Saints Row 4 ReviewSeptember 9, 2013
In 2011, Volition released the third installment to their popular Saints Row series. Titled Saints Row: The Third, it was met with much disappointment due to its lackluster story, the cavalcade of random sex jokes and potty mouth humor, and the absence of any real challenge. Now Volition has released the fourth installment to the series, simply titled Saints Row 4. Have they listened to our pleas and returned to the formula that made Saints Row 2 so successful?
Well, then, are they just carrying on with the Third’s brand of over-the-top, off-colour humor?
I’m sorry, what?
Saints Row 4 has taken a step in the right direction, just not in the way we were expecting. By the end of Saints Row: The Third, the Third Street Saints have become pop culture icons with their own branding and merchandise. But this was not enough for them. In Saints Row 4, you once again step into the shoes of the leader of the Saints, having been elected President of the United States, with key Saints members as your cabinet and actor Keith David (playing himself) as Vice President. Unfortunately, unless you preordered the Presidential Edition, you won’t get to play as the President much. You make one decision, and then the actual plot begins. During a press conference, a race of aliens known as the Zin begin destroying the White House and abducting members of your cabinet and eventually you, trapping you all in a simulated version of Steelport, à la the Matrix. You must find a way to use the simulation to defeat the Zin and destroy their leader, Zinyak. While this isn’t the most original of plots, it does allow an undercurrent of parody throughout the entire game, alongside all the various, blatantly out-there parodies the game employs, such as many 4th wall-breaking video game references moments when in the simulation: “Open up your HUB”, “Why are there always three, very unprotected things I need to deactivate?”
The gameplay is, for the most part, unchanged from Saints Row: The Third. The third-person shooting and driving mechanics are as fun as ever, but I am disappointed that they didn’t bring back Saints Row 2’s melee weapons combat, with its proper combos and finishing moves. RPG elements also make a return. As you level up with experience, you unlock upgrades such as increased health or ammo. However, the major new gameplay mechanic in Saints Row 4 is the ability to acquire and upgrade superpowers in the simulation world, in a parody of some combination of X-Men and The Matrix. As you progress through the story missions, you unlock superpowers such as telekinesis and energy blasts. Leveling up and doing side mission and challenges will unlock more powerful upgrades for these powers, which can be purchased using data clusters that are scattered throughout the city, and trust me when I say that you will be compelled to take detours from your objective and collect all the clusters you can find.
The one problem I have with the superpowers is that I feel they are introduced a bit too early. The two very first powers you unlock are Super Sprint and Super Jump, immediately rendering all vehicles useless in the first hour (sooner, if you don’t have the Presidential Edition). In addition to this, the first offensive power you unlock, an ice blast that temporarily freezes and encases your enemies in ice, will most likely be the only think you’ll ever use, since a shotgun blast will instantly shatter your frozen standard enemies. There are several instances in which your powers are taken away, but all you need to do then is steal a tank and press a button that will instantly save it to your garage without you having to visit it. And since this is a simulation, you can spawn your vehicles anywhere at any time without penalty, so you can just summon your tank and mow people down until your powers return.
Aside from the main story, there are various challenges scattered throughout the map, some new ones that employ your superpowers, and some old ones from previous games given slightly different names. There are also side quests given to you by your homies, most of which are just sequences of 5-6 challenges each with a voice-over to provide context. At the end of every side quest, you are rewarded with weapons, upgrades for your superpowers or even the outfit of the character who gave you the quest. There are a few exceptions called “Loyalty Missions”, which basically work like the hardening quests from Dragon Age.
Of course, you don’t spend all your time in the simulation. You can switch whenever you want between the simulated world and your spaceship. Within the spaceship, in a blatant parody of the Mass Effect series right down to their space suits, you can converse (I use the term loosely) with your homies, and even choose to romance them regardless of gender. You can even romance the robot character. I like this option because, even though it’s a parody, the game is essentially allowing you to be as straight, gay, bi, pan or asexual as you please, and also gives some extra character development, albeit a small amount, for your crew members.
As I mentioned earlier, Saints Row 4 is full of references and parodies of movies and video games. The very first mission, before you customize your character, is called “Zero Saints Thirty”, and has you sneaking into a hidden base and killing terrorists planning to blow up America; a 2D side-scroller level parodying Streets of Rage, right down to the horrible voice acting; and even collectible text adventures telling Zinyak’s origin story. Zinyak himself dresses and elocutes like Kain from the Legacy of Kain series, the aforementioned robot character looks like Wheatley from Portal 2, and one of the outfits available is a parody of Minecraft’s Steve. Take notes, Deadpool!
There are some missions that take place in the previous town of Stilwater, with even a few boss fights recycled and given a makeover. This may have been intended for nostalgia, but it also feels rather lazy, as many of the fights are just thrown in there, with little to no context.
Co-op gameplay makes a return, and runs very smoothly with little to no lag. As before, you can drop in and out of your friend’s game and do missions with them, and this time they’ve added two co-op challenges in which you fight against each other, although this a lot less epic than it sounds.
There are a few glitches in Saints Row 4 but most of them are small and don’t occur all that often. There have been instances where I’ve clipped through objects and set pieces, and even through the ground and fallen off the world, forcing me to reload a save. I’ve had to reload a checkpoint during a boss fight because the next stage wouldn’t trigger. However, the game has crashed on me during extra long missions (if you’re playing the PC version, alt-tabbing out and back in seems to fix this). The most hilarious glitch, on the other hand, is the broken ragdoll physics in the Fraud challenge, in which you can still steer yourself while ragdolled and continue to rack up points in a single go!
The game’s graphics are only slightly better than Saints Row: The Third. Unfortunately, there is no day-night cycle in the simulation world. Instead, everything appears to be viewed through an orange haze, similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You can change the time of day from your ship during the post-credits sandbox mode, but these are more like themes that change the color scheme of the world, and have weird names like “Nightmare” and “Noir”.
Saints Row 4 also has some superb voice acting, especially by JB Blanc as Zinyak and Keith David as himself, and the soundtrack is probably my favorite in the series, mainly due to the inclusion of “What Is Love” by Haddaway. The only audio glitch that occurred is that sometimes the sound of gunshots would drop out when firing automatic weapons.
All in all, Saints Row 4 is an unexpected but much appreciated step in the right direction. The main story will last you a good 7-8 hours, with even more from the side missions, challenges and co-op. It’s still as insane and wacky as Saints Row: The Third, but in a far less token way.