Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Renowned for its lunacy and open-world gameplay, Saints Row: The Third was the game that transitioned the series from “kinda crazy” to full-on “hey we’ve got a dildo bat and gimps” levels of ridiculousness. Following that rambunctious circus act less than two years later, Saints Row IV‘s intentions seem clear: crank the insanity up to twelve and deliver an even stupider package covered in the Saints’ iconic purple hue. However, ratcheting up the zaniness has caused the lever to rebound and swing back in the opposite way.
Conquering substantial territories one after another has eventually led to the Saints ransacking the White House, filling it with purple (and strippers), and taking over America in a more presidential sense. Presidency led to a bigger target on the gang-turned-politicians, allowing an alien race known as the Zin to invade and hold humanity hostage. Usually by breaking as much stuff as possible, the Saints have to figure out a way to save mankind and kick some alien ass.
An alien invasion feels like a natural progression for the series but this threat doesn’t go beyond an intriguing premise. The Boss (that’s you) must free the other members of the Saints and stop Zinyak, the Zin’s nefarious and hilarious leader. That’s it. It’s overly simplistic and doesn’t really evolve over the course of the game. Because of this, the overall plot can feel monotonous at times, scarcely finding new ways to dig up interest to keep trekking on.
Mission structure definitely contributes to the plot’s dry, boring feel. Given that the objective actually is a mission (some are just activities), they usually boil down to the same collection of tasks: kill aliens and defend something valuable. Anything can be broken down to sound bland, but Saints Row IV‘s approach pulls back the curtain and reveals how bare bones each mission is. Its self-aware attitude even reflects this. In the many times you are asked to do something overly “video gamey,” the characters will often openly mock the action. I get the humor in it, but you’re still making me do the menial task, so who is the joke really on here?
Saints Row: The Third was a fine game but Saints Row IV‘s blatant copy-and-pasting makes the game far less memorable than its predecessor. The Saints have returned to Steelport from the last game, which is, on the whole, the same city albeit in a “simulation.” Simulation or not, this is inexcusable because that sense of discovery through absorbing a new world has completely vanished. You’ve been here before. You’ve slayed men with an auto-tuned pimp here before. There was no real reason to return. Steelport is a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there… or at least have yet another game there.
The returning setting is the biggest offender when it comes to borrowed elements, but that isn’t where Saints Row IV stops stealing. Jokes and situations that were clever and funny in the last title return and, as any comic knows, repeating a punch line never hits as hard the second time. The HUD and a handful of the activities are also recycled, meaning you are doing the same things in the same place just in a new game. Sequels that keep elements from the prior game are expected but Saints Row IV holds on to far too many aspects in a clingy sort of way.
Bringing that many elements does carry over some positives too. The Saints still find themselves in hilarious predicaments, ones that I won’t spoil but are indeed worth a juvenile chuckle or two. The writing doesn’t seem nearly as on-point as it once was, but they throw enough comedy darts at the dart board to have enough of them successfully strike the target. Expect some toilet humor coupled with some genuinely funny, creative moments. The voice acting also maintains the series’ signature style, with some solid, convincing work done by each of the contributing actors. Zinyak is underutilized, but shows up in some grand ways that make him one of the more interesting faces in the game. He could have been so much more, but his booming, tantalizing voice mocks the player in a way that made me hungry for more punishment.
Audio design, specifically licensed tracks at key moments, was another handed down facet that each game boasts better than almost any other title out there. Instances like these are ones best left up to personal discovery, but rest assured that they are spectacular because of the perfect fusion of song choice and the action on-screen. Remember when the “Power” clap chimed in on the radio as you hopped out from that helicopter in Saints Row: The Third? Yeah, well now expect it a few more times but with just as much awesome. The curtain call at the end might even be one of my favorite scenes in recent memory all thanks to its stupidity and Montell Jordan.
The in-game radio deserves its share of positive energy, as it compiles various tunes from different genres that has more hits than flops. It doesn’t cover some genres like heavy metal, but it makes up for it in its dubstep, hip hop, and classic tracks. Every good licensed soundtrack ideally balances two things: showing you songs you love and introducing you to new songs that you didn’t know you loved. Comfortably jiving to Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” was delightful but discovering new tracks by Flux Pavilion, among many others, was the standout moment while cruising around. The radio plays in and out of the useless vehicles, so you’ll almost always have a source of tunes. The original composition is also noteworthy, especially if you are also into electronic or hip hop music. Music like this finds its moment and fits so well including a remix to one of America’s most recognizable anthems. Saints Row, of course, turns it into a jam worthy of being played at high volumes.
There is also a gun that shoots dubstep. As if the soundtrack wasn’t killer enough.
It has taken me a fair bit of typing to finally get to the important part of a game: actually playing it. Whereas old Saints Row titles could dismissively be pinned to being a Grand Theft Auto clone, Saints Row IV can, in the same way, be reductively pushed into being a Crackdown or Prototype ripoff. The Saints have been introduced to super powers through the glitches in the simulation, something that heavily factors in to how you play the game. Cars are useless pieces of window dressing now because the speed and simplicity of gliding and super sprinting. Offensive powers are also included, from super stomps to fireballs and each is upgradable through the addictive orb collecting around the city.
On a base level, these powers are passable because of how they help out in combat and traversal but each has a minor drawback or annoying factor built in. Super jumping, gliding, and running are all excellent rushes but niggling issues like getting stuck on small pieces of geometry is frustrating. Zipping from rooftop to rooftop and getting stuck on a pipe or ventilation duct just kills momentum. Auto-scaling small objects, like that seen in Prototype 2, would have greatly streamlined movement even if it is good for the most part. Little problems don’t kill the overall feel – traversal is still great – but these drawbacks slightly damper movement.
Offensive powers are inventive because of the amount of options you have at any given time. If you’ve completed the related side quest and collected enough “orbs,” you’ll unlock more elements to the standard powers and improve their overall worth. Throwing around iceballs and using telekinesis is fun, but it can be frustrating to get caught in an animation and not be able to quickly switch between your powers and guns. Instead of feeling integrated, firearms and the super powers can feel like completely different systems. Getting trapped in animations isn’t exclusive to the powers, as getting juggled around and ragdolled is (still) one of the most infuriating things in the game. Your animations can get interrupted rather easily and it can be all too simple to get helplessly bounced from enemy to enemy even after you’ve bought the “No Ragdoll” upgrade. Getting robbed of control is quite maddening. Shocking, I know.
I won’t dance around it: Saints Row IV feels like an expansion pack. A good expansion pack, but not one worthy of holding a full-priced, numbered sequel. Far too many elements are borrowed, which can only be excusable to a point. Saints Row IV finds that point and pushes it just a hair past of the point of being comfortable. Almost all of Saints Row IV‘s positives can be attributed the success of Saints Row: The Third, a game that slightly outshines its successor in just about every way. While the president had some good qualities last term, piggybacking off his coat tails isn’t a great way to kick off your first term in office.
+Killer soundtrack that taps an array of different genres and eras
+Addictive leveling and upgrade system
+Solid sense of humor
-An overabundance of borrowed assets, missions, jokes, and various other aspects from Saints Row: The Third
-Bland mission structure
-Getting juggled around is still frustrating
-Slight technical issues (freezing and framerate drops)