I feel for those folks at Volition who sat in a board meeting after shipping Saints Row: The Third and thought, “Well damn, how are we going to do better than this?”
In case you haven’t played what is arguably one of 2011’s best games, period (seriously, get on that if you haven’t already), Saints Row: The Third is a game that turned a once-feared street gang into satirized media icons, complete with allowing them to run around a military base clubbing everyone to death with a gigantic floppy dildo. It also featured killer luchadors, a murderous Japanese game show run by a mad scientist with a giant cat head, weaponized jarred farts, and guns that fire both mind-controlling octopi and make sharks come out of the street. Do you even need a gameplay explanation?
Obviously, topping such madness was no easy task, leaving Volition no choice but to remove whatever slight principles that the series had left. This means completely doing away with street gangs and any grounding in reality, making Saints Row IV a no-holds-barred, fully self-aware, fully ludicrous and fully celebratory climactic installment in what began as a pretty shameless attempt to try and cash in on the Xbox 360 not having a Grand Theft Auto game back in 2006.
Saints Row has come a very, very long way as a gaming brand since then, that’s for sure!
In that case, what’s left to explore for this series? Well, your custom character has now become president of the United States, aliens have invaded, and you now need to fight your way out of a VR simulation designed to torment you at every turn. Needless to say, Saints Row IV is a bit of a thematic departure from its predecessors, and that’s before you start getting into the hefty batch of meta humour!
After you find yourself in a convenient VR rendition of Steelport, the revised city setting from Saints Row: The Third (I guess the aliens enjoyed the game as much as gamers did), you’re left to do what you do best; Break stuff. The key to defeating the aliens is literally to cause as much trouble for this simulation as possible. It’s the only way to rescue your allies and open the way to penultimate villain, Emperor Zinyak.
So, basically, you especially don’t have to feel bad about murdering pedestrians en masse and destroying everything you can this time around, because it’s all a simulation, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. As with Saints Row: The Third, Saints Row IV continues to keep score with how playfully and effectively you lay waste to the world around you as well, essentially encouraging you to be the super-villain you always wanted to be.
Except in Saints Row IV, you literally are the super-villain that you’ve always wanted to be! Dropping all pretense along with the developers’ meds, Saints Row IV just throws up its hands and gives your character bona fide superpowers. You can super speed around, run up buildings, glide through the air, shoot ice blasts and slam into the ground to make an earthquake over the course of the ‘story’, among other things. Best of all is that you even have the option to do all of this naked if you so choose!
Even the new arsenal of weapons cranks the wackiness up to eleven. Hypnotic Dubstep Gun? Check. Ricocheting Bounce Rifle? Check. Cartoonish Inflato Ray? Check. Hell, there’s even a weaponized anal probe, because, if there’s one thing you can count on Saints Row doing in regards to the gameplay high road, it’s collapsing it with five tons of dynamite.
In fact, on that note, Volition will only give you the anal probe, cutely named ‘The Rectifier’, if you buy a Saints Row IV Season Pass. There’s a joke here somewhere, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it on the internet.
So, is there any semblance of an objective beyond breaking Zinyak’s toys? Well, not really, but you do need to rescue your trapped Saints allies in order to proceed the story, or simply to have sex with them in a throwaway gag. Yes, ‘romance’ has been added to Saints Row IV, conveniently apathetic toward your character’s sex and sexual orientation for the most part, and available at the touch of a button… Unless it’s Keith David. I guess my ruggedly handsome blond president just wasn’t enough for the unattainable Keith David. It still stings a little.
Whether you have your way with them or not however, the demands of your allies serve as the game’s side missions. It still simply amounts to destroying this and hacking that, but at least you’ll have a precedent for presumably mind-controlling all of them into sleeping with you. Knowing your character, they probably kept some of those nifty powers to themselves. Still, it pays to make friends, as you need to do every last loyalty mission in the game to get the good ending. Good endings must be shared with everyone, after all.
Of course, doing Loyalty Missions also provides more immediate rewards, including giving your ‘Homies’ powers when you summon them into battle. This somewhat defeats the purpose of calling a friend to play online co-op with you, as there’s less incentive to make another human player wield powers with you when your NPC allies can just as easily do it. Still, I suppose it’s only the human players that have the right to dress worse than the comic book characters that inspired this craziness.
Small consolation, that.
Before you can start butchering your fashion however, you need to hack into clothing stores. Since you’re in Zinyak’s simulation, every store is closed off to you until you complete, what else, a hacking minigame. In this case, you need to link two nodes on opposing sides with a pre-set count of shaped tiles. It’s like Puzzle Mode from Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, if you want a really random comparison that has absolutely nothing to do with the Saints Row franchise. Then again, what does have anything to do with the Saints Row franchise as of Saints Row IV?
Fortunately, when you do gain access to stores, you can use them to outfit your weapons arsenal and try for greater XP multipliers (yes, it’s just ‘XP’ now, not ‘Respect’), by dressing like you’re actively determined to be a mentally deranged Sex and the City character. You can no longer use these ‘hacked’ buildings to hide from aliens chasing you around the simulation apparently though. That’s apparently the one non-sensical element of Saints Row: The Third that would have destroyed all series integrity if it wasn’t ironed out, or something.
In fact, the shops in general seem so much less worthwhile in Saints Row IV. You’ll likely hack the one mandatory Friendly Fire and Planet Zin shops that the story makes you hack, and considering that you can jet all the way across virtual Steelport in about two minutes with maximized mobility, why bother trying to open every store? I don’t need a new plastic surgeon on every corner. My need to keep changing my gender, voice and general personality is at least slightly less severe than that.
If there’s one reason that you’re going to need to keep gliding and dashing around Virtual Steelport however, beyond trying to do the heaping helping of Challenges making their return from Saints Row: The Third, it’s Data Clusters. There’s over a thousand of these buggers scattered across virtual Steelport, because presumably Volition wanted to challenge the record previously held by Beenox in The Amazing Spider-Man, for the most needlessly excessive count of collectibles in any one game. Is this what defines superhero games now? I don’t remember the superhero movie where a beloved character flew around a city scrounging up pocket change! I don’t think this is otherwise a thing!
In any case, spending the Data Clusters will upgrade your powers, allowing you to dash faster, jump higher, affect a greater range with your elemental blasts, and increase the range of your telekinesis, among other things. Oh, and speaking of elements, this happens to be one of the cooler new ideas in Saints Row IV, which still otherwise takes a lot of meta-flavoured inspiration from other video games.
Oh yes, the game has changed so drastically that the series’ roots as a blatant Grand Theft Auto clone have been completely forgotten here. There’s never any reason to drive a car when you can just speed and leap around the city, bowling over whatever objects and people get in your way.
The need to drive has been replaced with Volition taking inspiration from other successful (or at least semi-successful) original superhero-themed games, including Crackdown, inFamous and Prototype. The fast-paced movement and super-powered melee combat actually feel like they were pretty well lifted wholesale from Prototype in particular. It’s very evident that Volition looked to the one thing that Prototype really did right in order to make a superhero-themed game where players genuinely feel very powerful.
What? I was talking about elements, you say? Right, of course! This is perhaps the best and most original gameplay idea in Saints Row IV. You see, rather than just having a static roster of powers, you have powers that you unlock by completing story missions, and elemental affinities for them you can unlock by doing side tasks for your Saints allies. Some basic applications include changing your ice blasts to fire blasts, but mixing and matching can lead to other combinations as well. You can steal lifeforce from people you grab with telekinesis for example, or poison and/or electrocute foes on top of sending them flying through the air.
Mixing and matching the elements of your powers gives you a very cool new element of combat capability, beyond making you look cooler. The latter is the more important element when you’re the president though, obviously. Humanity may have been conquered, but you still have an image to uphold as you’re streaking through a virtual city, punching people in the groin and tossing them face-first into oncoming traffic with your mind. Priorities, am I right?
In fact, even with all of this tomfoolery with powers and aliens, it’s still the simple pleasures that ultimately sustain Saints Row IV. Casually murdering pedestrians as you speed past them, torpedoing a car through the doors of a strip club, rigging smart cars to explode as they drive away, caving in the skulls of policemen with a giant hentai weapon, and just generally letting loose with your most hilariously unpleasant whims! Virtual Steelport is literally your world to wreck, to the point where even the premise of the game actively rewards you for causing trouble!
As surreal as Saints Row IV often is, the effectiveness with which Volition taps into base gaming instinct remains very impressive. They’re fully aware that most gamers given a sense of freedom will immediately have at least the temptation to abuse said freedom. Rather than feeling cynical and pandering however, Saints Row IV successfully feels like a celebration of what makes gaming so entertaining, rather than condemning most gamers as socially maladjusted dickheads. As Saints Row IV claims, we’d like to think of ourselves as puckish rogues.
Volition’s clear love of gaming even translates into much self-aware video game humour that longtime gamers are sure to love. Saints Row IV blatantly satirizes the likes of Space Invaders, Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, and yes, perhaps a smidge of Grand Theft Auto, if for no other reason than remembering the series’ roots.
Actually, it’s interesting that Saints Row IV seems so eager to re-live the series’ prior history. Despite breaking almost completely away from it from a gameplay perspective, Saints Row IV quickly finds excuses to reference and bring back obstacles and foes from the prior three games. It’s no doubt a reference to Saints Row IV aiming to cap off the series’ current story arc, and it means that those who have stuck with the series since its rough, glitchy and derivative beginnings will get the most out of this fourth installment.
Saints Row IV hasn’t completely cleaned out the bugs that have often been apparent throughout the series, as freezing and scripting glitches that force players to reload checkpoints do occasionally happen. I had to replay more than one mission because my own copy ended up getting stuck in a bad loading cycle that would prevent me from proceeding forward. I’ve gotten used to it after playing the previous three games, but it’s still annoying when it does happen.
On that note, PC players may be relieved to hear that Saints Row IV performs much better on PC now that Deep Silver is publishing the game in lieu of the now-bankrupt THQ. After Saints Row 2 delivered a PC port that was poorly-optimized to the point of being unplayable on anything but the lowest settings, and after Saints Row: The Third still felt a bit questionably optimized to the PC platform, Saints Row IV finally gives PC gamers the Saints Row experience that they deserve!
The graphics are still merely ok on PC however, as Saints Row was never a franchise that aimed to impress from a technical standpoint. You’ll get a slight boost over consoles on the highest settings, as usual, but it’s still ultimately nothing to write home about. The game’s visuals feel like just a slightly refined version of the Saints Row: The Third engine, making even the PC version of Saints Row IV feel like it’s a bit behind the technical curve as an HD game released in the latter half of 2013.
Of course, as much as the quality of the game’s PC version has been improved regardless, Saints Row IV still seems to be chiefly designed for consoles, and as usual, it feels especially at home on Xbox 360. That’s not to say that the PS3 version is at all inferior, beyond a mite of added framerate hiccups, but the control scheme, which is pretty well unchanged from Saints Row: The Third, still feels like it’s designed with the bumpers and triggers of the Xbox 360 controller in mind. It still works well enough with a PS3 controller, but the controls are definitely at their most refined and responsive on Xbox 360.
Regardless however, Saints Row IV stretches the series’ current sensibilities as far as they’ll possibly go, going for broke and closing out our current hardware generation with everything we’ve come to love about modern HD gaming as it exists on current platforms. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but it’s the right kind of ridiculous. Even if it’s still dwarfed by the competing Grand Theft Auto V as a package of gameplay and innovation, Saints Row IV stands effectively alongside it as maintaining what we already love, rather than showing us something new to love.
I won’t even try to cover up the fact that Saints Row IV has officially plunged the series into full-blown madness, but in some respects, the game is undeniably a highlight installment if for no other reason than how joyfully nuts it is. Saints Row: The Third felt like the best mix between the wacky shenanigans and modern flavour of urban chaos, and personally, I still consider it my favourite entry in the franchise so far. Saints Row IV is in a very close second now though, being addictive and memorable in its own right, even if it still doesn’t present much of what gamers haven’t seen before.
Well, beyond a cross-dressing U.S. president co-ordinating an alien dance party that ends in a violent explosion. That’s a new one.