Summary Judgment: Saints Row IV
I have a long and amicable relationship with the Saints Row series. While I didn’t play the first one (not a bad thing, from what I hear) I’ve done multiple playthroughs of both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third. The games taught me what it was that I’d really been getting from Grand Theft Auto all along: a free open sandbox to completely goof around in and go crazy.
There’s been an escalation in that since Saints Row 2. With each new game, the series goes more and more off the rails, and in Saints Row IV we’ve blasted off into space, leaving the rails behind and obliterating them with an orbital death ray. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier. Saints Row IV is a solidification of everything I really loved about the series, with some more insanity thrown on top in superpowered fashion to make the freedom the game provides truly ascendant. However, it isn’t without costs.
THE FLAWED DIAMOND
Saints Row IV is the only destination for the journey that started in SR2. Once we got ahold of the third game and saw the direction we were going in, there was nowhere to go but up on the crazy scale, and the fourth game in the series provides the player with virtually endless opportunities to unleash havoc, with the superpowers your character gains in the simulation granting the best urban superpowered freeroamer since Spiderman 2. Jumping through the world, gliding around and getting clusters to increase the potency of abilities, meandering from diversion to diversion, all of it is just pure distilled fun pumped right into your eyeballs.
So what’s the problem, then?
The problem is in execution and, sadly, bugginess. The gameplay that is there is great, but it’s been marred for me by a constant struggle with glitches; we’ve had to restart countless missions because of triggers not firing or someone crashing to desktop in the middle of the mission. Every time I’m really, really getting into a groove and loving the game, it decides to throw something at me that’s not functioning properly or it breaks a mission and I get sour on the whole experience. On top of that, the progression of the game’s story content falls into the same problem as Saints Row: The Third. There’s too much emphasis in the story missions on filling up time by breadcrumbing the player around to tutorials for various diversions and activities instead of unique missions. Much like the previous game, a large amount of story missions are devoted to simply teaching you how to play the game outside of the story. There’s even a particular mission near the end where the game literally admits that the mission you’ve been assigned is just padding out the hour count. It’s pretty funny, but still, it shines a spotlight on the game’s pacing issues and the stretches of sidequests you’re forced to do in between the missions that matter.
But when those missions come, they’re brilliant. Every one of the primary story missions revolving around rescuing a crew member or the loyalty missions afterward are hilarious, unique, and purely fun in a way that resonates with the rest of the gameplay of the series. One of my co-op partner’s mantras in the experience was “I would play a whole game of this” when we were dropped into a special gameplay mode for a mission. There’s a lot of really great, hilarious stuff there, and the game’s switches into mini-games or alternate gameplay modes for them are seamless and effective. None of the extra special gameplay modes feel tacked on or clumsy, and they’re fun enough that when they show up as diversions later on, we’re glad to revisit them.
ONCE A SAINT, ALWAYS A SAINT
The game’s other shining point is its writing. I expected there to be a lot of hilarious antics and over the top comedy action, but what I didn’t expect was so much emphasis on character development and reconciliation of inconsistencies with the previous games in the series. There’s a huge emphasis on the individual members of your crew; between their rescues and their loyalty missions, you get a very clear picture of every character’s personality, history, and motivations, and on top of that, there are audio logs for each one spread throughout the game world that provide additional context.
Even the original Saints Row is given the full treatment, as its events are heavily referenced throughout the story and brought to reconciliation with the insanity of the later games in the series. It really ties the games together in a way none of the previous entries managed (or even tried) to do, and it surprised the hell out of me that Volition put so much effort into the characters this time around. Things like the sudden shift in Shaundi’s behavior between the second and third games, the absence of characters like Benjamin King after the first game, and even the player character changing from a silent to talking protagonist between Saints Row and Saints Row 2 really drive home the game as a coherent series for the first time. As someone who didn’t play the first game, the context I was given by all of these backstory references was really helpful in tying together the story, and I can’t commend them enough for how entertaining and likeable they’ve made the cast.
ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
Beyond that, the game owes most of what makes the normal trappings of the series work to its predecessor. There are a lot of comments on the internet referring to the game as “Saints Row 3.5” due to a heavy similarity in the engine and the re-use of the same Steelport we conquered in the third game. I think this is an exaggeration; the powers and the incredible amount of crazy sci-fi assets and environments that were created outside the city itself give the game enough to stand on its own merits, but there’s no denying that the game is heavily dependent on Saints Row: The Third. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (reusing the same city, for instance, really puts your new powers in perspective), it creates an almost tangible feeling of disconnect or shifting when switching from say, powers to guns.
There isn’t a huge amount of smoothness when it comes to the merging of old and new gameplay concepts, and so the game can feel a bit disjointed at times when you transition, especially before you have a lot of pure combat powers and have to awkwardly switch from running around at 100mph to plinking with a pistol. The other thing that I have to point is how terrible the gun switching interface is; it inexplicably blots out the entire screen whenever you switch weapons, leaving you extremely vulnerable and blind. There was a very unobtrusive and clean weapon switch interface in the third game, and I have no idea why they dropped it in favor of this jarring and blinding full-screen weapon wheel.
But in the end, Saints Row IV is the logical progression of the series’ gameplay and it retains much of what made the old games great while nonetheless making advancements in a wild new direction. While it is marred by technical issues and some really questionable interface changes, the game’s writing, fun factor, and general ability to make literally whoever you want and not be in any way inhibited in terms of sexuality, gender, or body type. Whoever you are, you’re the hero in Saints Row IV. And what a, uh, special kind of hero you are. Saints Row IV is worth the flaws.
Saints Row IV is available on Steam, as well as the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.