auto, but it still stands well enough apart thanks to its hysterical sense of humour and ensemble cast of quirky, memorable characters. It’s also a highly entertaining sandbox romp for players with a destructive and/or mischievous streak in particular!
As with the previous titles, players design their own custom character, continuing his or her role as the leader of the Third Street Saints gang. The customization suite is just as hysterically detailed and potentially wacky as was afforded to players in 2011’s previous Saints Row: The Third, and plastic surgeons within the game world will once again allow you to further tweak your appearance if you find that you’d rather change something about your character upon properly starting gameplay. This remains a huge part of what makes the game so inviting, since you can be just about any character you want to be, right down to their voice and personality, even if you want to make them mis-constructed. It’s all good.
Anyhow, whatever character you decide to make, they become elected president of the United States, and, as any rogue-ish gang leader would, they promptly run the country into the ground. With no enemy gangs left to fight and no crimes afforded to the Saints now that they work in a White House cabinet, it seems that the Saints have risen as high as they can go, even after already becoming celebrities and beloved media icons beforehand in Saints Row: The Third.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the Saints are given a new enemy when aliens invade Earth and place both them and the rest of humanity in VR prisons. Immediately, this is a huge departure from previous games, as the alien empire of Emperor Zinyak are the only antagonists in the game. The themed gangs from the three prior titles have disappeared entirely, in another move away from the initial Respect-based progression system in both Saints Row and Saints Row 2, which only allowed you to play story missions if you’ve accomplished enough in the side activities.
Like in Saints Row: The Third, you’ll be handsomely rewarded for side activities in Saints Row IV, which now take the form of ‘Loyalty Missions’ given to you by the surviving characters as you rescue them from Zinyak in the simulation. They’re never mandatory however. You can just blow right through the ten-to-twelve-hour main story of Saints Row IV if you want. Bear in mind however that you must complete every Loyalty Mission to get the game’s good ending.
Being set in a simulated rendition of Saints Row: The Third’s city setting of Steelport, this serves as Saints Row IV’s excuse to really go nuts with the gameplay mechanics. As the Saints disturb and hack Zinyak’s simulation, your character will gain superpowers such as the ability to sprint at blinding speeds, leap high into the air and glide for long distances. It makes one wonder why they would even bother taking a car, seeing as it’s a lot easier and more fun to get around with your character’s powers, which only get stronger as you complete side missions and track down Data Clusters, the chief collectible in virtual Steelport, of which there are over a thousand. Yes, really.
Of course, your character will unlock combat powers as well, including the ability to throw ice blasts, stomp a tremor, pick up and throw people, aliens, vehicles and any other objects with telekinesis, and set anyone near them on fire. You can even mix and match the ‘elements’ of your powers to give them new applications and uses, which is a very cool gameplay mechanic and perhaps the most novel of the bunch. Given that your powers take a while to recharge without spending Data Clusters on upgrades however, you’ll still want to keep your guns stocked up in Saints Row IV, if you don’t want to be left frequently defenseless during an alien attack.
Speaking of, while your usual handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and RPG’s make a comeback in Saints Row IV, the introduction of alien villains gives you all sorts of new and interesting weapons to play with. You can wield the Dubstep Gun, which forces people to dance, the Inflato Ray, which cartoonishly inflates and bursts your targets, the Disintegrator, which atomizes your targets, and the Rectifier, a weaponized probe given to buyers of the game’s Season Pass. All of the new weapons are loads of fun, and can be upgraded just like the returning human weapons at the Friendly Fire shops around Steelport, at least, once you unlock them with a simple hacking minigame. This is necessary to access any shop in Zinyak’s simulation for the first time unfortunately.
As much as your character quickly becomes a god-like powerhouse, it’s very commendable that developer, Volition never made Saints Row IV feel unbalanced. You’re very tough, but you’re often overwhelmed by the incredible numbers and technology of Zinyak’s forces, which still forces you to stay on the move and dispatch your foes quickly and aggressively. It keeps the frequent action in both story missions and side tasks very exciting and very fun to experience, creating combat that is more fast-paced and satisfying than what inFamous or Prototype pulled off.
Even though this is a very different Saints Row game in terms of the combat and the general experience, Saints Row IV is still very entertaining and action-packed, just in a very different way from the prior games. The game definitely takes the leash off in terms of how your character can get around and mess with the game world, but it balances that out by giving you a tougher penultimate enemy that will make the themed gangs of prior games look like pushovers in comparison! If you’ve stuck with the series since its debut installment in 2006 especially, Saints Row IV may prove to be a jarring change, but it will effortlessly grow on fans with an open mind all the same.
In fact, it’s longtime fans that will get the most out of Saints Row IV, as the story is packed with references, twists and returning characters related to the series’ first three titles. Volition is very much designing a climactic game to cap off the current story arc for the current hardware generation, which they’ve directly admitted in various interviews. As a result, it’s definitely full of nostalgic and charming moments that celebrate the series’ history to great effect, and will certainly tickle the fancy of avid Saints Row fans who have stuck around this far, even with the series descending so far into straight-up wackiness with its latest entry.
Even if it lacks the colossal scale and well-defined identity of Rockstar Games’ competing Grand Theft Auto V however, Saints Row IV is a highly addictive slice of devil-may-care virtual fun. Sure, the production values remain a bit modest, and like previous entries, annoying glitches and bugs (actual ones, not just in the game’s VR setting) occasionally pop up to ruin the experience.
The online co-op doesn’t add quite as much this time either, since your in-game allies can also be given superpowers by doing side missions, and having two players running around together doesn’t seem to create any kind of real gameplay advantage in this case. The co-op is still technically fine for two friends who both love Saints Row, but it definitely felt more rewarding to play with other people in Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third.
It’s not inaccurate to say that Saints Row IV is a game of simple priorities. Like its predecessors, and even with the drastic gameplay changes, it’s just meant to be raw, mischievous entertainment that is played purely for smiles. Everything is just about letting loose and having fun, with no serious storyline or hefty gameplay demands to ruin said fun. You do somewhat get the sense that Volition has stretched the series’ current formula as far as it could possibly go here, but given that this isn’t shy about being a climax to at least the series’ current story arc, that’s fair enough.
If you enjoyed the previous Saints Row games, or just love fun and fast-paced open-world games that don’t restrict you from causing plenty of mayhem, then Saints Row IV comes highly recommended. Yes, Grand Theft Auto V is ultimately a better game in terms of scale and innovation, but fans of sandbox gaming deserve to own Grand Theft Auto V and Saints Row IV side-by-side. While Rockstar’s opus is all about pushing modern gaming sensibilities to somewhere new and unprecedented, Volition’s latest is about tapping into those simple established pleasures that remind us of why we fell in love with video games in the first place.
After all, it’s just impossible not to enjoy spending hours solely dedicated to breaking an alien overlord’s stuff!