Saints Row IV is an open-world sandbox game in the vein of Crackdown. No, wait... Saints Row IV is the delivery system for the almighty Dubstep Gun. Saints Row IV is a perfect representation of American pop culture: full of excess, randomness, violence, flash, explosions, and tons of references.
I think I have it right this time: Saints Row IV is the best Saints Row game yet, and it's a fitting end to what Volition has done with the series.
Saints Row IV tells the 'heroic' story of former Third Street Saints boss and current President of the United States as she/he fights an invading alien force from within a virtual reality version of Steelport, the city from Saints Row: The Third. It's a solid story with some surprising twists, but you deserve to experience them for yourself. In the end, if you're a Saints Row fan, this is your Return of the Jedi, wrapping up everything in a suitably crazy fashion. Every Saints Row character of note makes an appearance in the game and all of their moments are true to the characters and the series.
While Volition is finishing up its own tale, it's also using the latest Saints Row to poke fun at other games, movies, and television shows. Within the game's first two hours, you can expect to see a flight sequence asking you to "do a barrel roll," a 3D-riff on Space Invaders, shipboard romance options like Mass Effect, and a Ghost Recon-style opening with slow-motion door breaching and tasks like "kill terrorists." The gameplay steals shamelessly and perfectly from Crackdown and inFamous, giving a city to explore and collectible, building-borne widgets to boost your considerable superpowers.
The trick with an open-world sandbox game is finding the right middle ground between railroading a player down your story and giving them room to breathe. You provide the player with tools and set them against a foe, whether that's just the environment or NPCs within an environment. After that, it's a matter of focus. If you open it up too much, the player has fun for a while, but ultimately leaves the game. If you close it down too much, the open-world doesn't matter as the player is mired in the story you want to tell.
This was part of the problem with vanilla Grand Theft Auto IV: Niko's girlfriends and cousin were constant interruptions to any fun you might have been having. If you really wanted to get through the game as intended, your best bet was to drop what you were doing and go on an date or other outing. Rockstar created a believable world and simulation with Grand Theft Auto IV, but the fun was sorely lacking because the player was pulled between random fun and the serious tale of Niko Bellic. That game's follow-ups, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost & Damned, focused primarily on telling their specific stories and they were better games for it.
In contrast, Volition has trimmed away the fat and turned up the insanity until the dial broke. Anything in Saints Row: The Third that could get in the way of fun has been excised, thanks to the game's new Matrix-like setting. If you love your cars, you longer need to worry about your garage; holding down on the D-Pad saves whatever vehicle you're in to your portfolio and you can summon them at anytime. Jammin' to an awesome song? Now your chosen radio station continues to play outside of your vehicle. If you loved the dildo bat from The Third, Volition has brought the Dubstep Gun and the Rectifier to the party. One stops your enemies and civilians with the power of Wub Wub, while the other is a science-powered alien anal probe turned against its creators.
Saints Row IV gets out of your way and lets you play with a wide variety of toys. This leads to what I feel is the greatest strength of Saints Row IV: finding the perfect moment. For me, it was running with full-tilt super-speed into an Zin squadron only to have Stan Bush's "You've Got The Touch" come on my personal radio (Mix is the only station for me). Something about the inspirational song from 1986's Transformers: The Movie combined with body-slamming aliens into a bloody paste struck a chord within me. That was the moment when everything in Saints Row IV just clicked. A moment of violent, flashy zen that'll probably have you recommending the game to your friends and family. Saints Row IV is made for those moments. It's made for you to have fun your way, but it still gives you some sort of roadmap so you're not wandering in the desert.
Worried about content? Don't be. There's always something to do in Saints Row IV. Most of the mission types from Saints Row: The Third make a return, with added sci-fi twists. There's enough of them that if you prefer to skip a mission type - I can't stand Insurance Fraud myself - you never feel like you're missing out. I can't tell if every costume and customization option has returned in Saints Row IV, but the character creator seems just as robust and you have added options this time around, like the voice of Nolan North.
Over the course of the story missions, the game keeps throwing new situations at you. I never had a moment where a felt bored, but I also didn't feel forced to play through the story. Hell, I spent three hours jumping around the city collecting widgets to boost my superpowers, and there was no notification bouncing in the corner of my vision telling me to get back to the 'real game.' Thank you for appreciating my predilections, Volition.
The best thing I can say about Saints Row IV is I still want to play more. I've played at the game at E3, in a preview build, and in this final review code, so I'd say I've logged a decent number of hours into the game. Over the past two weeks, I've been moving from one apartment to another. The entire time, there's been a constant voice - Keith David probably - in the back of my head telling me to hook up the desktop and play more Saints Row IV. Volition has finished off the Saints Row series with a magnificent flourish. While the next game may head in a different direction, I trust the company to at least make sure that I'm always having fun.
I was concerned about Saints Row IV when it was first announced -- largely because it was once again set in Steelport. I was, in short, worried that it would be too much like Saints Row The Third. Not that that would have been a bad thing -- I loved Saints Row The Third -- but it would have been a Crackdown 2 sort of scenario: still a decent game when taken on its own merits, but far too much of an "expansion pack" when taken in context of the series as a whole.
Thankfully, I shouldn't have worried. The sci-fi angle means that Steelport has enough differences to its appearance in Saints Row The Third to make it feel like a completely new place. There's vertigo-inducing alien towers to climb, heavily defended "hotspots" to destroy, and all the cribs you took for granted by the end of The Third are either simply not there or, in some cases, reduced to burning rubble. The Tron-esque digital overlay on everything coupled with the deliberately glitchy graphics (seeing pedestrians with bug eyes and cars that are nothing but wheels and seats never gets old) gives the whole game a distinctive aesthetic all of its own, and the fact that the lighting of the city subtly changes from red to blue as you take control of areas is a particularly nice touch.
I wasn't expecting quite how much impact the superpowers would have on the game, either, but they really have an effect, particularly on how you get around. The addition of super speed and super jump powers make getting around much easier -- while you can still steal vehicles, there's really very little need to any more, since it's much more efficient to get around via the rooftops. Seeing the city from above was a perspective you couldn't enjoy the luxury of until somewhat later in The Third; in IV, meanwhile, you spend most of your time leaping from building to building, grabbing the game's equivalent of Crackdown's addiction-enabling agility orbs. And all these powers can be upgraded -- super speed eventually allows you to run up walls and summon a tornado in your wake, blowing vehicles and pedestrians alike aside as you pass; super jump gains more and more height the more you upgrade it until you, like Superman, may literally leap tall buildings in a single bound.
With the ridiculous superpowers, you'd think Saints Row IV would be way too easy -- The Third certainly suffered from this a little once you'd upgraded your character to be all but immune to most damage -- but the game counters this by consistently raising the stakes the further into it you get. You'll start fighting enemies with shields that require careful use of your superpowers to defeat; super-agile opponents who leap from building to building while you try to take them down; hordes of enemies who keep coming until you destroy their summoning portals. It can be a surprisingly challenging game at times. And, not to spoil the story, but you don't spend all your time in the digital world of Steelport -- outside the simulation, you can't rely on your program-powered superpowers,.
Saints Row IV is a magnificent game, and the best possible way in which Volition could have sent off the series. Veterans will appreciate the surprisingly strong amount of continuity in the game's story in the context of the series as a whole, while newcomers will simply enjoy the genuinely amusing and dramatic tale on its own merits. This is exactly the kind of experience an open-world game should provide -- fun, free and chaotic, but with a considerable amount of substance beneath the gloss.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: If you don't have Saints Row IV next to its predecessor, you'd almost think both games looked exactly the same. There's a graphical improvement, but it's a slight one.
- Music: There's a huge variety in each radio station, but the Mix is the only station you need.
- Interface: The UI from Saints Row: The Third returns, but with a few usability tweaks and a digital sci-fi polish.
- Lasting Appeal: A full story campaign, a ton of powers, a plethora of missions, and infinite enemies to kill in a variety of ways. Yeah, you'll be playing for a while.