“Hail to the Chief!”

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Game Info
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Deep Silver Volition
Genre: Action Adventure
Release Date: 08/20/13 (360, PS3, PC)

 

It’s hard to explain the identity of the Saints Row games. The first was a poor man’s Grand Theft Auto (with multiplayer!) that managed to hit the 360 before the real deal could. The second was a comedic take on the serious aspects of the open world genre. Saints Row the Third was a practice in both satire and insanity, managing to mock the contrivances of video games while simultaneously exceeding them in every possible way.

I wouldn’t fault you if you were expecting Saints Row IV to change up its DNA in some crazy and explosive ways, but unfortunately this is the first game in the franchise that seems to be suffering from something of an identity crisis. Now, in typical Saint’s fashion, it doesn’t suffer this laying down. The guys at Volition wrote the concept of an identity crisis into part of the game’s story, but for as deftly as they handled much of the game, there are also many places that they just plain fumbled the ball.

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STORY: If you recall, the story in Saints Row the Third ended with the Saints taking over the city of Steelport and declaring it independent from the United States. So the logical next step is that you become the President. After an initial action scene (that had me quite scared that the Saints games had decided to abandon their insanity), you pick up as the President and have just enough time to cure cancer and solve world hunger before aliens invade and abduct everyone.

What then begins is a parody centric story about “The Boss” trying to break out of a computer simulation of Steelport. This manifests itself in a series of quests that have you freeing your gang members – err, Cabinet members – from their own personal prisons, and running around the simulation to collect items needed to break the simulation (the game does a good job of glossing over why you’re ever doing anything, yet still making pointless quests feel meaningful). Your mission to break out is also hampered by Emperor Zinyak, the leader of the Zin army, who at times drops in to screw with you in your simulation.

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This is where the story of Saints Row IV really seems to fall apart. At no time does Zinyak feel purposeful, either through power or as an attainable goal to beat. Most of his scenes involve him either showing up to utterly demolish your character in a fight, or just talking to you in the simulation as he throws one or two more enemies your way to fight off. And then there are the missions where he completely ignores you. This is a villain that the game goes to great lengths to explain has complete control over the world you’re in, yet he so often sits on the sidelines as you rampage around.

The other major failing of Saints Row IV is that it relies far too heavily on just a few games to pull tropes from. While Saints Row the Third was reference hungry and often dropped in a few extended parodies, this newest game is solely constructed on them. The simulation is an extended Matrix reference, complete with the ground rippling when you fly away and “glitches” in the system that show when the aliens are about to change something. You even wake up from the simulation in a pod.

Once you’re out of the simulation, the game becomes decidedly similar to Mass Effect 2. You have to collect the team from various locations, then they pop up on your ship (strangely similar in design to the Normandy) where you can then talk to them or “romance” them. They also give you “loyalty quests”, which are sidequests that give your teammates new costumes (and superpowers) in the game.

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There is not a problem with homage. Parody can be hilarious, and at times Saints Row IV manages to be uproariously funny. On the whole, however, a total overreliance on parodying just a handful of games makes most of the game’s story seem thin and underdeveloped, which is a real shame coming from the last game, which managed to be subversive and well-thought without ever being blatant.

One major compliment I have to throw to the game’s writing is that it puts immense effort into reconciling the shift in tone from SR2 to 3, finding justifications for why Shaundi changed, bringing back old enemies and allies, and even giving backstory to explain the events of the games from another point of view. It’s both fun and terrifying to hear about your sociopathic actions through the lens of another character.

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GAMEPLAY: The gameplay in Saints Row IV walks a thin line between being immensely fun and completely broken. The previous game had this same problem, but actually handled it far less deftly than in this game. Whereas in the Third your character could become a walking tank that dispensed death like gas station condoms and ultimately become rather boring, IV keeps it interesting by giving you nearly unlimited ways to wreak endless amounts of havoc.

The addition of superpowers really does wonders for how fun the combat can be. It does totally upset the balance of power in the game, making your character a deity that can drop into a battle, level everyone with a few ice bombs and black hole gun blasts, jump into the sky, then land and nuke everyone away. If you’re injured, you can super-sprint away and heal, but you shouldn’t have to as enemies drop near unlimited health pickups.

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You become so insanely powerful that the game’s only recourse to keep a semblance of balance is to take away your superpowers as often as possible. For more than half of the game’s main quests you will find your superpowers stripped as you are turned back into a human. At one point, the game even makes fun of it with your character shouting, “Why do they take keep taking my *beeping* powers away?” The powers can be fun, but ultimately they mostly feel like they have no impact on the story and are just another diversion to amuse yourself with when running around the lifeless town of Steelport.

There is also a lot less to do in Steelport this time around. The city feels vastly smaller (thanks to being able to sprint from one side to the other in a handful of seconds). The activities are still there (40 of them), and an obscene amount of collectibles have been strewn across the city. Seriously, there are well over a thousand collectibles. When you enter into any given area you’ll find a vast expanse of collectibles that will take quite some time to gather up. The effect of both these item hunts and the super powers gives Saints Row IV the feeling that it is an exceedingly good Crackdown game, even if it isn’t such a great Saints Row game.

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The game plays without many issues, though I did encounter a few annoying glitches in the game. More than once I got stuck inside the side of a building with no place to go or had a level fail to load a critical part that left me running in circles and scratching me head. Thankfully, the game features an extensive and reliable autosave and checkpoint reload system, so even those times when the game does crash, you’ll never really lose more tha a few minutes of gameplay.

In the end, Saints Row IV’s gameplay is fun. Zipping down the highway and max speed and running up the side of a building is a joyous way to move about the city. Being able to inflate an enemie’s head thil it pops or kill them with dubstep is wild. It’s just too bad that between all the fun ideas, they forget to add in some good places to use them at.

GRAPHICS: Saints Row IV looks exactly like Saints Row III, only less interesting. The graphics engine hasn’t changed (though a film grain was thrown over it), so it’s still an attractive albeit slightly cartoonish game. However, much of what made Steelport feel real in SR3 is gone. The night and day cycle has been eschewed for a giant space-ship floating in the sky. Many of the games interesting locations, such as Loren Tower, the Nuclear Power Plant, or many of the game’s skyscrapers, have been levelled and replaced with red glowing blocks (and later, blue) that the Zin have dropped into the simulation. The result is a city that feels more techno and less real.

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A lot of these things add up to one glaring fact: Saints Row the Third worked because you were an unreal character in a real world. Your character may have been ridiculous, but the world you were in was at least plausible, so moments like Killbane’s Murder Brawl felt jaw dropping in “Why are people doing this?” kind of way. The insanity popped against the dull background. In IV, you’ve become an unreal person in an unreal world. The insane becomes the mundane. Many of the things that would be outrageous in the Third feel unearned and unimpressive here.

It doesn’t help that the game also takes it upon itself to constantly remind you that the world you’re in has no meaning or purpose. The simulation constantly presents visual glitches, such as cars shifting out of existence, or your screen hazing over when you take damage. These effects look cool, but they nag at you that none of this matters. It really brings down the whole experience.

SOUND: I’ve always liked the music in the Saints Row games. The “Power” sequence in SR3 is one of my favorite gaming memories. SRIV has a good soundtrack, standout at times. You can now listen to your music at any time in your head, a real boon since cars are essentially completely pointless now with the addition of super-sprint and flight. But those moments of audio mixture that made SR3 great are mostly gone. There is one fantastic quest where The Boss and Pierce are driving around and singing to the radio (only to be cut off by someone else), but moments like this seem few and far between. One other standout moment involves when you get one of your friends out of his simulation and go to a Genki match while The Boys are Back in Town plays. Moments like that are priceless.

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On the voice acting side of things, Saints Row IV still remains one of the best in the entirety of gaming, period. The fact that you can choose between 7 fully voiced actors for your main character alone is beyond impressive. One of them is even Nolan North (a gaming joke in and of itself) with unique Nolan based dialogue, like him shouting “THAT’S HOW NOLAN ROLLS!” when you blow a bunch of stuff up. The fact that Troy Baker is an alternate male voice is the icing on the joke cake.

But aside from the main character, this game has a real all-star cast (seriously, probably the most star power in a game this year outside Beyond: Two Souls). JB Blanc as Zinyak puts on an amazing performance that can be greatly comedic. Terry Crews takes over for Michael Clarke Duncan as Benjamin King and hardly misses a step. Michael Dorn, Neil Patrick Harris, and Andrew Bowen all reprise their roles for small cameos. Even Keith David returns to the Saints, though this time as Keith David (who sounds nothing at all like Julius). And that’s without spoiling the real cameos.

Saints Row IV doesn’t want to take itself seriously, but in a game design way, it has to in order to function. It’s nice to see that at least the audio design was spot on and pitch perfect.

REPLAY: On the surface, Saints Row IV seems like it has more content than past games with its sidequest system and increased collectibles. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the fourth entry is considerably shorter than past ones. It took me 35 hours to complete SR3 100%, but only 23 hours to finish SR IV, collectibles and all.

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Once you finish the main story, there’s not much draw to go back. The game feels mostly hollow, a simulation instead of a living, breathing city, and it can get pretty boring. There’s nothing really there to challenge you. Even the game’s activities, which now have different levels of completeness, feel simple and easy to overcome after a few tries. There is a co-op mode to the game with some co-op centric activities, like Cat and Mouse matches and Deathmatch, but it doesn’t change the game in any radical way aside from just giving you a reason to go back. This is probably a one-pass game for most people before it ends up back at GameStop (or your Steam graveyard).

Saints Row IV isn’t a bad game, just uneven. There are times when the comedy will have you rolling, and there are times when you’ll be looking around the simulation of the city you loved in SR3 and wonder how it became so bland, so uninteresting. And there’s always that unshakeable feeling that this game is really just a beefed up DLC expanded to feel like a new entry into the Saint’s franchise. While it’s an enjoyable experience, SRIV can’t match up to the insane glory of the Third, but at least it provides a nice outing and wraps up a lot of stray plots.

Written By: D.R. Maddock

This review was based off a retail copy of Saints Row IV. The game was played on PC via Steam. The main story was finished in 14 hours and completed 100% in 23 hours.