[ Review ] Saints Row IV

I never really liked Saints Row, originally. I didn’t see much of anything special in the original game. It was just a game where you took everything adult contemporary and mafia-styled out of Grand Theft Auto and replaced it with hip-hop culture references and dick jokes. The audience that plays this game seems to be set up into two camps: either you embrace its hilarity, its machismo, and its sometimes downright goofy mindset, or you take the game too seriously and you judge it based on the fact that its extreme nature has gone way too far. The original game was just a hip-hop thug sandbox game that I couldn’t really appreciate – when the series started going over-the-top and shouting obscenities from the rooftops, I started to see the game series for what it was: plain old fun that stands out as coherent yet completely insane. I really appreciate that kind of humor and to see a game that promotes itself on a simple mantra, apparently – make a game fun and everything is secondary – really catches my attention.

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The First Twenty Minutes

Volition plugs you into the action pretty quickly and sets up the premise of the game pretty tidily; while on the campaign trail to become the President of the United States, your character, the leader of the Third Street Saints, is on a mission to take down the largest threat to the world; Cyrus Temple, who is so opposed to the Boss’ rise to power that he enlists a terrorist organization to crush the American government for allowing it to happen. After plowing through the cannon fodder, you and your team eventually make your way to Cyrus himself, taking him down a peg, so to speak, only to find out that he launched a nuke from beyond the grave. Being the badass he is, the Boss takes off to dismantle the nuke while riding it, while the crew gives tearful goodbyes over the radio in the likely event that the Boss doesn’t make it out of the situation alive; all while Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” is playing in the background. Once the nuke is dismantled, the Boss leaps from the nuke, the nuke blows up in the air, harmlessly, and the he lands himself directly into the Oval Office, cementing his presidency. This sets the tone of the game pretty nicely, for what you’re going to have to expect, gameplay-wise; learn to expect the unexpected and anything, literally, can happen.

During the Boss’ questionable presidency – it turns out he might not be good at leading a nation as he might have thought he was – an alien empire called the Zin decide to invade, abduct Earth’s best and brightest, and kill any that gets in his way. The Boss manages to stage a counterattack from the White House to find that the invasion was a lot bigger than he had planned and finds himself abducted as well. The game gets turned on its side and curb stomped as the Zin Empire decides to imprison humanity and enslave them using a simulation extremely reminiscent of The Matrix, in an effort to break them and make them completely loyal to the Zin. This sets the tone for what to expect from the story – everything gets crazy and there’s little to no setup for it all. Things just happen and there’s no grand explanation or agenda to it: just go in, do what you need to do, kill who you need to kill, and be on your happy way.

The simulation, though, gives you your first surprise as you’re thrown into a parody of a 50’s-styled TV show, directly referencing Leave it to Beaver. This is another thing you’ll notice – there’s a lot of in-jokes, there’s a lot of references, and the soundtrack works extra hard to get you laughing and immerse you in what’s going on. Everything from here on is just more of this kind of stuff.

While the first part of the introduction made it seem like there was going to be just more of the same, it makes it pretty clear, pretty early on that this game is going to be very much like previous Saints games but very unlike anything you have seen from a Saints game so far. That gets cemented when the Zin invasion starts and the story starts throwing curve balls at you left and right. The general impression felt here is to expect the unexpected but expect whatever comes to be a full-on Saints experience.

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The Gameplay

As soon as you get through the initial fluff to set up the gameplay, you’re pretty much plopped inside of a virtual version of Steelport that has been changed up by the Zin Empire – you’d think that if an alien race wanted to force the entirety of remaining humans to submit they would have been more subtle about it – and things start out, initially, in a way typical of past Saints games: run around, steal cars, kill people, do what you need to do in order to accomplish your missions. Things change massively, though, once everyone starts realizing the simulation is, for all intents and purposes, a computer program and can be hacked into. Almost immediately after that point, which occurs extremely early on, you’re given access to powers that, initially, allow you to jump extremely high and run extremely fast. After that’s set up and you’re put through the requisite missions to introduce you and familiarize yourself with your powers and new features, things kind of settle back into your normal Saints structure: you have your story-related missions that progress the story, you have your side missions that relate directly to your new powers, and then there are your loyalty missions. You do a great amount of lather, rinse, and repeat, as to be expected.

I did not expect a Saints Row game to be one of the greatest superhero games of all time. Where other superhero games are limited because they spend all their time setting up a story or limitations based on your character, Saints Row IV says “fuck it” and gives you your arsenal of powers and the freedom to do whatever you like with them. A lot of people complain about this because it really takes away the use of vehicles and vehicular combat; this is true and yet not true. I find speed running to be extremely inaccurate and found myself, until I could get the upgrades necessary, running out of stamina often enough to find it annoying and found myself going back to cars just to have hassle-free speed with nitrous. That goes double for a lot of your other super powers – there are strong pros but the cons are just, simply put, annoying. It might appear to make vehicles useless but vehicles are still way more convenient and accessible than your powers, at times. Gliding around still isn’t flying and you don’t get the kind of flexibility you would in a combat situation as you would in a combat helicopter. It’s easy to overlook vehicles because of your super powers but they shouldn’t be ignored because of them. I feel as though that part of the game is ignored because of these super powers and I feel they shouldn’t be. The vehicle customization is incredibly cheap to do with yoru in-game currency and still very much in-depth.

Developing yourself as a character is less about how your character performs and more about how you look, really. Your weapons options, more or less, are human weapons and alien weapons: you take your pick between the two for each slot and make the appropriate upgrades. Your character can be customized pretty deeply, though there’s a lot more depth in customizing your look as opposed to your character’s ability; you find these things called data clusters which are scattered just about everywhere – if you look around for a couple seconds you’re bound to find at least one – that are used to upgrade your super powers, cash upgrades everything else and these upgrades change the balances of the game pretty drastically. This turns into a situation where, if you’re having trouble completing a mission, you screw around for ten minutes or so to find data clusters in order to exponentially increase your character’s abilities.

I found myself pretty bored by the time I was about five or six hours in but I found that I was playing this like I was past Saints games, by completing side missions to earn cash so I could upgrade various things. Once I got back on track with the story missions I found myself engaged, again, in the game: this game parodies everything. There are some segments that parody everything, new-school and old-school. I caught glimpses of Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Tank!, Zork, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto, even other Saints games. Its fun goes deeper than just the gameplay and you have to engage yourself in the story to get lost in that because, once you pull that away, added features or no, this is just another sandbox game; this one just has really cool super powers. Even those get tiring without a premise.

As far as everything else, you’re, more or less, looking at Saints Row: The Third with super powers. That will give you the best idea about everything else, gameplay-wise, about this game. There’s not too much more than that, really. If you like that kind of thing, you will love this game, almost guaranteed.

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The Verdict

No, I’m not commenting on the story, this time out. It’s really a throwaway plot with elements blatantly stolen from other games and movies and when they’re not stolen they’re parodied. It’s a satire of itself, the entire gaming industry, and games like it. It’s not something that should be taken seriously but more something you should just have fun with, like the rest of the games. This goes right into my point about summarizing the game as a whole: some games are fun because they’re immersive, some games are fun because they tell great stories, some games are fun because the production value and attention to detail are high; this game is fun because it focuses on the fun factor of everything in the game.

This game might not be a massive epic that tells a feel-good story about the group you got to know. This game is all about doing it better, doing it bigger, blowing up more, doing it more badass, and doing it louder than those before it. While a lot can be lost in trying to make this game more fun, Volition has done it right and they’ve made it big.

Should you go out and buy it? Most definitely. Volition has nailed down gaming entertainment without getting too serious or big for its intentions, which is probably why they felt this would be the last in this series. It would be way too hard to build on this, after seeing the end of this one.

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