A quick note: there have been reports in some reviews that the PC and PS3 versions of “Saints Row IV” are offering a more stable framerate and overall experience to the Xbox 360 version. I haven’t checked those out, but I’d recommend giving those versions a try when you make you decide to make your “Saints Row IV” purchase.
“Saints Row IV” explodes the concept of street gang-turned global brand-turned Presidential administration the Third Street Saints both literally and figuratively, a meta beyond meta game that’s as much about the franchise as it is skewering other games. Packed with inventive setpieces, clever writing, and powers–oh, the superpowers. But this smart-dumb game (or dumb smart, depending on your opinion of the Saints) has some third-person shooter problems and overall performance issues that threaten to derail the experience.
After taken down a nuclear threat in the game’s opening sequence, your nameless boss of the Third Street Saints gains the love and adoration of the American people, winning the Presidency of the United States, bringing in the gang as his/her cabinet with star of film and screen Keith David joining your administration as Vice President. But this peace is relatively short-lived, as the galactic conquerors of the Zin Army, led by Emperor Zinyak, descend on Earth and begin kidnapping its people, placing you and your homies in a “Matrix”-like virtual reality.
Although steeped in a healthy number of references to film, television, and (oddly) 90’s R&B, ultimately, your investment in the “Saints Row” franchise will really determine to what extent you enjoy “IV.” It’s almost like a summation of the series–given the VR conceit, it allows Volition to revisit sequences and (dead) characters from past games as your player character attempts to free them from the simulation. The writing is a mix of character-based comedy for each of the Saints: trapped in simulations which reflect their own personal hells, you get to find out a little more about each character as Volition uses a kitchen sink approach to encounters which I’ll avoid spoiling here but again–they’re largely referential and the writing never avoids an opportunity to point out the reference in a way that’s so eye-rolling it ends up being funny again. It’s like that with a lot of the writing in “Saints Row IV”: just when you think they’ve stretched a gag as far as it will go, it snaps back into place with its own awareness of its own goofiness.
You get the feeling that if there were never another game made in the series, “IV” would make a fitting sendoff, occupying a space somewhere between reverence and exhausting fan service for a series that’s long since tossed off the shackles of being a “GTA” clone. If anything, “IV” shows how rote the open world formula can be and instead of muddling through with another gang vs. gang, goofy true crime scenario, it instead blows things up with superpowers.
And it’s this twist to the existing formula that allows “Saints Row IV” its big innovation: simulation-breaking abilities for your nameless hero, who–though the course of the 20 or so campaign–will gain the ability to leap tall buildings, lob fireballs, and run at several times the speed of any vehicle in the game. Conceptually, it’s as though Volition looked at a debug version of one of the previous “Saints Row” titles and wondered what it would be like to allow players to break the game world.
The collection of abilities offers ways to “break” the previous “Saints Row” experiences, and unless it’s required by a mission, you’ll rarely find yourself driving a car or any of the other vehicles in the game. Traversal is now handled by massive, upgradeable leaps and gliding, and when you’re not mixing it up with the terrestrial and alien arsenals, you’ll be freezing foes or flinging them around using telekinesis.
I wasn’t fond of the garish-but-still-vague Steelport in “Saints Row the Third,” but Volition has made the city of the simulation one worth visiting. The world glitches and pixelates as your explore it, while monstrous, malformed character models make up some of the targets you’ll have to hunt down in diversions.
And the diversions: this is where “Saints Row IV” starts to feel a little underbaked. That 20 hour play time is padded out significantly by main missions that have the feel of side missions, requiring you to play some of the slightly longer than minigame missions in order to progress through the relatively brief story. Side missions are a mix of loyalty tasks that break this mold and even more diversions (hacking shops and opening up parts of the city, foot races, all under the guise of further breaking Zinyak’s simulation), but after the third time playing one of the arena combat missions, I’d had enough. Virtual Steelport also offers hundred of collectibles including character upgrading nodes and Zinyak statues strewn throughout the city. Good look finding them all.
As for the combat itself: again, Volition has created an impressive array of abilities, but some encounters are a battle with the camera and controls of “Saints Row IV.” In particular, the Warden bosses move a little faster than you’ll actually be able to orient your targeting reticule (which curiously goes away when you’re in flight), and a controller setup might not be the optimal way to play the game.
Some technical issues also mar the overall experience on the Xbox 360, including inconsistent framerate, character audio and VO which occasionally drops out, and one crash which resulted in my having to restart the final mission. Outside of that particular bug, the overall experience was stable on the 360, just a suboptimal. As of this writing, Volition and publisher Deep Silver have released a Day One patch which may mitigate some of these issues.
Whichever version of the game you play, “Saints Row IV” offers an endless barrage of charm and goofy humor celebrating the franchise and outdoes some open world superhero games like “Prototype” in the scale of your character’s abilities. Even if it’s kind of painted the series into a corner should another installment come around, it’s a big, bold experiment with the franchise.
Score: 8 out of 10
“Saints Row IV” is available now for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
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