Saints Row IV (for PS3, Xbox 360, PC) review

Saints Row IV is a mindless, stupid playground of destruction with no artistic value but loads of entertainment value.
Photo of Saints Row IV (for PS3, Xbox 360, PC)

I have a lot of respect for the people at Volition. After steadily stepping up the amount of craziness in their Saints Row series, they found themselves in a creative quandary. Saint’s Row 2 added wackiness to what was otherwise a competent Grand Theft Auto knock-off, and Saints Row 3 cranked it up by turning them into rock stars. This was a move many fans of Saints Row 2 didn’t like because it took out the few but surprisingly powerful character moments the previous game had. A logical step from there would be to pull the series back, and bring the Saints back down to earth from the heights of cartoonish popularity and psychotic nihilism. The natural response would be to carefully look at different ideas and pick out the ones that would bring the series together thematically to make it all work.

Not the guys at Volition. Instead of searching for a few good concepts against a creeping wall of you-can’t-make-it-any-crazier in the series and fighting a seemingly inevitable dearth of new ideas, they said “Let’s use all the ideas! Yes, even the stupid ones! You! Over there! The guy high on Dimetapp who doesn’t work here! Do you have an idea? Great! We’ll use that idea, too!” The result is Saints Row IV, an Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 ($59.99 list), and PC ($49.99 list) game that comes across as a sick parody of Saints Row 1 and 2, a warped commentary on Saints Row: The Third, and an incredibly fun sequel to games like Crackdown and Infamous. It’s juvenile, stupid, scattershot, self-aware, and incredibly fun because of the balance it manages to find with those first four things.

Yes, This Is The Story
The plot of Saints Row IV is… well, let me take a deep breath and believe me when I say this is not a spoiler, as it all happens in the first hour or two and it was revealed by the game’s various trailers.

You play the leader of the Saints, working with MI6 to take down a crazed terrorist general and blow up a nuke in the air before it can hit Washington, and are elected the president of the United States with Keith David (yes, Goliath/Spawn/street fight with Rowdy Roddy Piper/Navy commercials Keith David) as your vice president until aliens invade and put you and your gang in a virtual simulation of your old city where you get super powers and have to fight the system while your space ship prepares to attack the evil emperor’s fleet.

Like I said. All the ideas.

Most of the game takes place in the virtual city of Steelport, which itself is taken over by aliens who give it a thoroughly They Live makeover and add glowing neon spaceships menacing the skies to boot. The aliens have wiped out all evidence of the Saints’ existence, so you have to build your gang up from nothing again. This time, however, you do that through disrupting the system to free your friends and unlock super powers instead of performing increasingly criminal acts. Instead of bank heists and drug deals, you’re blowing up alien strongholds and causing havoc. The mechanics of the game aren’t that different from previous Saints Row games or any other open-world crime game, but the missions are more gleefully violent.

Combat
The controls are basic, with standard third-person running, jumping, shooting, and driving controls that let you navigate the city and kill people. This is shaken up with the addition of super powers that you unlock by playing through the game. Holding the left trigger activates your super speed and glide powers, for example, and holding the X button charges your super jump, letting you leap over buildings in a single bound and run through the streets faster than any car. The right trigger activates offensive powers, such as blasting waves of ice and fire, throwing things around with telekinesis, and slamming into the ground with an earth-shaking stomp.

You’ll come to rely on these powers through the game, but they won’t take away from the more traditional action. You’ll still use plenty of guns to destroy cops, aliens, and glitches, softening them up with elemental attacks or flinging them around in between shooting at them. As you upgrade your sprint and jump powers you’ll find yourself using them as the main way of getting around, but that won’t stop you from summoning tanks and UFOs to help clear out enemy strongholds, and there’s still plenty of fun to be had customizing and driving cars.

As you get more powerful, the enemies get more powerful, and, before long, you’ll move from shooting cops and alien foot soldiers to hulking monstrosities with psychic powers and alien ninjas that come streaming out of portals. This keeps the challenge steady while constantly making you feel more powerful. It’s a great balance, though it’s not perfect and I often found myself plowing too easily through several challenges before finding genuine, satisfying difficulty in other missions.

Running around and fighting with different powers, weapons, and vehicles are pretty much the full extent of what you’ll do in the game. If you were hoping for any sort of personal interaction besides the most basic prompts or any kind of small-scale downtime to make the game feel richer and deeper, you’ll be disappointed. Saints Row IV has two settings: crazy and off.

Be Who You Want
Customization and character growth are the two biggest pillars of Saints Row 4′s gameplay and personality outside of cut scenes. You can start by customizing the leader of the Saints to look like anyone, with a wide variety of body types, skin colors, facial structures, and a handful of voices (you can be a cockney British president of the United States!). As you play through the game, you can buy new suits and costumes, each of which can be customized with different colors. I ended up playing a cockney ginger crime boss with a goatee who dressed like the Riddler, in a neon green trench coat, jetpack, and bowler hat. I had the choice of running around naked, dressed like a zombie from Minecraft, a giant-headed mascot, a superhero, a priest, a vampire hunter, and even members of the gangs from Saints Row: The Third. Plastic surgery and tattoo parlors offer even more ways to let you look like anyone.

You upgrade your powers by collecting blue data packets scattered through the city like orbs from Crackdown. There are over a thousand, and they’re so common that you can easily find yourself distracted by data-packet hunting when running to your next objective. The data packets are used as currency to upgrade your dash, jump, blast, telekinetic, and stomp powers. Outside of the powers, you can also upgrade yourself with health, damage, and stamina bonuses, and even equip your gang with increasingly powerful weapons by spending regular money (called “cache” in this game). That’s three different ways you can upgrade and customize your character alone.

You can customize and upgrade your vehicles and weapons as well, with fewer but equally satisfying options. Any vehicle you drive can be instantly saved and summoned again, and most of them can be repainted and upgraded at a body shop. I turned a police cruiser into a green and purple Saints-branded racer with spikes on the wheels. Guns can be upgraded at gun shops, with four different types of upgrades (damage, recoil, clip size, and reload speed) and a special feature like explosive rounds for the heavy pistol or increased toughness when using the machine gun. Weapons can also be re-skinned with several nerd-friendly options. You can turn the heavy pistol into Mal Reynold’s pistol, the quick-shot pistol into Han Solo’s blaster or Deckard’s revolver, the submachine gun into Robocop’s machine pistol, the assault rifle into a super soaker or the plasma rifle from Aliens, and the machine gun into the railgun from Eraser. Yes, a game made in 2013 references Eraser.

As in previous Saints Row games, there are a ton of diversions to play to get money and experience (which unlocks new upgrades as you play). While the excellent Septic Avenger mission from Saints Row 2 is again absent, there are foot races, super-powered street brawls, virus injection missions where you fight off waves of aliens and glitched enemies, rifts where you run and jump through Tron-like neon environments, game shows where you fling people and vehicles through glowing hoops, tile-placing hacking minigames, the classic ragdoll physics minigame Insurance Fraud (made even more painful with the addition of super powers), and, of course, plenty of mayhem missions where you need to destroy as much as you can with a designated heavy weapon, super power, vehicle, or mech suit. You can easily forget about the main plot and just enjoy the game as a giant playground, if several main and optional missions weren’t necessary to unlocking your powers, your homies, and your homies’ powers. Yes, you can eventually run around the city with an entire crew of supervillains.

Like Every Robot Chicken Sketch
Saints Row IV gleefully makes pop culture and obscure references throughout the story, in weapon choices, mission names, and tons of smaller details. I counted three references to Hackers alone. Keith David’s role in They Live isn’t safe, either; not only are the signs in the city filled with They Live-like messages telling people not to resist, but after doing a few side missions for Keith I unlocked a Rowdy Roddy Piper costume. The game even pokes fun at itself in multiple plot points, throwing a lampshade on the fact that Keith David sounds exactly like Julius Little, the founder of the Saints from the first game who was killed in Saints Row 2′s optional DLC by reminding everyone that Keith David is playing himself and not Julius, and throwing another lampshade over Shaundi’s abrupt personality and voice change in Saint’s Row: The Third by creating two Shaundis in the simulation voiced by two different actresses (Maggie Macdonald and Jennifer Jules Hart; Eliza Dushku doesn’t reprise her role as “Fun” Shaundi).

The game’s voice acting is roundly excellent, with perpetual voice actors Troy “I’m every male video game protagonist who isn’t voiced by Nolan North” Baker and Yuri “I’m one-third of all the anime characters you’ve ever heard” Lowenthall complimenting Keith David, Terry Crews, and Natalie Lander’s excellent Kinzie. JB Blanc stands out as Emperor Zinyak, the most amiable and friendly alien tyrant you ever met. He quotes Shakespeare, DJs the classical music radio station, and is always happy to chime in with how futile your efforts to resist him are. Musical choices are also excellent, with the series’ (and genre’s) signature radio stations letting you kill aliens while listening to 80s pop, classical music, old school rap, reggae, or 90s rock. It also makes hilarious and ironic use of Aerosmith’s most cloying and saccharine ballad, blaring through the screen while you cling to a nuclear missile to stop it from hitting Washington. You know which song I mean.

A co-op multiplayer mode lets you work with other players online for both regular action and special cooperative events that require two players. At the time of this writing, I was unable to access the online features, but the mode should be similar to the co-op modes in previous Saints Row games.

The Beatification of Saints Row
Saints Row IV never takes itself seriously, and that lets it really work as the sort of catch-all super-powered playground Volition intended it to be. It doesn’t ever reach the tension or emotional weight of Saints Row 2 despite the stakes being several magnitudes higher, but that’s fine. It’s a blast to run around a virtual city with a whole toybox full of super powers and weapons, trying out different challenges and unlocking more and more options. It doesn’t ever try to be deep in story or mechanics (despite the several different customization and upgrade menus), and focuses entirely on letting you wreak havoc. While Rockstar Games has been steadily stepping up in making its sandbox crime games more mature, dramatic, and deep, Volition has reveled in making Saints Row IV as goofy, crazy, and blindly enjoyable as possible. And it really works.

On paper, Saints Row IV is easily one of the dumbest games I’ve played, with a story that sounds like something a fourteen year old would come up with after you give him a case of Red Bull and a stack of the dumbest movies from the 90s. It’s also mindlessly, stupidly fun with everyone involved from the developers to the voice actors clearly having a blast making it. I fought alongside Keith David while dressed like Rowdy Roddy Piper, threw bobble-headed mascots into walls with my mind, shot aliens with Robocop’s guns, and jumped between buildings like I was the Tick. For all of that, Saints Row IV is easily an Editors’ Choice.

Specifications
Genre Action Games
Platform PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating M for Mature

Verdict
Saints Row IV is a mindless, stupid playground of destruction with no artistic value but loads of entertainment value.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc