Saints Row IV Review
Saints Row: The Third was a completely ludicrous open-world action extravaganza that was confident in its own skin. In my opinion, it was the first series entry that didn’t feel like a poor man’s Grand Theft Auto. After GTAIV went gritty and quasi-realistic, Volition did the right thing and amped up the silly, over-the-top zaniness to the nth degree. Less realism, more absurdity. One could argue they did the same thing with Saints Row IV but while the results are similarly entertaining, the concept misses the mark. If only slightly.
While this sandbox environment isn’t as meticulously detailed as the productions we may see in the upcoming generation, the atmosphere is still quite compelling. It’s often a little too dark for my taste, but the developers did a good job creating an engaging, wacky cityscape rife with gameplay possibilities. It’s almost as if the placement of every lamppost and NPC is done for the express purpose of encouraging rampant chaos. The game runs relatively well, with minimal slowdown and little in the way of graphical hitches and glitches. Still, it’s not exactly impressive, as it’s not as clean-cut overall; it lacks that high-gloss sheen we’ll probably see in GTAV.
There are quite a few great voice performances in Saints Row IV, and the soundtrack features cleverly selected pieces that will bring an understanding smile to your face. Just when you think the game is taking itself way too seriously, a rakish voice or a nostalgic tune hits the TV’s speakers. At that point, you’re once again reminded that this franchise always has its tongue playfully lodged in its cheek. Not all voice actors do an excellent job and the effects can get a little muddled during periods of hectic action, but other than that, the audio benefits from a great score and a talented cast.
The Saints have taken over. In fact, the head honcho is now President of the United States and he must respond to an alien invasion that threatens the human race. This is Volition’s way of exploding out of its shell; Saints Row has always been comically unrealistic but now, the Saints are actually full-on superheroes. It’s like mixing inFamous with GTA and for the most part, it’s tons o’ fun. You’ve seemingly left the mortal coil behind and now, with super speed, super power and a ridiculous assortment of otherworldly abilities, you’re prepared to fight those pesky aliens. They may have anal probes on their side, but so what? We ain't scared.
But wait, you’re not really a superhero. The evil alien overlord has placed you in a Matrix-like virtual incarnation of the city, so you’re not even human. You’re just part of the program, and your Neo must face off against Mr. Smith and the rest of the Agents…only they’re ugly, murderous aliens and there’s no philosophical or moral underpinning. As I mentioned above, the game feels very dark because Zinyak – the alien boss dude – apparently didn’t want a sun in his virtual recreation. This gets a little tiring, I must admit. Plus, I think it negatively impacts the graphical presentation overall, thereby lessening the immersion.
That being said, the designers don’t make the mistake of forcing you to tediously build your character’s strength. While you do have to earn all manner of loopy, overpowered skills, you get a few important ones right off the bat. There’s a super high jump, for example, and a super sprint, which once again reminded me of inFamous or Crackdown. The control is great and you immediately feel like a bad-ass. However, the instant you feel this way is the same instant you begin to question what you’re playing; i.e., “Is this really Saints Row?”
It’s an important question to ask, because your superpower means you’ll soon start playing the game differently. For instance, why spend a lot of time with the vehicle customization options when you can out-sprint just about any car? And you’ll want those blue orbs to build your abilities, so you’ll be zipping about quite often. Unfortunately, cars don’t fly in this new virtual world. But you do. And you’ll probably start to have more fun doing that than anything else, so the sandbox feel begins to lose a bit of its focus. At the same time, you’ll definitely want to keep pushing the plot forward, because the writing isn’t too bad.
In fact, the writers work in plenty of more sophisticated references, as if to punctuate the extreme juvenile nature of the story. It’s often funny and even oddly endearing, even though the crass stupidity eventually wins out. It’s a decent balance and it manages to keep you interested, perhaps even after you’ve grown tired of the gameplay. As for the latter, if you can get into the swing of things and acknowledge that Saints Row IV is more about super insanity than a sandbox action/adventure, you’ll be satisfied. The good news is that all the new weapons are just cool.
Sure, you’ve got the standard human weapons that can still cause lots of damage. But when you’ve got energy swords, rays that freakin’ inflate your opponents and dubstep guns, you’re well equipped to battle the invading hordes. You’ll have a blast experimenting with stuff like Telekinesis, which is oodles of fun in almost any given situation. The pacing is just about right, too; while you don’t have to wait long before you gain your zany skills and weapons, you won’t become invincible overnight. Your growth happens at a steady and fulfilling rate.
The biggest problem I have is that despite all the new craziness, everything starts to feel somewhat underwhelming. The novelty of those next-level weapons and abilities wears off quicker than anticipated, and you find yourself scouring the city for other things to do. Volition does accommodate you, though, as you can participate in the sadistic game show, Mind Over Murder, which is the brainchild by the ultra-screwy Professor Genki. Or, you can just do what you’ve always done in open-ended sandbox games: Drive around, wreaking havoc and laughing at the destruction you cause.
Yet, for some reason, I get the “been there, done that” feeling. It almost doesn’t seem possible given the sheer amount of content, and the unique atmosphere. But when playing, I couldn’t shake this sneaking suspicion that I was getting bored with the action. Still, I would often take a break and when I returned, the game was just as entertaining as I’d hoped it’d be. I think maybe it’s just because you can only handle so much SRIV, you know? Once immersed, though, the diversity of some of the story-based missions will have you giggling with glee and there’s plenty of optional stuff. There’s lots of bang for your buck here, no doubt about it.
Saints Row IV has a lot going for it. The new super abilities and weaponry makes for a ceaselessly fun experience, even if the gameplay does tend to drag at times. The appreciated creativity and inventiveness is what saves the day; the often unique and twisted mission types, the overarching desire to enforce your own brand of justice, the world itself, etc. It just feels a little underwhelming. The dark setting gets a little tiring, there’s a bit of an identity crisis (superhero game or sandbox adventure?), and there’s some slight balancing issues with the new equipment. But if you loved The Third, I see no reason why SRIV won’t prove enjoyable.
The Good: Some great voice performances and a clever soundtrack. Better writing than you might expect. Solid control. Varied, engaging missions. Superpowers and crazy weapons are always fun to use.
The Bad: Graphically unrefined. Gameplay can start to feel monotonous. Atmosphere seems somewhat oppressive.
The Ugly: “This makes me want to play inFamous and not necessarily GTA. …and that’s weird.”
8/26/2013 Ben Dutka