Saints Row IV, much like its predecessor, is a game that doesn't make any excuses for itself. It knows exactly what it is and just how much it caters to the lowest common denominator. And you know what? It straight up loves it. It relishes it. And I love Saints Row IV for it.
If I told you that you were a street gang leader turned president of the United States turned Matrix prisoner by a technologically-advanced race of aliens, your ears might (rightfully) perk up. And that's just the table setting.
Virtual Steelport — the prison world created by Zinyak, the leader of the Zin alien race — is an open world built for you to take down. Seriously, the majority of your role in the game is to "disrupt the system" which, fortunately for the adrenaline junkies among us, basically involves demolishing everything and everyone.
But while most of your time is spent stomping around Steelport like a joyful toddler playing Godzilla with a LEGO city, there's actually some storyline progress underneath SRIV's charming brand of dildo-covered humour and violent tendencies.
The developers at Volition decided they didn't have to sacrifice story for all the reckless, vapid fun you get to have. You'll still set out on missions to regroup with your crew, and each time you'll be thrown into different, absurd, almost nightmarish (but in a funny way) situations where your superpowers are even taken from you. Each one of these missions is a personal experience, filled with the typical banter you'd expect tossed in with memories of people and events from SR3. SRIV remembers everything that's made the franchise as over-the-top as it's become and it builds on that.
It's a self-aware story, aware that there are many loopholes but aware that you don't need a solid, brick-built plot in order to enjoy this video game for what it is. It makes no apologies because it has plenty to offer. It's not pretending or trying to be anything it isn't.
The point to Saints Row isn't to have a complex narrative. It's to create personal challenges like seeing how much damage you can get away with before getting killed. It's to flip off your enemies before you kill them and to wear revealing outfits (that you'd never wear in real life) so you can show off your tats, like the giant "BOOM" in comic-book font on your leg. It's to crack jokes and listen to music and plot revenge against those who wronged you. And in Saints Row IV, it's to liberate virtual Steelport and vindicate the human race. It's to enjoy flying around while throwing fireballs and occasionally getting into a tank or a mech to launch rockets at things and sometimes nowhere in particular. It's to make hard decisions as president, like whether or not to punch a dickhead in the face or punch him in the dick. It's whatever you want it to be.
Like any good open-world game, SRIV has tons of activities that will be familiar to anyone who has played the previous Saints Row title. Activities like — one of my favourites — throwing yourself against cars and buildings to rake up fraudulent insurance money.
But then there are activities that take advantage of your newfound superpowers. Like: the missions where you use telekinesis to lift and smash things until you cause enough damage on the city to earn bronze, silver, gold medals. Or: using your super-speed to complete a race through the city under a certain time limit. Completing these kind of activities screws with the programming in the system, and hopefully, eventually, shatters it.
These activities are embedded into the game's side quests rather than included as simple bonus mini-games. And while on the one hand that gives you an easy incentive to completing them, on the other it makes the side quests they're attached to, oh, just a little redundant.
On the surface these side quests all have different end goals, but they're actually just a random set of missions picked from a handful of activities and wrapped in a different packaging. There's rarely any variation, and it can sometimes burn you out, especially if you're planning on bingeing the game at all.
Saints Row knows what it's doing to you, too. At some point, when one of the characters is sending you on your umpteenth mission to survive waves of attacks while you inject a virus into the system he'll say, "I know you've done this virus injection before but it's really good character development." It's funny and self-aware, but he has a point. Ultimately I didn't much mind being put through the same paces because he's right, it is good character development. It's good for you to build your powers and earn cache (SR's version of cash) to spend on weapon upgrades. And it's a good opportunity for you to invite your crew along to spend time together (and level up) while you fend off aliens and cops.
Being a superpowered president feels exactly as gratifying as it sounds like it would feel.
But the best superpowers in SRIV are the first ones you get: the ability to jump to ludicrous heights and run faster than a car. Open world games set in cities are usually all about the vehicles, including Saints Row: The Third. You pick the nicest-looking, fastest, most tricked-out car you can get. And then you spend money to make it even better.
In SRIV you've got an even more effective method of transportation to spend time upgrading: yourself. The freedom of being able to scale the city and glide straight through it while exploring might forever turn me off of all other modes of transportation in sandbox games. There's just nothing quite like it. I spent a lot of my time in Steelport floating in the sky above it, swooping down like a hawk when something caught my eye. A data cluster (the things that let you upgrade your powers)? I'm homing in. An audio log? Dropping down for that, too. Exploration is fun in most games that give you a reason to do it. But after feeling the level of control I have in SRIV, I'm not sure it won't start to feel like it's a chore in games that don't let me fly. I mean, check it out:
And just when you think, "Oh this is going to be the point in the game where it takes forever to level up to any sense of 'extreme' power"...bam. You're already an overpowered god, demolishing everything in sight. Even just running around at high speeds causes destruction. Nothing can stop you.
Since I played the Commander-in-Chief edition, I got my hands on what quickly became my favourite weapon: the 'Merica gun. It shoots rockets and has a flamethrower in addition to the minigun. It's awesome. I usually can't see anything that's in front of my face what with all the bullets and flames projecting out of this massive weapon, but I know I'm killing stuff. This isn't a spray-and-pray scenario. It's a spray-and-you-will-for-sure-kill things one. Here's a taste:
You get a similar feeling with any of the superpowers. It's a little cheap, sure. But, again, Saints Row IV doesn't care if you think it's cheap. "You love being cheap," it rubs in my face, "Don't you?" And I respond, "Yes. Give me more opportunities to be cheap, please and thank you." Then I saunter off to upgrade all my weapons to infinite ammo while nodding my head in approving satisfaction.
That's not to say that there aren't challenges. The final boss fight is chunky and requires a lot of juggling. It's a fairly long sequence in relation to the other battles you will have faced up to that point. Though, admittedly, I rarely died in my entire time with Saints Row IV. The game makes me feel powerful and it wants me to enjoy my time in being powerful. The challenge is really more a matter of keeping up with the chaos, because there is rarely a dull moment in Saints Row IV. Or you can, you know, up the difficulty if you feel like dying a little more.
When it's not cheap fun SRIV is throwing at you, it's cute jabs at other games. This is a bit of a franchise specialty. But while SR3 sort of tosses in the kitchen sink of things that call back to typical video game tropes and themes, SRIV manages to do it a little more artfully. An artisanal sink, if you will. They feel more like real homages alongside those cutesy references and fun parodies.
So here's a game that let's you do all the fun things you'd want to do in a hostile world where you've got superpowers, and it takes every opportunity to remind you about all the little things you love and have loved about games. It's basically the most video game game I've played in some time, whatever that means.
Being stuck in a Matrix-like world opens up a lot of creative possibilities. You'll wander dream-like levels and explore manifestations of things that are all at once odd and funny and slightly creepy. Developers and gamers like to joke around by saying, "It's not a bug, it's a feature," a knowing poke at compensating for mistakes and accidents that sometimes end up being enjoyable for the gamer anyway.
Glitches in SRIV (or at least the intended, designed ones) are literally "it's not a bug, it's a feature." When you're manipulating the virtual world you're imprisoned in, you'll see it reflected back at you in the form of walking deformations. Sometimes they're gangly, necromorph-looking AI. Sometimes they have bug eyes. But they're always terrifying and funny. See the video above.
Saints Row IV has a (somewhat) deeper side, too, though.
Video games with truly believable friendships and natural character dynamics are all I need to fall in love with them. Saints Row IV likes to poke fun at it, but Mass Effect was a series that knew how to do this well (as did Dragon Age and BioWare games in general). Your companions would idly chat in between battle, giving you the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level and see how they interact with one another. Same deal in SRIV. Your crew members in Saints Row IV have a lot of history together. Those experiences and that connection really come through when you see them interact.
During any battle-based mission, I'd invite two characters along for this very purpose. But it's really your personal connection to the characters that brings the family of street-gangsters-made-government-executives together. Even the crude exchanges that count for romantic encounters between your crewmates are charming in their chemistry. These are friends with shady pasts and embarrassing secrets, all of which you know about. Friends that have your back while still being able to tease each other.
Of course, no video game is perfect. Especially not the one that crashes/bugs out on you enough to make you restart a total of EIGHT combined times. Half of these experiences in my time with the game were complete crashes, usually on opening the menu. The other half were mission bugs that halted my progress, forcing me to restart.
Here are my unedited notes, for hilarity's sake, so you can see the progression of my patience with these bugs and crashes. I think I hit at least several stages of grief, transitioning from simple note-taking/keeping track to getting utterly pissed to sad acceptance:
"Glitched out three times causing me to restart. Make that four. Two freezes. Two glitches in a mission that made me restart it. MAKE THAT FIVE ANOTHER FUCKING MENU FREEZE. ugh 6. Mission freeze. Ha, 7. Uh I believe that was 8..."
I never lost my place by much, so it was really more of a nuisance than a game-breaking bug/crash. But in general, too, Saints Row IV has a few messy patches. Audio often skips out or doesn't align with the action. NPCs mouths don't move in cutscenes when they're supposed to.
I can forgive SRIV its grievances because, ultimately, I don't care what the game has me doing — racing, destroying, hijacking, hacking for the thousandth time. As long as I can customise my character to my heart's desire, shoot my overpowered guns to infinity, and make things explode with my superpowers while bonding with my eclectic crew of badass friends in worlds that could only exist in a Saints Row-branded Matrix, I'll take your bugs and your repetition. I just want to fly and make things explode. And that's what I did. Over and over again.