At one point in Saints Row IV, your character, the Boss, tells series veteran Shaundi that it’s been “one helluva ride”, perhaps inadvertently summarising developer Volition’s latest title. What started out as little more than a franchise looking to piggyback on the success of Grand Theft Auto has travelled an awful long way to realise the parody-filled guise that it represents today. And although the Saints’ latest outing often shamelessly borrows gameplay mechanics from numerous other titles, it finally feels like something that it can call its own.
Things start off with your own deeply customisable Boss becoming the president of the United States after thwarting a potentially devastating terrorist attack – and then the Earth is invaded by aliens. It’s certainly an opening that sets the overall tone for the rest of the game, which is equally ridiculous. Each key member of the street-gang-turned-White-House-officials has been locked into their own personal hell – a digital simulation that’s like a never-ending nightmare – by the deliciously devious alien leader Zinyak, and most story missions involve breaking your allies free from their torment.
Conveniently, your own simulation takes place within a digital version of Steelport – almost an exact copy of the city from Saints Row: The Third. When you’re originally thrown into the now oppressively lit sandbox, there’s an undeniable feeling of disappointment. Apart from a few static neon towers that float ominously in the sky, these are the same streets and bridges that you’ve already driven around in the previous game.
However, once you gain access to super powers, Steelport takes on an entirely new guise, where verticality plays a key role when it comes to exploration. Traversal initially takes some getting used to, but soon you’ll be leaping over office blocks, dashing up the sides of sky scrapers, and gliding from one side of the map to another. Because of how fast you can run and how much distance you can cover in just one jump, gameplay adopts a far faster pace than series fans will be used to. No longer will you be speeding from one objective marker to the next in the best sports car that you can lay your hands on – instead, you’ll be hopping from one rooftop to the next with a huge grin on your face.
Indeed, journeying across the nicely sized map is a joyous experience, especially when you’ve upgraded your powers. Like in the previous instalment, you’re given the option of upgrading just about everything that you acquire, from powers and passive abilities, to weapons and vehicles. There’s so much to develop it’s sometimes hard to keep track of, although progression is strictly linear. You can’t, for example, pick between two different options when increasing your favourite gun’s effectiveness – you simply buy better and more expensive upgrades one at a time. It’s a shame that the system doesn’t offer more depth, but the sheer number of investments available ensures that you’ve always got something to spend your well-earned cash on.
You won’t need money when it comes to evolving your powers, though, as they require you to spend certain amounts of collectible clusters to develop. These glowing blue chunks of data are spread across virtual Steelport, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the act of gathering them would be a horribly tedious one, as it is with many other open world games. But because traversal becomes so effortless and enjoyable, snapping up every cluster that you see makes for a painless and even satisfying experience.
As you can imagine, super powers play a substantial role in keeping the game feeling fresh – although they’re perhaps not quite as prevalent as the title’s promotional material would have you believe. While there’s certainly a sense of variety when it comes to the abilities at your disposal, you’ll still need to rely on your weaponry during combat. That’s because powers tend to act as support attacks, giving you windows of opportunity to riddle your foes with bullets.
For example, the simplistic ‘blast’ technique comes in three forms: freeze, which unsurprisingly freezes your targets solid, flame, which sets opponents ablaze, and mind control, which forces affected enemies to fight by your side. Out of these three, flame alone causes noticeable damage, while the other two grant you the perfect opportunity to go on the offensive with a rifle or a baseball bat. Powers, therefore, are best utilised as go-to attacks when you find yourself having to deal with particularly burly adversaries or groups of foes.
That’s not to say that they’re not immensely fun to use, however. Super powers in Saints Row IV do a fantastic job of making you feel gloriously overpowered, especially when you start chaining different attacks together to create an unstoppable onslaught. Imagine being completely outnumbered by alien troops, as reinforcements speed onto the scene in hover cars. You vault into the air, tap left on the directional pad to quickly equip your freeze blast, and rain icy carnage on the unsuspecting foes. You then switch to the ‘stomp’ ability, and come down on the enemy with the force of an atomic bomb, shattering dozens of frozen minions into tiny pieces. Next, you pick up a nearby tank using your telekinesis and hurl it towards the remaining vanguard, brutally crushing the life from them. To finish up, you dash towards the last surviving, cowering alien and perform one of the many brilliantly animated super takedowns upon his grizzled mug. There’s no doubt that the release is at its very best when you’re causing such graceful chaos.
Unfortunately, the potential to cause mayhem is stifled by the introduction of wardens – mini-bosses that appear once your notoriety reaches a certain point. Around the beginning of the game, these large, agile aliens appear to add a welcome challenge to the freeform gameplay. You’ll need to use powers to knock out their shields, then open fire on them until a button-mashing quick time event is triggered, in which you dive inside of their body, causing them to explode. However, the appearance of these brutish adversaries causes all other enemies to vanish, and when you’re eventually strong enough to kill them in a matter of seconds, they soon become a source of great annoyance, particularly when you’re busy causing unadulterated chaos. It wouldn’t be so bad if the monsters scaled in power with the player, but as it stands, they do little more than interrupt gameplay.
Wardens aren’t the only boss-like enemies that you’ll have to face, either. At the end of numerous story missions, you’ll have to take down other super powered opponents, although due to the wide range of offensive tools at your disposal, they never prove to be much of a threat. In fact, it’s relatively difficult to be killed at all during your time with the game, and the lack of challenge may put a few people off. That said, you are playing as a super hero, and the title does a great job of making you feel like one.
At least, when the game feels like it. There are many points throughout the campaign where you're unable to use the powers at your disposal, whether it's due to the fact that you're outside of the simulation, or inside of someone else's. Later on though, when a block is enforced upon your abilities, it begins to grate. Excuses that equate to little more than 'the Zin have hacked our powers' are used far too frequently, and it can start to feel like you're being denied of your enjoyment as a result. Thankfully, things do balance out eventually, as the last few missions see you wreaking total havoc all over the digital reality.
In terms of content, the release is packed full of things to do. The map itself is absolutely covered in various icons, and at first, it’s a daunting sight. Several activities from Saints Row: The Third make a return, such as the brilliant insurance fraud, where you’ll need to ragdoll into vehicles in order to rack up money – and the process is even better this time around since you can leap into the sky and come crashing down into traffic with a tap of a button. New minigames include super human fight clubs that pit you against foes who have access to similar powers within an arena, and races, where you’ll be sprinting through the city against the clock. Medals are awarded based on your performance in each activity, and completionists will be happy to know that you’ll only need to achieve the bronze medal for that particular exercise for it to be considered ‘completed’, although gaining gold can reap special rewards, like bonus passive perks.
The sole activity that doesn't provide necessary respite from the open world insanity is store hacking. If you're looking to pimp out a ride, buy weapons or ammo, get plastic surgery, or kit your character out in new clothes, you'll have to complete an extremely uncharacteristic minigame, where you're tasked with placing different shapes that link together on a grid. Not only is it jarringly boring in contrast with the rest of the game, but it's also timed, and once the counter reaches zero, you'll be locked out and aliens will flock to your position. Thankfully, you're only made to hack once per store – but it's still a puzzle as to how such a rudimentary and tedious mechanic made it into a game that is otherwise bonkers.
If you’re not the type to engage in activities on a whim, the supporting characters offer up plenty of side quests, which act as little more than checklists. You’ll be told to go here, kill them, race this, steal that, but at least they provide a clear-cut structure for those looking to see everything that the game has to offer.
Strangely enough, the structure of the main story is heavily inspired by BioWare’s sci-fi trilogy, specifically Mass Effect 2. Since your allies are all stuck inside their own personal hell, you’ll be recruiting them one by one so that they can return to the real world – which just happens to be on a space ship inhabited by your crew. You can even complete loyalty missions for each Saint, which enables them to unlock their own super powers. To top it all off, you’re able to chat to and romance anyone you choose while on board, which usually leads to some hilariously brief, comical sex scenes that parody the more serious efforts of other games perfectly. Oh, and there’s a suicide mission finale, too.
The main missions mostly take place within the real world, as you retrieve your friends' physical bodies from alien spacecrafts once you’ve broken them free of their simulation. The nightmarish virtual realities themselves are all varied, brilliantly realised, and suitably ridiculous, from Pierce’s anxiety dream of the Saints’ own brand of soft drink turning against him, to Shaundi’s recurring nightmare of seeing Johnny Gat die aboard the Syndicate’s private airplane which featured in the beginning of the previous game. Each mission adds depth to the cast as you learn of their deepest fears, making it hard not to bond with at least one member of your crew.
Without a doubt, the plot of Saints Row IV goes far beyond the poorly paced story of the last title, providing a series of events that are certain to keep you interested, with plenty of suitably stupid twists and turns that spice things up just as you’re beginning to adapt to the flow of things. Sure, there are a few plot holes here and there, but the game’s preposterous premise is usually enough to make you ignore them all together, and ultimately, it’s hard not to get caught up in the madness, especially as the dialogue is well written and typically hilarious throughout.
Visually, the release suffers from the fact that Steelport has been taken directly from the last game, but the neon lights that adorn the streets and buildings change from a menacing red to a calming blue as you take control of the territory, which gives the world a surreal atmosphere. Other strange effects are used, like the pixelation of people and vehicles as if they’re loading or glitching into being, and while it’s sometimes a little jarring to see up close, it cements the feel of the virtual world. Other than that, the draw distance has been improved over the previous title, and you’ll also notice a rather dramatic difference in the amount of traffic and pedestrians rendered on screen at once, resulting in a digital land that feels far more alive than the ‘real’ city that it’s based upon.
Sadly, frame rate problems rear their ugly head when the action gets hectic, and when sprinting at max speed through crowded areas, the title can slow to a crawl. It’s not a game breaking issue as it’s not entirely consistent, but even when gliding over the cityscape, you can sometimes hear the console desperately trying keep up with the stress that the software places upon it, as it reads data from the disc at an alarming rate, meaning that it may be best to grab a digital copy of the release if you’re worried about your system’s health.
Meanwhile, the title’s audio is fantastic. The voice acting is top notch, as is the comedic timing of each performance. The Boss’ voice in particular is masterfully acted, regardless of gender, with big names like Troy Baker, Nolan North, and Laura Bailey putting in superb performances. And of course, who could forget Robin Atkin Downes’ stunning portrayal of a cockney geezer.
The ambient music that changes depending on your current scenario is surprisingly well realised, too, and provides some catchy backbeats to certain missions. Elsewhere, the series continues its tradition of featuring a great licensed soundtrack, which contains a broad spectrum of music from reggae to heavy metal, and includes classics like Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back in Town and Robert Palmer's Simply Irresistible. You can also play tracks wherever you go, thanks to a handy radio switch found below the weapon wheel – potentially transforming even the most mundane activity into a powerful display of epic thanks to Stan Bush’s The Touch.
Saints Row IV does everything in its presidential power to create a sandbox experience that constantly rewards and always surprises – and it succeeds. Despite the reused assets, a few questionable design choices, and the sometimes shaky technical performance, there’s still nothing in gaming quite like mowing down alien scum in a nitrous-charged golf cart, all while blasting Haddaway’s What Is Love from the radio. That’s what makes Saints Row special.