The Saints Row series has evolved over the years from something that was more than a little bit similar to Grand Theft Auto, into something offering the craziest, funniest and best open-world adventures this console generation has to offer. If Saints Row: The Third threw the open-world video game rulebook out of the window of a moving car, then Saints Row IV has tied it to a rocket, blasted it into space and then exploded it to reveal a giant hand with the middle finger firmly pointed skywards. However, with a game that appears to give you everything from the moment the gameplay starts (you begin as the President of the United States), how have Volition managed to keep things interesting and engrossing? Furthermore, has the transition from THQ to Deep Silver been as smooth as we were led to believe?
What do you do if you’re the most powerful person in the world when the world gets invaded by an alien race hell bent on conquering you? Probably something a lot more logical than if you also happen to be the leader of the 3rd Street Saints. Saints Row IV starts as Zinyak, and the rest of the Zin Empire, attempts to take over the Earth. As the President of the United States, you’re one of the only people in the world who’s ready to put up a very direct fight. Eventually, you find yourself inside one of Zinyak’s simulations, a prison of the mind that attempts to recreate each individual’s personal hell and forces them to live in there for an eternity. Over the course of the story, you’ll rescue the rest of your crew from their own personal mind-prisons, help to turn each of them into superheroes, and then take the fight back to Zinyak to pay him back for what he did to you and the rest of the planet. It’s not the greatest story in the world, and all of the twists and turns are visible from space, but that doesn’t take anything away from the overall enjoyment, as it’s the comedic delivery of the story – rather than the story itself – that will keep you playing all the way through to the end.
The visuals are one of the few aspects that let Saints Row IV down. The developers haven’t been shy about the fact that it runs on exactly the same engine as the last game - no additions, no tweaks, nothing. For the most part, this is fine, and it won’t stop most people enjoying the game, but a few little changes would have been enough to set it apart, perhaps making it look more like the sequel that it is and not just a glorified expansion pack.
As mentioned, most of the gameplay takes place inside one of Zinyak’s simulations, which essentially means that you’re playing a video game inside a video game (which explains all of the super powers, etc). In order to make it look like you’re inside a simulation, almost everything in the world will flash with pixellation from time to time. It makes sense to do this, keeping the fact that you’re in a virtual world right in the forefront of your mind, but it does get more and more annoying the more you spend in the digitised world. On top of that, there are several moments where the characters and cars of the world act in ways that you’d expect to see in the various ‘Video Game Fail’ videos all over YouTube. You’ll walk down a street to see a character with a long neck, eyes bigger than their heads, or even driving a totally upside-down car. These aren’t bugs or problems with the game, this is all intentional to make you remember that you’re inside a simulation, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get irritating from time to time.
The sound design in a video game is hugely important, especially when the game is story driven (even if the story isn’t meant to be taken too seriously) and, to that end, Saints Row IV does really quite well. During the character creation process there are a vast variety of voice types to choose from, even Nolan North – yes, you read that right – and each of the voices have their own little nuances. For example, after choosing the British voice for my own character, I noticed that he would say things that only a British person would say. This added to my own personal investment in my character, as hearing him say things that were clearly written by an American, that no Brit would ever utter, would have taken me straight out of the gameplay experience without hesitation. The Saints Row series has also regularly featured Keith David, one of the most talented voice actors in the industry, and just having him on the cast increases the quality of the vocals tenfold.
The other aspect to the sound design in any video game, especially in open-world games, is the music. Saints Row IV leans heavily on the use of Dubstep, a musical genre that’s not to everyone’s tastes; however, the use of it is often so tongue-in-cheek (I’m sure that you’ve all seen the Dubstep Gun by now) that it’s almost forgiveable. Should the use of Dubstep get too much for you, you can always choose to listen to one of the variety of radio stations on offer – whether or not you’re currently in a car – so there’s always going to be something to float your boat, whether you’re completing missions or just running around the city for the hell of it.
If you’ve played a Saints Row game before, then you’ve got an idea about what you’re getting yourself into with Saints Row IV, but only a small part. Instead of playing like every other open-world game ever made, this latest instalment can most closely be compared to the likes of the very first Crackdown. Before you’ve gotten more than a couple of hours into the game, you’ll be jumping and running up the sides of buildings, gliding across half of the city in a single leap and punching the enemy clean across the world – and that’s after only a couple of hours.
Where Crackdown had you upgrade your character and only made you massively powerful towards the end, Saints Row IV gives you almost everything within the first couple of hours and then just asks you to have fun with it. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for you to upgrade though, as the system to increase the effectiveness of each power in your repertoire is absolutely massive. Some powers you’ll get access to through simply levelling up, while others you’ll have to unlock by completing certain challenges.
There are three main aspects to Saints Row IV: the main story missions that you’ll complete in order to reach the end of the game; the side-missions, to upgrade your crew into their superhero counterpart, unlock weapons and unlock abilities; and the open-world activities, of which there are hundreds to get lost in. You can spend your time hacking open the various shops in the world so you can buy stuff from them, taking part in the various races, the series’ staple insurance fraud and more, or you could just run around for hours collecting Clusters (small collectables that allow you use to purchase upgrades for your special powers). Saints Row IV makes it its job to ensure that you’re having the most fun possible whatever you’re doing – and it absolutely succeeds.
Saints Row IV is by no means a short game. Sure, the main quest could probably be completed in the standard 8 – 10 hours, but if you truly want to see everything on offer, collecting all of the Clusters, Text Adventure pieces, super powers and more, then you’ll easily spend upwards of 22 – 25 hours in the virtual version of Steelport. It’s so easy to get lost for hours, doing something as relatively menial as collecting Clusters (imagine how addictive the collection of Agility Orbs was in the first Crackdown and you’re about halfway there) that you’ll probably find yourself, more than once, looking at the clock and wondering where the last five hours of your life went. Saints Row IV had you, and you were loving it.
VERDICT: It’s been mentioned before in various different places, but Saints Row IV is a game that absolutely does not care what people think about it. It pokes fun at itself, it pokes fun at the genre and when something doesn’t quite make sense, it gets in your face and asks just what you’re going to do about it? The answer is nothing. Saints Row IV is one of the most enjoyable games you’ll likely ever play, and while the story makes little to no sense, it’s not really supposed to. You’re playing games to have fun, and Saints Row IV does everything it can to make you remember that. A lot of us will have watched parody films (Airplane!, Hot Shots, National Lampoons, etc) and scoffed at the stories they’re trying to tell – well, Saints Row IV is the same, just in video game form. You’ll want to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, you’ll want to laugh at the cheesy story and character designs, but, most importantly, you’ll just want to laugh.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.