Saints Row IV hyped me in a way that few games do. About two weeks before the game came out, I started going nuts waiting to play it. The next several days featured several failed game sessions as I couldn’t sate my desire for the game I most wanted to play. I didn’t end up getting much done in those two weeks for this reason. On the night of its release, I eagerly sat up until it unlocked on Steam and played for several hours before collapsing in bed. The next two days were packed with nothing but Saints Row IV, as I couldn’t bring myself to play or do anything else until I had absorbed everything. It’s safe to say that Saints Row IV is a true successor to the strengths, and occasionally weaknesses, of Saints Row the Third.
The story of Saints Row IV builds on the events of Saints Row the Third, featuring many of the same characters and the same city, albeit in a different manner. After a bit of a head-scratching opening, the Boss of the Saints becomes the next President of the United States. Keeping with the absurd tone of the previous game, this new position of power leads to radical changes in the White House and to governmental procedures to better suit the style of the Saints. Everything goes well until aliens begin taking over, kidnap the various members of your cabinet, and lock you away in a digital version of the previous game’s city. This gives Volition the chance to make non-stop Matrix references mixed in with the brand of humor that everyone loved in Saints Row the Third. Saints Row IV is just as crazy and hilarious as the previous game–maybe even more so at times. Keith David is in the game, not as a character but as himself. The jokes hit a few of the same notes, but they always hit harder and funnier. A few segments in particular are just as must-see as those infamous sections from the Third like the Deckers Must Die mission. You should really play Saints Row IV if you’re at all interested in these moments, because they have more punch when you experience them completely out of the blue.
It may be surprising for both new players and fans of the Saints Row franchise just how many small references are made to previous games in the series. While the story most directly builds off Saints Row the Third–enough so that it is recommended to play that before this–there are a surprising number of references to both Saints Row and Saints Row 2, especially when you consider that the previous game featured absolutely none of these. For those who haven’t played those early games, going back to get a better handle on the references made here isn’t necessary but can be interesting to see if you have the patience to deal with the rougher design found in those older games. Still, these constant reminders of where the series originated are an intriguing touch for those fans of the series who have been there from the beginning, and they provide some thought-provoking insights into how the series has changed over the years.
Unlike Saints Row the Third, which seemed to focus its story mainly on the absurd plot itself, Saints Row IV is concerned with better getting to know the characters that make up your gang. Through the mission where you rescue the individual character and his or her loyalty mission which opens up later on, you get a deeper sense of that character’s history and struggles. As an example, Shaundi is a character who is always angry and frustrated with everyone since Johnny Gat’s death in the Third. Through her missions, you are able to learn why she has those issues and help her get over them. There are also audio logs for all the characters as well, giving personal insights into the individual through his or her own voice. These are particularly well-done and quite telling at times. While the character building may be a bit thin when compared to a game like Mass Effect, these moments still packed a surprising amount of emotion and meaning into characters that were always likeable but never really that deep. The effectiveness of this character exploration varies from character to character, with a few duds, but the new focus makes for a stronger story overall, one that isn’t yet another “fight three gangs” story like all the other Saints games.
To succinctly sum up Saints Row IV’s gameplay, one can say Saints Row the Third with superpowers. Many of the systems from the previous game–such as unlocking upgrades through respect levels, taking over parts of the city for constant money supply, and even several of the side mission types–are identical. The feel of the shooting and the driving (although you won’t be driving anymore) are just as they were in the Third. The superpowers may seem like a minor change overall, but they really enhanced my enjoyment of the gameplay. In particular, the traversal powers are so easy to use and so unbelievably fast that I just enjoyed running around the city for no reason. Well, there actually is a good reason to do so; clusters, orbs of data (not unlike orbs from Crackdown), are scattered EVERYWHERE around the city and are the currency to upgrade your powers. Upgrading the traversal powers so you can glide, eliminate stamina cost for anything, and run faster than cars makes for an immensely entertaining experience, better than Crackdown or any other open world game of its type ever felt (with the possible exception of Infamous). After experiencing the freedom that the movement powers bring, I don’t know if I could ever go back to previous Saints Row games–or any other open-world game, for that matter.
Of course, there are powers suited for combat as well. These powers replace the grenades from previous games, but the first power, Blast, is essentially a direct substitute for them. Each combat power can be slotted with various elements, such as fire and ice for Blast, that are unlocked over the course of the game. I don’t think these powers are as funl as the traversal powers overall; in fact, I opted to ignore them and instead blast most enemies in the head with my upgraded pistols instead. Most of the weapons from previous entries in the Saints Row series return, with a few additions. The new guns seem to be mostly focused on jokes, like the Dubstep Gun or the Abduction Gun, and are quite powerful but not at all necessary. I went through the game mostly using the dual .45 pistols, my gun of choice, and never had any trouble mowing down every enemy I encountered. The more powerful enemies, however, require use of a combat power to down their shields and open them up for damage. These powers can also be quite useful for groups of enemies, but steady aim and a quick trigger finger with about any gun can get you out of these situations just as smoothly. Overall, I would say that the combat feels about on-par with Saints Row the Third: perfectly enjoyable but not really the main appeal.
I feel like I can’t write a review for Saints Row IV without talking about the music. The couple of scripted licensed-music moments from Saints Row the Third were fantastic, and they make their glorious return in Saints Row IV. Whoever at Volition is picking the tracks for these moments absolutely nails the mix of absurdity and perfection in pairing the song to the scene in question for maximum hilarity. Spoiling these moments here would be criminal, but I can say they are some of the funniest parts of the game. It’s also worth mentioning that you now have access to the radio whenever you want, even outside of a car. You can have pumping techno beats or classical music playing over your firefights or when flying around the city, adding another layer of ridiculousness to the whole experience. The tracklist may be a bit sparser this time around, but the songs choices are smart and cater well to their individual stations.
The Saints Row the Third engine is quite old at this point, and it seems to show its age in Saints Row IV. Easily the biggest problem I had on my playthrough was the scripting errors. On several occasions, and even multiple times on one particular mission, I had the game refuse to move forward with an event, due to an AI ally not performing their actions or an enemy I needed to kill to progress refusing to spawn. This meant I was forced to restart the mission from the nearest checkpoint, an inconvenience which also revealed how poorly some of the checkpoint placing was. The reusing of Steelport as the city is also a bit of a disappointment. Having the new traversal powers does at least mean you get to see the city from a new angle, which I think helps to ease the repetition a bit. Also, several of the story missions take place in uniquely crafted areas to mix things up and keep things interesting. Another small bummer is that there are far less in-engine cutscenes with your character. One of my favorite things to do in Saints Row the Third, particularly on subsequent playthroughs, was to dress my character up in ridiculous outfits and laugh my way through the cutscenes. Saints Row IV does a lot of its storytelling in-game, meaning you don’t get those funny cutscene moments. It’s a small, nitpicky thing to mention, but it did bother me a little. All of these problems add up to an overall minor level of annoyance that hampered my enjoyment occasionally but was never enough to ruin the blast I was having the rest of the time.
Saints Row IV may feel a bit dated in areas, due to its rather old engine, but I had a blast playing through it. In fact, I would say it’s the most fun I’ve had with a game this year. Although the traversal powers may seem like a minor change, they eliminate the tedium of most open-world games by making travel from point A to point B fast and fun. No other game of this type had me still wanting to run around the world after I’d cleared everything out, including the side-missions. Story-wise, Saints Row IV is a memorable mix of ludicrous humor and shockingly deep character development that resonated with me in a way I wasn’t expecting. This game made me realize just how much I like the characters and the world of the Saints universe and makes me sad to think the next game is going to be a reboot instead. It may not be the most technically competent game, and some of the directions Volition took are a bit strange, but it doesn’t really matter. Saints Row IV is a still a remarkably captivating and utterly enjoyable game that you may have trouble putting down.