Of all the over-the-top things about this newest entry in the gleefully ludicrous Saints Row franchise, the most shocking is how literate it is.
Saints Row IV opens with a mangled Jane Austen line, and, like most of the jokes in the game, it isn’t just a throwaway gag. By the end of the story, you’ll see it carried through to an absurd extreme. And four games in, we ought to know that’s exemplary of Volition’s design philosophy. As fellow Saint Shaundi says in the opening sequence: “Subtlety isn’t really our thing.”
When I first previewed Saints Row IV at PAX East, I wondered how Volition could possibly top the absurdity of Saints Row: The Third, a game in which you can belt a bunny mascot across a city block with a giant purple dildo. The answer was simple: superpowers.
In perhaps the best example of ludonarrative harmony in recent memory, the story of Saints Row IV sees your Boss of the Third Street Saints—who has, by the way, become President of the United States—kidnapped, along with his gang, by an invading alien force called the Zin. Not content with merely killing the Saints, Shakespeare-quoting overlord Zinyak (who comes across as sort of a murderous Frasier Crane) places them in a simulated Steelport. By “disrupting the simulation”—i.e., wrecking shit—the Saints can weaken and ultimately defeat Zinyak. So in a very real sense, wreaking all the requisite psychopathic havoc of your typical open-world game amounts to revolution. Narrative justification: achieved! And unlike the similarly-structured Just Cause 2, you don’t even have to feel bad about running over all those innocent pedestrians. They’re only simulations, after all. Moral dilemma: solved!
The Matrix-like conceit of Saints Row IV is fertile ground for Volition’s brand of self-aware humor, and they waste no opportunity to punch the fourth wall in the nuts. The vein of absurdity runs so deep that even the characters acknowledge it. “You know what?” your Boss says early on, as hacker friend Kinzie explains how collecting “data clusters” will help him/her power up, “I’m just gonna accept this and move on.” “Probably better that way,” Kinzie agrees. So when your Boss starts gaining superpowers, including Flash-like speed and Superman-like jumps, you’re already primed to embrace the excess.
But the superpowers aren’t just extended jokes. They make Saints Row IV feel significantly different from its predecessor—more like Crackdown than GTA—although the signature flavor of the Saints Row franchise remains strong. Traversing Steelport is enormous fun because it’s so seamless: Sprint down a highway, leap over a city block, run up the side of a skyscraper and glide a kilometer to your destination without breaking stride. The environment whisks by in a frantic blur, people and objects sucked into your wake. And like the previous game, Saints Row IV gives you a constant drip-feed of progress for nearly every action, in the forms of XP and the simulation’s currency, “cache” (geddit?). There’s also somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 collectibles to hunt for, most of which are the data clusters with which you can upgrade your powers. The variety of activities has grown as well, with hacking, platforming and telekinesis challenges added to variations on the racing, survival, mayhem, carjacking and Professor Genki sequences. And there’s lots of them: I was still discovering new types of activity more than nine hours into my playtime. (Additionally, there are special co-op activities; however, I couldn’t play them for this review, since they will not be available on the PS3 version until launch day.)
The main storyline, such as it is, is a riff on the “assemble your team” plot of Mass Effect 2. Each of your Saints homies has been placed in his/her own personal simulation hell, and your job is to rescue them. (I won’t spoil it, but players familiar with previous Saints Row games will enjoy how Saints Row IV incorporates old elements of the franchise). Completing optional loyalty missions will power them up, and side quests will reward you with increasingly sillier loot, like the dubstep gun and inflato-ray. As in The Matrix, you can exit the simulation into the “real world” of the Saints’ stolen spaceship, where you can talk with and romance (read: have casual sex with) all your homies, male and female, with the exception of Vice President Keith David. (Yes, that Keith David. As himself.) And since the Saints Row franchise still has the best character creation tool in the business, it’s even funnier watching your Boss make out with crewmates when he looks like Blue Man Tobias or Purple Rain-era Prince.
It’s not surprising to see Saints Row IV spoof BioWare romance. The Saints Row games have always had a strong thread of parody. But the thing about parodies is that they get old quick if they’re not enjoyable in their own right. In addition to the BioWare oeuvre, Saints Row IV references franchises like Infamous, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and Crackdown—and outplays each of them at their own game. Each of those titles’ signature mechanics—superpowered combat, scaling buildings, high-speed driving, collecting powerups, third-person gunplay—is smoothly integrated here.
A little gaming literacy goes a long way in getting the most out of Saints Row IV. It manages to riff off of classic games like Metal Gear, Streets of Rage and even the old Atari tank-battle title Combat in clever and endearing ways. Taking a cue from the most unique mission in Saints Row: The Third, the TRON-like pastiche “http://deckers.die,” Saints Row IV pays homage to (and lovingly tweaks) other genres, while adding fun diversions to a game that already feels like nothing but fun diversions.
This is where the game stumbles a bit, perhaps. Most quests amount to simply completing a series of activities that are already marked on the map—the only difference being that one of your homies talks in your ear while you do it, sometimes even commenting on the paper-thin narrative rationale for your actions. The amount of choice—in activities, vehicles, weapons and powers—feels a bit like overkill at times, which I suppose is natural given the series’ design ethic. But it also prizes certain actions above others. There’s little incentive to pilot a helicopter across the map, for example, when you can sprint there much faster. And because you’re doing so much sprinting and gliding, you’re less likely to stop and observe environmental flourishes in Steelport. This makes this game feel a bit more impersonal than its predecessor.
More damaging is the skewed tradeoff between abilities and difficulty. It’s tough to maintain a consistent difficulty curve when the player is given such powerful tools right from the outset. Plus, since you can summon AI homies and vehicles from your pause menu, many battles are easily won. The survival activities (called “virus injections” here) are particularly disappointing, since all you need to do is call in a tank and blast away.
Saints Row IV also makes a compelling case for a new console generation. On my PS3, the game felt like a puppy straining at its leash. On several occasions the framerate chugged to a crawl in the midst of busy firefights, and I experienced three complete freezes. (The game autosaves so frequently that this wasn’t more than an annoyance, though.) Enabling the player to run at super speed and fly across the map necessitates some technical trickery on aging hardware, making weird-looking textures common. Yet they’re rarely bothersome, since the game obviously prioritizes movement. Still, given the enormous challenges presented by giving the player so many (strange) ways to influence the environment, I’m impressed Volition managed to get the thing running at all. Plus, the whole thing’s a simulation, right? So glitches are all part of the program.
Above all, Saints Row IV is incredibly aware that it is a Video Game, capital V, capital G; it explicitly embraces the bizarre, juvenile and often incomprehensible logic of the medium, and revels in it. Here’s a toybox, Volition says, go smash some stuff together. Can do, Boss.
Disclosure: J.P. Grant was asked by Deep Silver representatives to insert the phrase “donkey beer” into this review. He would like Paste readers to know he categorically refused to include this verbiage or variations thereof, including, but not limited to, “mule malt,” “burro brew,” and/or “ass ale.”