One of the most iconic parts of summer is the American action film. Absurd, violent, and sometimes obscene, they are 100% pure escapism, a celebration of suspended disbelief and our insatiable lust for extremes. In the spirit of that tradition is this month's Saints Row 4, a sexy, over-the-top spectacle as irreverently patriotic as Lady Liberty doing lines off Uncle Sam's boner.
This latest installment continues to defy the series' legacy as a Grand Theft Auto clone, fleshing out an identity far removed from its copycat origins. The crew faces their toughest rival yet, an evil galactic overlord named Zinyak, who in the game's opening sequence invades planet Earth, abducting the Saints and placing them in a virtual prison designed to recreate their worst nightmares. The Boss, aided by Kinzie's coding skills, begins to chip away at the electronic constraints, exploiting the system to gain superpowers and corrupt the simulation, threatening its stability until the digital chaos ultimately prompts a final showdown with Zinyak and frees the Saints from his control.
For those familiar with my sense of humor, it's unsurprising that I got aboard the Saints Row 4 train. The game is a drunken circus of extremes: juvenile, sexual, irreverent, over the top, violent, crass. Basically everything I love. Having played the E3 and preview builds, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the full thing.
I'd never played Saints Row before but my previous experience with Grand Theft Auto made it easy to catch on. Gameplay consists of third person shooting in a traditional open world sandbox environment. In Saints Row 4 the combat expands to include superpowers, allowing the player to jump, glide, and sprint their way through the many crime infested neighborhoods of virtual Steelport. Special abilities like mental telepathy and elemental beams of fire and ice provide powerful attacks that lower enemy defenses and wipe out hordes of attackers in a single move. A variety of weapons, now expanded to include advanced alien weaponry, are also on hand to devastate the waves of virtual police forces. A range of unique guns, rewarded for meeting challenges and completing quests in the game, are among the best features of the game: effective as they are silly, they total six, from the Black Hole Gun to the Dubstep Gun to my personal favorite, the Abduct-O-Matic.
The melee and hand to hand combat moves are delightfully theatric, the superpowers exhilarating and death defying. Think "superhero luchador trapped in the Matrix". Within minutes of starting the game you'll be on your way to gracefully flitting from roof to roof, collecting orbs to upgrade your abilities and completing simulation challenges. The mini-games and side quests range from hacking open stores and vendors, mowing down waves of cloned enemies, scaling giant reception towers, causing chaos and destruction with weapons and superpowers, and more. I'm fondest of Fraud, in which the player racks up a string of damage using the engine's ragdoll physics, often flinging them across entire neighborhoods as they smash into cars and buildings.
A variety of minor details, from glitchy, bugged-out NPCs wandering near portals to subtle programming jokes, charmingly flesh out the game's perfect execution of theme. I enjoyed the frequent references to retro gaming, particularly a Streets of Rage homage in the main quest line. I anticipate that nostalgia will be a huge draw for this title, as it borrows from some of the most memorable pieces of entertainment from the past decades, from Independence Day to Tron to The Matrix. Even the soundtrack is superbly well chosen, with not a single dud in the mix.
Beneath the game's flashy exterior lies a surprising amount of substance. I was often surprised by how thought provoking the missions could be, at times introspective and self-referential. The storyline overarches the history of Saints Row, masterfully interweaving the characters' past and present like the lattice of an apple pie. While I was concerned that as a new player I would be left behind, the dialogue and collectible audio logs adequately filled me on the backstory and kept me in the loop. Long time fans will be thrilled, especially by the ending. It's absolutely perfect.
For all its adrenaline and thrills however, Saints Row 4 can be boring. A player with moderate experience in the series will find it easy. The many "Break the Simulation" quests, while inventive in extending the gameplay, become tedious over time. Even the final mission provided no difficulty. Active exploration is somewhat discouraged by the large icons marking all the areas of interest from the beginning of the game. It eliminated my urge to spend casual time in the simulation, instead prompting me to wipe out the minigames and challenges early instead of waiting until they were assigned by other characters. At first I thought this was a good strategy, as it would allow me powers and perks that I could use in the main questline. Instead, it not only deprived me of the full narrative experience but also broke the game. At about the 80% mark, I was forced to restart due to an endlessly looping loading screen. The second time around I avoided completing any of the challenges until the game directed me to do so, and I was able to finish. To my knowledge this has yet to be fixed, so approach with caution.
I anticipate that some seasoned fans will be unhappy with the new creative direction. I didn't play the first three games, but I have a feeling that the fourth is not much like them. I rarely recruited homies, paid no attention to who controlled each neighborhood, and there was very little intergang politics or violence. While I appreciate they took such a fun approach to reformulating the series, I think the deviation will be too much for some. On the other hand, from what I've seen of Saints Row 3, the core of the combat has changed very little. For others, the addition of superpowers may not be enough.
And while I appreciate Volition's move towards gender equality, I will also point out that much of the game's sexuality is still framed from a heteronormal viewpoint. The vast majority of the women are a cariacature of the female form. The diverse body customization options are a positive, and it's nice to be able to play as a woman, but much of the dialogue and scenarios don't adjust for gender (for instance in one scene Kinzie remarks that I'm not wearing pants, ignoring that my heaving naked breasts are almost directly at her eye level). In general, women are rarely seen outside of a highly sexualized role, while the men are often idealized but not objectified. A better balance could be struck in future iterations. Homosexual romances are an option, but I still think the series as a whole could stand to get a lot gayer.
If you'd told me when the original Saints Row came out that one day I would prefer it to Grand Theft Auto, I'd have laughed in your face. And yet here I am, imploring anyone with a fondness for open world sandbox games to give it a try. Aside from being a wildly fun shoot 'em up, it's probably also the best superhero game ever made.
Saints Row 4 is a bold cariacature of everything wrong and everything right with our country. It's that time your Uncle Rowdy did donuts in the parking lot during your grandfathers funeral. It's drinking a baby bottle full of wine in a city park on a Tuesday. It's doing the walk of shame barefoot while wrapped in the American flag.
The game may still have some thematic issues to address but ultimately I find it the perfect escapist power fantasy. It has my solid recommendation.
8 out of 10
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.