Saints Row is a series that has slowly risen in popularity. Originally starting life as a thinly disguised Grand Theft Auto knock-off, it has fully grown into something complimenting the hallmark series replacing cynical realism and dark satire with stylized surreality and ostentatious parody. Saints Row 4, which has been advertised as the final adventure for the 3rd Street Saints, has finally broken away from Grand Theft Auto comparisons all together, making the leap from crime sandbox to superpowered adventure. The result is a game that may not be exactly what the box art advertises, but still something worth your time.
The game starts with the player-created leader of the 3rd Street Saints, referred to only as The Boss, bored of taking over the cities of Steelport and Stillwater and decides to change the image of the gang from criminal celebrities to national heroes. After foiling a terrorist plot involving the launch of a nuclear missile in an opening mission blatantly parodying the Call of Duty franchise, The Boss uses this act as the basis of a campaign to become President of the United States. Five years later during The Boss’ Administration, the White House is attacked by an alien menace lead by Emperor Zinyak, devastating both The Boss and the Gang. Dropped into a virtual simulation of Steelport controlled by the space tyrant, The President must break free, rescue the Saints, defeat Zinyak and save the human race.
Chances are if you haven’t stopped reading, you have accepted the plot of Saints Row 4 as being as blatantly silly and weird as it sounds. That’s good because it only gets more ridiculous from here. The gritty gang violence tone of the previous games has been completely replaced by an atmosphere of a cheesy sci-fi story mixed with lots and lots of B-movie spoof. The game manages to parody the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Streets of Rage while also having various callbacks and references to big movies like The Matrix and They Live. When you have a radio station where the villain reads Jane Austen and Keith David plays himself, it’s pretty clear you aren’t going to expect Citizen Kane. It goes a long way to making this installment of the series very distinct despite it using the exact same city from the last installment.
Also, there are superpowers. Since the city of Steelport you are running around in is just a massive computer simulation created by the alien overlords, you are able to hack the code and give yourself superhuman abilities. Superhuman speed, leaping hundreds of feet in the air, telekinesis, fireballs, power stomps, etc. are all dripfed to you throughout the story and are immensely satisfying. Being able to body slam an alien soldier at breakneck speed never loses its appeal, and lighting the rest of his buddies on fire is just icing on the cake. Unfortunately this does lead to the side effect of the act of stealing and upgrading cars and planes feel trivial. It can still be done but don’t be surprised if you decide to just Superman yourself to your destination instead.
The difficulty curve is no slouch either. Saint’s Row The Third had some major shortcomings when it came to its own difficulty and challenge. Despite the story becoming more and more escalated with more and more over-the-top mayhem being piled on to the point of meaninglessness, the actual gameplay never really changed except for the addition of more explosions. It would have been an easy misstep for Volition to make this installment feel like more Saints Row The Third but with God Mode on. But they didn’t. The Zin Empire’s alien enforcers are challenging in both numbers and in enemy types. Even with superpowers, I found myself dying several times against their forces. You’re not given everything you need within the first hours either. In order to upgrade your powers, you need to collect Data Clusters scattered throughout the map, and you have to complete side missions and special activities to upgrade your current weapons and unlock the more exotic powerhouses like the advertised Dubstep Gun or the entertaining Inflato-Ray. In other words, this is the best kind of sandbox that rewards you for messing around as well as finishing the story missions.
Speaking of the story, the narrative also manages to maintain challenge and coherence with a healthy dose of solid writing. Since a fair amount of story missions take place outside of the Steelport simulation, superpowers aren’t on hand for every single battle, which helps keep the various gun fights and set pieces to a proper scale. It manages all of this, and still packs a great sense of humor to boot. One particular gag which feels like a spoof of the Mass Effect series involves the ability to talk to any of your homies outside of the simulation, embark on Loyalty Missions and Romance any of them (except Keith David, I tried) regardless of your version of The Boss’ appearance or gender. It’s a great piece of interactive inclusivity, and it’s also funny to just ask for a make-out session out of the blue and see what happens. A lot of Saints Row 4′s best jokes are intertwined with its major set pieces, so to explain them would be to spoil the story, but thanks to the mix of good writing and appropriate challenge it all comes together to create something funny and engaging.
Fidelity-wise Saint’s Row 4 is indistinguishable from its prequel. Aside from a change in art aesthetic to fit the new sci-fi tone, the game is running on the same engine as its predecessor. Still, the game is well optimized, boasting a consistent framerate even when things get visually busy or fast. There is also a quirk where the city’s textures will shimmer and pop or the character models will act odd or be distorted. It’s a constant reminder that the city is just an illusion and it manages to occur often enough to be a fun background gag but not so much to become distracting.
Saints Row 4 has a great selection of songs for its radio stations. Mixing together a great selection of genres like Heavy Metal, 80s and 90s Pop, Classical, Rap, R&B, and of course the new kid on the block known as Dubstep. The voice-acting is also endearing, with honorable mention to JB Blanc’s performance of Emperor Zinyak which manages to hit a great mix of intimidating and condescending regality.
It’s fantastic that gaming has changed so radically in terms of narrative and design. What was once thought as childish and frivolous is now capable to telling mature and emotional stories and that is something I do not want to see stop. At the same time, it’s healthy to remember that games are also made just to have some silly stupid fun. Saints Row 4 manages this flawlessly with its brazen nature and determination to be as nuts as it can be while also delivering on an engaging experience. Sure, the gameplay will feel closer to Crackdown or InFamous than Grand Theft Auto, but in the end that’s a good thing. The Story mode will range about 8-10 hours depending on how you upgrade your character, and there are at least thirty more hours worth in side missions and minigames.
As easy as it is to write off Saints Row 4 as a pretender to GTA’s crown, doing so would cheat you out of a genuinely entertaining experience. This installment of the Saints’ antics is funny, unrestrained, and quite a thrill to play. If this is going to be the end of the Saints story, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to end it.
AAG SCORE: 8.5/10
- Addicting Sandbox Time Sink
- Funny Story and Solid Videogame Parody
- Challenging Gameplay
- Sci Fi Tone May Feel Like False Advertising
- Not Much Added to the Character Creator
- Keith David Won’t Respond To My Advances