Review: Saints Row IV (Microsoft Xbox 360)
by Mark B. on August 14, 2013

Saints Row IV
Genre: Action/Sandbox
Developer: Volition
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 8/20/13

The Saints Row series started off as what could be considered a mild parody of the Grant Theft Auto formula before veering entirely off the road and becoming a full-on farce, and the gaming world, by and large, is better for it. The franchise pulls no punches in its parodies that take more piss out of the gaming industry than the plumbing in the Los Angeles Convention Center, albeit in an affectionate way, while also dropping references to all sorts of other media that works whether you get the joke or not. As a franchise, it’s the gaming equivalent of a Mel Brooks film; if you appreciate the references it’s a riot, but even if you don’t, it’s still an enjoyable laugh riot. When THQ declared bankruptcy late last year, there was a certain degree of worry that, even if acquired by another company, the Saints Row franchise might lose some of what made it what it was, especially if it were separated from parent developer Volition. Apparently Deep Silver felt the same way, as they acquired both the license and the developer in January and, by all indications, let them do what they wanted with the game. The end result, Saints Row IV, is easily the best entry in the series to date, if possibly the most polarizing. It’s something of a different game from its predecessors mechanically, turning the game from GTA into something akin to Prototype or inFAMOUS, and the entire game marks a massive escalation in scope from the prior games altogether, so fans may find it to be a bit too over the top. However, it’s also a fun, well designed laugh riot, and regardless of what the game ultimately means for the series, it’s arguably the best game in the series to date.

The plot begins with, of all things, an attempt to prevent a nuclear strike on the USA by Cyrus Temple, former leader of STAG from the prior game and apparent mass terrorist at this point. For some reason, the force sent in to stop the launch is a joint one, headed up by MI6 and the Saints, because why not, and upon successfully averting nuclear winter, this is sufficient to ultimately help the Boss get elected to the highest office in the US, that of President of the United States of America. The player gets to enjoy this for, oh, about two minutes, before the Zin armada shows up from outer space with a simple announcement: they’re taking anyone of at least somewhat viable capability into their custody, and the Earth is now theirs. Well, the Boss takes this about as well as can be expected (that is to say, not at all) and after some crazy attempts to fight back, you find yourself locked into a simulation created to torment you for the rest of your days: a virtual Steelport, where the Saints never existed and everything is run by Zinyak, leader of the Zin empire. Well, the Boss never lets being busted down to nothing get them down, and after collaborating with an apparently escaped Kinzie, the goal is simple: liberate the simulation, free your friends, and climb Satan’s ladder to show Zinyak he messed with the wrong POTUS, preferably via a massive Freedom-sized foot in the grundle.

Saints Row IV, amusingly enough, manages to achieve the rare feat of making its serious bits resonate effectively while also not taking itself at all seriously, and it pulls this off nicely. The game is unashamedly riffing on Mass Effect in its overall plot and thematic execution, including the ability to “romance” characters (in reality, casual sex), but its jokes riff on pop culture elements across several decades with ease. References to Transformers, Dead Space, John Carpenter films and The Matrix abound, though the jokes surrounding these bits work on their own, whether you know the reference or not; they’re just funny on multiple levels if you do. The serious plot points, however, work surprisingly well, as the characters are forced to confront their greatest fears due to Zinyak’s torturous simulations, and when the game breaks into serious dialogue, it manages to do so seamlessly, weaving sarcastic banter and morose personal introspection together in ways that are surprisingly effective. To be fair, the Boss and crew are all basically amoral sociopaths at the best of times, and you’re not exactly going to feel sorry for them given that, y’know, they’ve murdered thousands of people in cold blood while giggling and all. The game is by no means meant to be taken seriously; it’s more that the characters, despite their often one-track minds, do have personalities and motivations that are surprisingly deep, if sociopathic and occasionally stupid. The point is that while you’re not going to be shedding a tear for anyone here, when Saints Row IV kicks on the drama, you can appreciate it, and when it kicks in the drama, it’ll have you spewing your donkey beer all over the place.

Visually, Saints Row IV is technically high quality and artistically interesting, and while the game certainly uses the same city as its predecessor, you’ll find that it’s not at all the same in appearance. The city itself is a virtual construct, designed in a fashion that erases the Saints from history, replacing anything Saints oriented with Zin memorabilia, meaning that the world looks different enough such that it shouldn’t feel familiar to players for the most part. Several locations around town have also been replaced with alien constructs, towers, energy portals and so on, giving the game a feel similar to other superhero-themed games, which makes for an interesting visual contrast when one sees, say, Professor Genki or a Johnny Gat mascot running around. The visual engine is largely the same as it was in the prior game, however, so the game isn’t exactly pushing the technical capabilities of the console from that front, but the game makes use of several interesting visual tricks to keep things interesting. As the simulation decays, visual filters and deformations in the people and environment become more common, which also helps to give the game a visual “newness” that helps the game feel like a new experience. A good portion of the game takes place in Zin constructs as well, which look as mechanical and alien as you’d expect. The different character models are also different enough to not be terribly obvious in their reuse, as the Zin have several different forces they can use against the player, and in the simulation, there’s a surprising amount of depth to the models used by the game. Aurally, the game is basically amazing. The voice work is top notch, from the various allies and enemies you face to the voices for the Boss, including one named “Nolan North” that simply lets you play as Nolan North, essentially, which is basically hilarious. Some of the subtitles don’t sync terribly well to the spoken dialogue, unfortunately, but this is only an occasional issue, and mostly centers around one character who doesn’t show up until late in the game anyway, so it’s not the worst thing. The music in the game is a mix of in-house compositions, which are fitting to the game and generally solid, and licensed tracks, featuring a mix of music across different radio stations that you can listen to as-is or customize into a “mix tape” for your listening needs. Further, several of the songs in the game play into jokes that come up as you play, which is hilarious for all the right reasons. Finally, the various sound effects are excellent overall, from the expected (and unexpected) sounds made by the different weapons to the ambient sounds from the game world and beyond, and nothing sounds at all out of place (though in this crazy game, that’s hardly surprising).

Saints Row IV combines elements from several different genres into its mechanical framework, so it’s hard to qualify basic commands for play. Most of the game takes place in the simulated world of Steelport, offering a distinctly open-world setting for gameplay, and by and large, the game adheres to the standard mechanical concepts put into play by the game’s predecessors. All of the expected Grand Theft Auto concepts are here in full force, so you can run around the city, cause havoc, jack cars and so on as you’d expect, and outside of pissing off the authorities (in this case, the police force and the Zin), you’re more or less free to do what you want. Several of the missions that pop up in the game also lock you into a standard third person shooter system for a bit, which works about as you’d expect. There’s no taking cover behind objects, mind you, so it’s not a complete cover-based shooter knockoff or anything like that; more often than not, you simply show up, murder dudes, and move on to the end, to either complete the section or face some kind of boss as needed. The majority of these gameplay elements come into the game fully formed from its predecessors, so fans should find that none of this is terribly beyond the pale, and for the most part the game is easy enough to play for newcomers and fans alike thanks to an extensive variety of tutorials that pop up repeatedly throughout the game.

Where Saints Row IV marks itself as a different experience from its predecessors is in its incorporation of superpowers into the mix. Early on in the simulation, Kinzie directs you to collect data fragments that are randomly lying around the simulation. From these, Kinzie is able to modify your code, allowing you to develop superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to jump super high and glide around, the ability to run super fast through the simulation, and combat abilities such as ice and fire blasts, telekinesis, earthquake stomps and more. You can upgrade these abilities by finding more code fragments and dumping them into powers, or by performing tasks that unlock additional hacks, allowing for more damage, faster recharge times, elemental modifications and so on, as needed. Your super powers are a major game-changer early on in the game, and you’ll find that the experience almost becomes completely different from what you’d expect as a result. Who’s going to drive anywhere when you can run through the city as needed? Who’s going to bother with guns when you can run at a dude, flip them into the air, grab their ankle, smash them into the ground and stomp on their head? As you play further in, however, the super powers end up taking up residence alongside the existing play mechanics rather than overpowering them, and you’ll find that you mix up using guns and cars with using super powers depending on personal need. Instead of the game going in one direction or the other, it meshes the two play styles admirably, making it sort of like Crackdown, except you’re the “bad guy” more or less. The game also loves tossing in random gameplay elements that are completely removed from anything, such as text adventure missions, a mission reminiscent of Tron, and another mission that is full-on a side scrolling beat-em-up, which really helps to break up the experience and help it feel fresh tens of hours into the game.

Outside of the super power modifications, the other major changes come down to not having safe houses, but rather doorways that allow you to exit the simulation and return to your spaceship to discuss things with your allies. This is a clear thumbing of the nose toward Mass Effect, as you’re generally allowed to either talk to or “romance” your homies, with the latter option generally amounting to solicitation for casual sex (though the romance dialogue with Shaundi is actually kind of cute) and the former mostly being random dialogue to introduce a mission. The game even lampshades this at one point, so it’s as in on the joke as we are, believe me. Mostly, this allows you two functionally useful options: it allows you to modify your weapons, cars, simulated gang members and so on from the hub doorways around the world, and it allows you to take on simulation missions from your allies and turn them in for simulation mods. Insofar as the missions go, a lot of the elements of the game carry over from its predecessors, expanding on the depth offered over anything, meaning that, in addition to the plot required missions, you’ll also have to run around the city doing crazy things you’d expect from the series. This includes old favorites like throwing yourself into traffic to earn points, fighting in simulated clubs against virtual opponents, and wrecking everything in sight in vehicles or on foot, but also adds in new mission types such as hacking locked stores, breaching alien hotspots, infecting the simulation code with viruses and more. Completing missions unlocks modifications, like new vehicles, power-ups and so on, as well as cache and experience points. Experience points allow you to level up, unlocking the potential to improve your character, from boosting their stamina to increasing the ammo they can carry and their overall hitpoint count, among other things. Cache allows you to buy said upgrades from the menu, in addition to buying clothes, buying and modifying guns, changing your appearance and so on.

Other, smaller changes have been added to the game that don’t change the flow of the experience so much as enhance it and improve the variety of what you can do. For one thing, since the game is in a virtual world, you no longer call and request a car be delivered so much as you simply call for it to exist around you, and anything that required people to follow you somewhere allows them to teleport to wherever you are, which, while obviously not realistic, works in the confines of the experience. You can also summon up to three homies to help you at one time, ranging from generic gangs of Saints to your current allies to long dead Saints enemies who show up in the simulation for one reason or another, though summoning your own allies is often the best bet. As another nod to Mass Effect, your allies will often request that you go on Loyalty Missions, which often amount to doing something in the simulation to hurt Zinyak or to amuse your ally, with the end result being that they gain their own set of superpowers akin to your own. Aside from the fact that you basically need to do these missions to get the best ending (because of course you do), this makes your actual homies basically beast in combat, allowing them to toss enemies around with their mind and do all sorts of crazy stuff, so there’s absolutely no reason to ever recruit anyone else at that point except for laughs. There’s also an astonishingly large variety of weapons in the game, ranging from various different normal and alien pistols, shotguns, rifles and so on, to the more bizarre guns, such as the Abduction Gun (which abducts enemies into space) or the Dubstep Gun (bringing new meaning to the term “Drop the bass”). Also, acquiring the “Commander in Chief” edition of the game gives you access to additional perks, such as a “Screaming Eagle” jet and an Uncle Sam costume, but the best perk is the gun simply known as “’merica”. Why? Because it’s like six guns at once including a flame thrower and rocket launcher, so it’s… well, ‘merica.

You can essentially plow through the in-game content in around ten to fifteen hours, if you stick to the plot and loyalty missions and blow off anything else, but aside from the fact that this is joyless, it also misses out on a whole mess of upgrades. An average playthrough will likely offer about twenty to twenty-five hours of play, but even then you’ll still have challenges to complete, collectibles to find, and other novelties to acquire and use, so a full playthrough will likely come in at around fifty hours (as there’s an Achievement for staying in the simulation for forty, so…). The game also offers multiplayer co-op, allowing you to tear around the city with a friend and take on multiplayer missions, both cooperatively and competitively, so anyone with a friend handy can find even more reasons to play around. With the expectation of DLC somewhere down the line that will expand on the experience, you’ll likely find plenty of reasons to come back to the game even if you complete everything, and considering how long it will take to do that in the first place, well, the game easily justifies its asking price. Anyone who loves sandbox style open world games will find a lot to do and enjoy here, and the modified gameplay elements help to make the experience stand on its own rather than simply feeling like another sequel.

That said, well, the game is ultimately another sequel, from the setting being in the city from the prior game to the using of mission types we’ve seen before in this series and elsewhere and beyond, which is going to be harder for some players to dismiss than others. Outside of the super powers, most of what’s here is directly built from Saints Row the Third, and while that’s fine given that the prior game was awesome, it’s not the upgrade said game was from Saints Row 2. Also, while the game has sensible reasons for removing your powers in the real world or when transitioning into new simulations, this thing is kind of annoying after the fourth or fifth time it happens and you realize you have to completely change your tactics, again. For storyline purposes it’s not terrible and it doesn’t really hurt too much since most of these missions aren’t too hard, but it can be frustrating to adjust when it happens. Some of the missions the game asks of you are also less fun than others; running around murdering everything in a tank or mech suit is far more fun than, say, flinging yourself into traffic or anything with Professor Genki’s name attached to it, and the hacking minigame is okay at best. Finally, there are also some mild technical hiccups, such as the character not animating at all while falling or climbing for some reason, or appearing bald when returning to the ship; none of these are game breaking, but they’re a little annoying at times, even if they don’t happen often.

If you’re expecting a complete reinvention of the wheel, you might be a little disappointed, but for everyone else, Saints Row IV is a fun, hilarious experience that encourages you to be a massive asshole in fun and creative ways, and it’s basically well worth its asking price in all respects. The writing is creative, funny and not at all remorseful while still managing to impart the serious undertones of the experience effectively, the game generally looks interesting and sounds awesome, and between the easy to understand mechanics and the multiple tutorials, playing the game is a breeze. The game combines elements from normal and superhero based sandbox games into an experience that’s reminiscent of Crackdown but more enjoyable and functional, and the game is stuffed with variety to spare between the customization options, weapons, core and secondary missions, making it easy to lose hours to the game with little effort. The game isn’t terribly original, as what isn’t borrowed from its predecessor is either borrowed from or parodied off of other games, the transitions from super powered combat to regular combat can be jarring, some missions are far less fun than others, and there are some mild technical hiccups here and there, but really, this should be minor to most people. If you demand originality from your games, Saints Row IV might be underwhelming, but honestly, this is one of the most enjoyable games to come out all year, so if you can forgive a couple missteps, you’ll have the time of your life with it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Saints Row IV is a hilarious, over-the top experience that’s full of variety, satire and sheer content, even if it’s not the most original experience on the market. The writing is hilarious through clever jokes and satire that’s funny even if you don’t understand the subject while managing to convey serious plot points in compelling fashion, the visuals are high quality and interesting, the audio is basically excellent across the board, and the game is simple to play and makes great efforts to make sure you understand it. Mechanically, the game takes elements from the standard Saints Row formula and crossbreeds them with sandbox superhero game elements into a game that allows you to basically play however you want, and between the character customization, variety of weapons, and sheer volume of missions to take on, you’ll find that there’s a ton of content here to play with and enjoy. You’ll find that the game borrows a lot of its content from its predecessors, other games in the genre and from products it’s parodying, which dilutes its originality, the transition between normal and super powered gameplay can be annoying to adjust to, some missions are notably less fun than others, and there are some minor technical hiccups here and there. Overall, though, Saints Row IV is basically a laugh riot, and I haven’t had this much fun with a game all year. If you’re looking for a game that will occupy a whole lot of your time and keep you laughing while you do it, originality or no, Saints Row IV is an easy game to recommend, and it’s easily one of the best games in the genre, period.



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