You know, I wasn’t all too thrilled about Saints Row IV, even after E3. Honestly, it was difficult to be optimistic on the heels of the THQ bankruptcy, and the subsequent auctioning of their assets. Though Deep Silver acquired both the Saints Row IP and Volition, the team responsible, I still feared the worst. Even still, after playing it at the Expo, I couldn’t help but feel that the game felt a bit rushed. Despite what would become nearly a two year turn around – adequate, to say the least – my experience with the game behind closed doors indicated a simple reuse of assets, and a rehash of gameplay. The premise had been blown off of the hinges yet again in wonderful, spectacular fashion; but the game was the same – recruit gang members, complete a series of missions, assert control of the city, run amok, ???, profit. Even the city, Steelport, was the same.
As it turns out, one change makes all the difference.
Saints Row IV (PS3, XBOX 360, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Words by James Bacon
Super powers change everything. And even as obvious as this statement seems, you don’t actually understand it until you’ve played the game, and even then it still requires some thought. I didn’t notice it at the E3 press event, and I didn’t notice it, at first, while playing my copy at home. It’s such a small change in the grand scheme of gaming, but so absolutely profound. You can still jack cars, and helicopters, and buy guns, and call your homies… but you have super powers: a super jump, a kinetic dash that tosses cars aside as you barrel-ass down the street, telekinesis, blast waves (that you can customize with a variety of different elements… fire being the best, obviously), MIND CONTROL! All of which can be powered up, and most of which have stacking functionality. Dash even lets you run up walls when you spend enough points in it (be sure this and super jump are the first things you max out; it makes getting around easier, and much more fun). Until this game, sandbox gaming took one of two forms: regular Joe’s doin’ what they do; or Super Joe’s, leaping tall buildings with a single bound. Saints Row IV hybridizes the Saints franchise with super hero sandbox titles. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, inFAMOUS, Prototype; these are the games that Saints pulls from, providing a selection of options never seen before in a sandbox game, while blowing the doors of the hinges of creative problem solving. I’m using a lot of hyperbole, here, but it illustrates the dawning of realization I experienced rather effectively. This is the single biggest, and most important, change to the Saints formula. You really can play it how you want.
Saints Row IV really, seriously and truly, gets what ‘sandbox’ means, and just let’s you do as you please. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s good. There really is no bad here. Things you might be restricted from doing in other games of this style aren’t restricted in Saints Row IV. As an example, within the first 10 minutes of the game I had discovered climbable towers throughout Steelport (you will too, you can’t miss them). After attempting a climb (platformer style), I fell (because these towers are ruthless Satan’s ladders), and decided to just do it later. Five minutes outside of that, I found a helicopter at the port, and gyro’ed my way to the pinnacle of all five towers. Granted I missed a lot of data clusters in the process (collectibles that allow you to power up your abilities), as they’re hidden all throughout the vertical climb, but I’m OK with that, because I was allowed to solve my problem creatively, without interference with from the game. This may seem trite, or even a bit of a bad example (because of course you can fly to the top of the towers!), but it isn’t uncommon for any given game to force you to play the way it wants you to. Saints Row doesn’t dare deign to presume how you should be playing, and just lets you play.
It’s difficult discussing the story, as we enter spoiler territory right out of the gate. Even the pop culture references and Easter eggs offer no wiggle room with which to coyly remark an inside joke, or explain a simple literary reference. That is to say, while I’ll not be specific and ruin your fun and discovery, I will say that each and every corner of this game has been inundated with special love and attention. Everything you’ll do, every achievement you’ll, erm… achieve, and every ridiculous plot point you bang out is either a tongue-in-cheek jab, or an honest to goodness pop culture reference. The research that would go into that sort of undertaking is staggering. What I can say about the plot in specificity is that once the aliens land in the opening two minutes, things spiral out of control like donkey beer. The game takes the sort of left turns only this series could pull off, and it proves that innovative game development is alive and well. Who says no one is bringing new IPs to the table, when Volition consistently reinvents this series, surprising us with hilarity and solid game design!
I often found myself wondering what a development meeting might look like at the Volition offices, but even then I couldn’t really recreate, in my head, what sort of atmosphere might allow such rampant ridiculousness. It’s like every idea that anyone expressed was met with a ‘toss it in there’ attitude. The weapons are even more insane than in The Third (and the weapons were goddamned insane in The Third – chum gun?!); the premise is HUGE, and it just keeps getting bigger; and the missions provide variety, to the pleasant surprise of everyone. Usually we get standard fare quests in open world games, but the missions here are chock full of variety – from the typical hub battles and car chases, to target killings, foot races, platforming sequences, battle coliseums (?!), Genki murder mayhem, hacking mini-games (what the actual Hell?!), and tons more – and even when they’re the same-old, your new super powers give you the opportunity to solve them in new and satisfying ways. The well publicized Dub Step Gun is as fun to listen to as it is to watch as your targets bust a move before they perish. And the plot begins as something similar to the Matrix, with severe consequences introduced early in the game, fulminating in a cacophonous symphony of booming laughter.
The music is as excellent as ever, and you don’t need to be in a car to listen, anymore. Since your abilities effectively remove your reliance on vehicle conveyance, you can select any station from the radial menu by pressing B, and shoulder buttoning to your preference. It’s a small quality-of-life change, but I need my K12 tunes at all times (beating a dead horse… still makes me chuckle). Control is just as you remember it – nothing innovative or new, but if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.
My personal experience with the game, as has been from the beginning, is that I feel compelled to complete everything. Saints Row is the only open world game to get this reaction out of me, and IV continues the trend. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have gold medals to win, data clusters to collect, and people to punch in the nuts.
Verdict – 9.0 (++Good): Saints Row IV can largely be summed up in a single word: FUN… well, also ‘stupid,’ ‘hilarious,’ ‘ridiculous,’ ‘raucous,’ and ‘satisfying,’ but if I could only choose one, it would be fun… or maybe stupid. Because it can be so many things to so many different people, the fact that the idea of ‘fun’ is typically subjective only helps highlight the diverse variety of options available to you through the gameplay. The controls, though tried and tested, are as apt as ever at delivering a satisfying experience entirely void of frustration, and the new super hero elements feel right at home with the grand scale hilarity that Saints always promises, and delivers. Fear not, though the property is under new management, the same team is delivering the (not so) same Saints.