This year’s been a rollercoaster for games if you ask me. We’ve gone from dueling beat-em-up revamps and the logical conclusions of the AAA game with an attempt to inspire philosophical debate to indie games that go all-in on new forms of storytelling and Shin Megami Tensei finally getting some headway in non-American and Japanese territories. It’s also been hell on my wallet, but I digress.
Anyway, I’m impressed by much of what has come out and am, as a result, very optimistic about what lies on the horizon, especially as we’re approaching the end of this generation. But I still have reservations of what we could possibly leave behind as a result of the arguably greater emphasis on experimentation, and although the year’s still far from over, I felt like I needed a warm-down from the growing tension arising from what may come.
Saints Row IV couldn’t have really come at a better time. At the tail end of this console generation, and the finale of a series that existed merely to fill the GTA gap at the beginning of it, it’s the epitome of “book ends”.
After conquering the city of Steelport and the most reknowned crime circles, the leader of the Third Street Saints’ next goal is obvious: aim for control of the country. One anti-terrorism mission later, and the boss becomes the President of the USA. It’s not long into his second term, however, before the alien empire of Zin invades Earth and abducts most of the Saints, the President included. Finding themselves in a simulated version of Steelport, the President must break free of his virtual prison, re-unite his friends and ultimately strike back against Emperor Zinyak.
Although revisiting it made me feel like I had been hard on it at the time, I was disappointed with The Third when it was released. It retained the fun factor, but it felt like much of the craft and heart was lost in simply taking the shotgun approach to applying Saints Row‘s growing inanity, and that made all in the difference in how invested I was in the comedy. Thankfully, Saints Row IV has mostly averted this.
The writing, while ultimately juvenile and unsophisticated, has very decent pacing and structuring, with the missions growing in scale and gravitas as the story progresses. The intro missions do a great job of giving you just enough of a taste to entice you to see what comes next without giving you an ice cream headache like the last game did. Volition also cashes in on how surprisingly long-running the series is at this point, utilising the oldest characters surprisingly well to create some genuinely well-written moments of reminiscence and even nostalgia.
But when it comes to the meat of the gameplay, Saints Row IV is a far cry from where the series started. The progression structure is much the same as The Third, taking place in the same city, using both an experience and monetary system to level up your character, accessing mission starts from your phone and building an arsenal from growing completion of missions and side missions. But this all usually took place on the ground, and aircraft wasn’t emphasised enough to take advantage of what the city looked like from the rooftops.
While you do get an aeronautical lease on the city, it’s not usually with any vehicles.
Being set in a simulated environment, the rules of reality are allowed to be tossed out the window, and soon enough into the game, the boss will have access to a smattering of super powers, most notably the ability to jump high and run fast, similar to the protagonists of Crackdown and Prototype. As they comment, it’s a much more viable option than any cars could be. Even though it feels like a re-hash, it still somehow feels fresh enough to make it its own mechanic. This is due to the proximity of each building, which means you’re encouraged to do lots of leaps and bounds from rooftops instead of just gliding everywhere.
Thankfully, outside of cinematic parts where there’s pre-set music, you can play the game’s radio stations outside of cars. However, the selection this time is lacklustre outside of what’s on the 80s/90s and classical stations. There’s something to be said for returning to your roots when the songs were so obscure Volition couldn’t even get their names right, but the modern stations are full of complete unknowns this time around. When the most popular song is a Neon Trees B-side, it’s perhaps a sad echo of the decrease in budget Volition may have had due to switching publishers in a short time. That said, what licensed music there is is worked beautifully into certain missions, and the official soundtrack also works really well at selling the scenarios found within.
Without much car driving to do this time around, focus shifts right to the combat. The gunplay itself hasn’t changed much from the last game, but it’s the new mobility and superpowers that change the flow of it. The boss can gain the ability to lob elemental blasts, slam the ground with a shockwave, buff their weapons or use telekinesis. Each of these has their own recharge time, so you don’t have to wait to use any power, which always leaves you with some form of offense.
Offensive tactics are the way to play, as it seems in return for granting you these powers, the simulation stunts your ability to regenerate your health. The option still exists, but to call it unreliable would be too kind. Instead, most health is regained from pick-ups spawned from dead Zin. Victory comes down to how coolly you can manage combining your powers with your guns while being able to dart out of harm’s way. Not all of the enemy munitions are hitscan weapons, which makes things easier, but combat is still a tense affair.
It’s not always a fair fight, though. Setting Saints Row on the hardest difficulty was a vapid and meaningless gesture before, but IV steps it up considerably. I appreciate the attempt to move away from tired cover shooting, but it often seems the only way to win a fight is to get your hands really dirty, and if your health is just too low to kill a Zin and get its health before it kills you, that’s not a fair proposition. The flexibility and overall scale of the combat keeps it fun at the best of times. The inanity and brutality of it makes it frustrating at the worst of times.
Beyond the combat, you also have your side missions and other oddities. The new running and jumping gives you the opportunity to do foot races and some accuracy-based platforming. The reliance of heavy ordnance takes the mayhem tasks to a whole new level, the option to hack stores instead of buying or robbing them leads to an old-school puzzle minigame, and somehow insurance fraud is still fun even with its very shallow gimmick. All of these are fun in their own right because of how distanced they are from the metagame, but they slot right into the atmosphere of the virtual environment too. There’s a bit of the Skinner box method in the progression, but the minigames are fun enough to make it irrelevant.
The humour has always been a big part of the series, but I feel it’s usually tried to be smarter than it was, and it was neither clever nor cathartically funny. For the most part, Saints Row IV gets it right. Referential humour peppers the game, whether it’s an homage to another game or to a past Saints Row, but it always feels genuine rather than liberal application of memes. There’s even a reference to how the previous publisher of the series is dead now, which was really impressive. The sex jokes are about as open as they can possibly get too, and I’d rather games be honest about getting dirty than hiding it behind a veneer of sophistication. They really lay into furries this time, which was odd. Like, damn, Volition, what did they ever do to you?
There’s also your inane humour. The giant Saints Flow soda can was spoiled in pictures of the previously announced Enter The Dominatrix DLC for The Third, which was folded into Saints Row IV, but a lot of it comes from the atmosphere exuded by each member of the team. To rescue each member, you first have to travel through a personal simulated dungeon based on each person’s deepest fear, and combining this with the unique takes on the scenarios the game lays out each time, there are sights in Saints Row IV you’ll scarcely be able to believe. I literally shouted an obscenity in disbelief and amazement at the TV when I saw which actor they brought in for a cameo this time.
The game is inane, but as mentioned, Volition knew this time when to unleash their best tricks and when to be more nuanced. Upgrades take a lot of time to earn this time around, but they feel earned and make huge differences. A fully upgraded sprint is fast. There’s a real sense of growth as you learn more about the Zin empire, the simulation and the gang, and it culminates in a proper conclusion. While there’s a sense of loss in how definitive the ending is, it’s also supremely satisfying.
It sounds like a really wholesome package, and it is, but in putting this swan song for the generation and the franchise together, it’s barely able to hold everything. It’s foolish to not expect some glitches in open world games by this point, given just how many variables are running at once, but Saints Row IV is strangely unstable. Sound desynchs were too common, the draw distance on PS3 leaves something to be desired and the game crashed a number of times within my twelve hour playthrough. Autosaves are frequent enough to prevent a huge amount of frustration, but it’s too prevalent to ignore.
Still, I prefer a rough but heartfelt game to a polished but artificial one, and through all the ridiculousness of the concept and execution, Saints Row IV still feels like one of the most earnest games of the year. The best moments of the game range from the obvious and bombastic to the low-key, nuanced and emotional, and it’s impressive to see a game nail both styles of magic moments.
Memorable in all the right ways and even a few more, but retaining the core essence of the open-world genre and its inherent destructive catharsis, Saints Row IV is about as good an open-world game as we’re going to get in the twilight years of this generation (then again, I guess it’ll only be two weeks before we can stress test that statement).
What can I say? Volition has the touch.
Saints Row IV is currently available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
A PlayStation 3 copy of the game was independently acquired by the reviewer.