‘Saints Row IV’ Is The Most Fun You’ll Have With Superpowers, Ever [Review]
Saints Row IV is probably the best thing that humanity has ever created.
It’s important that we establish that up front, because up until earlier this week, I would’ve given that honor to its predecessor, Saints Row The Third. Now, though, we have set a new high mark for achievement in art, and it’s mostly down to one thing: super-powers. In a time when we’ve got insanely fun games based on comics, like Arkham City or even the LEGO Batman games, I think it says a lot that this is the most fun I’ve ever had in a game where the main selling point was having powers and abilities far beyond mortal men — probably because they’re specifically geared towards blowing things up, in a game where doing that isn’t just rewarded, it’s the entire point.
Before we go any further, I should probably go ahead and admit what you already know from that opening sentence, and that I’ve covered on ComicsAlliance before: I am a huge Saints Row fan. The Third is probably my favorite video game of all time, to the point where I went ahead and bought the super-expensive version of IV that came with a miniature version of the game’s “Dubstep Gun” and a foot-tall light-up rotating display case for the game box. It’s sitting next to me as I type this, rotating majestically, and other than a stripped screw that’s keeping me from putting batteries into the Dubstep Gun, I have no regrets whatsoever about the purchase. Needless to say, my feelings about Saints Row might be slightly more passionate than the average person. The thing is, it could not be more suited to my tastes.
If you’re not familiar with the franchise, Saints Row is, at its heart, an exercise in taking bits and pieces of other games and then dragging them well past their logical extremes. The first game was essentially a Grand Theft Auto knockoff about a struggling street gang, and Saints Row 2 expanded that to duking it out to take over the entire city. That’s also where things started to get weird, picking up the goofier bits of GTA that Rockstar traded in for depressing cinematic realism in GTA IV and giving you mission objectives like stealing radioactive waste so that you can poison an enemy’s tattoo ink, but The Third… that’s where things got amazing. The goal here was taking out an entire international crime cartel led by a luchador, a hacker and Sasha Grey, and since you pretty much knock that out halfway through the game, and only need to fight zombies in one or two missions, the rest of the time is spent battling the government and their slightly off-model S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. In Saints Row IV, you’re the president.
And then aliens invade.
And then you get super-powers.
I know it’s a cliche to say something like “they’re making this game just for me now,” but honestly, I cannot imagine anything more tailored to what I want out of a game than an updated version of Saints Row The Third in which you have super-powers that you use to battle an evil alien overlord who sounds like David Bowie (and who’s voiced by Alfred from the new Batman cartoon!), and that also gives a much bigger role to Kinzie Kensington, and that also is largely based around being a full-on parody of Mass Effect. It’s everything I want. But to be fair, that’s also a slight problem.
The biggest flaw with Saints Row IV is that it’s basically Saints Row The Third. It’s not just that it has the same engine, it’s that the majority of the game takes place in a “virtual prison” that the aliens create that’s the exact same city as the last game, right down to landmarks and shop locations. There are a few differences, of course — alien towers are added here and there, your old safehouses blown up and glitched out of existence — but it’s essentially the same thing with a new coat of paint and a few new enemies to shoot up. For me, that’s not really a problem since all I wanted in this weary world of ours was more of exactly what I got out of The Third, but even I have to admit that it loses that feeling of discovery that you usually get from an open world game and makes everything feel just a little more repetitive. There’s a reason that Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed and Fallout move to new locations every time they do a sequel. Once you’ve thoroughly explored something, it’s hard to be as excited about going back, no matter how much you might’ve loved it the first time.
A lot of the minor stuff is the same, too. Clothing and vehicles are mostly the same stuff that was in SR3, and a lot of the gags are the same, too. There’s even trip to a virtual world (well, another, even more virtual world) that ends in a text adventure game. It’s still funny, but there’s no getting around the fact that they did that joke last time.
That said, the game makes up for not giving you a new setting by doing a lot to change the way you interact with it. I’ve said that SR3 is a video game that knows it’s a video game and behaves accordingly, rewarding you for goofing off and cutting out the filler to give you stuff that would be the last mission of any other franchise for every single mission, but IV takes it a step further by literally dropping your character into a city-sized video game. It plays around with that idea a lot, especially when Kinzie warns you that you’ve destabilized things to the point where enemies become “glitched” versions of regular NPCs, all unnaturally elongated limbs and “frozen” upside-down character models swinging baseball bats at you, which is actually kind of terrifying. The whole point of the game is to find ways to “cheat,” and that’s where the superpowers come in.
More than anything else, SRIV reminds me of what Prototype 2 would be like if Prototype 2 had a sense of humor. The super-speed, super-jump and gliding powers are virtually identical to what you get from that game, right down to the way they look and how they’re upgraded — you even fight against the same kind of “boss” enemies to unlock new twists on your abilities. The thing is, it works. Once again, they’re taking things from another game and adding them to this weird, increasingly ludicrous action movie of a world they’ve created, blending in Prototype‘s powers, throwing you against Gears of War‘s aliens and skewering Mass Effect‘s high drama while still building on their funhouse mirror version of Grand Theft Auto. There’s even a character in your party called CID, just in case you thought they weren’t going to get around to clowning Final Fantasy this time.
And really, it’s not just video games, either. They’ve themed things around sci-fi movies to the point where the whole environment of Zinyak’s Fake Steelport is a massive tribute to They Live (which makes sense, since Keith David is in here playing Keith David), and there are plenty of nods to other bits and pieces of — loath as I am to use the term — “geek culture” sprinkled in there too. They’ve added in the ability to customize weapons by choosing froma few different options, which means you can run around leaping tall buildings and then landing to blow away your enemies with RoboCop’s pistol, Han Solo’s blaster, Deckard’s handgun from Blade Runner, a TOS Phaser or even the guns from Firefly. If that’s not going all out, I don’t know what is.
It’s easy to write it all off as a pop culture mashup, and while it’s certainly that on one level, it’s smart enough to pull it all off in a way that stands on its own. The environment might be the same and a few gags might be returning for an encore appearance, but the wit behind it is as sharp as ever, and the gameplay is just as fun.
If SR3 is the video game that knows it’s a video game, then Saints Row IV is the game that loves video games. And I love Saints Row IV just as much.