We have seen gaming make some major strides over the last few years. BioWare set out to do the impossible by making a trilogy where decisions you made in game 1 could affect the outcome of game 3. Yeager Development forever changed the way many of us will look at the military First Person Shooter. Naughty Dog has raised the bar of storytelling to a whole new level. Games have become more complex, have dealt with more serious issues and have challenged us to really consider what they are saying about the world around us.
Sometimes, however, I just want to game. No deep storylines. No meanings outside of the sheer joy of getting to do things I would never be able to do in real life for no other reason than the fact they are fun to do. Thankfully, Volition has made just the game for when I am in that kind of mood, for though Saints Row IV is by no means the best game I have ever played, it may be the most pure fun I have had playing a game in a long time.
30 Second Review
+ Fantastic, varied gameplay
+ Super powers make the game
+ Manages to both poke fun at and respect gaming/nerd culture
– A few frustrating glitches
– Ending falls short of the greatness of the rest of the game
President of the United States? Why not!
Saints Row IV opens with you and your fellow Saints working together with MI6 to take down a terrorist. Sure, it’s far-fetched, but any fan of the series should know by now that is what Saints Row is all about. The series that started out as a Grand Theft Auto clone had shed most of its copycat nature with the breakaway hit that was The Third, and with IV, the break is complete outside of the fact you can steal cars in an open-world environment.
Getting back to the story, through a series of remarkable and unbelievable circumstances (and the first of several perfect uses of iconic songs), you become President of the United States. Fast-forward a few years, and you are being President the way only a Saint can: deciding between bills to cure cancer or end world hunger (labeled “F— Cancer” and “Let Them Eat Cake”) and trying to decide how to add more stripper poles in the White House. In the middle of a press conference where Kinzie is trying to find a way to dance around your latest stupid commentary, the world is attacked by an alien empire, and it is up to you and the rest of your rag-tag crew to battle this Zin in a Matrix-like version of Steelport.
Confused yet? Don’t worry about it. You don’t play this game for the story, at least not on the level you would normally think of when it comes to gaming stories. The far-fetched…. Okay, that’s not accurate. The over-the-top off-its-rocker plot is there for one purpose: to give Volition the excuse to do whatever it wanted, and the developer does a phenomenal job of doing just that. There is just enough of a plot to justify giving you super powers and changing up the gameplay in ways that will constantly surprise the player. The virtual setting allows Volition to do things that would not be possible otherwise, allowing the team to create a game that manages to walk the fine line between poking fun at gaming and geek culture while treating it with a reverence and respect that will take you by surprise.
I know I am being very vague here when it comes to the game story, but there is a reason. At the end of the first act, something happens that will take gamers by surprise. While it is true the game is not incredibly deep, there are moments that will grab you, and those are the kind of moments I just do not want to ruin.
The Gameplay Is the Thing….
Not long into your time in virtual Steelport, you unlock your first set of super powers. The first up are Super Sprint and Super Jump. From this point on, you do not have to use a vehicle with the exception of the missions that require one, though some vehicles like the Void spacecraft and the Eagle attack helicopter will come in handy. Not having to drive is a good thing, however, as the driving mechanic in this game is pretty much unchanged from previous games, remaining the real weak link in the gameplay.
So why do I bring up such a bad point so early? The answer is obvious; it’s about the only bad thing I can say about the gameplay. The rest of the game is just an absolute joy to play with one or two minor exceptions. Using your powers to leap and glide around the city, looking for data clusters a la Crackdown or taking the fight to the Zin with various insane weapons and super-powered beat downs is just plain fun. It might sound simple, but running full speed up to an enemy and triggering a melee kill never gets old. Using the Dubstep Gun to get enemies to dance themselves to death never ceases to make you smile. Firing black holes at enemies, calling in aliens to abduct them or turning the tables by attacking them with a tentacle bat is just plain amusing.
By now you are probably wondering if Super Speed and Jumping are the only powers you get to use to fight off Zinyak, leader of the great Zin empire. The answer would be no. Throughout the game, you unlock a host of other abilities, many of which can be modified by various elements to cause different effects. Take Stomp for example: the Rock element does massive damage, Gravity causes enemies to get stuck in mid air, and Shrink makes them small enough to step on. Each of these can be upgraded, allowing you to do more damage over a greater radius. Most of these upgrades are available for purchase using the aforementioned Data Clusters, little glowing bits of data scattered throughout the city. Collect enough of them, and you may never need to use a weapon again, though Volition has done such a good job of creating the weaponry of the game that I found myself relying upon them many times.
So what else do you do besides running around looking for trouble or Data Clusters? The activities are back in a big way. Virus injections act very similarly to the waves of gang battles in previous games. Insurance fraud is back, and once you’ve played in traffic with the aid of Super Powers, you will never go back. There are rifts to explore, stores to hack, games to play, and rescue/loyalty missions involving your fellow Saints enough to keep you busy for quite a while. I did all the side quests, which cover all the available activities, and I spent over 20 hours in the game. Anyone who was worried this game would not be a complete experience can rest easy. This is not just DLC drawn out to make a buck. It is a full-fledged game, and it is a blast to play.
More Than Just Fun Gameplay
While the gameplay is what will draw you into Saints Row IV, it’s the creativity of Volition that will keep you coming back. I got a chance to have a round table discussion about the game with Scott Ellison of Saving Content and Marty Hess of Pixel Rated, and we all agreed on one thing: at some point, this game just grabs hold of you. It was different points for all of us, but it happened all the same.
So what makes this version of Saints Row so unique? After all, though the intro to the game is over-the-top, it does not manage to be as insane as the one of its nearest predecessor, though the bank robbery/cargo plane opening of Saints Row: The Third was going to be next to impossible to top. To Volition’s credit, the team did not try. Instead, it created a universe where anything can and will happen.
What makes Saints Row IV stand out from just about any other game I have played recently is it’s not defined by any one genre. While it is at its heart an open world third person action/shooter, it has elements of racing, platforming, old-school graphic based adventures and even some side-scrolling beat-em-up action. Holding this all together are two very strong underlying archetypal themes taken from two big parts of geek culture:
- The Matrix: Come on. You are in a virtual world. You can use the equivalent of super powers. Your enemies, the Zin, can take control of any “citizen” of Steelport at anytime. There is no way to not draw comparisons to The Matrix. After all, as you transition between the real world and the virtual one, you go through two different colored tunnels: red to enter the real world, blue to return to Steelport.
- Mass Effect: Oh, did I forget to mention the real world? Early on in the game, Kinize, the hacking genius she is, manages to help you unplug from the master program. After a rather humorous battle to try to escape, you choose to make one of the Zin spaceships your home base. When there, you can meet with your other rescued Saints, talking with them and getting various missions from them, including loyalty missions which, when completed, allow them to use the same super powers you have at your disposal. You can even romance them, through the results are definitely more in line with Saints lore than BioWare’s trilogy.
When it comes right down to it, there is so much more to this game than meets the eye (yes, the Transformers reference in intentional, as Stan Bush’s “The Touch” is one of the perfectly placed songs in this game). These extra touches help keep the game from falling into that overly repetitive gameplay all-too-familiar to fans of the open world genre.
Are you getting the idea that I liked this game? Good, because I did. That does not mean it was without its frustrations, however.
Trying a Little Too Hard
The activities in Saints Row IV are mostly enjoyable. There is one notable exception, however: the Super Powered Fight Clubs. These fights pit you against three waves of enemies, and all you can use are your various super powers. Each activity in the game has Gold, Silver and Bronze tiers, and in this particular one, they are based how long it takes to you to take down the boss in the third wave. While this all seams simple enough in theory, in practice it falls apart. Your enemies are not limited to just using powers, so you find yourself at a disadvantage. On top of that, most of your powers like Stomp and Blast have a cool down associated with them, meaning you alternate between unleashing devastating attacks and running like crazy from enemies you cannot hardly hurt without your powers. If they had just removed the cool downs, it could have been a great activity. Instead, I found myself hoping I would be able to complete the fight before my time ran out, not even caring if all I got was a Bronze.
Then there are the glitches. No, I am not talking the upside down people or those with really exaggerated features; those are intentional representations of the virtual world breaking down. I am talking the number of times the game would freeze, especially towards the end, forcing me to start an entire mission over again. I was playing a press build (on PC), so I can only hope some of those bugs were fixed.
The biggest problem with the game, however, is Volition’s creativity ends up setting the bar too high. What do I mean with that? Well, remember how I mentioned the game changes genres throughout? The last set of missions do not. They mostly have that “been there, done that” feel, with the exception of a few special moments. It’s really too bad, as most of the rest of Saints Row IV is just brilliant.
Now please do not read too much into what I am saying here. I am not saying the ending of the game is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It just does not live up to the impressive standard set by the rest of the game.
Plenty of Time to Play
I know there are several people out there who are wondering if this game is worth playing, especially with Grand Theft Auto V due out not long afterward. My answer to that question is a resounding YES! Saints Row IV may be the most pure fun you will have playing a game this year. There are plenty of jaw-dropping and laugh-out-loud moments in the game to make it worth picking up. Before you ask, yes, I did laugh-out-loud many times while playing. That’s rare for me.
There is one other thing I do need to address: questionable content. Granted, this is Saints Row, so you should be expecting it, and it is definitely present. While Volition did not go as far over the line in this game as it could have, there is a lot of violence, some unavoidable nudity and plenty of foul language. There is also a character whose main characteristic is her addiction to drugs, but I will argue there is a reason for that character being in the game. I just don’t want to spoil it.
Saints Row IV is not going to win any awards for story, and it will not leave you searching for deeper meanings like some of the games that have already come out this year. Still, I stand by what I have said on Twitter; it will be in my Game of the Year discussions, even if it does not end up making the list. After all, games are supposed to be fun, and while Volition may not have mastered the art of storytelling, the team has made a game that is fun to play. Saints Row IV gets a 9 out of 10.