By Chris Matulich, August 14, 2013
When I try to explain what Saints Row is to people that don't really play games, I'm either met with empty stares filled with disgust or empty stares followed by a fit of giggles after I mention the word "dildo bat." Yet, in an industry that now thrives upon the morally grey hero and the super serious "tough" decisions they need to make, Saints Row continues to be an over-the-top, absolutely insane breath of fresh air amongst a fog of grey. Saints Row IV takes the series to new heights of excessiveness and ridiculousness, and it's as every bit as glorious as you could imagine.
The first Saints Row, released nearly 8 years ago, was much less outrageous and more in line with the Grand Theft Auto cloning trend, sticking to typical gameplay mechanics and tropes popular in the genre. However, with the second and especially third iteration of SR, the fine folks at Volition decided to keep the basic feel of open world gaming, and then filled the gaps in with strikingly original content, creating a unique, often bat-shit-crazy atmosphere that has made Saints Row a beloved series. The series continues the story of the unnamed protagonist that first started making his way up the Third Street Saints' ranks, assumed leadership of the gang, saved the planet and became a national hero, and now prepares to take control of the most powerful nation in the world (no, not China).
Picking up shortly after Saints Row: The Third, the Boss (hey, that's you!) and the Saints are on a joint mission with MI6 in order to stop a group of terrorists from launching a nuclear missile. As the tutorial mission unfolds before you and you're (re)introduced to the Third Street Saints, the nuke is launched and the Boss dramatically jumps on it as it leaves the silo. It seems time is coming to an end for the Boss, for the nuke can only be disarmed by manually ripping out the wiring. As the Boss finishes the last panel and prepares for the immortalization that usually follows martyrdom, with Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" blaring and everyone giving tearful goodbyes, it's hard not to take note of the egregious amounts of clichés that are literally piled on top of one another. Not because it sets the tone for something uninspired, but rather quite the opposite. The combination of nearly every summer movie blockbuster cliché forms a ridiculous, but equally amazing beginning act that falls in perfectly with Saints Row's one-of-a-kind style, especially when each cliché is turned on its head. For the Boss does not become a martyr, but merely flies off the missile with a thumbs up, crash lands through the roof of the Oval Office, and gets elected President in five years’ time.
Yet, just when it looked like it was time to relax for the Saints, Zinyak invades with his alien army of Zin, captures most of the human race, digitizes them and throws them inside a simulation. Saints Row IV, while a "slave" to cliches, uses them to their utmost ridiculous potential, providing a tremendous amount of laughs, surprise twists and turns, and jaw-dropping moments to keep the same energy as the opening sequence throughout the entire game. It's an exhilarating experience that has no shame in borrowing liberally from other games and forms of media, then gives them the Saints Row treatment by blatantly ripping into each one in hilarious fashion. One instance sees a loyalty mission that centers around some terribly awesome fan fiction for a superpowered zombie hunter, complete with awful dialogue, another explores the absurdities of stealth games, complete with cardboard boxes and “Boss? Boss?! Bossssss!”. Other times you'll go to romance one of your companions, and rather than a lengthy quest to get in someone's pants, a quick "wanna fuck?" and a punch to the face will suffice. Every aspect of the storyline bleeds the tongue-in-cheek style that Saints Row is known for and fits SRIV perfectly, with each increasingly outrageous segment keeping you wanting more of the righteous debauchery.
Once Zinyak has come to Earth and transported the President, Vice President Keith David (yes, that Keith David), the cabinet and the rest of the Third Street Saints into the simulation, the open world of Steelport is ready to be fully explored. While the normal urban open world rules apply - a notoriety level with police and Zin, mission based story progression, loads of side quests, activities and collectibles, and a multitude of weapons to create chaos with - Saints Row IV takes full advantage of Steelport being a simulation that is very similar to The Matrix. The President will gain many different super powers, beginning with super speed and jumping, but advancing to more interesting new powers, like Telekinesis, energy blasts, energy projectiles, power stomps, and force fields. TK is definitely the most useful and fun, as picking up Zin and flinging them halfway across Steelport or smashing them into spaceships and cell towers never gets old.
Powers can be upgraded and altered to how you want to use them, falling in line with the rest of the game's immense opportunity for customization. In order to upgrade powers and other abilities such as health, super strength, defensive capabilities, and other bonuses, you’ll first need to gain enough XP to reach the necessary level and either have enough Cache ($) for abilities or data clusters, which are scattered around Steelport by the hundreds, for powers. XP is gained through missions, activities, and customizing your character. There are a ton of upgrades to obtain, and Saints Row does a great job at throwing XP your way for just about anything, allowing you to enjoy the game as you see fit, rather than forcing you into a certain style of play.
Each power can have different elements attached to it, adding variation and more entertainment value to them. With Telekinesis, you'll be able to pick up nearly anything and launch it across the screen, and with the lightning element attached, you'll turn any object or person into a ball of lightning capable of chaining to anything close. Stomping can be altered to launch enemies to incredible heights or shrink them down to a minuscule size, and energy blasts see traditional freezing and fire elements. There's also a more unique mind control ability that will force anyone to fight for you. The amount of freedom available to the player has always been unprecedented in Saints Row, and now being fully super powered, it knows no bounds. Sprinting at super speeds and hopping from building to building, or leaping over them all together, are both utterly fantastic and the most efficient ways to travel, making it extremely easy to traverse the simulated Steelport. Adding a superpowered repertoire of abilities has transformed an already great series into an amazing one, as utilizing powers to create mass carnage feels more at home and true in Saints Row than some games completely devoted to superheroes (ahem... X-Men: Destiny).
That's not to say that Saints Row IV's more conventional weaponry and vehicles are to be left by the way side. In fact, the effort and creativity put forth by Volition is truly inspiring. Taking full advantage of Steelport's simulated nature, you'll have a great deal of weapons and vehicles to choose from. Though traditional guns like SMGs, pistols, rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers, and laser-based alien weaponry are great options that can be upgraded to include acid ammo or explosive rounds, as well as customized to many different looks that change both the aesthetics and sound, it's the insane and diabolical creations that are truly addicting. The Dubstep Gun sees dubstep transformed into beams of energy that can be customized to three different beats. I never was one for dubstep before playing Saints Row IV, but I found myself unable to get all three beats out of my head, as I "wubwubwubwubwub" throughout my day. Watching visual explosions of dubstep destroy aliens, vehicles, and buildings while the citizens of Steelport lose themselves to eclectic dancing is truly something to behold.
Other interesting weaponry, like the Abduction Ray that sucks enemies up with a beam of light, the "Rectifier" anal probe that is rather self-explanatory (though it should be noted that the Rectifier is only available in the open world with the season pass), the Induct-o-Ray that makes people spontaneously combust, and the Violator, which is a flopping tentacle-bat straight out of your favorite hentai, all show Saints Row's dedication to over-the-top originality. While most of the gameplay will take place in the simulation, there are times where you’ll fight in the real world without any of the awesome weaponry, but don’t worry, homie, ‘cause you’ll get access to a Mech/power armor that keeps the mass destruction going, and works as a great change of pace towards the mid point of the story.
Vehicles are given the same simulation overhaul, with many different options of land and air available. Most can be customized almost as extensively as any racing game on the market, with options for color, body kit, and wheels being just a taste of what you can change. Any car, motorcycle, or ship can be saved to your digital garage with a quick tap on the D-Pad, allowing you to call in any vehicle saved at any time. Though their use for travel becomes obsolete once super sprinting and jumping become available, their potential for widespread destruction is extremely viable. Riding around in the Zin tank, ship, or speeder, or any of the wireframe, Tron-inspired vehicles is a perfect way to ride in style, and blast away a bunch of aliens with ease. You could easily lose yourself in Steelport simply sprinting around, leaping over large skyscrapers, blasting fools with dubstep or whacking them hundreds of yards away with a giant dildo, but then you'd miss out on all the deranged fun that missions, side quests, and activities have to offer.
Main missions progress the story and grant new powers, while side missions add depth to the back stories of characters, and also provide for new activities that utilize a mix of superpowers, weaponry, and vehicles. Story missions range from simple gathering or destroying missions to more intricate rescue missions to free your friends from the simulation. Sidequests, which are doled out by companions throughout the game, are mainly comprised of the large number of activities spread across Steelport. More unique sidequests will pop up as loyalty missions for each character that are more story based and are every bit as funny and entertaining as the main plot, and when they’re completed, the character will become a superpowered companion to be called upon whenever needed.
Every activity holds a unique style of play, whether it be superpowered platforming, fixed running segments akin to the classic Sonic 2 chaos emerald mini-game, supersprinting against the clock, telekinesis target practice and game shows, store hacking, or simply running around collecting audiologs, data clusters, text adventures (exactly what it sounds like), or destroying Zinyak statues. One of the most interesting attractions is Fraud, which allows you to ragdoll your character across the city in order to score points. I never knew smashing my character against buildings and cars or bashing and rolling them around the street could be so much fun.
Store hacking will be necessary if you want to use the shops at one point in the game, as they’ll all be locked until hacked. You’ll need to move energy from one side of a board to the other using horizontal, vertical, and angled pieces that is very similar to hacking in the original BioShock. Most activities can be completed cooperatively, which remains relatively unchanged from The Third, except for improvements on the drop-in/drop-out aspect. Two co-op specific activities can also be accessed, one being a cat and mouse styled game where one player drives a car and the other a spaceship, and the other is PvP in nature, but lasts for three rounds with different weapons and abilities given each round. Activities vary greatly, are completed rather quickly, and are simply a ton of fun, and neglecting activities is not recommended. In order to earn more Cache, you’ll need to fill up a transfer meter that gives money to the player once full. The amount of money is based on the amount of activities and side quests completed, and the more you do the more Cache you’ll have to spend on weapons and upgrades.
Lke every Saints game, the customization options in Saints Row IV are overflowing with creativity. Feel like creating Conan the Barbarian or the Terminator? Done! Wanna blow stuff up as Dr. Manhattan or the Hulk? Easy! Psylocke from X-Men more your cup of tea? Go for it! Running around naked with censored junk? Sure! No matter your desired style, you most likely won’t have any issue creating your masterpiece, and it will be fully featured throughout every part of the game. From body shape and color, sex appeal, face sculpting, and many voice options including the one and only Nolan North himself, to clothing, make-up, accessories, and weapon and vehicle aesthetics, the customization options in Saints Row IV enable a great sense of freedom and are second to none.
Saints Row IV uses just about everything the Xbox 360’s got to make the game look nice and shiny. The city is very detailed, utilizing great lighting effects, while also fitting into the simulation setting with intentional blips and glitches that make the screen wavy and staticy. It’s a nice touch and makes the simulation feel more realistic, but tends to get annoying after a while, especially when you’re running around the city. Character models express a high degree of attention, they hold a great range of animated emotions and move smoothly, yet there are some instances where hair disappears through the collar of a shirt, characters attempting to hold hands are about six inches away, and having gigantic boobs not only makes your character look terrible, but they actually meld into the player’s arms when they get in the way. It’s not very noticeable during gameplay, but when cutscenes roll around, it tends to stand out.
There are a couple points where I experienced slowdown and a bug or two, but they were minor occurrences and I’ve been told they’ll be fixed with a day 1 patch. The game’s physics engine is very realistic and fluid, giving a great feel to using powers in the simulated world while keeping true to the laws of ragdoll physics. Voice acting holds the same degree of excellence that fuels the superb story, and is backed by many talented actors, with Keith David, Nolan North, Neil Patrick Harris, and Terry Crews leading the charge. Sound work and music show the love that was given, with a great mix of songs to listen to on the radio, booming effects from weapons, explosions and crashes, and the amazing effort put forth in designing the Dubstep Gun greatly adding to the experience.
There used to be a time when Saints Row would be compared to Grand Theft Auto. While I’m sure many will still make the comparison, the only thing they have left in common is an open world and criminal activity. Saints Row has transformed into something that is truly unique, and Saints Row IV keeps the trend going with the addition of superpowers, aliens, the digital world, and by ripping on nearly every gaming and movie cliché around. Many hours of superpowered recklessness await, with a main story that clocks in at over 20 hours alone. If you’ve never experienced the world of Saints Row, then you’ve been severely missing out on some quality titles for the better part of a decade, and there’s no better time to jump in than right now.
The review is based on an Xbox 360 version of Saints Row IV, provided by the publisher.