Review: Saints Row IV
By Joseph Christ on August 16th, 2013 (12 comments)
The Saints Row franchise has always been known for its over-the-top humor, crazy scenarios, and virulent un-PC lampooning of everything it touched, but these bits -no matter how brazen and bright- never really seemed to connect in a completely seamless way. That is, until now. Saints Row IV is even more over-the-top-y and crazy-y than it's predecessor, but has also found a way to bring the pieces together, and turn the hodgepodge into a valiant array of gameplay hooks and story that makes this the best Saints Row yet.
And quite possibly the best Open World Superhero game ever made.
Saints Row IV
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: August 20th, 2013 (360, PC, PS3)
Saints Row IV wastes no time in turning the ridiculous up to 11. You've come a long way from your humble beginnings of a common street gang, so the game starts with you, the leader of The Saints, as President of the United States of America. Shortly after you decide if you want to either cure cancer or end world hunger, an alien race known as the Zin attacks earth and enslaves you within the confines of a Matrix-like version of Steelport in the hopes of keeping you from being any trouble. It's within this computerized version of the city that you find ways of attaining your superpowers, and begin the fight against the Zin takeover by disrupting the very system enslaving you, and rescuing the rest of your gang from its grasp.
Sounds like typical Sci-fi fair, until we slather on a thick layer of Saints Row wit on top of it. Going about the main story missions will have the protagonist not only visiting historical locations going back throughout the series of The Row, but also tease at the video-game industry with pointed results. Sections recalling Atari's Combat and Metal Gear Solid (and stealth games in general) were especially well done, with the protagonist continually asking during the latter, “Why do I have to keep shooting out the lights...these lights have a family.” Saints Row is also beautifully aware of itself as boisterous caricature, allowing it the freedom to break the fourth wall at will, and do the things you always wished you could do in more grounded games like Grand Theft Auto. At one point after the attack the Vice President opines, “I was 12 hours into Dead Island when the attack happened. Now I'll never finish that game.” Of course, Deep Silver published both Dead Island and Saints Row IV.
Saints Row IV's story is filled to the brim with succulent nuggets such as this, making the story smart, witty and downright hilarious at times. Comedy isn't easy to pull off, especially in video games. Wit isn't just throwing in iconic themes or places the player will recognize and going “ta-da!” in an insipid -and cheap- attempt to get a reaction. It's actually doing something with the material, and Saints Row nails it in spades. Over and over again.
The story is also as surprisingly deep as it is funny. During rescue missions you find that your gang-mates have become trapped within sections of the simulation that force them to redundantly face their one true fear in one long, never-ending cycle. Sometimes the result is funny, sometimes touching, but always interesting. Volition has also ramped up gang-mate interaction. You can still call one of your 'homies' to come and help you, but more incidental dialogue as been added, and one part of the game where you duet with one of your friends while driving around is surprisingly touching. Seriously, I might have gotten a little verklempt....talk amongst yourselves.
Incidental dialogue and touching moments are great in themselves, but Volition has also added Mass Effect-style loyalty missions to their Side Quest rapport, that go deeper into their relationship with the leader of The Saints and Steelport as a whole. Of course, these are skippable but you're not going to want to do that because completing a characters Loyalty Mission invokes them with superpowers. And now we get ourselves into the meat of the matter.
I'll just come out and say it. The superpowers are what makes Saints Row IV so incredible. Hands down. End of line. Volition knows how good they are since they waste almost no time giving them to you, and making them immensely fun right off the bat. There are a lot of 'superpower' games out there, and in Saints Row IV it's as if Volition took the best parts of them all and conjested them into the game. Numerous powers are granted such as Super Sprint, Super Jump, Blast, Stomp, and telekinesis to name some. And these can then be upgraded or enhanced with different environmental effects. The powers themselves are upgraded with Clusters that are strewn around Steelport and collected in Crackdown 'agility orb' fashion. And yes, you'll want to be upgrading your Super Jump to get to many of them.
Did I say the powers were fun? Sure I did, but I think I really need to say it again. The powers are immensely fun. To put things into perspective, about 10 hours into the game I was able to Super Sprint then Super Jump thousands of feat into the air, easily clearing skyscrapers, and then glide almost to the other half of the map. Then, if I wanted to, I could let myself fall and shoot fireballs down at enemies below. What about fall damage? You have superpowers, silly. There is no fall damage.
Powers are fun enough when you're alone, but when you call up two homies with superpowers to join you the entire thing becomes as epic as you can possibly imagine. I spent more time than I like to admit just wrecking havoc around Steelport with two partners in tow. All of us jumping from building to building and destroying all who would oppose us. Not even touted Superhero MMO's (games that are supposed to be the most open of all open world games) offer as much freedom and fun with powers as Saints Row IV. It's worth saying again, this is the best open world Superhero game I've ever played.
Of course, the Zin want you to stay out of trouble, not cause it, and will fight back.
Except for a few story sections of the game, all opposing gangs have been replaced with Zin-alien soldiers who will begin to fight back as you get into trouble. The warrant system acts just like previous games, with enemies getting harder and harder the higher it goes, but this time hitting the highest level will invoke a Warden to appear. Wardens are mini-bosses in Saints Row IV who have a shield which must be disabled before they can be damaged. Wardens are formidable foes who will not only jump EVERYWHERE -making them hard to hit- but they will chase you anywhere in the world. That's right, the immediate area doesn't turn into an arena-style battle that gives you a 'Warning You Are Leaving The Battle Area' message if you get too far away. Rather, the entirety of Steelport is your battlefield, and the Wardens will hunt you down.
Be warned, however, running around Steelport with two superpower-laden partners will make the game way too easy on normal. Expect to turn up the difficulty lest the carnage get a bit repetitious after awhile.
Saints Row IV also makes improvements over III in the challenges department. One of my main gripes with III was it's insistence on meaningless side-quest activities that seemed like nothing more than filler. IV solves some of that by not only making the challenges a bit more forgiving in the early stages, but by tying their completion to awards that are truly worth it...and showing you what those awards will be before you start. Take it from me, I'm not a big fan of Saints Row activity missions, but you can bet your ass I did some to get items like the Dubstep gun, and abilities like unlimited Super Sprint.
There are a few items of concern to mention. Steelport has been completely redone and mostly looks fantastic. But remember, it's a fake computer generated Steelport and a digitized computer effect has been added which makes people and vehicles somtimes flicker in and out. Though the effect is supposed to be subtle, on the 360 it's just a little too much. Textures will seem to warp in strange ways that go beyond a simulation effect and just plain don't look good sometimes. Also, those who are used to the multiple enemy types in Saints Row might be disappointed by their absence. The Zin are fun to fight, but their pale yellow, nearly identical enemy variations get a little monotonous after awhile. Lastly, as I mentioned, the price for big powers is an easy fight, so be prepared to turn up the difficulty about 15hrs into the game. You'll thank me...the game is better when it's harder.
Saints Row IV feels like a seminal graduation for the series. It contains most of what made Saints Row III great, attempts to refine what made it merely OK, and adds heaps of awesome into the mix. Whether I was laughing at the story, jumping from building to building, or getting lost for hours going around and collecting clusters, there was hardly a moment where I wasn't having fun. And that's the points right? Volition never lost sight of that.
90-99%: Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.
Joseph Christ is the Reviews Editor and a Podcast Personality at 4Player. Specializing in reviews, editorials, drinking, and saying inappropriate things about gaming franchises that are beloved by millions, his satirical and sometimes edgy style offsets a more serious and penetrating substance lurking below the surface. He is also the host of the Cocktail Time Podcast. You'll follow his Twitter if you know what's good for you.
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