The first Saints Row game was released in 2006, at the beginning of this console generation while gamers were eagerly awaiting the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, which wasn’t to come for another two years. It performed pretty well, and its subsequent sequels have been even more popular. With each passing game the series has become increasingly crazy and removed from reality, in contrast to Grand Theft Auto which has in its more recent instalments been more grounded in realism and story than they used to be. Saint’s Row then has become the more ‘fun’ series, letting developer Deep Silver basically go nuts.
Saints Row IV is a follow up to Saints Row the Third, and features most of the same characters and is built on the same engine, so will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played its predecessor. In fact, the majority of the game started out as a standalone expansion to Saints 3 which was eventually cancelled and redeveloped as a full game in its own right.
In each game of the series, you play as the un-named Boss of the Saints, who has taken them from being a small street gang to celebrities and superstars, all the while still continuing to be incredibly violent and fighting rival gangs.
Saints 4 picks up shortly after the end of Saints 3, with the Saints hunting down that game’s villain Cyrus, the leader of S.T.A.G. Now completely off his rocker, Cyrus is in the process of launching a nuclear missile to.. somehow stop the Saints. I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely clear on exactly why this was. This culminates in an incredibly heroic disarming of the missile in mid flight (to Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’) while all your allies are giving tearful recollections of how awesome you are for sacrificing yourself to save the world. Which of course, you don’t and as soon as the missile is disarmed you end up crash landing in the Oval Office of the White House which somehow makes you the President of the United Sates because why not?
Several years later, you’re on your way to a press conference in the renamed White Crib when out of nowhere Earth is attacked by an alien race called the Zin led by the warlord Zinyak, who kidnaps most of the Saints including the player and proceeds to trap them in a virtual reality construct. Suffice to say, you break loose from this and thanks to your team hackers begin to take over the virtual reality with the goal of eventually beating Zinyak.
And it just gets crazier from there. Once you start taking over the virtual reality you begin unlocking skills and powers, and as reality is no longer an issue this now includes super powers. Soon enough you’re super sprinting around the city and throwing fireballs and gliding about and the game really transforms.
Once you’ve done some levelling up and gained the infinite stamina bar the city really does become your playground and you’ll be super sprinting everywhere, running up and jumping off of buildings and gliding all over the place. The sense of freedom is fantastic, and you can literally go anywhere you can see. Despite being set in the same city, this really makes it feel like a whole new game, as you’ll spend a lot more time in the air and on high buildings than before.
You’ll also gradually free your allies, and you can then meet up with them outside of the construct on your space ship, in a very intentional pastiche of Mass Effect. Here you can take side missions for each ally to gain their loyalty and unlock upgrades and special moves.
These can be a little annoying however, particularly if you’ve already done some of the open world gameplay events that you’ll often have to do on them as you’ll enter the simulation, spend a couple of minutes doing things, and then have to go back to the ship again. And then go do a mission, and then go back to the ship. Again and again. I don’t understand why this was necessary, as the characters talk on the radio all the time anyway so this could have been avoided especially since all of the items and upgrades given to you by the characters are for use in the simulation anyway.
A lot of these side missions return from the previous game, such as the insurance fraud missions though these are amped up with superpowers allowing you to fling yourself all over the city to score points. Some new mission types are designed for use with the super powers, particularly telekinesis. These now have scoring levels of gold silver and bronze, so expect to have to play some a few times if you’re looking to get gold on everything.
Due to how much it is based on the previous game, it looks and controls much the same, particularly at first before you unlock super powers. The engine still looks pretty decent, however much like FarCry 3 Blood Dragon the city is constantly draped in a murky colour. The colour changes as you take over each part of the city, but it never goes back to normality and brightness like things looked in Saints 3. It’s not quite as bad as it was in Blood Dragon, but it still gets a bit visually wearing after a while.
You’re now able to control your radio from the weapon wheel, which is a good thing too as once you have super powers you’ll not often be in a vehicle again unless the mission requires it. The music selection on the radio stations is still superb, however there are significantly fewer stations – the metal station is no more. The Mix, the classics/80’s/rock station is still present and great though, and I was very happy to hear super 80’s cheese Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch’ on there.
The collectables are back as well, and in much greater numbers. As well as audio logs and Zinyak statues to destroy, the main thing to find are data clusters. These take the form of glowing blue things, some open in the world and others that require super powers to release. There are over 1200 of these, and it is incredibly easy to get distracted from whatever you were intending to do and just running about the city picking them up. It was quite common as I was playing through to take over half an hour to get to a location simply due to collecting the data clusters. And just when you’d think you were done with an area and were ready to move on to the next objective, you jump over a building and again see a sea of blue glowing lights, and of course have to go collect them all! I was very much reminded of the Xbox 360 game Crackdown, which similarly littered its city with secret and agility orbs which I spent a ton of time collecting and also had super powers. Unlike Crackdown, Saints Row thankfully has a collectable finder that you can unlock meaning you’ll never get stuck with a single collectable that you just can’t find anywhere – like I did with the last of the agility orbs.
The voiceover cast are still quite strong too. Many return from the previous game as well as some new characters, my favourite being Keith David (who was also in Mass Effect) playing himself as the vice president. The other major standout is J.B. Blanc, who voices Zinyak with a fantastic upper class English accent.
As is standard with the Saints Row games, the script is very funny. This game particularly is quite self-aware and pokes fun at itself and gaming conventions regularly. I’ll not spoil any of the game’s jokes here I’d not want to prevent anyone from having the same enjoyment of them that I did.
It’s worth mentioning that I played through the entire game in co-op, which I think only added to the fun. It did however point out one of the game’s bugs (which I also noticed in Saints 3) where even though both players complete all missions together it sometimes does not correctly credit the client player as having done so correctly. I loaded my save single player and blasted through it as most of the missions were able to quickly skip back to the return to the ship stage, but it’s still quite a bad bug. As the problem still persists in Saints 3 however I doubt this is something that will be fixed in future.
The odd fault aside however, I think that Saints Row IV is hands down the single most fun game I’ve played all year – sure, I’ve played games that are more polished or have a better story but nothing that is just pure fun like this. It’s not a game that takes itself seriously at all, and is all the better for it. I wonder where Deep Silver can take the series from here, if it’s actually possible to top this, and I quite look forward to finding out.
Saints Row IV is out now on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The PC version is current available as part of the Gold tier of AMD’s Never Settle Forever promotion with selected AMD graphics cards.