While you might be mistaken in thinking that Saints Row IV is more of an expansion than a full game, due to the similar tone and visuals seen throughout trailers and videos, along with some of its roots coming from downloadable content for Saints Row The Third, there’s really no need to worry.
Although it certainly builds on the foundations set by its predecessor, rather than completely overhauling the engine, there’s enough here for it to be considered a fully-fledged sequel to the 2011 game, though that’s not to say there’s entirely enough for the game to be considered another triumph.
In terms of plot, Saints Row IV scales things up from the get-go, as you begin the game by landing in the United States’ President’s chair, which soon becomes your chair, as the Saints come to run the USA. Before too long, aliens attack and enslave the world, placing you into a Matrix-esque simulation in the process. From here, you must not only get the Saints back together but break out of the fake world and save the planet.
Saints Row IV feels oddly like a mix of other games as opposed to a remix of the previous instalments in the series (though there’s plenty of that too) however: there are the superpowers which feel like they’re ripped straight from inFamous, free running akin to Prototype, the simulation mechanics of Assassin’s Creed, lengthy homages to games of yore and, most noticeably, a whole lot of parodying Mass Effect.
At times it feels as though Volition’s only inspirations for this sci-fi heavy escapade are the three Mass Effect titles: there’s a plot consisting of aliens overtaking and obliterating the world, a central ship which acts as your hub, a crew of various allies which you’re able to – amusingly – romance and complete loyalty missions for, as well as plenty of other homages and satirical references to the trilogy. It’s easy to forget that this game isn’t just a parody of Mass Effect, when you’re outside of the simulation.
If Mass Effect is considered gaming’s Star Wars trilogy, then Saints Row IV is entirely and unashamedly Spaceballs. Or, perhaps more aptly, those three Family Guy specials.
Once you’re inside the simulation world it’s a different story; there are only a few threads linking the game to Mass Effect in the virtual world of Steelport, which has had a bit of a sci-fi makeover. The main one of which lies with the third-person shooting, though you’ll actually be using that less than ever after you gain the new gameplay centric superpowers.
Before you have those powers, you’d be right in thinking that aside from the slight sci-fi twist this isn’t that much different to The Third. Soon after, however, you’ll be sprinting around faster than the best car in the game, gliding better than the greatest ‘plane (or jet bike) could fly and blasting enemies away as if rocket launchers had never existed. These powers offer great ways to get around as well as obliterate enemies, something that finally rivals Just Cause 2’s grapple hook and parachute.
“It’s easy to forget that this game isn’t just a parody of Mass Effect”
- Customisation aspects must also be praised, as there are myriad options for your character and you can alter almost everything down to their underwear, as well as apply tattoos and even undergo plastic surgery, with various stores dotted around the city offering a plethora of options.
Powers are pretty standard, in terms of what we’ve seen in gaming before – as well as the aforementioned super running, super jumping and elemental blasts, there’s telekinesis which allows you to lift and throw objects, as well a few others which I won’t spoil here, but don’t expect anything at all revolutionary. The same doesn’t ring true for the guns, however, with some truly inventive ideas in the mix seen with armaments such as the new alien weapons and the insanely genius dubstep gun.
The upgrade system works well too: the city is strewn with over a thousand clusters – glitches in the matrix – for you to find, which in turn will allow you to upgrade your powers, whether that’s to add effects or just make them more powerful. The standard upgrades – including health, stamina and the like – also make a return, so there’s something for you to spend your cache (yes – money) on, too.
While the humour isn’t always as great as the writers seem to think it is, there are some really strong laugh-out-loud moments which are relatively unmatched in the world of gaming; this is more of a comedy than any title before it and despite the times where it misses the mark, it manages to feature some really smart and – for lack of a better term – meta humour, which is created through the brilliant idea of setting it inside a simulation.
Where BioShock might have subtly commented upon game design with its narrative, Saints Row IV comes close to – but never quite smashes through – the fourth wall with satirical commentary. It won’t match the hilarity found in movies spanning from Airplane! to Anchorman, but there’s some really great stuff in amongst the vulgar-at-times overtones.
Since it runs on the same engine as The Third, it manages to carry over the same problems; draw distance is poor, characters require more anti-aliasing and it all looks a bit low resolution. I initially thought it might’ve looked a bit worse than the previous game, but after checking, it just appears as though I’m spoiled by the beautiful visuals that PS3 exclusives such as The Last of Us manage to exhibit.
Thankfully, those issues can be explained away by the fact that you’re playing in a simulation, though there are still many problems which can’t be excused, unfortunately.
“Strong laugh-out-loud moments which are relatively unmatched”
The weak side missions are a perfect example of these issues; while the main story missions and handful of loyalty missions offer some great, memorable and dare I say epic moments, every other mission consists of doing several of the open world tasks, such as taking over an enemy Flashpoint or winning a round of Genkei’s Super Ethical Reality climax – a mental, Japanese killing floor gameshow, with an incentive such as a new gun or outfit offered upon completion.
It’s not that the individual tasks are bad – they’re really not – it’s simply that it feels lazy, with the roots of the title as DLC showing through here more than anywhere else – the description of one such quest even states blatantly “We’re stretching out the gameplay” in one of the few misguided attempts at humour. A lot of fun can be found with the races and new activities which really test your powers however, as well as the returning Fraud activities which are now turned up to eleven, having you throw your character into cars and buildings Pain style.
As well as this, there’s a good deal of territory to take over from the hostile aliens, either small Flashpoints which only require you to dispose of a group of foes, larger Hotspots which see you taking out huge gangs of enemies as well disabling generators in the process and even Towers, which you must reach the top of, in order to take over.
It’s just a relief that the majority of the main missions manage to all feel like massive end-game finales, from the first to the very last.
There’s some really nice work with the sound design. Your character has a choice of several voices – including a Nolan North voice described as such – and the soundtrack offers plenty of music, from 80s ballads to current electronic music. What’s more is that this music is now interactive – the protagonist and NPCs will comment on or even sing along with the music on the radio in the most bizarrely of brilliant of ways, and music can now even be listened outside of vehicles.
Music is used at perfect times and – much like The Third before it – makes way for some side-splitting nuggets of hilarity; in fact these moments are among the best the game has to offer.
Saints Row IV is a really fun game but it’s nothing at all original. Perhaps that shouldn’t be said about something that’s one of gaming’s few examples of a parody, but it really falters at the times it tries to do something entirely original, whether that difference be within its own series, genre or gaming as a whole.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of hilarious moments and there’s a lot of new here in terms of Saints Row itself. If you enjoyed The Third – or just like having a bit of relatively mindless fun – then Saints Row IV is definitely for you.