I’ve given Saints Row games unfair dismissal in the past – the first appeared as yet another Grand Theft Auto clone; all I knew of the second was that it involved shooting faeces from a truck; and the in-your-face humour of the third didn’t appeal to me at the time. With these preconceptions in mind at PAX Aus earlier this year, I waited in line for a good half hour to play the latest and most controversial instalment of the series for a mere five minutes. Twice. All I can recall from that brief encounter with Saints Row IV in July was constantly using the Dubstep Gun and Black Hole Launcher, because why do anything else? I was nervous this dumb fun wouldn’t spill over into the full game experience, but soon enough my worries were put to rest. This game is some damn good dumb fun.
The 3rd Street Saints are now in the White House, when suddenly aliens strike. Soon enough The Protagonist is inside what is essentially the Matrix, trying to break free to save their crew by killing things, in hope of taking out Zinyak, captor and alien commander. You shouldn’t worry over working out how we got from situation A to B, because the game rarely does. The main campaign doesn’t consist of much more depth than I’ve just mentioned two sentences ago, which would earn for most titles a frowny-face sticker. For Saints Row, though, I think that’s a little unfair, given that Volition and Deep Silver are absolutely aware of what they want the game to be and they nail it spot on. The plot is crap, yes, but it’s meant to be. The characters are comically one-dimensional for the most part, and any hint of character development is used foremost as a joke. The audio log collectibles (of which there are three per character) are very awkwardly serious and mostly devoid of humour unlike the rest of the game, but provide the deepest insight into the actual characters’ personalities, especially for someone who hasn’t played the previous Saints Row games. I know, sue me.
In fact there is a load of throwbacks to previous instalments, with many characters *forced to face their worst nightmares* (those are cliché-asterisks) mostly involving whatever crap has happened earlier in the series. Paying attention to the story of SRIV feels like watching a flashback episode of an unknown sitcom, with particular characters so loved or loathed by the protagonist though the player knows nothing about them – “So I guess I’m supposed to hate that guy there? Oh, he’s dead already? Alright…”
So the plot and character-depth are admissibly crud, so why is this not a piss-poor review? I realised SRIV is a great game when I had to press pause and take a second to decipher my feelings; the amount of fun I was having was incomparably simple, genuine and wholesome than any game I’ve played this year. I recently replayed Dishonored (great game), which provides fun through the satisfaction of pulling off a particular string of moves or smashing in skulls, but SRIV just is fun; sheer, unadulterated fun. Using the aforementioned ridiculous weapons (also the Abduction Gun and Tentacle Bat, among others) in conjunction with pretty standard super powers (super-stomp, freeze-blast, telekinesis) to a soundtrack as diverse as… well, as possible. Though you can choose to play particular radio stations that play (for example) contemporary indie punk such as FIDLAR and Neon Trees or classic tracks including The Safety Dance, Insane in the Brain and What is Love?, you can also mix and match your choice of 109 tracks into a kick-ass alien-killing mixtape of awesome. Which I did. This is all contributes to a ridiculous level of fast-paced action that is inexplicably fun.
The choice of music ties in perfectly with scripted events for maximum lols, namely when What is Love? plays amidst a spaceship flight and when I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing accompanies a climb up a deployed nuke on its way through the atmosphere in the title sequence. This awkward humour is exactly what I didn’t expect from SRIV but is consistently and perfectly nailed throughout the twenty hours of gameplay I milked from it. Even in character creation I caught myself laughing out loud when seeing the voice selections labelled as: Male 1, Male 2, Male 3, Female 1, Female 2, Female 3, and Nolan North. There really is no choice, and though Nolan voices just about every male video game character under the sun, I think he’s earned the right to voice my SRIV protagonist too; even though it’s a girl. On a related note, I love that the writers included the lines “I’m just an actor!” and “That’s how Nolan rolls!” for him to read out. This is a prime example of the total lack of a fourth wall in SRIV.
It’s hard to tell sometimes whether SRIV is parodying typical video game tropes or is guilty of committing them, namely the very-brown-military-shooter-inspired opening tutorial and persistently and disappointingly present quick time events. More obvious instances of fun-poking are pulled off well with clever writing and pacing, such as the totally-not-related to Metal Gear stealth mission in which The Protagonist reluctantly hides under a cardboard box to silently assassinate enemies; “curse my short attention span!” An entire mission dedicated to a sidescroller beat ‘em up feels tedious for me, but I’ve never been a fan of that gameplay style so hey, sue me. Again. The emphasis placed on using the in-game phone is absolutely unwarranted as each mechanic it enables is made redundant for various reasons. You can call in homies to help you out in battle, but the difficulty never gets to a point where assistance is necessary. You can call in a new ride to teleport into, but hey, this thing called superhuman speed has made any vehicle absolutely useless. You can call up a notoriety hack (i.e. the remove wanted level button), but where’s the fun in that? The only reason I ever acknowledged the phone was for completion’s sake – gotta get me those ‘chievements, foo’.
The gameplay of Saints Row IV becomes undeniably repetitive, but through completing every side-mission and the main campaign itself I never felt like I was being forced to grind to achieve anything (except for that “play for 40 hours” achievement – it’s simple enough to leave my xbox running overnight, though…), with enough variety to keep each mini-game fresh, or at least short enough to not use up too much of your time. With (for the most part) spot-on humour and a ridiculous amount of pure fun, this latest addition to the Saints Row series has done its’ predecessors proud. Even if it is never convincingly deep or moving, but then again, just doing the series proud, I guess.
Also, to Deep Silver – Keith David’s Dead Island plug cracked me up like no man’s business, nice one.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Saints Row IV by One to Another on behalf of Deep Silver.
Also, since the almighty Matt is a little pre-occupied at the moment, the header image here is a dismal mimicry of his usual format. Please excuse that.