I have a good history with the Saints Row franchise, I love them for what they do and hate them for screwing up the curve. I’ve played them all and enjoyed each of them to date, but Saints Row IV concerned me. When the Enter the Dominatrix DLC was delayed and then said to be put into Saints Row IV as part of the main content, I worried that this new installment would be a cash-in, further hurt by THQ’s bankruptcy and being under the new and unfamiliar guidance of publisher Deep Silver. The initial trailers were enticing, but not enough to guarantee my purchase, until I saw that I could ride a rocket while Aerosmith played in the background, that is.
At some point developer Volition, inc. realized that Grand Theft Auto was leaning more towards a serious tone with their games, so wanting to stand out, they went the opposite direction. Saint’ Row has gone towards comedy and irreverent parody, while still managing to wrangle serious and emotional moments into their narrative, keeping the player enthralled—the story for this installment in no different. Taking place five years after the last game, the player controlled protagonist has risen to the rank of President of the United States, but the violence of the streets is still evident in his actions, a good thing when a group of world-conquering aliens attack.
“I stay on top, and you don’t get to talk.” –Asha Odekar
It was around the time my robot ravaged me that I truly realized that no other video game can do what Saints Row does so well, without feeling forced. Many of the missions are parody, focusing on stroking the player’s ego and challenging the absurd, but with its own style and sense of humor. One of the mission objectives even clearly states: do something badass. Many of the mission titles are references in themselves, the dialogue within them is well executed, and I found myself laughing out loud at certain points because of my own experiences with the games being made fun of and their tropes, particularly a Metal Gear Solid parody section.
There are several rewarding scenes and encounters for players who have finished the entire series. Audio clips can now be found around the simulated world which provides new material into the past lives of some of the Saints’ most famous members and enemies. Countless references to older characters and missions featuring forgotten faces feel solid for the game, even explaining gaps in the series. Saints Row IV touches on nostalgia and the more memorable aspects from their past work. It amazes me how much I actually feel connected to characters in a game that I laugh at more than anything else. The final boss battle felt rewarding after beating an enemy that I was truly beginning to hate. Nothing infuriates me more than a British sounding alien that uses Shakespeare and Poe against me while gloating in combat. I would rank Zinyak up there, almost Handsome Jack level…almost.
“Zinyak f*cked with Biz Markie!”
The gameplay is varied and engaging, several missions having their own controls and tone, even if a few of them are long movie references or game spoofs. I was happy to see the Tron-esque cyberspace mission and text based adventures make a comeback, incredibly entertaining scenarios that all led up to what may be the best beat ‘em up throwback stage inside of a game so far. The enjoyment of the content and nearly endless action sections make it hard to dwell on what the game actually does wrong.
The game certainly has its problems, but most of those were aesthetic choices. The controls for the powers are a bit cumbersome, too many functions set to one button once the player begins gathering multiple abilities, but the upgrade system is fun and lengthy, so it is excusable. The game does have some glitches, and even froze on me twice, but the majority of the glitches were actually amusing to witness at least once, so they never angered me. The biggest failing in my opinion was the time developers put into vehicles, weapon customizations, and homies for the main character that become pointless as soon as powers are bestowed upon them. The only missions I drove in were the ones that forced me to, and who really needs backup when they could give Superman a run for his money? This aspect shows how far the franchise has come from its roots, for better or worse.
Volition also assembled an amazing soundtrack for this game, but players won’t hear much of it and it’s annoying to change radio stations when not in a vehicle. The developer team had to know they were making some parts of their game obsolete by making certain design choices, but I think these features will see more use when players are done with the main storyline and take time to explore and play.
Some players seem to be having a problem that The Matrix style simulation is stuck in a nighttime setting. This didn’t bother me, as it looked great, but perhaps that is partially the albinism typing. There is almost too much to do in this game: between customizations, upgrades, cheats and loyalty missions. Though some of the side missions are repetitive, it is hard not to find something to love. Mech assault challenges and super powered fraud were personal favorites of mine.
Saints Row can be boiled down to one word: Fun. Artistically, most will dismiss Saints Row IV, as they have the whole series, but it does what it sets out to do almost expertly and stands peerless in many areas. Taking the series too lightly and overlooking the work is a mistake, but an expected one, unfortunately. I worry that eventually Volition will work themselves into a corner, unable to outdo the last installment, reaching a plateau where the only option left will be to parody themselves or rehash old ideas. For now though, Volition’s cunning wit, nostalgic love song, and charm through irreverence has conquered my cold heart once more.