Developers: Volition Inc.
Publishers: Deep Silver
The 3rd Street Saints are much more than a bunch of purple-flecked gangbangers these days. In fact, they're running the country, and you, as the Boss, now answer to the name of Mr. President. There are a bunch of familiar faces in your Cabinet -- Keith David is your VP (now playing himself rather than the duplicitous Julius), Kinzie is your Press Secretary, Shaundi is heading up the Secret Service, and Benjamin "muthaf***ing" King is now your Chief of Staff.
And they all get kidnapped by aliens.
If you thought Saints Row: The Third went a little over the top, look away now. Saints Row IV goes bigger, better, and more batshit crazy than ever before. The Earth gets invaded by a race called the Zin, a bunch of extraterrestrials who resemble what the offspring of Mortal Kombat's Baraka and Goro might look like if they ever got it on. Their leader -- Zinyak -- is an egomaniacal Brit (to hear him speak), who finds himself amused at the Saints' tenacity, and isn't adverse to throwing verses of Shakespeare at you whilst bombarding you with waves of goons to demonstrate his superior strength and intellect.
The Zin enslave the human race, beaming them up to God knows where, and incarcerating key humans, such as the President, in individual virtual prisons, not unlike the Matrix. And much like the narrative in the Wachowski brothers' sci-fi opus, the game involves you breaking down the virtual code from the inside, exploiting glitches and corrupting the code of your own simulated dungeon, and gradually turning the red of the Zin into the purple of the Saints.
What that boils down to, of course, is causing havoc with a whole bunch of weird and wonderful weapons and superpowers.
Open-world games, if the space in which they situated themselves is relatively unassuming, often live and die by their traversal systems in particular. Steelport is hardly a game world that will capture the imagination, but thankfully Volition have made getting around in it an absolute joy. The Speed Run and Speed Jump abilities, combined with a Glide that you unlock early on transform this relatively unassuming American city into a skyscraper-stuffed adventure playground. Better yet, leap into any vehicle in the game, tap down on the D-pad, and you can summon that vehicle via your phone (thanks to some hacking work by Kinzie) at any time you so choose. Pinned down by waves of Zin during a "code deletion" mission? Spawn a tank and blast them to smithereens! Want to get the jump on a Flashpoint you've not yet cleared? Have Kinzie beam you into a copy of that UFO you swiped a couple of hours ago and rain down some fiery death.
And this brings me to another plus point in Saints Row IV. There's tonnes to do and everything is connected. The publisher requested that we not show any video footage beyond a certain point in the game "about five hours of gameplay in". It took me fifteen to get there! Not necessarily because I'm a slow gamer, but rather because I kept wandering off to fulfil side missions and complete challenges and play around with my new powers. Everything unlocks something. The majority of the little activities in which you can engage, such as hacking a store to give boost your Cache (I love that pun) accumulation or carjacking a vehicle that represents stolen code, not only will they gift you extra Cache and XP, but they'll often tie into multi-objective optional quests, all of which will reward you with something tangible, be it a new costume, a new power, another fast-travel location, or a shiny new toy. The same goes for the little challenges like superkicking aliens and their vehicles, or Speed Running a certain cumulative distance, or kicking bottom with a specific weapon. Best of all, you can actually see what each challenge unlocks. If there's an item you really want, you can see what you have to do to get it.
Everything's just so much more cohesive in Saints Row IV than its predecessor. All of the side quests tie into the game's narrative. The conceit of bending this virtual world to the Saints' will is masterfully constructed, helping along by deft plotting, outstanding vocal performances, and a script that dials down the hyper-sexualised tone that alienated many in favour of sheer empowerment. Given the virtual construct in which this game takes place, the ridiculously outlandish aspects of the game actually make sense. Without getting too involved in "meta game design", Saints Row IV embraces the fact that this is a game in every single aspect of its being, and the fact that the members of your Cabinet are all imprisoned in their own, markedly different virtual prisons allows Volition to pay homage to this industry's rich and varied history.
This is manifested in a slew of diverse story missions that see you breaking into the simulations of others, and breaking them out. One of the first of these involves a Tron-esque race against time after a cracking homage to Battlezone, followed by a decision-making process that I stared at for three minutes because I couldn't be sure of the impact it might have, and then it turned into a 90-second-long text adventure. And I was laughing the whole time. Volition have done something that very, very few have accomplished in the history of this industry: they've managed to give themselves licence to do whatever the hell they want, and better yet, licence for whatever the hell you as a player want to do, and they've somehow made it fit.
You could be cartwheeling down a freeway and attempting to hurl your body into as much traffic as possible, or flying a witch's broom around enormous alien towers that pulsate and squeal with drum'n'bass when you manage to scale and conquer them, or throwing school buses through glowing neon rings with the power of your mind, or sneaking around in a cardbox to rescue your chums from a prison of their own imagining, or making people explode through the sheer might of dubstep or black holes or mind control. But it all makes sense, and the game continuously reminds you that you're in a simulation, that all of this is far from real. And that actually serves to immerse you further.
The process of reviewing open-world games, particularly if you've got to put a shift in to play through them in time for when the review embargo lifts, can be detrimental. After all, such expansive titles are really there to be enjoyed over a long period of time, and sometimes the weight of the reviewing schedule renders the process imperfect and enjoyment suffers as a result. But not here. I've ploughed nearly twenty-five hours into Saints Row IV over the past few days, and I'm still laughing like a hyena. Steelport might not be the most interesting city -- though the use of striking colours of red and blue and purple to denote the power struggle across the urban landscape is far better executed here -- but the ways in which you can interact with it are riotously fun and engaging. It helps that it feels like a lived in place, and you're never wanting for pedestrians or traffic to react to your anarchic abuses of power. Clusters of code are scattered throughout the city to collect, and you'll need them to boost your powers. There are millions of customisation combinations for your guns, your vehicles, your gangmembers (who'll appear as you begin to take over the city district by district), and of course yourself. Out of the corner of your eye there's always something of interest, something to do.
Saints Row IV might not be the game that the die-hard Saints Row 2 fans have hoped for, but neither is it the bundle of juvenalia that The Third became. Instead, Volition have taken the best of both worlds and forged a fantastically self-aware opus that proves phenomenally engrossing whether you're dipping into it for a quick, cathartic blast after a long day or settling in for a few hours of extended gameplay. It's wonderfully referential and surprisingly refined in its approach to mixing things up, it's frequently funny and provides a challenge consistently even when you fear you're about to become too powerful. But best of all, it's a whole damn heap of fun, whether alone or playing with a friend.
- Everything is better with superpowers
- Story missions are diverse, engaging, and often hilariously referential
- Huge content package, all of which ties into the game's narrative
- Swathes of customisation options
- Loads of things to unlock
- It's really funny
- It's really FUN!
- Some occasionally framerate issues
- The nature of your role as President is rather superficial
The Short Version: So long, summer drought. The Saints are back in town, and they're firing on all cylinders! Volition have built a fantastically cohesive superpowered sandbox stuffed with plenty to do, some outstanding performances, and all of the tools for some outrageous virtual fun. It's the purple-tinted lovechild of Prototype and GTA, but with all of the Saints' own character and charisma . And it's bloomin' brilliant!