Crazy, insane, nutty, wacky, bizarre, ridiculous and comical are all words that probably came out of your mouth while playing the 2011 extraordinarily absurd Saints Row: The Third. Volition has done wonders to change their approach to Saints Row, which started as a GTA-like gangster game back in 2006. As each sequel released, the series began to gain confidence and grow out of its shell to become its own Identity. Saints Row: The Third was the game to bring the series into the spotlight, splashing its own DNA onto the open-world gameplay and throwing out the rule-book. Volition opted to have a laugh with their series, going the way of comedy and keeping the serious tone down, and no matter what one highly regarded game creator might think, Volition took the step in the right direction and gave us a game that has never heard of the words realism or dull.
With that said, where could Volition go next after their third instalment? It’s pretty darn hard beating an already outlandish game, but somehow Volition found a way to make Saints Row even more over-the-top, and this isn't limited to story, but gameplay and everything else you can think of when it comes to a video game. Saints Row IV is one of the most enjoyable open-world games I have ever gotten to play through, from story to gameplay, nothing is in the way to let the player do anything but have gleefully fuelled fun.
Set five years after Saints Row: The Third, the protagonist of the series has been elected as the President of the United States (well that’s a start to push Saints Row IV up the ludicrous scale) and is currently on a mission to stop a terrorist plot from blowing up the land of the free. After some homage, you find yourself back in the White House and are about to do a speech at a press conference when alien invaders, led by one Zinyak, an alien with a love for classical music and Shakespeare, comes crashing down and begins to assault the President’s residence. It’s not a pretty outcome, as the Saints are captured and thrown into a computer simulation of Steelport, the city that featured the escapades of the Saints back in Saints Row: The Third.
The narrative of Saints Row IV is helped along with the fact there is just one main enemy in the story. There are no gangs here to split the story up into two or three directions. Due to this, the plot feels constructed with a good focus on pacing, making each main mission feel appropriate to the overall game’s tale. If there is one thing Volition aren't afraid of doing is the amount of homage to video games and films that is included in Saints Row IV’s plot. I don’t want to spoil it, because some of the most outrageously funny scenes (It’s not often a game makes me laugh out loud, never mind multiple times) are there to be seen for the first time to really feel the impact the comedy has. In relation to references, you have games like Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect and Streets of Rage, and films like Terminator, Armageddon and The Matrix all making a presence in some capacity.
When trailers began hitting for Saints Row IV, I was worried that Volition wouldn't be able to keep reigns on the craziness that was sure to come with the game. I wanted Saints Row IV to be stupid, of course I did, because that is one of the reasons why I loved it before, but not to the point where it becomes a big mess of a joke and isn’t funny any more. Thankfully, Saints Row IV keeps within the limits and never steps over the boundaries of embarrassing itself. This is a comedy act with class and style, a satire that everyone is part of, with not one joke feeling too much or wrong. Thinking about the topic, Saints Row IV could very well be the best written comedic game that I have ever gotten to experience.
The virtual simulation of Steelport is the reason why the protagonist gains inhuman powers. In the real world – on the spaceship I should add, which acts as the hub to speak with your team members – he’s just the standard protagonist. Returning cast member, Kinzie Kensington, hacks the simulation to give the gift of these superpowers near the start of the game. From then on, you have the ability to speed run and super jump, but even then, there is still plenty to unlock, as the game offers a good sense of progression between the player’s powers and the standard upgrades you gained in Saints Row: The Third.
A lot of people will be quick to point out that Saints Row IV looks like a Crackdown rip-off, and while some similarities with powers and clusters - these are found in the world and are needed if you want to upgrade the superpower skills – are certainly there, that’s all there is to link the two together. Saints Row IV has way more personality, which was something lacking in Crackdown. It takes the best mechanics from such games as Infamous and Prototype and works them into its own world and gameplay.
It shows that Volition didn't just want to rip off other games, because there is a sheer amount of refreshing powers and weapons that you probably wouldn't expect to see. The protagonist eventually unlocks the ability to use freeze balls, fire balls, super stomps, telekinesis, protective auras, such as having a ring of fire around you, and being able to dive down from the sky to bring death from above. All these moves can be upgraded after hitting a specific level and having enough clusters – hundreds are scattered all around Steelport – eventually leading to having auras that can shrink people, bigger area of effects, being able to run up walls at lightning speeds, and gliding over the city. Guns are the same, with the twist of alien technology adding amusing death-bringing tools, like the dubstep gun, which makes everything in the proximity of the sound do the robot until they explode from the sound waves. The black hole gun is another destructive weapon that sucks in everything around it and then explodes.
There is so much variety in Saints Row IV’s combat that you’re never short of coming up with new ways to handle situations. Do you attack with a freeze blast, sticking everyone in place and then finishing them with a one hit kill or do you jump on a tall building and camp enemies with rocket launchers? The combat is open to however you want to play it and having all these powers helps to keep the game’s combat interesting. The difficulty does drop towards the end of the game, but even if equipped with a fair amount of upgrades, I still died during the last few story missions, as the full alien force is thrown at the player. Even when you are traversing around Steelport and run into the many alien hostile environments, if you don’t keep an eye on what is going on, you’ll soon find yourself swamped in bullets and large beasts that love to pound you with their strength.
Story quests are packed with diverse mission structures, as these can take place in both Steelport or in various main characters’ minds, where their fears come to haunt them and you are required to help your comrades defeat their inner most horrors. Again, these are aspects that shouldn't be spoilt. I doubt anyone will be able to make it through the game without one mission bringing laughter or a smile worthy of a MSN emoticon, because these are shining examples of getting those ridiculous moments just right without compromising the gameplay. Each one is capable on its own – not one mission feels like a weak brick that could bring down a solid house.
Side missions are given more importance in Saints Row IV. Before, you would see some activities scattered around Steelport and it was up to you if you wanted to do them or not to gain the extra experience points and cash. Now, the quest log includes side missions from your comrades that offer additional rewards – the dub step gun and super powered allies are just a couple of examples – along with more money and experience. This is often a mixture of taking part in the activities or switching strongholds back to the Saints’ favour. The significance for this is that I feel these smaller deeds are given a bigger presences in Saints Row IV, yet you still have the option of not doing them if you despise an event or two that much. There are cooperative missions included, but since I had no one to do the campaign cooperatively with, I wasn't able to check these out.
Returning to Steelport might come with some familiarity, but the way you dart around the city landscape makes the feeling of déjà vu less obvious. Steelport is also covered in a new coating, an aesthetic based around a computer simulation, meaning that walls and buildings will shimmer with data or glitch with pixelation. The sky remains dark and red, with alien UFOs hovering above the city, as they keep a watch on what is going on in their experimental den. The city billboards are covered in praise for Zinyak, leaving notes to let the citizens know they need to obey their leader and uphold his law. Graphically, the game looks great on PC and seems to be tuned better with AMD graphics cards this time. The performance in Saints Row: The Third would drop frames often. It’s not as bad in Saints Row IV, as I do get more average FPS, but it still drops when you leap into the air and the city is fully exposed to see. If you have the power, you can brute force to keep the game above 60FPS.
The team at Volition have picked an amazing soundtrack to go with the game. Multiple radio stations are featured and cover all genres, but unlike previous games, you can now listen to the radio whenever you like. There is an obvious design choice with this, because players no longer need to use vehicles to get around. Driving happens if it is required as part of a side-mission or you feel the need to drive once in a while. If this wasn't implemented, then you wouldn't hear much radio throughout the game. Volition has also deployed the use of music within certain circumstances. Remember how awesome it was listening to Kanye West’s Power as you jumped out of a helicopter and began raiding the penthouse on top of a skyscraper? Well those are back in Saints Row IV, and add more emotion to the situation as any did in Saints Row: The Third.
Voice work is incredibly strong for the entire main cast and all the create-a-character voices, although, you could argue that the voice of Zinyak, supplied by Jean-Benoît Blanc, is one not to miss. From his amazing screen presence to his wonderful voice on the classical music radio station, he’s a guy who brings hypnotic screen time. It’s not often I listen to classical music in open-world games, but Zinyak sure made me listen to it in Saints Row IV. There is no zombie voice this time, as it has been replaced by Nolan North as himself, which I personally didn't check out, as I went with the British guy, who brings a host of slang exclusively related to England’s vocabulary. One neat feature I love about Saints Row is the fact that the dialogue changes slightly depending on your voice pick. I often like replaying the series with a female character, just to see it from that perspective. Saints Row doesn't care about what sex you are, either way, your main character, be a man or woman, is treated equally and are just as equally bad ass, and it’s great to see a strong presence from a female created character. If you have a strange thing against female voices, you could always put Nolan North as your female character and have a tonne of fun with that.
Saints Row IV is a fantastic title that feels like the developers were never restricted from creating their own vision. The game doesn't do anything innovative, but that doesn't stop Saints Row IV from being an amazing amount of fun with a mechanically solid game behind all that goofy show. Grand Theft Auto should never be mentioned in the same line as Saints Row IV, because those games have become so vastly different that they aren't even competing with each other any more. This is a video game that knows it’s a video game, kicking any sort of realism in the balls and letting the player go wild within the confounds of the sandbox. You want a quality superhero video game? Then here is your title. Saints Row IV jacks up the action, pumps up the silly, but above all, doesn't lose sight of what makes a game play superbly, and that, Mr President, is how you make an awesome video game.