It has been a long, hard road for the fourth title in Volition’s Saints Row series. Granted, the last release came two years ago, but what a turbulent two years it has been. The fall of THQ had many of us worried that the series might not survive the inevitable transitions that accompanied the collapse of one of gaming’s biggest publishing houses. Between the uncertainty of the IP’s future thanks to a new company head who seemed to question the direction of the series and the inevitable closure of the developer’s parent company, things didn’t look promising at many times.
Thankfully, Volition was purchased by the ever-evolving Koch Media and Deep Silver, who seem on the fast track to become one of the industry’s elite publishing and development houses. After Koch obtained Volition back in January, one of the first priorities was to put Saints Row IV on the fast-track for release. Now that the game is here, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they should have kept it in the over a little longer for no other reason than to put a good coat of polish on the experience.
If you are a fan of the original three games and their patented sense of humor, you have a general idea of what to expect in IV. It’s rude, it’s crude, and it can be fun as hell whether you are trudging your way through the incredibly lengthy campaign or just messing around in Steelport (both alone and with friends). The thing is, things have changed a bit this time around, even though it might not seem so at first. As John and I touched on in our previews of the Xbox 360 and PC versions
of the game a few weeks back, Volition is doing a lot to freshen up series with a lot of alterations to the now-classic formula. Overall, I find them all to be welcome additions to the series, but it comes at a price which we will discuss shortly.
In terms of the good: all Saints fans know that the franchise has evolved over the years. What was once best summarized as GTA with a wicked sense of humor, walked a very fine line for a long time. It was as competent of a GTA clone as any on the market, but at the same time it also provided comical relief unlike any other game out there. Over the second and third entries, that line walking slowly transitioned into somewhat of an identity crisis struggling to move away from the over-the-top, gangster culture prevalent early on to focus a little more on the humorous aspects, but it couldn’t quite let the thuggish roots go completely. That isn’t an issue here; Saints Row IV completely relinquishes the last little hold it had on trying to be resemble Rockstar’s staple series in any and fully embraces itself as the best the best comedy / parody game in the industry. There are so many references and nods to not only other games, but movies and pop culture throughout this game that it stands alone atop the parody genre. This is officially to video games what the National Lampoon series once was to movies: the perfect display of an industry willing and able to laugh at itself.
The end result if definitely for the better. The sole focus here is to make you laugh and it does that plenty of times with references and similarities that never end. You’ll see bits of the Matrix, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, GTA, Gears of War, among others. It almost becomes a game to see what references you can pick out because they are endless. There are sections that play like GTA, some like Call of Duty, a ton that parallel inFamous, and even some old-school throw back levels mimicking classic twin-stick shooters and flying games. It never does any of them as good as the originals, but it isn’t supposed to; instead it is supposed to conjure up the fond memories of these games and put a smile on your face, which is does every step of the way.
The gameplay evolution is also a welcome component of the game, for the most part. This is no longer GTA-lite;if there were any one game that you could compare it to, it would have to be Crackdown or, even better, Sucker Punch’s inFamous. It is a whole different world now that you are more concerned with your super powers and abilities than you are with amassing a varied collection of cars, weapons, and a reliable crew. You are a one-man wrecking machine now, even though it greatly benefits you to rely on some of your old tactics including recruiting crews to accompany you on the streets of the Virtual Steelport. There are numerous sections of the game that put you back on familiar ground, stripping you of your powers and forcing you to return to your Saints Row roots, but the virtual world that allows you to gain immense power ultimately dominates the experience.
All of these new aspects come at a price though in the loss of a lot of the traditional gameplay experiences. As soon as I began compiling powers, gone were my interests in obtaining a variety of weapons or rides. They just aren’t necessary any more; it is much more efficient to run across town with your super speed or fly across the map using your gliding ability than it is the navigate the streets in a suped-up ride. The options are still there for you to do, they are never taken away from you, but the game makes it very apparent that there are newer, better means available. The same thing can be said for combat; before long, you won’t care about the wide array of both alien and huma weapons that you have collected. Your offensive abilities that you earned through the simulation far trump what any of them can due. Aside from the never-ending entertainment offered by the dubstep gun, I found my abilities to be my primary offensive weapon in the long run. It’s still a great game overall, but the Saints Row purist are going to have to come to grips with losing a big part of the things they have become attached to over the years.
There are alot of other, patent Saints elements still present though and they are as great as ever. There is a ton to do in this world from side missions, to mini-games, and tons of character customization options. It is really easy to get side-tracked from the main story and spend hours just playing around in the city or playing on of the numerous mini games throughout the world. The variety seen throughout them all is extensive too. You have classic side-missions like fraud and assassination quests as well as a lot of new ones like foot-race (to show off your super speed), and tower ascension. Let’s not even get started on the cluster-collecting which makes the Crackdown orb gathering seem like child’s play; you will want to get them all, but there are just so many (well over 1,000).
It seems like I am talking about nothing but good points on the game, but there are a few bad ones too. Nearly all of them however are technical. I experienced a wide variety of technical issues on the 360 version of the game. We’re talking about things like major collision issues with objects and other characters, occasionally getting hung up in the environment, and a constant inability to transition between sequences smoothly. Every time that you wrap up a mission or make the switch between sequences you will be met with a few second pause. It never fails, it ALWAYS happens. This doesn’t ruin the game but it is something that will make itself apparent for the duration of the experience. Thankfully, the fun factor offered by the varied gameplay options and mission variety trump this all dramatically. Just prepare for it to be a buit of a bumpy ride along the way.
Saints Row IV is the perfect example of just how much decent gameplay and overall fun factor can elevate an experience above a bevy of technical problems. There is just so much to do, and it is just plain “fun” to do it, that you can’t help but enjoy your time here...and you will be spending a lot of time here. The main campaign is pretty extensive, consisting of nearly 40 primary missions, but that doesn’t include the vast array of side quests, mini-games, loyalty missions, and never-ending tom-foolery that you will get into alone or with a friend via coop. This is exactly what a sandbox game should be, it just needs a little TLC to smooth out its edges a bit. The experience is what matters in the end though and this is definitely one that you should look forward to checking out.