Review: Saints Row IV

SaintsRow4

In today’s gaming market, there is undoubtably something for everyone. Strategy games, role-playing games, first-person shooters, puzzle games, platformers, adventure games. If a game doesn’t fit one of these genres then you can wander down the indie path and find all sorts of hybrid titles blurring the lines. More often than not, indie games are passion projects or love letters to a by-gone day of classic gaming. Retro City Rampage is one such title, that explored a large swath of genres and conventions with a limited budget and a single developer pulling all the strings. So what happens when you flip that coin and create a sprawling love letter to retro gaming and a myriad genres while having a bigger budget at your disposal? You get Volition’s incredibly fun, tongue-in-cheek, expertly crafted Saints Row IV.

I don’t want to spoil any of the story in the game, but there should be a bit of explanation to frame what makes SR4 so much fun. If you have never played a Saints Row title before I will first start by saying, why the heck not? But if you really haven’t, don’t go into SR4 thinking you need to play the previous games for back story — SR4 does a pretty bang up job of recounting the saga of the Saints, while exploring new ways to cause mayhem and destruction. 

As the marketing machine for SR4 has likely made you aware, the character you play as (aka Boss or Playah) has become President of the United States and very quickly faces an alien invasion that could spell certain doom for humanity. The Zin armada captures the smartest of humanity and enslaves them in what is clearly an homage to the Matrix trilogy. Initially, Boss wakes up in a 50s “Leave it to Beaver” prim and proper hellish nightmare, but after a brief introduction of basic game mechanics, the total chaos of the Saints Row series unfolds in spectacular fashion. After escaping the perfect 50s ideal, Boss learns that everything in the world is basically a computer simulation, and through exploration and collecting data clusters, super powers can be obtained. Because this is a video game and Boss is stuck inside of an exquisitely detailed virtual world, so why the hell not?

Collecting the data nodes unlocks more powers, which in turn leads to cracking the simulation and being able to leave or enter at any time so that other members of the Saints Row gang can be located and freed in the the real world. Freeing other Homies brings out the back story, but also allows for some almost tender moments between Boss and his freed homeboys. Additionally, each Homie offers a series of loyalty missions which, when completed, provide your Homies with super powers in the simulation, just like the Boss. What is great about that is the fact that up to three Homies can join you at any point. Calling in a Homie with super powers only adds to the wonderful display of total ass kicking as you work together to blow shit up with guns, ice blasts and telekinetic powers. Then again, after a while completing loyalty missions begins to feel more like padding.

How many times have you driven through an open-world game and thought, I wish I could fly? Or, I wish I could get to my destination faster? Or, what would happen if I could steer an over-sized, mechanized battle suit through the heart of downtown? What if I could climb the tallest building and jump off and not get hurt? All of these questions and more are satiated in SR4. It’s truly gratifying to run at full speed from one side of the map to another in just a few minutes. Want to fly? While running, simply hold down the jump button and gain a boost to send Boss way up into the air, and then glide across the sky into the next borough of Steelport. Collect enough data clusters, and running, jumping and the various super powers (icy or fire blasts, TK abilities, ground stomps, etc) can be upgraded to enhance the open-world fun. One of my favorites is maxing out the super sprint’s upgrades, which causes a tornado effect to occur while running. Pedestrians, cars, and lamp posts all get sucked into your wake and the second the run stops, all the various debris shoots forward into a jumbled pile of bodies and broken parts. It’s a treat to behold.

Of course nothing is nearly as satisfying as leaping 20 stories into the air, dashing toward a skyscraper and then running up to the top of the building at full tornado speed. A late game upgrade even allows you to perform a Death from Above move, which does exactly what is sounds like: Jump up really high, hold down L2 to target where Boss is going to rocket back down toward, and any and all enemies or pedestrians unfortunate enough to be close by are knocked away and killed by the shock wave. If you jump high enough before activating Death from Above, the landing blast is like a nuke going off in the city. The subsequent camera pull back to expose the huge blast is darkly satisfying, over and over again.

Causing mass destruction has its consequences though. As missions play out, or even while just screwing around in the city, a meter fills as more and more cops or Zin troops arrive. The more the meter fills, the more challenging the enemies become, to the point that over-sized, demon-like Warden will rocket down from space to attempt to thwart your fun.

Most open world games provide a variety of radio stations to listen to while driving around the city. SR4 also offers that, but since the majority of time is spent in a simulation of a virtual world, Boss has the wonderful ability to tune into radio stations while jumping and gliding through the air and isn’t forced to drive a car in order to listen to the music. Stations range from modern pop, to rap, rock, dubstep, reggae and even classical. I admit that I don’t typically listen to reggae or rap, but the collection of music on those stations fit the gameplay to a tee. All of the stations are a blast to listen to, not only for the music, but also for the DJ chatter between songs. One of the most surprising inclusions is the classical station. There is definitely something magical about listening to Beethoven’s 9th, or Holst’s Mars, or Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain while blasting aliens to smithereens. But what really takes the cake are the interstitials on the classical station where sections of Pride and Prejudice are read. How many games these days offer such an eclectic, yet somehow fitting variation of tastes? Strippers, thugs, furries, walking hot dogs, reggae, dub step, Beethoven, Outkast, veiled Star Wars references, plus so many other cameos and pop culture influences make spending time in the game that much more fascinating.

Zany combat is no stranger to the Saints Row series. This time around, there’s alien technology to provide an even greater variety to the arsenal. No gang member’s collection of weapons is complete without a Dub Step gun, which blasts enemies and simultaneously offers pedestrians something to dance to and makes cars bounce like suped-up low-riders. Another favorite is the Singularity gun (or black hole gun) which fires dense spheres that suck up pretty much anything in their path. While the giant purple dildo bat makes a return, I found using either the Tentacle Rod or the non-light saber light saber to be just a touch more satisfying.

Shooting aliens with so many crazy weapons while they are stunned by blasts of ice is only a fraction of what SR4‘s action has to offer. Various loyalty missions challenge Boss to platforming tasks that subtly train you how to use the super powers, which is unfortunately necessary because at the highest levels the powers can be difficult to master. If virtual platforming doesn’t float your boat, then Professor Genki’s Mind Over Murder and Super Ethical Reality Climax game shows might provide the dark humor that traditional platforming doesn’t. Other mini-games include puzzle-based hacking, insurance fraud, timed speed runs throughout the city, and even tank destruction challenges. In all, the collection of activities lead toward one goal: having fun in a mature, open-world playground.

For all the praise I am lavishing on SR4, I do have to point out some troubles I experienced with glitches. For the most part they are of the garden variety get stuck in the geometry of the environment or have voice work not match up with the character model lip sync, but I did encounter some more serious glitches as well. Some trigger points to critical steps in missions simply wouldn’t fire. Also, during the final encounter back up spawned to assist with the battle, but only flew in circles and never once attacked the otherwise clearly unbalanced waves of enemies. Fortunately these glitches, both big and small, were resolved by exiting the game and then restarting the section that was causing the problem.

Saints Row IV as a whole provides a great mix of short mini-game diversions, robust customization of clothing and weapons, zany open-world battles and a story that is a whole lot deeper and more touching than the shiny, sexy, purple cover art would lead you to believe. But of course what’s really great about the game (and the series in general) is the way it deals with mostly mature themes while routinely taking an immature but humorous approach, such as how you can adjust the sexiness of your character during the creation process (which in turn inflates bosom size), or fly about the skies of Steelport in a super hero suit of pure nakedness, with a little mosaic pattern leaving very little to the imagination. Needless to say, Saints Row IV is a true joy to play and should not be missed.  

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Huge open world with tons of activities
+ Super powers provide an extra level of fun
+ Fun, unique weapons
+ Wonderful cameos and tons of pop culture Easter Eggs
+ Compelling story
+ Spectacular collection of licensed music

Cons:
– Glitches that may require some missions to be replayed
– Loyalty missions can feel like busy work for the sake of padding out game length
– Fully upgraded super powers can take a bit to get accustomed to controlling

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Volition
Release Date: 8/20/2013
Genre: Open World Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2 (online co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.