You know things are going to be crazy when, in the very first mission, you find yourself infiltrating a terrorist base and after failing to stop the launch of a nuclear missile, you jump aboard it and attempt to disable it in mid-air. And then you’re the President of the United States. But before you’re properly settled in to the Oval Office, Earth is attacked by the Zin Empire and its leader, Zinyak, and you and the Saints are abducted.
Saints Row IV doesn’t waste time in turning things up to eleven, that’s for sure.
Abducted and imprisoned within a simulated Steelport, Mr. (or Madam) President must rally the Third Street Saints and mount an insurrection against the Zin Empire to reclaim their home world. Saints Row IV wears its inspiration on its sleeve, with its Matrix-esque simulation and hilarious romance sequences that take the piss out of Mass Effect and, of course, titles like Infamous, Prototype and Crackdown, which imbue the player with various super powers. Yes, in Saints Row IV, you’ll have number of elemental powers at your disposal which are both intuitive to access and fun to use, adding another layer of excitement to the combat.
Within the simulation, the game plays very similarly to Prototype and Crackdown, complete with super sprinting, super jump and gliding abilities. It’s all pretty natural and mostly intuitive and makes using vehicles to get around a thing of the past (and kudos to Volition for putting the radio in your head so you can enjoy it outside of cars). I say “mostly” intuitive because there’s no way to voluntarily turn your powers “off,” which makes moving around in tight spaces more difficult than it needs to be. But, this is more of a nitpick than a real knock against the game as it rarely puts you in those tight spaces to begin with. Otherwise, this plays very similarly to Saints Row: The Third and anyone familiar with that control scheme will feel right at home here. The controls are tight and responsive and I don’t have any qualms with them.
With all of these new powers, and some creative weapons like a Dubstep gun and a black hole generator at your disposal within the simulation, one has to imagine that the game would have to be pretty well balanced to provide a meaningful challenge. Well, that’s where Saints Row IV trips up. The game is, for the most part, a cakewalk on normal difficulty and only mildly challenging on hardcore mode. Early in the game, when you haven’t upgraded much of anything, the weapons are piss weak and your powers are relatively limited in effectiveness, but as you find more clusters and upgrade your powers and weaponry, the game’s only response to up the ante is not to make the enemies more challenging, but to throw more of them at you. Like Saints Row: The Third, enemies are plentiful and bullet-sponges, but with your powers at your disposal, dispatching them is quite easy most of the time.
Saints Row IV’s strongest aspect, surprisingly, isn’t its gameplay. Rather, it’s the writing that makes this stand out as what will most likely be the funniest game of the year. Saints Row’s humor has always been pretty sharp, but it usually relied on crassness or the sheer ludicrousness of the situations the protagonist found himself in. While Saints Row 2 mainly played it straight and much of the humor was derived from the errant absurdity of situations the protagonist found himself in, and watching him, for example, try to rationalize driving a septic truck around and spraying liquefied poo on any and everything to cross his path. Saints Row: The Third took that errant absurdity and made it the norm, rather than the exception.
Saints Row IV builds upon that formula and polishes it to a fine luster, incorporating various approaches to humor that are equal parts crass and genuinely witty. But at the same time, it assumes a certain degree of knowledge of both video game tropes and pop culture. On one hand, you have your video game references (that I won’t spoil, don’t worry) that play upon the tropes of certain genres so sharply that at one point I had to pause the game because I was laughing so hard. On the other, there was a reference near the end that was so obscure I didn’t even know it was made until I talked with a friend about it. I imagine it was a brilliant reference that paid the proper respect to the property it lampooned, but it flew too far above my head to arouse more than a brief chuckle.
Saints Row IV’s humor also takes a good, long look at the franchise itself and what it used to be. This is a game that is very much self-aware and pokes fun of itself, as Saints Row: The Third did, but it doesn’t just do it occasionally; it runs rampant throughout the game. While the original Saints Row is sort of the red-headed stepchild of the series – a game that was solid in its own right but still firmly rooted in Grand Theft Auto’s shadow – it’s just as much required reading, so to speak, as its sequels. Volition clearly knows how to weave appropriate amounts of fan service into its games and it shows here. From the beginning, Saints Row IV is a treat for devoted fans of the franchise.
That’s not to say Saints Row IV is unapproachable for newcomers to the series or people largely ignorant of gaming culture (sorry, there’s no way to say that without sounding elitist). It’ll probably be plenty funny as long as you haven’t been living in a cave cut off from society for the last twenty years or so.
Early on, the game was firing on all cylinders in a manner similar to its predecessor, but without the sense that it’s constantly trying to top itself in terms of wackiness. Near the end, however, it feels like it’s losing steam and padding out the run time (which is even referenced for laughs at one point), but just because it can laugh at itself doesn’t make the padding good. The final act even sends you on a fetch quest, and a drawn out one at that. Again, the characters joke about it and it’s mildly amusing, but that didn’t make it less annoying from a gameplay perspective. It doesn’t help that the payoff in the final mission – which clearly draws inspiration from Mass Effect 2 – isn’t really satisfying.
So once again, I’m left conflicted by Saints Row IV, as I was with Saints Row: The Third. As much as it tries to up the ante and make you feel like this is taking place on a grand scale, much of it feels too familiar. Sure, you’re technically the President, but before you’re even settled in to the Oval Office, you’re abducted by the Zin and the next, Earth is blown to bits. Can we even say The Boss is the President anymore? It’s hard to be President of a country that’s since been reduced to space dust.
By now, I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with this. Well, it’s just that your actions don’t seem to have much consequence. Earth was just destroyed and the Saints are set adrift alone in space knowing several of their friends and associates are dead (not to mention everyone else), and the game just seems to shrug and let out a half-hearted “meh” and then returns to its trademark craziness.
But maybe I’m missing the point. I appreciated the laughs I got from it, and at the end of the day, plenty of fun was had. Though this return to the Saints Row universe is a familiar one, and most of the flaws from its predecessor weren’t really addressed, it’s still fun. Saints Row IV doesn’t reinvent the wheel that has kept the series on track, but iterates on it, throwing superpowers into the mix and breaking from the “three gangs” structure with the Zin Empire, and it works. So, yes, Saints Row IV is more than worth playing, especially if you’re invested in the series. The comedy alone just shouldn’t be missed.
- Well written and genuinely hilarious
- Super powers work well
- Great soundtrack
- New weapons are fun to use
- Loses steam near the end
- Steelport still isn’t that interesting
- Too easy