Saints Row IV review: It’s everything you want, and nothing you don’t
Saints Row IV
The first hour of Saints Row IV is more exciting, funny, and enthusiastic than the climax of most games. There is no gentle ramp up to the action: Shit gets serious, and then silly, and then sillier, and by then the game is throwing things at you so quickly that it’s hard to keep up.
I kept waiting for some lull in the action, or a dead zone that made me want to walk away, or some flaw that would lessen my enjoyment of the game. It never came. My average session was around six hours, and I only quit because my body physically gave up.
The altar of fun
It’s rare to play a game that is so intent on pleasing the player. All the bullshit has been stripped away, leaving only the good bits. The story is pure nonsense, and it takes about 30 minutes to become the President, and then in ten more minutes you’re fighting off an alien invasion, and then you’re shooting the police in an attempt to break out of a Matrix-style virtual reality set in a exaggerated Leave it To Beaver-style world.
The game takes place inside a computer simulation in fact, so Volition was free to throw every wild idea they had at the player. You’re given the ability to jump a few stories straight up early in the game, and you’ll soon be flying, inFamous-style, around the city. If Crackdown is Ethan Hawk, Saints Row IV is Denzel Washington, showing the rookie what’s up by forcing him to smoke PCP. Remember collecting agility orbs in Crackdown? Finding all the “clusters” around the digital version of Saints Row 4's city to upgrade your super hero abilities is just as fun.
The game is fully aware that it’s stealing all its good ideas from other games and movies, but who cares? The value of self-awareness is that you can sometimes tap on the fourth wall and wink at the player, just to make sure they’re enjoying themselves. Saints Row IV throws so many references, jokes, and overt criticisms about other pop culture touchstones at the player that it can be hard to keep up.
On the other hand, it's clear that the team behind the game loves everything they're making fun of, so the game never feels means or judgmental. It's an oddly warm, welcoming experience.
None of this should work, but somehow the whole mess comes together in a way that feels cohesive and right, even though most of the fat was skinned off the previous Saints Row titles. You now heal by picking up health symbols that fall from slain enemies, giving you a reason to charge into combat. Aggression means survival, and that’s a welcome change from being overwhelmed by enemies in the last game.
You can also “save” cars into your inventory and spawn them at any point. So if you find a motorcycle you like, you need only hold the “n” key to lock it in, and you can get one whenever you like. Why wait to see your favorite vehicle, just give yourself whatever you want.
The game is constantly throwing characters, vehicles, upgrades, and cash at you, and almost everything is customizable. You can make your character look as silly or as serious as you’d like, and the options for male and female characters of any race or size is refreshing. It’s hard to stop yourself from shopping for new clothes, body paint, piercings, or other silly things. You can customize your cars, you can upgrade the weapons, you can upgrade your powers and abilities. I played through the majority of the game in co-op with a friend, and it often felt like we were playing dolls, complete with fantasy vehicles and guns.
I’m not that interested in talking about specific scenes or things that stood out about the game; in an ideal world most of it should be a surprise to the player. There are cameos by real and imaginary celebrities that are delightful in their absurdity.
The game even changes genres at time as you invade the minds of people you’re trying to save from the simulation and, while the mechanics of these sections can often feel a bit half-baked, they don’t get in the way of their own joke. If you find a section isn’t to your liking, just give it a few minutes. Something different is on its way.
Let’s try to find some bad stuff here…. I miss grenades. The grenades are gone, and that kind of sucks. Okay, moving on.
Playing co-op allows you and a friend to simply play, which is something that is oddly rare in gaming. You can split up, steal vehicles, continue the story, or simply enjoy the act of finding clusters and clearing out the map. There is always something to do, so you're often just off in the world, talking to each other, leveling up your character. While there is a story, and that story is a whole bunch of fun to clear, using the simulation like a playground is almost as enjoyable.
The game is filled with amazing moments, from the introduction, to the arguments about fan fiction, to singing along with a friend in the car, to the myriad minigames and side-quests the game throws at you. It's irreverent, silly, and above all entertaining. The team at Volition threw in everything that makes sense, and quite a few things that don't, into the game, and it all came together into a beautiful mess of joy. You'll deal with a few bugs here and there, welcome to open-world gaming, but nothing that will stop your enjoyment of what's going on.
My advice? Max out your rocket launcher early, and only wear tight dresses if you're a guy. The ones that flap in the back leave you basically staring at taint every time you begin to fly.
Are you not entertained?