“Saints Row” is a series that has become increasingly less restrained with each new release. I’ve never played the Xbox 360-exclusive original but from what I’ve seen of it it’s a rather sober affair. The second installment had a superb balance between its more serious, dark sections and its goofy ones, and these were combined with fantastic character and outfit customisation, fun and rewarding gameplay and a story that was enjoyable, investing (particularly due to the create-a-character nature of the protagonist) and just generally fun to see play out. The third game was where rather a few people lost a little faith in the series. It was still a good game, but some (myself included) thought that the sillier parts of it were encroaching on the serious aspects, to the game’s detriment. Rather than make a desperate/feeble/half-hearted attempt to re-capture what made the second game so great, Volition instead threw up their hands, yelled “Sod it!” to whoever was within ear shot and leapt off the deep end into the harrowing abyss that is comedic writing in video games, (and perhaps “Comedy games” in general, although that’s a term I’m reticent to use for myself.) so now The Third Street Saints are fighting off an alien invasion using super powers from inside The Matrix. Also, the gang’s leader is now the President of the United States. There are references, jokes and parodies galore, and any semblance of being a serious game about gangsters taking over a city is gone.
After stopping a terrorist attack (and tying up a loose end from “Saints Row The Third” in the process), the leader of The Saints is elevated to the position of POTUS. You don’t get to enjoy your position for long though, as during a press conference a full-scale alien invasion by the “Zin” occurs, with the president, their cabinet and large groups of other humans placed inside a simulation that is The Matrix in all but name, with the bodies of those inside the simulation being trapped in pods in the real world. From there The President breaks the rest of their cabinet out and sets in motion a plan to take down Emperor Zinyak- the Zin’s leader. The story consists largely of rescuing the other main characters from simulations representing their greatest fears and doing various task to weaken Zinyak’s hold and escape the simulation. The rescue missions are where a lot of the parodies come in, and each crew member having a “Mass Effect 2”-esque loyalty mission. Speaking of “Mass Effect”, it’s one of the main things being parodied, with The President’s ship looking very similar to The Normandy, and the romance options boiled down to a single button press. Said romance options can be carried out with the same sex, the opposite sex, everyone on the ship, no one on the ship and everyone in between, which is pretty cool. Inclusive, certainly.
The parodies and references cover everything from weapons lifted from the likes of “Robocop” and “Firefly”, to nods to things like “Watchmen” and full-blown parodies of games like “Metal Gear Solid”. There are also various references to the previous games, with returning cast members being a highlight. The various parodies and jokes are all well-written and genuinely funny- a hard thing to achieve in games, and at times it’s pleasingly reminiscent of “Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon”; another game that did comedic writing well. The story itself is weak as a cohesive whole, but as a serious of humorous, fun set pieces it works well. The one complaint I have is a small one but worth pointing out: I created a character in “Saints Row 2” I’ve taken through three whole games now, and part of me wishes I could take him to a conclusion that was tonally more in line with the second game. Having said that the continuity is good enough to feel like it’s the same character further on down the line, and the conclusion for the character is a good one, even if the conclusion to this individual story isn’t great. It’s not an epic “Metal Gear Solid 4”-style wrap up of all that came before it, but it does bring a sense of closure to the story of The Saints’ leader.
Gameplay wise, it feels very different to the previous games. Gunfights and cars are still a feature, but they’re on the back-burner this time, particularly vehicles. You see, The Saints boss now has Neo-esque super powers, which are represented in two forms; active powers and passive ones. Active are things like a freeze blast and telekinesis while passive include a super jump and super sprint, with gliding and boosting mid-air a la “Prototype”. Prototype is the best comparison for the passive powers, which make travelling around the simulated city of Steelport feel completely different to how it did in “The Third”, to the point where it feels like a completely different game. This is especially good when you consider that it uses the same engine as the previous title, with the same graphics and animations. The city is constantly cloaked in darkness which quickly gets old, but upon completing the game you can change the day/night cycle. Many missions involve a mixture of “activities” (a “Saints Row” staple) and holding off waves of aliens while protecting various machines and other humans, which can quickly get annoying until you upgrade your health, which no longer regenerates. This isn’t a big problem though, as enemies all drop health pick-ups. Having said that, it seems odd that this game, the one essentially set in The Matrix, doesn’t have regenerating health when the others did. One other problem with the combat is that once notoriety is gained during missions it’s hard to lower, regardless of how many waves of increasingly tough aliens you kill. This is particularly annoying on the side quests involving hacking.
Overall, “Saints Row IV” is a drastically different direction for the series. The new superpowers, aliens and even higher stakes than before all make it feel fresh and different enough to warrant a purchase and justify the full-price retail release and the humor is actually rather successful. If you didn’t like “The Third”, I’d suggest doing some thorough research on this one before buying, as it’s moved even further away from the early games’ more serious tone. Similarly if you long for the glory days of “Saints Row 2”, you won’t find them here. It’s not for everyone and the radical changes will definitely rub some people up the wrong way, but I had a good time with it, and it’s one of the most purely fun-focused games I’ve played in a while. I say check it out, at least for a look at a more light-hearted sandbox game before GTA V comes along next month.
By James Lambert
Oh, as shown in the promotional material for the game, there’s a Dubstep gun. As in a gun that literally fires Dubstep. The game offers no context for it, but then, what kind of context could they offer that would cover something like that? It’s very indicative of the game’s success- that something like that can be present in the way it is and be not only useful but fun to use.