Somewhere between using my mind to throw a guy dressed up in an energy drink can costume into a black hole I just shot at an alien on a hoverbike and playing a bananas text adventure involving a black not-a-raven parrot, I realized Saints Row IV might be onto something. It reminded me of when a friend of mine recently noted that people that take a “fuck it” attitude towards looking like a god damn maniac to try new things are often the best sorts of people. If that’s the case—and it is—then Volition, Inc. is the tops.
Saints Row IV is ostensibly the capper to the Saints Row saga wherein a ground of gangsters originally known as the 3rd Street Saints rise from banging around less-than-fortunate neighborhoods to running the entirety of the United States through the country’s executive branch. If you think they skipped a couple of steps, that’s because they most definitely did, but the series also skipped a lot of steps to become a worthwhile franchise, and the latest in Saints Row IV really just kind of seals the deal.
You play as the Boss of the Saints in this continued third-person open world game. You’ve recently become President of the United States and even more recently become victim of an alien invasion-abduction combo, courtesy of the Zin Empire. Their leader, Zinyak, has placed pretty much everyone you know into a Matrix-like simulation of Saints Row: The Third‘s Steelport and now you must figure out how to get free, release everyone else, and put an end to that pompous alien’s shenanigans.
Now, if I could just describe everything insane that happens from the start of the game to the end, that would probably be a pretty good review. It would also be entirely pointless because a lot of crazy things happen in the game. But the opening is a pretty good indication of what’s to follow. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but if you thought Saints Row: The Third‘s opening missions where you skydive through a plane and then in a tank were crazy, just know that Saints Row IV gets weirder (for the better).
Once you enter the alien simulation, you’re back in Steelport of old. It’s pretty much the same except now there are giant Zin towers all over the city, which kind of reminds you that this game did in fact start out as an expansion of Saints Row: The Third. There is, however, one crucial and immense difference: you have superpowers. You can run super fast, jump super high, punch super hard, and glide super…glidey.
This has, of course, been done before. Crackdown and Infamous were both open world games where you had superpowers, but neither of them felt as good as Saints Row IV does. If you hold down the left trigger, you just start going. You run faster than any car can drive. And if you hold down jump, you’ll rocket straight up into the air something like 30 stories. And then if you press and hold left trigger again, you’ll air dash and then start gliding. Landing on walls allows you to run up along them, too, if you don’t feel like jumping.
It’s all so easy and intuitive that sometimes I couldn’t believe that I was doing all of that without even really thinking. All I had to focus on was picking where I wanted to go and plotting out in my mind all the big buildings along the way so I could get back up into the sky as quickly as possible once I floated back down to Earth. If you can recall what it was like knowing you could get anywhere you wanted in Spider-Man 2, it feels an awful lot like that. It’s so empowering both in as the character and in being the player.
All of that adds an incredible amount of verticality to the game. While you may be in the same basic city of Steelport, you are now experiencing it in an entirely different way. Outside of the first couple of missions before you get your powers, I never drove a car unless I had to steal one for a mission. And many of my fights now took place on rooftops instead of in the streets. Steelport is way more interesting when you can climb a skyscraper in a matter of seconds.
This does, however, make some of the game’s lingering designs a bit strange. The entire upgrade system is almost exactly the same as it was before where you unlock things by leveling up and then activate them by spending money (or cache, in this case). Cars still have a nitrous boost upgrade and can still get repaired at body shops, but now that’s almost entirely pointless when you can sprint everywhere. And your ability to speed up to an enemy and one-hit kill them makes most short range weapons useless.
Being inside a simulation, though, does also have its benefits. You know, besides the superpowers. You can listen to the radio anywhere you’d like, which makes shooting a water gun assault rifle at guys dressed in neon bear costumes all the more fun. And if you do decide to hop in a vehicle, instead of driving it to a garage and saving it, you just press down on the D-pad and it automatically saves.
And that might be Saints Row IV’s greatest strength. This is a game that facilitates your desire to do anything you want. Both cache and upgrade data clusters are so easy to come by that they’re mostly courtesy requirements for you to upgrade your character and your powers. If you unlock a new ability—say, crashing down from the sky with the force of a two-ton bomb—then either immediately or in a few short moments, you will be doing just that. And it will be fun.
This is a game that means to make sure you are doing something new every second you are playing it. As often as you are discovering new things you want to try in the open world, you are also engaging in missions that you didn’t know you wanted to do (but totally do) under the stricture of story progression. At a certain point, I was playing a top-down tank battle game. And then at another part I was escaping an alien base in a spaceship, barrel rolling my way out of danger. And then I was fighting zombies. And then and then and then. (Remember when I said I wanted to just rundown everything I did in the game?)
And all the while, you’ll be smiling. One, from how fun it is to play through all of that nonsense. Two, from how well-written it is. It’s not always “holy shit I’m rolling on the ground laughing and taking notes so I can bring it up with my friends later so we can laugh and roll on the floor together like friends do” funny, but I can hardly remember a moment when something was happening and I wasn’t grinning. The story itself is fairly interesting and feels way more thought out than a game with a dubstep gun should be (though it does feel like it pulls some punches with a few key characters), but all of the tiny little in-jokes and big uproarious goofs add up to be essentially nonstop.
You do, however, need to know some stuff about some stuff. You’ll probably be best off if you played Saints Row: The Third and watched and played a heavy number of movies and games in the past 10 years. Actually, make that the past 15 years. Well, a cool 20 to be safe. Like, if you didn’t play Mass Effect, romance will elude you. And if you didn’t watch The Matrix or Supernatural, you’ll also be a bit lost. And if you don’t know who Nolan North and Johnny Gat are, then, um, yeah. You’re going to be scratching your head a bit.
Lastly, if you have a choice between playing on a PC or a console, for the love of god, choose PC. I played on all three platforms and both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 versions had severe issues. Frame rate was atrocious which affected shooting dudes in the head and capably landing on things from hundreds of feet in the air and the PS3 one kept freezing (on both a fat and a slim model). The PC one, however, ran without a hitch and looked pretty good, to boot.
Saints Row IV is a game that revels in being whatever it wants to be so it can be whatever you want to be, but it does it so well that you don’t realize it. Much of the writing and jokes are very much on the nose (if you know it, anyways), but that contrast with the subtly of the design makes both sides work. And make no mistake; there is a significant amount of nuanced design in this game. When you throw everything into a bucket and rattle it around, a game doesn’t come out by accident. Things happened inside that bucket.
Think back to college and that guy who looked like he had perennial bedhead. He never wore matching socks as he stumbled from class to class, still covered in glitter from last night’s party. Little did you know, that guy just aced his fifth test that week and was preparing to defend his thesis on Monday. That’s Saints Row IV. So prepare to party, guys. It’s gonna be a fun one.
+ Superpowers make everything better
+ Exceptionally funny writing and fantastic voice acting to go along with it
+ You are doing something new every few minutes and it’s all gravy
+ The music and radio DJs are pretty much just what you need as you run and dive through Steelport
– Performance issues on the consoles almost ruin the entire thing for those versions
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Saints Row IV
Release: August 20, 2013
Genre: Open world action-adventure
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online