Every Saints Row game, I think, represents the commercialization of both the 3rd Street Saints and the franchise itself. Saints Row 2 hit the sweet spot, balancing wacky diversions with a hardcore b-action story. Saints Row: The Third took the insanity of the previous game and ran a marathon with it. Suddenly, a grounded gangster series featured KGB clones and flying aircraft carriers. Then there's Saints Row IV, kicking its feet up on the desk of the Oval Office.
When the "Crossing the Delaware" poster was released, a lot of Saints Row fans assumed it was a joke. The Boss becoming President of the United States is a great premise for a post-credits mission. However, instead of being a little bonus like "Gangstas in Space," it became the central marketing focus despite having little to do with the game itself. While it certainly makes you feel like a badass, the White House doesn't have a significant impact on narrative or gameplay. Once the story gets underway, we’re back to boring old Steelport from the last game but with superpowers.
To their credit, the super powers are great. Running through the streets at the speed of sound while whipping cars and pedestrians into the air is fantastic. You can't help but tighten your grip and lean toward the screen. Likewise, running up skyscrapers and collecting orbs is immensely satisfying. Combat powers are great too, especially when combined with the different element types to create hilariously overpowered abilities.
However, all these powers come with great responsibilities. One of which is balancing the new with the old. There's no reason to use guns in Saints Row IV as superpowers are just too strong. While the dubstep gun and the inflato-ray were featured heavily in the marketing, they’re pretty underwhelming.
Most weapons require ammo, can only target one enemy, and are generally ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, inflating an NPC until their eyes pop out like Judge Doom from Roger Rabbit is fun. Slow alien weapons are contradictory to the horde-sized battles of free roam. They’re not effective when a lot of enemies are shooting back. Instead of having a really fun primary weapon, you have a lot of ineffective novelties.
Saints Row IV is a complete departure from the driving and shooting that made up the series’ core gameplay. Cars are worthless when your normal running speed creates a tornado of death. Weapons are useless when the basic stomp attack causes every enemy to explode into piles of money. It’s a problem that permeates the whole game and especially the DLC.
Saints Row IV has 26 DLC packs. While there are two mission expansions, the vast majority of these DLCs are new outfits, weapon skins, and vehicles. The problem is there’s just no reason to use them, even if you already own them. Vehicles, even hover jets, only limit your maneuverability. Why use the Barstool Racer when it’s slower than walking and handles like a brick? Saints Row: The Third had a similar problem when it let DLC owners spawn unlimited hoverbikes and tanks.
It's an issue of pacing. Superpowers would be great addition in the middle of the story, but to have them as soon as you hit free roam and then provide an addictive means of upgrading them from the get-go feels undeserved. Saints Row IV could have taken some pointers from [Prototype] on incorporating unlockable superpowers into an open world environment.
The map itself is also a weak point. Steelport wasn’t a strong environment in Saints Row: The Third and it’s arguably worse in the sequel. Steelport's streets were designed for hoverbikes and tanks, but the environment doesn’t translate well to a human-sized glider. The city should be designed around powers, something Gat Out of Hell did fantastically. Replacing a few buildings with floating platforms doesn’t mitigate the fact that Steelport is kind of boring. It’s the same rust-belt city as the last game, but with neon platforms.
It sounds like I’m being hard on Saints Row IV, but that’s only because it’s weak points are in free roam. It's strong points are bombastic set-pieces and excellent character missions. Nonsensical as the story may be, the character building is where it’s at. Ally missions are similar to Mass Effect 2 in the best way. They all introduce something unique while reflecting the character you’re trying to save. And yes, singalongs with Pierce are still as fun today as they were five years ago.
Unique maps (especially Pleasentville) are fun, but the overworld mucks things up again. Nowhere is this clearer than Pierce’s loyalty mission. Instead of using powers, you have to drive to a nuclear power plant to collect simulated nuclear waste to kill a resurrected character Pierce really didn’t know. When the boss points out how stupid the quest is, the game just shushes you. It’s all part of the charm; the story is nonsensical, but the character interactions are fun and well-written.
Of course, you can’t talk about the story and characters without mentioning Zinyak. If you’re going to include aliens and a super powered President, you might as well make the alien leader interesting. Zinyak is more concept than character, but he's well done. An alien warlord obsessed with human culture and Shakespeare is a great idea. Every encounter with the antagonist drips with cleverness and tension. The effect is truly complete when the character's unique theme music kicks in. Thankfully, there's plenty of Zinyak to go around and it’s especially charming to have him narrate the classical radio channel and call the Boss a philistine for liking pop music.
Five years later, Saints Row IV is still an entertaining experience. Although a departure in tone and style from previous entries, gameplay is interesting and exciting while characters are fun and charming. The story is bananas, but it’s a consistent level of complete nonsense. There’s always something new, but it’s never unexpected. If you haven’t played Saints Row IV in a while, you owe it to yourself to return to the Oval Office, end world hunger, kill aliens, and look fly while you do it. Besides, reelection is right around the corner.