Since its debut near the beginning of this console generation, Volition’s Saints Row franchise has formed an identity unlike that of anything else on the market, and has cemented itself as one of gaming’s most interesting intellectual properties. In fact, what was originally conceived as a lewd take on the open world greatness that the Grand Theft Auto franchise made popular during the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox days, has grown immensely since its inception. As such, the negative comparisons have become much more difficult to make, as the mimic has now become its own individual, so to speak.
It wasn’t until 2011′s Saints Row: The Third that the individuality factor really became apparent within the series. Before then, attempts at presenting a semi-serious tone had been somewhat successful, but said second sequel really showed how talented its studio was. In the place of realism and stoic tones, fans of sandbox gameplay were given something crazy, which wasn’t afraid to take chances and be its own game. That meant outlandish weapons (a dildo bat being the best example), an over-the-top storyline that made fun of its peers plus general pop culture, and gameplay that was both familiar and fresh at the same time. Said combination resulted in one of the best games of this generation, and paved the way for the development of an even crazier sequel, this month’s Saints Row IV.
Originally conceived as an expansion to its fantastic predecessor, the latest entry in the Saints’ ever evolving canon takes us ahead in time to where the gang has successfully infiltrated the White House (or White Crib as it’s dubbed), through democratic means. Yes, you read that right; the incredibly violent and individualistic gang was able to utilize its celebrity status and marketing, in order to get its leader into the Oval Office. Was there a better way to progress its story? Absolutely not.
Once again, the player is put in charge of controlling the leader of the Third Street Saints, who wields more power than any other American thanks to due process. The result is a brand new type of government unlike anything else the world has ever laid eyes on. Most of the customary formality is gone, and, in its place, the personality-fuelled attitude that made the Saints a household name during their last interactive outing has taken over. Of course, that should be a given when you consider who we’re talking about.
The game’s central storyline begins on a seemingly normal day like any other. A press conference is called for political business, and the main players (President Player, Vice President Keith David and Press Secretary Kinzie) all take their marks. Things are going as planned, and the day is going well – that is, until the roof comes crashing in and aliens start flooding into the room. Chaos ensues, innocent people are killed and almost all of the Saints’ members are abducted under protest.
Expectedly, given his lack of fear and abundance of bravery, both of which are highlighted in a pre-White House covert ops mission, President Saint takes exception to the invasion and tries to put an end to it himself. Thus begins a fight back segment, which ends up failing, leading to capture at the hands of boss Zinyak and his aptly named Zin kind. However, death does not befall our hero. Instead, torture takes prominence, and Zinyak eventually places the human inside of a dangerous simulation program that presents a tech-inspired take on the city of Steelport, wherein the majority of Saints Row IV takes place.
For the most part, this simulated version of Saints Row: The Third‘s playground is mapped out a lot like its inspiration. However, it looks, acts and feels different, due to an abundance of rogue programs, dangerous hotspots, evil aliens and world altering viruses. For every action, there’s a reaction, and that’s focused upon once computer genius Kinzie Kensington patches herself into her boss’ ear, while sitting aboard a stolen spaceship. Her expertise and knowledge of how the simulation works leads to ideas regarding how the team can fight back against seemingly insurmountable odds, while trying to save its missing members.
Most of your game time will be spent trying to hurt Zinyak in any way, shape or form that you can. This includes killing his minions, causing chaos inside of the simulation, hacking stores, taking over hotspots, climbing towers, completing activities and more. This is still a Saints Row game at heart, but it has evolved into something a bit different, where the idea that Steelport is being generated by computers is taken full advantage of. Want superpowers? You’ll get them, and will be able to run like the Flash, while leaping tall buildings and soaring through the skies like a hero from Crackdown or Prototype. How about the ability to customize yourself as you see fit? That’s there, too, because the simulation is full of crazy clothing items, which can be mixed and matched in combination with gaming’s best character creation tool, in order to create the world’s most outrageous-looking hero. Needless to say, Saints Row IV has a lot to offer, and doesn’t shy away from its mixing pot approach to game design.
In order to succeed, one must make good use of elemental superpowers, which can be earned through side missions given out by team members. In order to access these, you need to exit the simulation and explore the ship, where you can talk to and romance both old faces and newcomers, most of whom need to be saved beforehand. Their respective rescue missions provide some of the best story content found within the game, presenting flashbacks and history lessons pertaining to the series as a whole.
Taking things one step further is an upgrade system that lets players boost their individual powers. This is done by collecting digital currency in the form of shards, which are placed throughout Steelport in the same way that orbs were placed throughout both Crackdown and Crackdown 2. Each upgrade needs to be unlocked through progression, and must then be purchased before they’re active. Examples of these include adding extra damage to your fire and ice throwing capabilities, increasing the force by which you slam down to the ground after employing an earthquake strike, the height of your super jumps and the speed at which you can run. Once the majority of these upgrades have been equipped, your character will become a bonafide badass, though even the earlier versions of speed run and super jump render travelling by vehicles almost unnecessary outside of certain missions.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though: Guns are still very important, and they’ve all received makeovers, stat boosts and more. Regular weapons come in varying varieties, with unique skins that change not only how the guns look, but also how they sound. This means that a standard revolver can become a digital-looking gun, made up of a see-through blue hue and yellow bullets, and that a regular shotgun can be made to look like something out of the 1800s. The possibilities are aplenty, and there’s something for everyone when it comes to the main guns. However, outside of those archetypes, Saints Row IV also introduces some neat alien tech, as well as some unique creations, like a Dub-step gun that kills with beats and the early adopter ‘Merica gun that acts as a mini-gun, firework dispenser, flamethrower and rocket launcher.
All things considered, Saints Row IV is a funny and enjoyable experience, which stands out from the crowd and offers a heck of a lot of quality content, while occasionally aping the medium’s cliches and some of its past genres. It’s out there, but in a great way, and presents a world that is fun to interact with outside of missions, either via solo play or with a friend. However, things aren’t perfect in simulated Steelport. Visual glitches do occur, with screen tearing being the main culprit, and a minor freezing bug needs to be addressed. Those things mar the experience a bit, but this politically inspired sequel is mostly held back by its origins, as well as its mission repetition and lack of new/noteworthy activities.
As mentioned above, the follow-up to 2011′s gem was meant to be an expansion called Enter the Dominatrix. However, instead of sticking with that plan, the development team’s members decided that they had enough things in mind to fill an entire game, and went to work on making something larger. The result is a sequel that is very reminiscent of its predecessor, despite its new super powers and digitized look. Sure, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not a better game than what came before it. Still, with that being said, I do not intend to spend a lot of time focusing on this issue, because I still had a blast with this release. It’s not the masterpiece I was hoping for, but it’s still a very good game. Granted, it could have been better if some of the team members’ side quests were designed with more creativity in mind, as many of them repeat basic objectives.
Other than the noted screen tearing problem and some occasional glitches, the Saints’ alien invasion story looks quite good. It doesn’t take a huge step forward from its predecessor, but that’s OK. In fact, it looks and sounds a lot like the previous game. The voice acting is once again strong, the customization feels almost endless, and the world both looks and feels alive. On top of that, there’s a lot of great writing, which has led to the existence of some hilarious jokes and jabs. However, the soundtrack once again has some issues. Its interactive music feature, which allows customizable mix tapes and genre-specific radio stations to play outside of missions, is certainly appreciated, but some of the music is a lot quieter than its peers. That isn’t a major gripe, but it’s certainly a noticeable one.
Despite its issues, Saints Row IV is most definitely a must-play release. It may not be the undeniable masterpiece that it could’ve been, but it still stands out from the crowd with relative ease.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which we were provided with.