If you haven’t been paying attention to what has happened to the Saints Row franchise during this generation let me give you a quick recap. The original game held its own as a Grand Theft Auto knock-off, which worked out quite well considering it was the first game of its kind to hit next gen consoles. By the second game Saints Row started to grow into its own by digging further into more over the top and crude humor, a stark contrast with the very serious Grand Theft Auto IV. By the time Saints Row the Third came around, the franchise had finally figured out its identity. That title stripped away much of the more childish humor – gone were the septic tank activities – and replaced it with sheer lunacy. Missions included things like falling out of a burning plane while dodging enemies and other debris, fighting off a zombie apocalypse and a full on lucha libre “Mask versus Mask” match.
With the heights that Saints Row the Third reached in humor and ridiculousness, it is hard to imagine where the game would go next. Volition and Deep Silver did not disappoint with Saints Row IV. The premise of this fourth entry is anything but simple, but the game manages to pull it off. After a series of improbable events, the protagonist (referred to as “The Boss” or “The Playa” throughout the game) finds himself/herself as the president of the United States. The presidential cabinet is filled with the main crew of the last game and other old faces stop by that fans of the series will remember. Oh and Keith David is the vice president. No, not Keith David voices the character, the actual actor is in the game…because why not?
As if this premise wasn’t already silly enough, the game quickly takes a hard turn with an alien invasion that enslaves the entire human race. The world’s population is abducted Matrix-style and placed inside simulations intended to break their will. Almost everyone receives this fate, including your character. So the goal of the game becomes pretty clear; stop the aliens, save humanity. Also, since most of the action takes place inside of an alien-controlled simulation of Steelport, you also have super powers. Again…because why not?
The addition of super powers to Saints Row completely changes the way the game feels and plays. For the first couple of missions everything feels quite comfortable, with the usual over the top action we loved in Saints Row the Third. Once super powers are introduced, it stops feeling like your standard open-world crime game and becomes something very different. All of the same “crime simulator” trappings still exist but there is little reason to use them anymore. Why drive when you can run faster than a car and jump higher than buildings?
Ultimately what this new type of game boils down to is much more akin to something like Crackdown, inFAMOUS or Prototype, the difference being that it still maintains the great humor and references that made Saints Row the Third such a great title. Also let’s be clear: running around as a superhero, blasting enemies with fireballs and throwing cars around with telekinesis is insanely fun. In fact the powers and abilities that you get in Saints Row IV are arguably better and more varied than any of the games I just mentioned, which is quite a feat.
The only problem is that the controls struggle to keep up with what you actually are trying to do. There are four main powers of which you can only have one equipped at a time. Each power also has three variations that drastically change how it acts. It takes awhile to get used to switching between powers and even once you do you’ll still feel like you’re fumbling with the controls sometimes. The game does pause the action if you hold B, allowing you to choose your powers and weapons more tactically but the break in the action doesn’t feel natural in a game like this.
Once you get used to bounding around the city you’ll probably want to actually start doing some missions. You have a main ship filled with your homies that will give you a quests but first you have to rescue said homies by entering their own personal prison, which is essentially their worst nightmare come to life. Once freed each ally has a loyalty mission which, upon completion, will grant them the same super powers as you. Sound a lot like Mass Effect 2? That’s because it is, including the ability to romance the various people you save.
With each of the missions based around one of the main characters, each one feels and plays differently. Some feel quite tame while others reach into zanier and funnier places than ever before. I would go into more detail about the stuff you run into but it needs to be experienced. The sad thing is that the main missions that aren’t focused around characters, specifically the missions leading up to the end, feel quite boring by comparison. As such the game ends on a bit of a whimper, although the final boss fight and story revelations are quite good.
One amazing thing that Saints Row IV does is how it handles side content. Like previous titles there are various activities scattered Steelport that you can tackle at your leisure. However to give them more structure your various allies will actually send you on quests to complete them with clearly laid out rewards for doing so, such as a new ability upgrade or a weapon like the Dubstep Gun. This slight change in layout makes the side activities much more fun to do, both because all of them are still quite fun but also because you know why you want to do them. Saints Row IV also adds audio logs to find as well as hundreds of clusters (aka agility orbs) to collect around the city to buy power upgrades.
Even with all of the side activities and collectibles I just mentioned, Saints Row IV still comes in at a surprisingly short 20-25 hours to accomplish everything. The game achieves this by greatly streamlining the experience. You don’t spend any mindless time driving because you can get to places significantly faster on foot. You no longer have to wander aimlessly to conquer side activities because the game lays them out in clear quests. Even the collectibles are easy to find once you unlock the Collectible Finder about halfway through the game. It’s not really that the game is short, it’s that there really isn’t even a single moment of downtime.
Saints Row IV is certainly a special game. Many games try to be funny but this game is one of the few that has actually made me laugh. Not smile, not chuckle lightly; I’m talking straight up laughter on several occasions. Sometimes it’s through legitimate jokes, other times it’s through a reference and a lot of the time it’s for the games impeccable use of licensed music. The music on the various radio stations –which you can just listen to whenever you want since you are rarely in a car – is almost entirely excellent. The best station is, surprisingly, the classical station which features interludes by Zinyak, the game’s big baddie, quoting Jane Austen or reciting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
It’s also a game that becomes slightly poignant as you revisit actions and characters from older games in the franchise. Saints Row IV almost feels like a swan song for the franchise and if you’ve played all of the games in the series there are tons of callbacks to previous titles. It’s odd because the last thing I would think would happen in this game is finding myself nostalgic for the original games.
Even if you have never played another Saints Row game, this provides a great entry point for the series, especially if super powers and aliens sound more interesting than being a common street thug. While the gameplay never quite clicks as perfect and not all of the missions stand out as great, what you get is really fun to experience, and you should definitely experience it. The only real question at this point is where do the Saints go next? Let me just say if they go the direction that they hint at during the credits, Saints Row V is sure to be the craziest entry in the series yet.