It’s hard not to get caught up in Saints Row IV, it’s the kind of game where you notice all the faults but are still completely won over. This is due to an infectious enthusiasm that permeates the entire game and makes existing in the world of the third street saints a complete joy. It’s not a refined experienced, but that all becomes part of the games overwhelming charm. This is all down to a prioritization of pure fun throughout, at the sake of anything else. Don’t expect deep or satisfying mechanics and don’t expect a challenge, Saints Row IV just isn’t interested in that. What Saints Row IV is interested in is giving the player a great time from start to finish, and minus a few falters it completely delivers.
Saints Row has come a long way, it started as a Grand Theft Auto clone that carried on the spirit of San Andreas, and that came out when there was no GTA about. The same cannot be said for Saints Row IV, which is almost completely distinct from GTA. Saints Row 1 was an overbearingly ‘gangsta’ crime game, but Saints Row IV is a super-powered adventure that is basically a spoof of the Matrix and Mass Effect 2. It’s a far cry from the original formula (though some of the basics remain the same), and this transition is a really good thing.
The insanity that is Saints Row IV is really a logical progression of Saints Row the Third. That previous title really gave the series its own identity and was one of the better open world crime games on the market. It was incredibly creative, constantly surprising, unashamedly weird and really well written. It was still a bit rough around the edges but managed to be a truly special game for a number of reasons. Saints Row IV uses that game as its starting point and takes everything to the next level, though that doesn’t make it the better game. This new installment is packed full of great new ideas, but is more of an iteration of an established formula than a breath of fresh air like Saints Row the Third was.
Though some missions in Saints Row IV are incredibly creative and show off a host of fantastic new ideas, a lot of the game feels like box ticking. There are a number of moments which come off as repetition of what Saints Row the Third did, but with a slight twist. Remember that part in the Third where the Boss and Pierce sang together while you were driving? Well, maybe that will happen again. This particular moment does give a great example of Volition taking something and pushing it further than before though, and ultimately this makes it a lot funnier. However, there is often a certain sense of deja-vu. In a way this all comes off as a celebration of Saints Row past, and ensures it delivers what you now expect from Saints Row rather, it’s just not overtly new.
In many ways this a great thing, it adds a sense of comfort to the experience and helps to give the series some identity. Volition has made another really good Saints Row game, and while this means it isn’t as novel as the game that came before it, it means it’s still awesome. On top of this, the sense of reverence the game shows to the series past is really well implemented. It’s a bit self-indulgent but this isn’t really a negative, as it manages to create a strange amount of nostalgia. It’s a game that loves its characters and its crazy lore, but that’s ok because it makes you love them also. It uses your fond feelings of Saints Row the Third really well and actually manages to become quite poignant in places. Of course, it will always sacrifice any emotional build up for a well-placed gag, but you do feel yourself falling in love with the crazy world Volition has built. It’s like a love letter to Saints Row as a whole, one that brings everything together in an impressively cohesive way and really pays off.
Of course, all of this reverence comes with a cost. Saints Row IV is this joyful celebration of Saints Row past and future that uses your familiarity to take things to some fantastic places, however this means that the barrier to entry is pretty high. If Saints Row the Third didn’t work for you, Saints Row IV will fall even flatter. So much of the game relies on an appreciation for what came before, or at least an awareness, and this could be an issue. This may be no surprise seeing as this is the fourth game in the series, but Saints Row the Third did a great job of being an entry point to the series, as it stood out so far from its predecessors and didn’t rely on them. Some of the best stuff in Saints Row IV is completely original and works because it’s great, but so much of the game does rely on what came before. Newcomers can still get a lot out of Saints Row IV, but a large amount of the content is built upon appreciating the series in the same way Volition does. If you share this feeling you will be greatly rewarded, if you don’t then this one may not be for you.
Retreading old ground is something that happens a lot in Saints Row IV though. The most obvious example of this is in the game world itself, which is the same city that was featured in Saints Row the Third. Things have slightly changed, it’s now always night and there are alien structures dotted around the place, but the layout remains the same. It’s easy to interpret this as an issue with the game, but really it isn’t problematic. Saints Row isn’t the kind of series that sells itself on intricate and well realized game worlds, it’s a series that gives you great things to do in a game world. Here Saints Row IV delivers, the world is fundamentally the same but you interact with it in a really different way. This makes the game escape overbearing familiarity and actually makes returning to Saints Row the Third’s Steelport a good decision. The location works really well for the story and it just feels good to be back home.
The key difference Saints Row IV has over its predecessors is in how it played. If you want to be somewhat reductive about things you could say that in the same way, The Third was one of the best GTA games ever made, Saints Row IV is the best Crackdown game ever made. This isn’t a game about street gangs and carjacking, this is a game where you jump over buildings and collect shards to level up your superhuman abilities. You run way faster than any car (and cause utter destruction in your wake), you can glide and boost through the air, you have telekinesis, you can throw fireballs, and you can run up buildings. You can also do a bunch more and all these powers unlock at a steady rate throughout the campaign. The end result of this is a great sense of empowerment and really joyful traversal. It’s really fun to just move around in the world of Saints Row IV, and though movement isn’t refined as games like inFAMOUS that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.
The issue here is that even with superpowers things do get a bit dull on the gameplay side, and your abilities relegate certain parts of the game to irrelevance. At the start (before you can outrun cars), the game introduces some really good open world mechanics that relate to the usual GTA open world formula. Saving and accessing cars is much easier, and vehicle customisation is really well handled. Less than an hour later though and this is totally irrelevant. What you are doing is more fun, but it does leave part of the game feeling redundant. The other problem here is that the game still utilizes these elements in side missions, forcing you back in a car for example, and most of the time this isn’t overly enjoyable. It’s hard to go back once the gameplay has progressed, main missions still give you good reasons to occasionally jump back in a car (and make it worthwhile) but some of the time these mechanics feel like leftover baggage that gets in the way of your fun.
In general, the gameplay of Saints Row IV doesn’t stand up to the other elements. This means that what you have to do isn’t always as fun as it should be, even with superpowers. The basic combat does grow stale and not much is done to make it more interesting, you learn how to play the game pretty early on and things don’t really change. You get more tools, but the game doesn’t motivate you to use them and never puts up a challenge. You can make encounters more fun, but the basic action is merely competent. However, there are several set-piece moments where the gameplay completely shines, where what you are doing is completely amazing and totally different from anything else. There’s enough of this to save the adventure and though some of the more unique moments do last a bit longer than perhaps they should, this isn’t always the case and is never really an issue.
A lot of this sounds like insanity for the sake of insanity, and while that holds somewhat true there is always a twisted logic at play. Saints Row IV is a really dumb game, but it’s very intelligent about being dumb. It’s not just funny because it’s crude, or random or silly, it’s funny because it’s really well written. It references a lot of other games (and actually works in some hilarious video game satire), movies and whatever else it feels like, but it earns those references. Things aren’t just thrown out, in fact, a lot of these jokes are taken to some outstanding places. The same is true of the set up for Saints Row IV, it’s stupid, but it’s gloriously stupid and well handled. The reason you have superpowers is that Earth was invaded by aliens and you have been put into a Matrix-style simulation of Steelport. Why you? Well because you are President of the United States now and because (as the game keeps saying), this is kind of your fault. The set up makes it a Matrix parody, but a lot of the story and structure of the game is actually a parody of Mass Effect 2. These are some relatively old references to have, but it totally works and manages to be funny in this regard and independently of it.
The Mass Effect 2 parallels are pretty blatant. You have an enemy which collects things, you have a ship which is set up like the Normandy, you are rescuing crew members in order to launch a possibly suicidal mission, you can romance and you even have loyalty missions. This is all brilliantly implemented and really funny. It’s not poking fun, it’s more of a celebration that is very video game literate. It uses things you know for comedic effect, but builds on all of these wonderfully and brings so much of its own material to the table. The things you will see throughout the campaign will consistently amaze you, and once again the infectious joy of the game just makes it so loveable.
Saints Row IV has its problems; a lot of the side content (though better structured than before) is forgettable or bad, visually it has a lot of style but isn’t very graphically impressive, and it is rough around the edges. Even with all of this though it’s so hard not to love this game. It manages to be completely endearing and charming, in spite of being crude and juvenile. It is perhaps overly referential (and reverential), but it uses this to engineer some really great moments. It’s not the best game you will play all year, but it’s so much fun and contains many unforgettable moments. If this is the last we see of the Saints, it’s a hell of a send-off.