Saints Row IV is an experience the series has never seen before. While the core formula of accepting missions from NPCs, completing Diversions, taking territory and causing as much mayhem as possible remains the same, the inclusion of new super powers and abilities elevates the experience to a higher degree of madcap fun. The story of the game’s development is well known, starting out as DLC for Saints Row The Third until Volition determined that a much bigger game was possible. And this is most certainly a big game. Those concerned that Saints Row IV is nothing more than a glorified expansion can put their fears to rest. This is, hands down, the best game in the Saints Row franchise.
Set an indeterminable amount of time after Cyrus Temple was kicked out of Steelport, the Third Street Saints are once again thrust into battle against S.T.A.G. after Cyrus acquires a nuclear rocket and intends to blow up Washington D.C. and blame it on the international celebrity gang. Led by MI-6 agent Asha Odekar, the Boss, Shaundi, Kinzie, Matt Miller and Pierce are able to defeat Cyrus, but not before he launches the weapon. After disarming the nuke in a wonderfully dramatic fashion, the Boss is awarded the prestigious honor of becoming the President of the United States. The leadership is short lived due to an invasion by the Zin Empire, lead by the eloquent and Jane Austen-loving Emperor Zinyak. After the Presidential cabinet and a significant amount of Earth's population are captured, the Boss is thrown into a Matrix-style simulation of Steelport. With the assistance of Kinzie and the Third Street Saints, the Boss begins a campaign to free humanity from the Zin, both in and out of the simulation.
In a great number of ways, Saints Row IV plays quite similarly to Saints Row The Third. You’ll wander around the large city completing story missions, a massive laundry list of Diversions retooled for the new game (Professor Genki returns!), character specific side quests, and upgrade character and Homie abilities all in the name of freeing humans from Zinyak’s rule. Combat continues to entertain with a large assortment of weapons guaranteed to cause as much destruction as possible. The game’s biggest addition is the large suite of upgradeable superpowers that shakes the Saints Row gameplay experience to its very core. Because Steelport is a stand-in for the Matrix, there are rules to the system that can be bent and, thanks to Kinzie, broken. One might think that the ability to run faster than a speeding pimpmobile and jump tall bordellos in a single bound would be enough to break the game. Not so! These powers instead bring the game to a new level of fun and insanity.
Powers make for more enriching and diverse combat scenarios. Why duck behind low walls or move in and out of cover when you can jump ten feet into the air, land on a roof and pick off targets from above? Need to increase the distance between you and a group of foes? Super sprint down the street and lick your wounds before heading back in the fray. Knock enemies down harder than a case of donkey beer with a ground stomp. With these powers, combat becomes a completely opened ended affair. While shooting enemies can be fun on its own, mixing gunfire with Freeze Blast, Telekinesis and Mind Control can result in a great deal of creative brutality. Having these options is especially useful when you max out your Wanted meter, as the Zin are relentless in their attempts at killing you. This means enemies, both on ground and in the air, will constantly spawn until you die, start a mission, kill a Warden or chase after a CID bot to completely erase your wanted state.
If there’s a downside to the implementation of super powers, its that they render vehicles spectacularly pointless, so much so that the fun dips slightly when a mission puts you in the driver’s seat. Powers can be upgraded by collecting Data Clusters scattered throughout every nook, cranny and rooftop in Steelport and it wasn’t long before I succumbed to the Pavlovian desire to collect any and all visible Clusters in my path (even forgoing my current mission objectives to do so), a feeling I haven’t experienced since the original Crackdown.
Creating a game within a virtual Steelport provides a unique and astonishingly well realized visual aesthetic. The city, shrouded in a light red tinge, is given a futuristic facelift. Because the city is a computer simulation, you can’t go very far without seeing elements of the computer software, with bits of code that run underneath wall textures and varying degrees of artifacting on vehicles, NPCs and the game world itself. In one mission the city buildings and NPCs warp and degrade in many different ways and in another, textures are replaced by colored ASCII code. All this is done at the drop of the hat and without any stress on the game’s integrity. It really is an impressive technical feat.
Where the game shines brightest is in the mission design. A virtual setting allows Volition to not concern themselves with developing scenarios confined to a real, if cartoony, world. I want to emphasize that many, MANY, of the mission types you’ll find here represent some of the most inspiring pieces of game design for both the franchise and the open world genre. By the end of the game, Saints Row IV will have served not only as an homage (and potential wrap up) to the entire franchise but also to the last twenty years in gaming. It’s really hard for me to talk about this without citing specific examples, but that would ruin some of the most amazing and ridiculous surprises Saints Row IV is ready to throw at you. One gameplay sequence in particular had me shaking my head in disbelief after playing it. Thinking about it now, I still can’t believe what they managed to do. This wild, wanton creativity extends to the game’s special weapons. Not content to offer players with machine guns, assault rifles and a new Japanese-themed Violator, the Boss’ arsenal adds the Inflato-Ray, Singularity Cannon and the famous Dubstep Gun, a weapon that has given my phone a new ringtone.
Although the game comes with a respectable voice cast, such as Neil Patrick Harris, Keith David, Michael Dorn and the awesome choice of Nolan North as a voice option for the Boss. I’m not here to tell you how you should play the game, but doing so without spending a good portion as Nolan North does the experience an incredible disservice. By going with his voice option, you’ll get a fair degree of exclusive self referential humor along with a performance that transcends anything he’s done in the past. This is very much North unhinged, and he takes the game’s fantastical sense of humor into the stratosphere.
I really enjoyed my time with Saints Row IV, far more than the previous two games. I found its story to be genuinely engrossing as it involves much more than eliminating street gangs and taking out the leader of an international crime syndicate. Saints Row IV is a long game as well, taking me close to fourteen hours to finish (and I still had a large number of side quests and Diversions to complete). I’m already planning on playing through the game again to see what effect a different choice has on the result of one particular mission. With surprises around every corner, Saints Row IV stands head and shoulders above previous games in the series and is a shining jewel in the open world genre.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.