Have we finally gone too far? This is the question I was repeatedly asking myself during my time with Saints Row IV. And, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or sociological sense. While the game has had certain elements censored to find a release in Australia (including an ‘anal probe’ gun), it doesn’t challenge our perception of sexuality or violence or morality. What I’m talking about, is whether it’s possible to throw too much into a game to see whether it sticks, and still come out with a viable product. Confused? Me too.
Saints Row began as the GTA HD before there was a GTA on HD platforms, but subsequent sequels began to define the series as we know it today – pulling off batshit-crazy spectacle. The Saints went from a small-time gang to global celebrities, and as their fame escalated, so too did the gameplay and setpieces. Skydiving through a plane, regularly getting behind the gear of a VTOL and entering Tron-world were just some of the highlights from the last game.
So, how can Saints Row IV get crazier? How about making your user-generated character (The Boss) President of the United States? Awesome! Sounds like we’ve got some cool new gameplay options, now- Oh, wait. There’s more? You have to fight an alien invasion? While being plugged inside an extraterrestrial version of the Matrix? With superpowers allowing you to run up buildings, freeze people and jump small buildings with a single bound? On board your own Mass Effect-style space ship and crew? And there’s Keith David?
O-oh. Um, OK.
Picking any one of these concepts for a Saints Row game would be enough to provide a crazy and memorable experience, But, Saints Row IV is all these things, in addition to the core Saints Row gameplay built up over three games. And it does work. Sort of.
You can still steal cars, beat up pedestrians and shoot up the streets, but all of this becomes obsolete within the first few hours of the game. Your super sprint ability is so fast, with a stamina bar so long, that you’ll never need to use a car again. Your super jump comes with a glide upgrade, giving you the Prototype-like ability to essentially fly.
The city of Steelport (or at least, a virtual version of it) returns from Saints Row The Third, and even though it wasn’t originally designed with superpowers in mind, it still adapts to your new methods of transportation reasonably well. This is helped by the addition of ‘clusters’ – essentially shining blue collectibles which are spread across the map, generally on top of roofs and in hard-to reach places, providing great impetus for getting the hang of your new powers and finding new routes through the city.
It’s all really fun, in the same way that Infamous and Prototype are fun, but the problem is it just doesn’t play like a Saints Row game anymore. There are numerous attempts to reconnect with the past, with insights into the lives of each of the surviving Saints crew, and cameos from the likes of Veteran Child (Neil Patrick Harris) and Ben King (Terry Crews, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan).
Regular guns also fall largely by the wayside, in light of alien super-powered rifles and sub-machine guns, as well as some Ratchet and Clank style mega-weapons, like the Bounce Gun, Abduction Gun and Dubstep Gun. These are all mighty impressive, but have strange inconsistencies, which limits them from becoming too overpowered. For instance, the Dubstep gun releases powerful waves of energy, but only in time to the beats on the record loaded inside it, leaving sizeable gaps in your fire rate. The Abduction Gun summons a UFO to levitate your enemies into its shining light… but it’s not so great indoors with a ceiling in the way.
To accommodate your new arsenal and superpowers, many of the game’s encounters are divided into either being swamped with dozens of respawning enemies, or fighting bullet sponge ‘Wardens’, who make it as tough as possible to hit them by jumping all over the place. There isn’t much inventive game design here, just the developers upping the enemy or HP count until the game can present a challenge, and even then it’s all largely pretty easy.
On the other hand, Saints Row IV is amazingly self aware of itself. When customising your character’s voice, you can literally pick the ‘Nolan North’ option. Checking out the mission selection screen reveals one description blatantly telling you that it’s filler to pad the game out. Humour has been the series’ strong point in the last two installments, and it’s in overdrive this time around.
There’s also a ton to do around the virtual Steelport. Your mini-map is constantly crowded with side-missions, challenges and shops (which require an easy, but unnecessary, hacking mini-game to enter). There are also loyalty missions to fulfill for each of your crew (who you rescue from the Matrix), and just like Mass Effect which this game has several allusions to (including a button for ‘romancing’ your shipmates), you’ll want to complete all of them to unlock the best ending for the game.
For all shark-jumping overblownanity of Saints Row IV, I did encounter quite a few issues leaving the game feeling unpolished. Audio issues abounded, with music and sound effects cutting out until a hard reset. The frame-rate is all over the place, buttery smooth when facing a wall, choppy when anything else is in view, and when there’s a lot of action, the game did freeze on a few occasions. I also didn’t care for the drab, dark atmosphere which Steelport is forever trapped inside. The muted colours combined with the neon-hue of the aliens comes off as less Tron Legacy and more Batman & Robin.
Saints Row IV is likely the most ridiculous game I have ever played. It’s absolutely a shark jumping spectacle, but it’s on the joke too. The superhero and sci-fi elements succeed in making the game fun to play, but confuse the identity of Saints Row so much that despite all its attempts to reconnect to the past, it’s really the beginning of a shift in what we can expect from the Saints Row series – pure parody.
Over-the-top over-the-topness | Humour | Fun
Breaks much of what the series is known for | Feels unpolished