Saints Row IV Review
I’ll get right to it: Saints Row IV is awesome.
Not since Just Cause 2 have I played a game so indebted to being as fun as possible while maintaining a clear intent to innovate. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto clone where Niko Bellic is replaced by a superhero president of the USA with the ability to run, jump, and fly across entire cities, shooting everything and everyone in his path. Now imagine given free reign to cause as much chaos as possible using those abilities, a plethora of missions designed around players’ skill with them, and a ludicrous narrative that seems to up the comedic and manic ante with every subsequent mission. One could imagine this being the greatest game ever formulated, and they would possibly be partly correct.
Whereas the Saints Row series did respectfully begin as an uninspired GTA clone, each iteration has marked a positive developmental shift in tone and functionality. The sequels all properly promote simultaneous maturity and immaturity to their respective considerations: ie. evolving gameplay centered around over-the-top parody. And while IV surprisingly opens with a rather generic, Call of Duty-esque venture through a government base that seems far too serious for its own good, it’s all setup for a irrationally brilliant riff on the current state of shooters. One second of riding a missile into the sky to the tune of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” immediately exemplifies the great lengths the game constantly goes to in providing an experience of feeling like an actual superhero, without the unnecessary baggage included.
In many ways, Saints Row has become the antithesis of GTA. Instead of limiting the destructive forces attainable, Saints Row IV actively strives to allow as much chaotic freedom as possible to the player, be it through a bevy of weapon types or the perusal of upgradeable powers. It also entirely ditches a serious story in favor of a ridiculous plot involving alien invaders, exaggerated nods to other licenses, and a memorable cast of allies ripped straight from an 80s action movie.
A bevy of memorable sequences guide the surprisingly-invested plot along, not only keeping each level stimulating and hilarious but increasingly indelible an experience. From coordinating a shootout with a Godzilla-sized soda can, to a wonderfully silly parody of modern stealth shooters — notably the Metal Gear franchise — and even a shot for shot remake of the fight scene between Keith David and Roddy Piper from They Live, starring David as himself; the game never fails in its excavation of action movie bliss. There are guns that kill enemies with dubstep, unlockables which dress up characters with big heads and glitched-out appearances, alien weaponry that entirely eradicates NPCs, monstrous tanks with the ability to decimate numerous targets with a single missile; the list of maniacal features is seemingly-endless. You can’t make this stuff up, but the geniuses at Volition somehow managed.
Above all else, Saints Row IV is simply a celebration of the simulated act of wanton destruction itself, arguing that the greatest merits of inflated patriotism involve the very act of rebellion. Rebellion against greater forces hellbent on annihilating the individual’s right to freedom. So yes, there is a mindful philosophy to the game, and it is all the better for it, namely because it can speak its mind without ever really having to say anything. Its thesis is incorporated within the contexts of the experience itself, making it the ultimate simulation (ironic of course, given how the city is set within an in-game simulation).
Yet at the core of the Saints Row IV experience lies one major flaw: the lack of stimulating variety to levels. While the main missions effectively maintain a consistent basis of entertainment and replay value through their shifting styles, side quests feel like repetitive, one-note minigames, closely akin to arcade shooters and wacky physics simulators; and they greatly diminish incentive to keep playing after the story has been completed. On the surface there may seem an inextricable amount of content provided to the player, but only a few sessions of monotonous objectives quickly dissolve this idea.
The lack of music choice as opposed to other open world titles also disappoints and even manages to make it more of a chore to attempt reaching 100% completion. Saints Row IV’s greatest underlying problem is that while there’s quite a bit to do, very little of it feels meaningful or fun. Completing missions will grant you money and level up your character, which in turn can allow weapon/character upgrades, ammo purchases, and a surplus of apparel to be bought. But in turn, these do little to fully justify pushing oneself through the ennui, offering little reward for the menial tasks.
The world itself also feels so empty, so devoid of personality. Civilians appear wooden, enemies are reskinned versions of the same template, and buildings act as little more than obstructive scenery. Part of this might be due to the concept of the characters being trapped in a simulation; but having the ability to sprint and fly all around the city invites a motivation to explore, so the lack of discoveries to be made eventually leads to disappointment and further tedium. The game constantly forces the player to travel lengthy distances to reach the next objective, but getting there is never engaging, it is a chore. The Steelport simulation is possibly the most unsatisfying sandbox setting I have personally encountered in a game. The player is given a giant open space and the potential to become a superhero, yet the world fails to convey the personality necessary to motivate them to do so.
Regardless, as far as wanton destruction goes, few games deliver as enticing an experience as Volition’s masterpiece. And this remains the premiere inspiration behind the game’s development. For as disappointing the overall product is, the innovations to character design and playability deserve intense recognition. Expanding upon the functionality and gameplay is what allows Saints Row IV to truly excel as a sequel, even if the setting itself fails to deliver as proper an area of demonstration as necessary.
John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun recently named it the greatest action game on PC ever made, and it is arguably a consideration. It prevails as the greatest superhero simulator of any generation, and the best action games succeed in allowing the player to feel just as powerful and imposing, if not wholly-invincible. The future of the series remains hazy given the 2013 bankruptcy of its developers, but another sequel could further expand upon the possibilities presented in IV and offer a truly extraordinary experience. For now, Saints Row IV reigns as one of the most effective gameplay and comedic adventures formulated.