Saints Row IV is the latest installment in the long running Saints Row franchise developed by Volition and this time around published by Deep Silver after purchasing the rights from THQ during its bankruptcy. Beginning its life as a Grand Theft Auto clone, Saints Row set out to create a name for itself as the more off the wall and over the top version of the popular sandbox game and as we arrive at Saints Row IV it is obvious that the separation from GTA is finally complete. It is important to note that here in Australia it has taken a while for the game to reach our shore. I have also played through an international version from the United Kingdom. While at its heart the difference is entirely superficial, I will touch on the infamous drug toting mission that helped cause its refused classification status in the conclusion.
The story of Saints Row IV starts with the protagonist, the leader of the 3rd St Saints, participating in a black ops style assassination of a terrorist leader (the first of what would be a perpetual acknowledgment of the series greater lore), stopping a nuclear missile and literally falling into the oval office of the White House. After a brief section where you choose to either cure cancer or stop world hunger you are invaded by aliens and trapped in a simulation of Steelport, the city where Saints Row: The Third takes place.
Saints Row IV starts at the absurd and then turns it up to 11, this only serves to fuel the action of the greater narrative, a story that pits your character against the leader of an intergalactic warlord while trapped in a simulation of the city you most recently conquered yourself. Most would argue that story is not what Saints Row IV is about but there is a lot of love in this game for the world it has created up until this point. The game at points forces you to reminisce about characters and events in previous games which if you are riding the Saints Row roller coaster for the first time with this installment will feel disjointed.
Saints Row IV is a game that prides itself on an aesthetic of fetishism for pop culture. Everything from mission design to weapons to cars proudly sets out to reference an aspect of popular culture in some way or another and then ramps it up further into the realm of the outlandish and the absurd. References to movies, television, genre culture, current events and even the games series itself are rife throughout the experience and provide a worthy motivation to press forward into the next mission or try out the next weapon just to see what little ‘Easter Egg’ they have crammed in. This all serves as the backdrop to what is a rather disappointing decision to bring us back to the city of Steelport.
It is clear from the first moment you settle back into the open world that Saints Row IV began its life as an addition to the Saints Row: The Third experience with copy paste game mechanics coming back without feeling like they really have a place in this new world. What is the point of customizing a car when you never need to drive it? It is the left over trimmings from its predecessor that makes Saints Row IV feel a little rushed to completion.
Where that game world and its backdrop feel familiar so too, to an extent, does the game play and in this instance that is a great thing. The one thing that the Saints Row series as a whole has continued to improve on is the ability to make an open world sand box feel fun. The vehicles handle better than ever and due to the fact that the sandbox is set in a virtual world, the ability to save your pimped out ride with the push of a button is a welcomed improvement to the old “park it in the garage” system used by many games in the genre. The downside to all this is that unlike previous installments of the Saints Row series, there is no point to using vehicles at all with the main draw card for this latest Saints Row outing is the inclusion of super powers.
Super powers featured briefly in a DLC mission for Saints Row: The Third to great effect and it’s clear that this was a huge motivator for Saints Row IV to explore the notion on a larger scale. Including a great deal of evolution with your powers from shooting fireballs to suspending people in mid-air, superpowers in Saints Row IV are undoubtedly joyous in this sandbox and provide a great way to explore the world. Taking lessons from games like Infamous and Prototype, there is a nice progression to mastering these powers with some abilities only unlocking after a certain experience level or mission is completed. While this approach works well with your powers, by half way through the game I was able to handle most encounters without ever needing to fire a shot with my gun which is a shame as your guns are just as varied and insane as your superpowers.
Missions in Saints Row IV are broken up into story missions that happen outside of the simulation or in another section of the simulation where you have a limited arsenal and limited use of your super powers. Surprisingly enough for an open world sandbox game, the story missions are very linear and often take place outside of the open world free roam simulation. This provides a great diversion to the sandbox game play which, while fun, can at times seem like you are too overpowered for the activities you have to complete. In the real world you can interact with your crew members to activate missions and even engage them in “romantic” relations for added comical effect. Comedy is indeed at the heart of Saints Row IV featuring weapons like the violator, a Japanese tentacle bat and my personal favorite the Dub-Step gun that fires focused blasts of Dub-Step music destroying enemies and causing nearby pedestrians and vehicles to dance. Saints Row IV takes pride in its ability to laugh at its own absurd world and the things that take place in in and in this new simulated world it makes more sense than ever as to why everything is so down right bizarre.
Activities make a return here but while there are some nice new additions to the formula, like exploring the rift, its clear that these diversions were added in to uphold the status quo of the game series and do very little to add to the narrative. The justification given to activities in the Saints Row series is what helped to make them more enjoyable, spraying sewage onto buildings to reduce property value is ridiculous but makes sense in the Saints Row universe, here in Saints Row IV the activities see you steal cars called “viruses” and racing through the city for some reason or another. It is these decisions that take you away from the world building that has gone into the series as a whole and is disappointing to see especially seeing as there are so many call backs to the previous Saints Row games throughout Saints Row IV.
A main stay of the Saints Row series is a focus on customization which again in Saints Row IV takes it to all new levels. While it’s always been possible to play as male or female, that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the character you will craft. My protagonist, Reginald St. James featured mutton chops, a top hat and a thick cockney accent who, on occasion would moonlight as the super powered “Naked Justice” clad in nothing but spiked boots, wrist guards and a mask to protect is identity while duel wielding nail gun SMG’s. Everything from outfit to “Sex Appeal” can be modified with cosmetic weapon customization being added as well.
Everything else aside, as far as game play is concerned, nothing beats causing wanton destruction around the simulated world of Steelport with a friend and this is where Saints Row IV really excels. Featuring a full 2 player cooperative experience, Saints Row IV allows you to play the whole game with a friend system link or online. There is no added Coop experience or requirement to play as the side kick, Saints Row IV places both players in the role of commander-in-chief with each game substituting their character into the cut scenes. Free Roam is untethered and each player is free to pursue activities like stealing cars, flash points, finding collectibles and customization independently of one another or together as a team.
With Saints Row IV, the name of the game is fun. It takes great mechanics from other successful games and mashes them all together in the one open world. The comedy while largely dependent on pop culture references and experience with the franchise as a whole works to great effect. The game boasts a varied visual aesthetic that is at times let down by graphical glitches and is powered by the same game engine used by its predecessor. I wish they would have taken the time to really flesh out the direction of the game and not rely as much on the the foundation of Saints Row: The Third. Its not hard for me to recommend this game but if you are coming in hoping for Grand Theft Auto experience you will be disappointed. Fun, silly and most assuredly funny, this game is in a bizarre league of its own.
For those of you who are picking up the Australian copy of the game, rest assured that you are truly not missing out on anything. With all the hype and attention the Alien Narcotics mission received, it’s over in a flash and happens in the simulation. There is an argument to be had about how the mission was completely contextual in its “Drug Use” but for now, Blow people up with a guitar case shaped rocket launcher and run away up as wall dressed as a toilet.