What are you prepared to sacrifice for a good time? That’s the question I felt Saints Row franchise developer Volition, Inc. was asking me as I embarked on this fourth and possibly final adventure with the Third Street Saints. The series has made a leap beyond its original typecasting as a mere Grand Theft Auto clone in its first two iterations progressing into a piss-take of itself and the genre, throwing reality out the window and embracing its larger than life characters, settings and pop culture trimmings. The tonal shift to invading aliens and superpowers feels completely within the realm of possibility and opens the door to a completely different style of play. The question you’ve got to ask yourself is what’s more important, a pretty, glitch free experience or a rollicking, ball-bustingly entertaining thrill-ride?
Considering the franchise’s pedigree for insanely spectacular openings Saints Row IV doesn’t really grab you by the short and curlies at the onset. After a quick mission to diffuse a nuclear threat, featuring one of the most memorable uses of I Don’t Wanna to Miss a Thing by Aerosmith, rocketing popularity has catapulted the crew into politics with your character taking on the mantel of the President of the United States, with Keith David as your running mate/vice prez. It’s all your average every day stuff, you know, curing cancer, feeding the hungry, walking down hallways to press conferences The West Wing style and all a little devoid of personality. That is until shit starts to pop off.
An intergalactic douchebag by the name of Zinyak (who redefines bland) has decided Earth will be his new plaything and launches and all-out assault on the planet. He starts abducting humans on a global scale and after a failed and pedestrian attempt to keep the hordes at bay via anti-aircraft turret, you also fall victim to abduction and wake up in a candy coated 1960s wonderland ala Leave it to Beaver. It’s here, among the less chaotic than usual circumstances, that the graphical inconsistencies and limitations become strikingly apparent.
The graphics have received little to no overhaul since Saints Row The Third and retain the same bugs and glitches with constant ripples of screen tearing, audio glitches, character clipping and the occasional frame-rate slow down. The character models look outdated and it becomes apparent this is not Saints Row IV, but more like an expansion pack for Saints Row The Third, exhibiting none of the sharpness or smoothness of previously released demo videos, as seen from PAX East. It’s fortunate the action and sheer ludicrousness ramps up significantly from this point onwards, and immediately turns your frown upside down.
The Saints’ tech maestro Kinzie and all-around bad motherfucker Keith David hack through this simulation and free you of the “Matrix” in a stolen Zin vessel, now acting as your Mass Effect styled HUD. They reveal Zinyak has trapped all of the Third Street Saints’ main playas in a virtual rendition of their own less-than-private nightmare. By freeing them you disrupt the simulation and this is the key to Zinyak’s downfall, don’t ask me why or think about it too much, just nod your head and go with it. You can enter these programs via a virtual Steelport, and so the takeover process franchise veterans should be well familiar with begins, but not exactly as you remember it.
After an hour or so of the usual shenanigans, blowing shit up, kicking a million pedestrians in the nuts, running from Johnny Law, the whole virtual simulation dealy kicks in, and hits hard. This, the messed up sense of humour and the rife rips on other game franchises are the saving graces of Saints Row IV and completely reshapes gameplay. Within two hours super sprint and jump are unlocked and you’ll never need to look at a vehicle again.
Littered around Steelport are energy clusters (some thousand or so) and by picking these up you can quickly enhance your super-powered abilities. I left the traditional sandbox gameplay behind and embraced this bastard love-child of Crackdown, Prototype and InFamous, and giggled like a twelve-year-old every second of the way. It is incredibly easy to get distracted by those energy clusters and just work your way around Steelport collecting them like a junkie searching for his next fix.
It immediately dragged me off mission with James Woods’ voice spouting “oh, a piece of candy” ringing in my ears as I collected each one. Soon I was running up walls and leaping at breathtaking heights, traipsing across the map like The Hulk on a tear, chaining jumps together and gliding along, or hitting the ground running like The Flash on 18 cases of Red Bull. Super-speeding your way into enemies and laying an overpowered smackdown was immensely satisfying and once you unlock infinite sprint you’ll never find a fetch quest tedious again. You can even upgrade it so your ludicrous speed creates a tornado effect behind you carving a swath of destruction in your wake as you kick it into high gear, and these are only the tip of your super-powered spear.
You’ll unlock Telekinesis with life stealing or lighting elemental damage, Blast to freeze, incinerate or control the feeble minds of Zinyak’s cannon-fodder, Stomp to ground smash anything into oblivion or shrink or levitate if that floats your boat and Buff to unleash elemental damage on anything unfortunate enough to touch you. The fun factor messing around with these is absolutely off the charts and it’s likely you’ll never look at a firearm again unless absolutely necessary.
For the most part you’ll wail on the simulation’s police force/aliens and if you get in a spot of bother simply super-speed or jump away to safety. In the 26-28 hours I spent with the game (finishing all side missions and activities) I died only a handful of times on Normal difficulty and here in lies the double edged sword. While the gameplay is hilariously entertaining it often felt unchallenging unless a Warden (think big Prototype 2 monster) pops up, and then I simply knocked out his protective shield using my powers and whittled its health down till it hit critical mass to absorb its abilities.
That said, the alien tech is a hoot and a great way to mix it up. The Dubstep Gun is sure to be the first one you whip out and watching bystanders rock out as you’re thinning Zinyak’s ranks is sure to be a crowd pleaser. The Bounce Rifle, once upgraded, would ping pong shots automatically between enemies, and though fraught with danger at times, The Singularity Gun produces black holes which decimate everything. The fraught with danger part comes from the massive slowdown when used on groups and actually forced a game hard reset twice, so use it at your peril. The Abduct-O-Matic was by far my favourite with anything in its path drawn towards the heavens in a tunnel of light. The only ‘human’ weapon I used was a fully upgraded semi-automatic shotgun. That thing is a freaking beast and made short work of any and everything.
Even hitting maximum notoriety with a battalion of Zin on my tail proved only a minor hindrance. Simply chasing down a streaking command orb notifying the simulation of the ruckus and smashing it into oblivion immediately diffused the situation. In fact, the first time I felt pressed was tackling the optional side missions and loyalty missions for each of my simulation imprisoned crew, but it was well worth it as each of these were incredibly rewarding and inventive in delivery, execution and payoff.
When entering Each Saints’ own simulated nightmare your abilities are negated and while it is a little jarring at first, I relished the palate cleanser and return to the more traditional style of gunplay. Breaking them free offers a throwback to key character specific moments throughout the franchise’s history and it’s here where Saints Row IV really impresses by thinking outside of the box and poking fun at gaming tropes.
Standout missions include playing a 2D Atari styled tank game or delving into some warped NyteBlade fan fiction while trying to rescue Matt Millar. Freeing Benjamin King takes you back to the original Saints Row as you battle it out with that traitorous bitch Tanya for a second time, or get a Stay Puft moment from Saints Row The Third courtesy of Pierce Washington. Freeing Asha Odekar, of MI6, was a highlight (other than Johnny Gat, don’t worry, no spoilers here). Splinter Cell gets ripped a new one with guards only able to be defeated after all the lights are shot out and some ribbing at Metal Gear Solid’s expense with cardboard box takedowns and an Ocelot styled boss battle sure to have you stifling the chuckles.
Once freed, each member can be called upon as a back-up homie, but more importantly, if you help them resolve their ‘issues’ via the loyalty missions you’ll unlock super-powered versions of each of them. Let me just say that running into any situation with a super-powered trio at the ready creates a wonderful glorious mess, and is almost entirely unfair. Johnny Gat’s manslaughtering skills are particularly magnificent to watch in action. Yes, he’s back with a vengeance and I’m not spoiling a single thing about his return. Just savour it as it is one of the most memorable gaming moments I can remember, well that and his “Death from Above” stomp which obliterates anything below it in a single bound.
Most of the activities return with a simulated science fiction twist, such as Mayhem in a Tron-styled tank, UFO or beefy Mech suit. You can enter the Rift (the simulation’s program) for more electro-styled neon-clad futuristicness (yep, it’s a word) and complete tasks using your new powers. Insurance Fraud with super-speed is a wincingly good time, though the Super-Powered Fight Club and Professor Genki’s Mind Over Murder kept me coming back for more. In Super-Powered Fight Club you take on multiple waves of enemies with a boss battle final round (usually a formerly defeated gang leader from an earlier Saints Row), complete with Street Fighter-esque versus screens. Professor Genki’s Mind Over Murder requires you to pick up a Genki head, human or vehicle telekinetically and throw them through the corresponding virtual hoop for points. Try not to laugh maniacally as you do it, I dare you.
Even with the screen tearing and sporadic glitches, unimpressive graphics, generic and forgettable antagonist and over-powered abilities, I have to admit, I couldn’t get enough of Saints Row IV, once it hit stride. I smashed out every side mission, completed every activity (which I highly recommend), gained ultimate crew loyalty and laughed my goddamned arse off. It caught me unawares many times over with an unexpectedly placed song, a nostalgic throwback to previous Saints Row adventures, an old adversary I thought long dead, inventive riffing of other gaming franchises or a completely different gameplay style out of no-where. It may not be the prettiest looking thing out there, but it’s one hell of a good time.