[Ed. note: Bumping our review from last week, as the game is available in stores today.]
When I finished Saints Row: The Third in 2011, I left the experience feeling somewhat sad. It was a good game, but it felt shallow, held back, and ultimately a little disappointing.
When I finished Saints Row IV in 2013, I left the experience feeling incredibly sad. This time, however, it was for very different reasons. I was genuinely depressed to see the credits roll, because Saints Row IV, in contrast to its predecessor, had given me so much to fall in love with, reaching its conclusion could only ever end in disappointment.
It is with a bittersweet heart, then, that I declare Saints Row IV perhaps one of the best open world sandbox games you could ever hope to play, and practically a culmination of everything the genre's worked toward this generation.
Is that an exaggerated, hyperbolic, perhaps even pompous statement? Maybe so ... but does a series like Saints Row deserve anything less?
Saints Row IV (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Publisher: Deep Silver
Released: August 20, 2013 (NA), August 23, 2013 (EU)
I was laughing out loud with actual noises emanating from my mouth within the first ten minutes of Saints Row IV, and the laughter rarely eased up for the rest of the adventure. Comedy in videogames is a tough nut to crack, but the loving parody, hyper-violent slapstick, and sheer audacity of Volition's latest makes it look effortless. Not only that, it tells an engrossing and surprisingly coherent story on top of all the silliness.
In a plot that proudly steals from The Matrix, They Live, and a bevy of other pop culture fixtures, Earth finds itself under attack by aliens, because of course it does. Though much has been made of The Saints taking the American Presidency, there's no actual time to enjoy running the country, as the Zin Empire kidnaps most of the cabinet and places our antihero -- the puckish rogue known predominantly as The Boss -- into a virtual reality designed and ruled by the deliciously affable Emperor Zinyak.
The Boss must break free of the simulation, rescue his or her crew from their own virtual Hells, and eventually strike back at the Zin. Full of constant surprises, gameplay switches that subvert expectations, and some cracking one-liners, Saints Row IV brings back the kind of satisfyingly deranged narrative that made Saints Row II so wonderful. Unlike The Third, there's a sense of pacing, structure, and conclusion that offsets the overall wackiness. It is aberration tempered with intelligence, something the series needed to return to.
Without that crucial sense of chaotic organization, the sheer level of ridiculousness in IV would risk running out of control. Placing players in a virtual Steelport has given Volition the excuse to truly push the boat out this time, leaning on the Matrix references to turn the Boss from hardy sociopath to full-on superhero. Enjoying a range of fresh powers drip-fed by story missions, the Boss gains access to super sprinting, super jumping, freeze blasts, fireballs, and more, with ideas liberally reaped from games such as Crackdown, inFAMOUS and Prototype.
Rather than simply rip off other games, however, Volition has carefully cherry-picked and refined the very best ideas from the leading sandbox games on the market -- the criminal freedom of Grand Theft Auto, the wall-running and super speed of Prototype, the energetic powers of inFAMOUS, the explorative collection quests of Crackdown, and Saints Row's characteristic nonsense have been beautifully distilled and mixed to create the ultimate tribute to everything open world games have been this generation.
Of course, Volition's not just lifted ideas from other games. A range of new abilities and weapons are on offer, from a ground stomp that shrinks surrounding people, to a gun that fires black holes, and the power to call down alien abduction beams from the sky, there's a ton of demented toys to play with. Telekinesis, mind control, a dubstep gun, giant mech suits, freeze blasts, electrified bullets, inflato-rays -- suffice it to say, there's a ton to use, and almost all of it can be upgraded and augmented.
As well the main story missions, all of which are fantastically varied and regularly make affectionate fun of other videogames and genres, each member of the Saints has specialized Loyalty missions, there are loads of activities and collectibles to find, and a whole host of extra challenges. New activities include a riff on the old Fight Club challenges (this time using super powers), Genki Bowl (in which you throw people, cars, and Genki items through floating rings), and special races through the simulation's virtual systems. Of course, classics like Insurance Fraud and vehicle thefts have been retained.
There are no rival gangs to fight with for control of the city, but the Zin influence over Virtual Steelport is there to be undermined by disrupting the system in various ways. Flashpoints can be cleared of alien guards, Zin towers can be climbed and conquered, Viruses can be injected by enduring wave-based enemy assaults, and stores can be hacked for access and extra money (drolly referred to as "Cache" in this particular game).
Describing everything you can do in detail would take forever and more words than most of you are prepared to read, but suffice it to say that while The Third felt a little shortchanged, IV lavishes content upon the player with wanton abandon. More importantly, it provides this content in stages, with a fantastic sense of build that keeps the player consistently invested and eager to discover the next wonderful toy. It doesn't simply start at the extreme end of "balls out" with nowhere further to go.
The game admittedly does begin with explosions and silliness, but by focusing on variety rather than simply scale, IV doesn't suffer from trying to continually top its own ludicrousness. The result is a game that's confident in itself, that doesn't seem like it's desperately trying to live up to its reputation as a "crazy" experience. It is a game that, despite being about aliens and superpowered virtual realities, sticks to a certain twisted sensibility, and ultimately is a better game for it.
Many of the story missions take place outside of the Steelport simulation, allowing Volition to experiment with fresh types of gameplay and a linear structure that provides a better environment for storytelling and humor. You'll get to engage in a funny Metal Gear Solid pastiche, bring ruin to a 1950s paradise, and even get some beat 'em action going on. Saints Row IV plays many different tunes, and it plays them all with a shocking level of competence.
Everything feels so much more dense this time around, and the cocktail of activities means things never feel too repetitive, even when performing the same activities. Rewards for completing sidequests and obtaining collectibles are generally excellent and worthy of the effort, meaning it can be hours of enthralling distraction before one even gets to the first main story mission.
Saints Row IV addresses many of my gripes with The Third, but a few lingering niggles remain in the woodwork. I still miss the pure villainy of the Boss as found in Saints Row II, since players continue taking on the role of a less morally corrupt antihero. The old gang dynamic has been totally discarded, and while the Zin make for interesting opponents, they lack the variety seen with such enemies as The Brotherhood and Ronin. A new annoying enemy type also puts in an appearance -- shielded Wardens, which need to be blasted with a superpower before they take bullet damage, and they hop and jump everywhere for maximum irritation.
These really are minor gripes in the face of all that IV gets right, however. While we'll never get the old Boss back, Emperor Zinyak is truly delightful as the Saints' new foil (just wait until he sings). Though the Zin are rather uniform in appearance, story missions often take players to entirely different worlds and even finds an excuse to resurrect some of the old Steelport and Stilwater gangs (albeit temporarily). While the Wardens are a pain in the ass, at least they don't appear frequently.
Despite returning to a replica of Steelport, the new aesthetic makes it feel like a totally new environment. Walls shimmer and pedestrians glitch out, the sky is an oppressive red in Zinyak territory and a calming blue in a Saint-controlled hood. Signs urging citizens to OBEY are littered throughout the city in a nod to that oh-so classic Roddy Piper movie. Sometimes the shimmering feels a little too much, but overall the game does a damn fine job of making Steelport feel fresher than it is, especially now that you can leap and glide from its digital rooftops. The new weapons all look and sound wonderful when in use, with some lovely explosive effects.
The game's soundtrack really hits the mark, though. Vehicles are practically useless this time around, so the radio can be played at all times, meaning Stan Bush's "The Touch" is liable to play wherever you go, making even the tiniest of actions feel like the most badass and celebratory of achievements. Some absolute belters are included on the radio stations this time around -- from Haddaway, to Thin Lizzy, to Aerosmith. Sometimes the game takes over the music for its own purposes, and does so to tremendous effect. Volition's exploitation of pop culture for cheap (but effective) laughs is bloody masterful.
IV's voice talent is just as good, too. All the voice actors for the Boss put in a solid performance (especially the obligatory "cockney" one), while the likes of Matt Miller, Shaundi, Kinzie, Pierce, and Jonny Gat are as amusing and pleasant as ever. J.B Blanc, however, smoothly steals the show as the suave Zinyak -- both charming and completely deserving of a vicious comeuppance.
Saints Row IV is, from start to finish, a pleasure. It's a pure pleasure to play. I was cynical, given my feeling let down by The Third, but Volition has worked hard to address almost everything wrong with its last outing, and provide something that delivers over and above expectations. What I love most about IV is how it puts the player first -- absolutely every new feature and ability gifted to the player seems designed purely to make the game more convenient to enjoy, and more fun to play.
And this is why I felt sad when the final credits rolled ...
Cause even when I dream of you,
The sweetest dream will never do,
I'd still miss you babe,
And I don't want to miss a thing.
Don't want to close my eyes,
I don't want to fall asleep,
And I don't want to miss a thing.