Saints Row IV Review
After years of Saints Row games that tried to take the spark of silliness in Grand Theft Auto and turn it into an entire game, developer Volition has apparently declared victory on that front and have taken on sci-fi, the Matrix, and superhero games as their next target. The end result is Saints Row IV, a game that started out as DLC for the third game but has thankfully been made into a fully fleshed-out sequel that's chock full of fun stuff to do, but there's also a more focused storyline and - dare I say it - a more reined-in and sensible kind of ridiculousness than ever before in the franchise.
Saints Row IV stars your custom-created character, dubbed "Player", who again reprises the role of the leader of Stilwater's 3rd Street Saints gang, but they now call Steelport home. They've already become local stars and international superstars in previous games, but now it's a bid for the White House as we start out in an operation in the Middle East to thwart a nuclear attack on Washington. In a flippant and laugh-out-loud style, Player quickly ascends to the presidency - but that's only the start of his or her problems, because aliens attack very shortly afterwards. Player is then dumped into a Matrix-like version of Steelport, the city introduced in SR3, complete with crazy computerized glitches and hundreds of things to do in order to take down the Zin, the occupying alien army.
Similarly to Gearbox Software's Borderlands 2, Volition has seemed to take an "anything goes" approach to SRIV, adding almost any gameplay element (or even just any kind of comic gag) that seems like it'd be goofy or fun enough to use. But this time around, you've got a villain, the aristocratic Zinyak, and his army of soldiers as a motivator to keep playing throughout a very wide range of missions. Many open-world action games - including past Saints Row entries - try to survive on quantity and mission variety alone, giving you vast amounts of things to do while secondary characters feed you missions that mean nothing to the central plot. In the case of SRIV, nearly everything's been at least loosely tied towards the Saints' attempts to bring down Zinyak's simulation.
And now we come to the super powers. Since this is pretty much the Matrix, the developers started going crazy with powers for Player, and this pays off immensely when it comes to variety and ease of movement - or at least, it does if you are OK with not getting a full-on Grand Theft Auto clone. You see, in SRIV, it's hardly necessary to carjack a sports car or customize a vehicle with nitrous or custom parts when you can leap hundreds of feet into the air and glide halfway across the city with almost no effort at all. (Of course, you can choose to drive or pilot if you want and there are still lots of customization options to be played with, but in my experience, they really don't compare to the mobility you get from your superpowers - even in their non-upgraded state.) Sure, many missions and even enemy abilities in the game can take away your powers to force you back to your fundamentals, but you never lose them for very long.
Volition also added offensive powers along with other bits of utility, and everything's a distinct upgrade system for your powers that places "data cluster" objects all around the city that must be found, collected, and then spent on upgrades that beef up your super powers and give them new properties. Overall, this moves Saints Row IV more into the realm of a superhero game like inFAMOUS, Prototype, or Crackdown, although it's never quite as laser-focused on being a true superhero game. Additionally, some of the movement-based superpowers are a little stiff or unwieldy; both superpower and traditional third-person shooter abilities and attacks are allowed, but the player can't often combine the two as often as I'd like.
One of the more unique features that the Saints Row games have had for years is a two-player cooperative LAN or online mode, and that's back with a vengeance here. The story does a rather poor job mashing two people into the same role, and there are going to be some very strange things happening in the plot as a result - as well as some rather strange desync for the one acting as client - but this is Saints Row and Volition has never let something a little nonsensical or slightly broken get in the way of overwhelming fun in this series. In this case, being able to freely roam the city with a friend is a blast and either staying together or running off and doing your own fighting, collection, and optional missions really does add a lot to what would otherwise be a - well, not lonely, but just slightly less lively game. Of course, the game does force co-op partners to come together in order to complete main quest missions, but players can actually get quite a bit done on their own. But either way, running together and wreaking havoc with the game's many superpowers, ridiculously overpowered weapons, and goofy abilities is hugely entertaining.
What surprised me is that even as Saints Row IV dips deeply into the history of the franchise and brings back - sometimes from the dead - many characters, the developers are almost always straddling the line between serious and silly. It's not like this game is going to make you cry, but if you've played these games from the beginning, I think you'll appreciate the reverence towards the characters - after all, they were always hard to take terribly seriously, but they were memorable nonetheless. And there are more than a few moments that will put a huge grin on your face - and I'm not even talking about the moments of big action and badassery that you expect from a Saints Row game. Finally, I have to give a shoutout to Volition for having the commitment to their craft to take some of the many pop culture references they've made and actually build out gameplay to surround them so wholly. I don't want to give anything away because the surprise is better, but the developers' extended commitment to a particular gag starts out cute, continues and gets to be a bit goofy, and then just smashes all the way past that to become just plain admirable. Of course, comedy is one of the hardest things for a video game to do properly, so I can't guarantee you'll actually enjoy anything in particular. Just, suffice it to say that if Saints Row didn't turn you off before, this finest entry in the series isn't going to disappoint.
The PC port of Saints Row IV probably best described as "quite good", with solid support for high-end graphics, and great controls for both keyboard/mouse and for a gamepad - and yes, you can switch between the two at any time without even entering the menus, if you like. (Considering the rather diverse variety of both shooting and platforming to be done, I found this to be a very welcome feature that not that many games support.) Unfortunately, I also experienced a few soft-locks, where the game would refuse to proceed during or after a mission, forcing me to either do a "retry from last checkpoint" or to just hit Alt-F4 directly, and the game did fully crash on me a couple of times over the 25+ hours I spent playing through one playthrough and many more in online play. I also couldn't make LAN play work properly, as there is no direct IP connection option - you have to let the game search your LAN for another game, and I couldn't ever get two to connect. Of course, we could still play as long as we used the Online option, but hopefully it was something wrong on our LAN and not something with the game. These issues showed on a not-quite-final press build, however, so my hope is that this is all ironed out in the release build that Volition confirmed to be pushing out for the final PC launch. (As this review is being published nearly a week before the release, I cannot speak to what may or may not be fixed in the final version.)
I'm not going to even attempt to suggest that Saints Row IV is some kind of video-game-defining-moment or whatever, but at least for this generation, we might have found the best example yet of a big-budget developer doing whatever the hell they want and rather than being generally criticized for what doesn't work, being celebrated by newcomers and fans alike for what does. I'm not trying to be flippant or disrespectful; I think that this kind of anything-goes attitude towards big and boastful open-world games should pay off immensely, especially in a year where so few big game publishers are willing to try new things and take risks. So while Rockstar Games will likely dazzle and wow console gamers with the huge world and vast variety of things to do in this fall's GTAV, that's still about a month away, and it's not coming to PC - or at least, not anytime soon. Regardless of any of that, I highly recommend that you (possibly together with a friend) jump into this crazy, purposefully glitchy version of Steelport and have a blast right now in the best game Volition's made in over a decade.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a pre-release build provided via Steam by the publisher.