In a few days time, the godfather of open world games, Grand Theft Auto V launches. When it does, it will overshadow anything and everything that has come before, including the recently released Saints Row IV which I think is a shame, because SRIV is an awesome open world game in its own right.
So before that other game descends upon us, let me do this game justice and tell you why you should even bother with SRIV in the light of GTA V’s impending arrival.
I’ll say outright now that I’ve not played the first couple of Saints Row games, and dabbled lightly in The Third (as it is actually called) before getting on with SRIV. So why did I end up playing the fourth part of an open-world game franchise I had little interest in (and you don’t need to have played any of the previous ones to jump in either)?
Well, I’d say this insane trailer had something to do with it.
Saints Row has always been about giving you free reins to let loose in an entire city. Carjacking, clotheslining random people on the streets, exploding things, to name a few. Yes could do those things in GTA too, but the difference here is that while GTA continues down its crime-capering film-influenced dark path, Saints Row never once took itself seriously, always referencing not just GTA and other similar open world titles, but also the entire history of games and always upping the ante of crazy – from character customizations of epic proportions (like running around fat and naked with a dildo bat) to over the top scenarios like aliens invading, taking part in Japanese death-dealing gameshows, virtual reality simulators, to name a few.
So what is Saints Row IV?
Saints Row IV is superpowers. Let me explain.
You’re the President of the United States for all of five minutes when suddenly aliens invade, essentially destroying all of Earth and remaking (a part of) it in a virtual reality simulator. You decide to take revenge by hacking the system, and giving yourself the superpowers necessary to beat the evil head honcho alien. And that’s just the beginning.
As for the superpowers you get, it’s a whole slew of ‘em – from running really fast, to jumping really high, soaring through the air, super strength, telekinesis, flames, ice bolts, ground-shaking stomps, buffs, amongst other things.
While GTA does its hyper-realism thing, Saints Row went down the opposite end of the scale. In the opening mission, you’re climbing a nuke trying to disarm it to the sweet sounds of Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. Soon you’ll be punching murderous toilet bowls, shooting rockets at a giant killer soda can mascot, playing a telekinesis game of throwing people through hoops, engaging in a text-based adventure, blowing up tanks in a Tron-esque world, uppercutting 2D enemies in a side-scrolling beat-em-up, sneaking around under crates Metal Gear Solid style, mindlessly (and very self-aware of that fact) running and gunning down drab corridors Call-of-Duty-esque, or duking it out in a fight club for superpowered people. Listen, if you just love games, there will be some referential joke in here that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, if not make you jump out and down in excitement and glee like I did.
The overarching story does a decent job of keeping you invested – your character is a cool dude or chick who doesn’t give any fucks, drops cool lines, and does right by his or her crew. Basically the aliens have abducted your entire Cabinet of Ministers and you’ve got to go rescue everyone before taking the fight to the big boss. Every character you meet is interesting, with enough personality to make the relationship dynamics that play out funky. Not once does the game devolve into unnecessary melodrama, but in the moments when it does get serious and heartfelt, you feel like the game’s deserved it.
You even get to explore a spaceship ala Mass Effect style in between missions, and unlike that Bioware game, you only need to press R to romance people and get on with the sexy times immediately. Actual sex between characters happens off-screen unfortunately, but hey, at least you don’t have to waste time schmoozing them with talk and presents. You get right to the fucking, that’s all players want.
And that’s true for the entire game – at no point does it feel like shit is being held back from you. You bought this game, now you want to play it, and play it you can. I’m only about 50% through the entire game but I’ve clocked up 20 hours play-time because there’s so much to do. If you get too bored of just flying around the entire city beating up hapless innocent passerbys and running everywhere at top speeds, rendering both vehicular transportation and guns obsolete (although you can still use those things if you want), you can do any one of the many gazillion side missions that your allies have for you. Essentially a lot of them are just dressed up variations of go here, kill X number of bad guys, or hack that computer terminal, drive that vehicle, destroy X amount of things, but the rush of being a superpowered agent of chaos never gets old. And you are given absolute license to cause as much mayhem as you can. In this regard, the game feels like an MMO, but it never gets grindy, because gaining levels is not the goal of this game although doing more missions gets you more money and XP to spend on superpowers, buffs, equipment, etc.
I’ve spent hours just running around town at top speeds and then pressing right click at the right time to execute a finishing move on passerbys on the street. Flip up a grandma in the air and kick her right in the spine. Or jump on the head of a hobo. Or throw a douche business man against a wall. Running people over in cars or shooting them dead is no longer cool when you can have all the superpowers. I am seriously concerned that SRIV might spoil me when GTA V comes out.
While GTA V will probably rock our pants off metaphorically, Saints Row IV is doing it literally just because you can’t stop jiving along to the great dubstep soundtrack and in-game radio stations. Whenever you finish a mission, the game drops a great dubstep track that makes you feel fist-pumpingly awesome, and to me that’s all any gamer wants as a reward for a job well done.
And co-op enhances the fun by fifty billion percent, because unless your co-op partner is a party-pooper, the added bonus of having someone to experience the insanity of this game alongside you, and laughing together as you run around town blowing up shit can never be replicated in any of the serious machoistic posturing of your Battlefields and Call of Duties.
My only criticism of the game is that the city does feel a little soulless; it is not in any way geographically interesting, merely a playground for destruction. There is no one place worth stopping at to check out or to hang out in, just a lot of non-descript shops, apartment buildings, suburban houses, and skyscrapers to pass by on your way to your next ridiculous task. The only buildings you can enter are the ones for customizing your weapons, clothes, cars, etc.
Also there will be sections where you can’t avoid shooting, and even a brief spell or two when they take away your powers. It’s not a problem, but the shooting feels very floaty and not at all impactful – a total contrast to how awesome it feels to punching someone really hard and watching them fly a good distance away. Maybe that’s the devs’ intention, to encourage you to punch things in the game more.
The alien thing gets a bit grating sometimes, but the story makes them out to be the annoying villains that they are, so shooting them to death and beating their faces in feels like something you’d really want to do anyway.
Aside from these few niggles, this is a game that just gets it. Sometimes we don’t want the over-blown dramatic sob story of heroic feats of sacrifice and world-saving. We just want to get on with doing the cool stuff. Sometimes we don’t want to work so hard to unlock a few powers. We just want those powers now. Sometimes we don’t want to do what the game is asking us. So we just take a mega spaceship and blast all the shit to kingdom come. If you ever had those thoughts while playing other games, then Saints Row IV is happy to be your funtime mistress.