Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Multiplayer: 2-player Co-op
There’s something that we need to clear up before we venture any further: if you found Saints Row 3 to be too much of a deviation from what came before, if you found it too insane, too crazy, too crude and too barmy, then stop reading now. Nothing more of this review shall interest you because Saints Row IV is batshit crazy, tossing superpowers and aliens into the mix to create the most bonkers entry in the series to date. Still with me? Then clearly, that sounds like a damn good game plan to you, and we can continue with this assortment of words called a review.
Despite my words the introduction to the game almost seems subdued and tame by Saints Row standards. A counter terrorism operation affords you the opportunity to do some sneaking through an enemy base, working your way down damp, dark tunnels using standard third-person shooter gameplay. This is followed by a brief chase sequence. Sure, there’s a couple of of over-the-top action moments and snippets of crass humor, but there’s nothing that compares to the madness of the last game. For a few minutes it looks like Saints Row IV has renounced the insanity of Saints Row 3, leaving it far behind, possibly locked in a cupboard somewhere with a ball gag in its mouth. And then you clamber aboard a missile as it takes off, disable it by climbing along the outside and ripping out wires, all while listening to cliché, cheesy farewell messages that make fun of so many action flicks, before finally leaping from the missile and somehow surviving the fall. Your heroics win the adoration of America, and in turn the Presidency as well. The Saints have gone from violent street gang to ruling the entire of America, with the Boss at the helm. So much for renouncing its ways, then.
Skip forward 5-years and you and your fellow Saints, now all with positions within the government, seem to actually be running the country surprisingly well, or at least that’s to say that the entire place doesn’t seem to have burnt down yet. As you wander through the halls of the white house you’re given the chance to make completely pointless and arbitrary “decisions”, such as choosing to end world hunger or cure cancer. It’s a poke at games which try to invoke moral dilemmas by forcing you to make a tough decision that in reality is obviously black and white, and it’s a reminder that Saints Row has no problem making fun of its contemporaries. The humor flows as you meander through the corridors, but it’s not long until things get a little manic as aliens suddenly invade, lead by the incredibly well-spoken and brilliantly entertaining Zinyak. As the leader of the evil Zin hordes Zinyak strikes an imposing figure and his voice actor plays the role to a tee, making me wish that the mighty alien emperor had gotten far more screen time during the game. Through a series events which I shall not speak of due to spoilers, you find yourself within a simulation of Steelport city, a familiar stomping ground for anyone who played the last iteration in the series. After a daring escape you and your Saints get a spaceship and launch into a campaign of revenge on Zinyak which takes place in both the real world and the alien crafted artificial construct. If it all sounds a bit like the Matrix, that’s because it is, as well as being a bit like Mass Effect and any other number of movies and games. There’s so many homages and tributes contained in here that it’s almost mind-boggling, but the game still retains its own very clear identity.
It’s because of this simulation, created by Zinyak to contain the Saints boss and American President, that Saints Row IV’s biggest change is made possible. Thanks to a little tech savvy help from the returning computer whiz Kinzie you are granted superpowers within the simulation, allowing you to sprint at insane speeds, leap entire buildings in a single bound, glide through the air, hurl fireballs, throw things with your mind and much, much more. The boss of the Saints goes from being a plain old psychopathic killer to a psychopathic killer that could give Superman himself a pretty good run for his money. In order to upgrade your newfound abilities Volition sensibly took a leaf out of Crackdown’s playbook, strewing the environment with glowing balls called Clusters that must be gathered up and spent to improve yourself in a variety of ways. Unlike what we often see in games with skill trees. every upgrade has an immediate and tangible effect on your character, providing a significant increase to your overall power, making the collecting and upgrading gameplay loop greatly rewarding.
Just like Crackdown collecting these glowing oddities is incredibly addictive, and not just because of this immediate boost, but also because traversing the environment is so enjoyable and easy. Once fully upgraded you can sprint at astonishing speeds and clear exceptional distances in a single leap, while gliding and wall running ensure you can cross the entire map without ever touching the ground. You can even unlock the power to run on water, should you desire feeling like Jesus Christ for a while. Comparisons to Crackdown are pretty much inevitable and are quite justified in many ways, but as much as I loved that game Saints Row IV just does the superpower things far better thanks to lovely, slick controls, although Volition’s creation doesn’t quite have the same sense of impact as Crackdown managed to convey when doing things like dropping from great heights. The joy of traversing the city of Steelport combats one of the open world genres biggest weakness, which is that getting from point A to point b can often be a little dull. Not so in Saints Row IV where I frequently found myself forgetting about point B and just going on a manic collection and killing spree instead, enjoying the freedom that having superpowers provides. It’s joyfully insane to play with your abilities and travel through the world, capturing a sense of power and inhibition that few other games can match.
There is a darker side to being a super powered lunatic capable of untold destruction, however, and that is that you’re simply too powerful. Getting killed in Saints Row IV is something you almost have to actively seek out, because it will rarely happen through normal play. Even without any upgrades to your standard health you can take a fair bit of punishment, allowing you to soak up the damage, and between your standard firepower and your God-like abilities you’re more than capable of taking on hordes of enemies single-handed. You’ll never feel truly threatened in Saints Row IV, even when going up against AI with similar powers to your own, people who are capable of throwing cars around and punching your eyeballs straight out the back of your head. This does increase the empowerment fantasy, but eventually it can ring hollow when you know there’s little challenge to any given fight.
Wipe away the superpowers and underpinning everything is exactly the same core gameplay as seen in Saints Row 3. Players once again return to the city of Steelport, and barring the fact that the developers have obviously had to add more interesting rooftops, it’s practically the same as you left it, with only the occasional alien towers changing the scenery. As soon as I booted up the game I was able to locate a lot of the old shops and was immediately comfortable with the layout, However, in fairness to the game only those who spent large amounts of time in Steelport will likely be aggravated that Saint’s Row IV has returned there – everyone else probably won’t be familiar enough with the city for it to bother them too much, and frankly with some powers in the mix I found it hard to focus on the details of the environment anyway. Still, with the majority of the game being set inside a simulation it would have been far nicer to see Volition mix things up a bit more.
Even with your special powers guns still play a fairly large part in combat because things like your fireball attack need to recharge, and while recharge times can be upgraded to be much shorter it’s often easier to whip out some pistols and execute a few headshots. A few changes have been made to the weapons system, namely that guns don’t get change visually as you upgrade them as per Saints Row 3, which is a bit disappointing. However, in its place we now have multiple variations of each gun to pick from, and each variation has a couple of paint jobs to choose from as well. For example there’s several versions of the heavy pistol, several more of the semi-auto and so on. Another welcome change means the most powerful weapon upgrades aren’t locked away, so you can now purchase explosive rounds for your pistols from the word go and then move onto maxing out things like clip size and accuracy. The selection of gear on offer is pretty cool, with a good choice of standard weaponry mixed in with some cool tech like singularity gun which fires devastating black holes and the brilliant Dubstep gun that when fired blazes out powerful dubstep music, forcing everyone to dance and cars to bounce around. Other highlights include a gun which inflates people’s heads until they explode and a device called an Abducto-matic that brings down a beam of light which drags foes upwards before dropping them. There’s also a couple of cool references thrown in for good measure, such as being able to use Captain Malcom Reynolds pistol from Firefly, a sci-fi show that regular readers will know I freaking love.
With the mixture of guns and superpowers combat is a frantic and generally messy affair. It’s satisfying to rip through enemy hordes with vicious melee attacks and powerful abilities like Death from Above. You can freeze enemy vehicles and troops with an icy blast and smash them to pieces, or perhaps pick up a tank with your mind and hurl it at your foes. The stomp attack was a favorite of mine, sending people flying in all directions unless you chose to use the gravity variation, which suspends enemies in the area for a while instead, allowing you to pick them off at your sadistic pleasure. Few games succeed in making you feel this completely dominant and all-powerful, but that does come at the expense of there being any real challenge.
Being a massive city there’s also a variety of vehicles for you to get your grubby mitts on and take for a spin, A lot of them are familiar to Saints Row 3 players, but there’s a good number of new bikes and cars chucked into the mix. Alien vehicles are of course included, such as the wicked UFO which can change modes. Almost all of the vehicles can be taken to a shop and customised, while a welcome new change lets you press and hold down on the D-pad to instantly save the vehicle you’re in to your virtual garage. Any vehicle within your garage can also be instantly summoned via a phonecall. Unlike guns, however, almost every vehicle feels redundant with superpowers in the mix. Why drive when you can you can run much faster than the quickest car and leap over anything in your way? Why grab a helicopter when you can almost fly? Even the fastest sports car or plane cannot keep up with you and aren’t as fun, either.
Both guns and cars still suffer from the same sense of looseness in the controls that Saints Row 3 exhibited , a symptom of the fact that engine powering Saints Row IV hasn’t had much in the way of improvement since the last iteration. Cars and bikes are still a little twitchy, while aiming a gun doesn’t quite have as much precision as I would like. These are minor problems, however, and after a while you’ll be quite used to it.
The lack of engine improvements also mean that Saints Row IV can’t keep up with any of the big boys in the graphics department. The game isn’t ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly isn’t going to be winning any awards, either. The world isn’t packing in a lot of detail and there’s roughness to everything, but considering the toybox nature of the world the visuals take a backseat to the mayhem, and it’s pretty hard to notice how detailed each individual brick in a wall is when you’re running past it at a bazillion miles per hour.
Volition are keen to ensure you don’t get too used to your powers, however, with regular missions depriving you of your Superman status in jarring fashion. It feels odd to suddenly have your abilities taken away and be forced to run around at boring normal speed, killing the pace of the game. The reason for this is outside of your own simulation you’re just a normal person, or as normal as any member of the Saint’s can ever be, and you’ll frequently have to venture into other simulations or into the real world to deal with situations. Still, upsetting as it is to be busted back down to regular old human these missions do usually offset that by doing cool things, such as paying homage to a variety of stealth titles in a level where you have to patiently shoot out lights and even use a cardboard box to hide from foes.
With all of this talk of simulations I suppose we really should stop and address the actual quality of the main storyline. As mentioned you and your crew of Saints, who must each be rescued from their own person simulated hells, are aboard a ship in which you’ve got instance access to your own simulation. The overall plot really just boils down to getting revenge on Zinyak. In short, its pretty stupid.. Yet it’s stupidity turned into an art-form, and it’s highly enjoyable from start to finish. it’s everything contained within the overall story arc rather than the actual story itself that makes it so massively enjoyable. The Saints are still a bunch of foul-mouthed killers, but they’re a strangely likable bunch, largely due to some terrific voice acting. As you continue through your journey you’ll play through pixellated side-scrolling beat ‘m’ ups, wreak havoc on enemy ships in mech suits, battle tanks in cyberspace and encounter old-school text. Saints Row IV has not lost its flair for the strange, that is for sure.
Yet it does the madness far better than Saints Row 3 ever managed. The previous game suffered from trying to constantly top itself with bigger and stupider stuff, but Saints Row IV is far more confident with itself and knows when to unleash the truly absurd and when to reign it all in. As a result the game feels more grounded despite the absurdity of your situation and the things going on around you. Saints Row 3 felt like it was trying far too hard to be insane, to be wacky and therefore likable, but Saints Row IV doesn’t feel like it needs to try, because it simply is. There’s an actual structure to the story and some solid pacing work that wasn’t present previously, and that does wonders for the quality of the plot.
The humor is as crude and rude as it ever was with swearing in abundance. There’s nothing subtle about it, and yet once again it’s far better done than in the previous Saints incarnation. Humor relies less on the outright insanity of a situation and more on the characters, their personalities and the various jokes, insults and one-liners they employ. Frequent dashes of parody help as well, with numerous games and other mediums getting the piss taken out of them. There’s even an option to romance all of your crew members, and in a clear prod at Bioware’s sterling sci-fi epic all you have to do is press a single button to be rewarded with instant sex, though the act isn’t actually shown. There was rarely a moment when playing through the game when I wasn’t laughing because of the on-screen action or because of the humor, and more often than not it was become of both.
Despite the crudeness Saints Row IV has something special: heart. I’m not saying it has the dramatic chops of something like The Last of Us, but it’s incredibly easy to like the Saints and there’s even some genuinely awesome character moments within the plot, even if they are buried under the insanity. From the very beginning I felt myself rooting for the Saints and becoming invested in the characters. To my surprise I found I had missed the return faces, and was glad to be again with them What’s more the dialogue feels surprisingly natural. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but the dialogue that spews forth from the Saints feels more organic than that spoken by characters in a lot of the overly dramatic grey games of today which are intent on conveying messages. Saints Row doesn’t bother with trying to deliver some moral message, it just wants you to have fun and by doing so it tells a brilliantly entertaining and funny story.
Outside of the main storyline there’s plenty of content for you to sink your teeth into and enjoy, from going on destruction sprees with tanks to competing in super-powered fight arenas and blitzing through platforming challenges there’s pretty much something for everyone to enjoy. Saints Row IV simply lavishes players with oodles of things to do, but does it smartly by introducing more and more events as time goes on rather than just throwing a huge assortment at you from the very beginning. Not everything works as well as I’d like, but on average the quality is actually pretty damn good. Even in a small section of the map there’s heaps of these activities to try out, creating a dense package. When you couple if with the superpowers, mixture of weapons and freedom to go nuts there’s really always something for you to be doing, leaving no space for boredom to try to worm its little way in. Players are also far better encouraged to take part in these events through a few different means, the primary one being via your crewmates. Accepting a side-quest from one of your buddies sends you on a tour of the various activities, asking you to go from hijacking vehicles to eliminating certain targets and more. With so much stuff to choose from it’s a great way of giving you a taste of everything while providing some focus and direction for anyone feeling a little overwhelmed. There’s some handy rewards for completing these crewmate mini-campaigns as well, ensuring that taking the time to go through them feels worthwhile and rewarding. In a nod to the Mass Effect series each crewmate also has a unique loyalty mission that once completed grants them superpowers within the simulation, making them a far more effective partner in combat should you decide to give them a call.
There’s no rival gangs wandering around Steelport to contend with this time, but you can still claim back territory from the Zin in a variety of ways. Attacking and taking over the Hotspots is one of the primary methods of regaining turf, providing you with a brief opportunity for some combat carnage. Every shop must all be unlocked through a hacking mini-game which is reminiscent of Bioshock where you put together a path from point A to point B using a set selection of pieces. Doing all of this and completing the various activities all reward you with cunningly named “Cache” to spend on weapon upgrades and upgrades to your health, gang and more, so again there’s plenty of reason to do so.
If having one lunatic running around with superpowers isn’t enough then Saints Row IV can also be played in co-op, featuring several events designed specifically with two players in mind. You can also play through the entirety of the storyline with your buddy in tow. However, during my testing time with the game co-op is plagued with problems such as freezing and people getting stuck in cutscenes. When it all works Saints Row IV goes from being incredibly fun to off-the-freaking-charts fun, but as it stands Volition seriously need to release a patch to get everything running correctly.
Customisation. It’s a word that has carried great weight in the series thus far and Saints Row doesn’t buck the trend too much, featuring a vast suite for designing your character at the start of the game, which you’ll have to do because sadly importing your Saints Row 3 character can’t be done, something I found a tad odd given that a lot of the assets are the same. There’s a substantial range of clothing to deck yourself out in, but I honestly can’t comment on whether it’s more or less than previous titles. Suffice to say it is a varied collection, though. The only thing missing is the ability to customise safehouses/cribs, but that does make sense within the storyline.
There is a collection of little niggles and problems with Saints Row IV that is too large for me to bother going into detail about. Individually these gripes are small, but due to the volume of them they do add up and tarnish the overall game. Little things like how there’s so little impact from falling from a massive height or how sound sometimes glitches out. There’s the occasional framerate drop and there’s the games irritating desire to force you to travel all the way back to the ship just for a few lines of dialogue before you can start a mission, when the character could have easily just mumbled his or her lines through the communication device. You usually need to travel back to the ship at the end of missions too, once again for a few mores lines of pointless dialogue. There’s simply a prevailing sense of roughness to the game, something which has been present since the very start of the series. Volition create brilliant sandboxes to play in, but they struggle to refine and polish their creations.
For those not in the know Saints Row IV had something of a strange development. Volition originally announced a DLC package for Saints Row 3 titled Enter the Dominatrix which was going to introduce superpowers into the game. eventually Volition decided that there was enough content and great ideas within the DLC to develop it as a full game.
Even with its superpowers and aliens there’s an unmistakable sensation that what you’re really playing is Saints Row 3.5. The streets off Steelport are largely the same, and without any real improvements to the game engine or to many of the existing core mechanics I cannot find it within myself to entirely agree with Volition that Enter the Dominatrix contained enough to validate a completely new game being made. Had this been released as a massive chunk of DLC for Saints Row 3 I would be screaming at you to go and buy it, because that’s exactly what it feels like at times: a chunk of DLC, and a damn good one at that. IN fact I would probably have whacked a 5/5 score on end of this review.
However, I cannot judge a game by what it was supposed to be, I must judge it, I feel, by what it is. Saints Row IV is fun, plain and simple. The inclusion of superpowers changes the way the game plays enough that I can forgive the many similarities between it and the previous game, and I’d be hypocritical of bringing the subject up too much anyway when plenty of other games re-use their assets and feel largely the same every year. Yes, I’m looking at you Call of Duty and the LEGO series. There are many people, I feel, who will struggle to get over the concept that this was originally DLC, but I urge you to let go of that and enjoy Saints Row IV for what it is.
It’s wacky, barmy, stupid, crude fun of the highest caliber, eschewing most of the grim nonsense that makes up modern games in favour of letting players go wild with superpowers in a vast sandbox brimming with cool things do. It contains many of the same flaws that Saints Row 3 had, but to claim that I did not enjoy the vast majority of this game would be a lie. Here’s the simple answer to whether or not you should buy Saints Row IV: if you enjoyed the last game and you still want more, then you should absolutely run out and pick up a copy as soon as you can. And if you’ve never played a Saints Row game and are perhaps feeling a little tired of games trying to bury you under poorly delivered dramatic dialogue then this is the perfect escape, a game that simply doesn’t give a fuck.
+ Feeling awesome.
+ It’s funny.
– Does feel rather familiar at times.
– A lot of small problems.
– Rough around the edges
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Explosive fun topped with lashings of humor, all wrapped up in a huge world with a tonne of content to partake in.