The last two iterations in the Saints Row series have propelled the franchise from being viewed simply as a pretender to the GTA throne, to regaled as a much loved trail blazer in open world games. With the last title being released to both industry and community acclaim, it would be understandable for Volition to take some time off, rest on their laurels and reap the rewards of their endeavours.
Instead they have followed up with a sequel. So we come to Saints Row IV, and it’s obvious from the outset that although this is created in the engine for Saints Row III, Volition have created something truly spectacular by utilising what they built and learned and elaborating upon its successes. It has been said that this started out life as a DLC for the third game, but after finishing the epic content contained within SRIV, it’s immediately apparent that the staff at Volition did not procrastinate when creating their latest title.
With its typical extravagance and flair we are reintroduced to the Saints who, following their success over the syndicate and STAG, have chosen to utilise their status as cultural icons and renown as fighters for the greater good. Thus we join Shaundi, Pierce and the Playa as they are readying to venture into Afghanistan to meet with an MI6 agent who is on the trail of former STAG leader turned terrorist Cyrus Temple. This opening gambit shows off the graphical tune up the game has undergone, with crisper visuals and improved character features obvious from the outset.
The finale of the intro is your typical over the top Saints Quicktime Sequence (and its certainly not the last). Its immediately striking that once again Volition have matched the audio to the event with almost unnatural competence, Aerosmiths Don’t want to miss a thing blasting out as you face certain death to save Washington DC, with each of the Saints reminiscing about your’e time with them before you ultimately expire. Of course, since this is the start of the game the “certain death” aspect is far from accurate and your endeavours see you placed as the President of the USA.
As you go about your standard day as the president, curing cancer or feeding the world , you are briefed by Shaundi that the MI6 agents who aided you in defeating Temple, (including Matt Miller former leader of the Deckers), thereby gaining you the presidency have arrived with grim tidings, the world is about to be invaded. Within moments, the Zin have attacked, and their leader Zinyak has proclaimed the Earth part of the Zin empire. After a short lived and futile battle, you and the rest of the saints are captured and we find ourselves at the true start of the game.
Zinyak, for his own amusement, has captured the brightest, strongest and best of humanity to be tortured in virtual environments designed to break their will. With the aid of Kinzie, you escape from your prison and begin breaking down the system from within in order to free your gang and rescue humanity from Zinyak’s forces.
Once inside the simulation, a virtual version of Steelport, the gameplay mirrors that of SR3 for the first hour or so with you running around buying weapons and clothing, customising cars and causing wanton destruction to take over parts of the simulation, that is until you encounter your first data clusters. These pieces of rogue code are remnants of programs that broke or bent the rules of the simulation, and being the computer genius that she is, Kinzie is able to extract the data from these clusters to improve your own code. So it is, that you unlock you first super powers; super sprint and super jump. With these two abilities, the choice to travel by car is effectively moot as the speed of your sprint already starts off far faster than most of the vehicles in the game and the ability to leap up and over buildings is exhilarating and never gets old. At this point the game also introduces you to one of the new twists on its activities; Blazing. If you have played SR3, Blazing is effectively the Cyber Blazing missions, where you drive your phantom through enemy ASP’s and avoid firewalls, but dialed up to 11. Negotiating your way through a race at super speed collecting speed boost and avoiding the firewalls will put strain on the simulation making it easier for you to take over, in a similar fashion to the territory gaining side missions from SR3.
Alongside this reinvention they have got the regular amount of on foot and vehicle Mayhems that you found littered throughout the Real Steelport, but again with a new Alien/Superpower twist. Each of the Mayhems are catered to a specific vehicle, ability or weapon, but the goal remains the same. Whether you are using the UFO, Super Stomp ability or the Black hole Launcher, you are required to destroy a certain value of enemies or environment before your allotted time runs out.
Genki also makes an unsurprising return in the form of Genki’s M.O.M, (Mind Over Murder), where you are required to use your telekinesis power to launch cars, people or Genki heads through their respective floating rings.
Superpowers are obviously the primary focus of the game and most of the activites are there to refine your skills with each of the powers. Super Hero Fight Club has you facing off against similarly super powered adversaries, where finding the right power to counter their abilities is key, Mayhem incorporates both the Super Stomp and Telekinesis powers to cause as much destruction as possible, and Rifts in the game world are stabilised by utilising your jump abilities in the platforming Rifts, Super Speed in the Speed Rifts (which again is a variation on the blazing minigames) or the Telekinesis Rifts which focus’ on destroying targets by propelling bombs at their respectively coloured targets.
All of these activities can be completed as and when you see fit, or can be undertaken as parts of side quests requested by members of the crew as you free more of them from their virtual hells. Completing the set of activites that are set out for you will grant you additional unlocks for your powers and abilities, new weapons and upgrades that will make bringing about the fall of Zinyak all that much easier. In addition to these, and in a direct tongue in cheek homage to Mass Effect, each crew member has a loyalty mission, which will see you destroy whatever demons they had in their own virtual worlds. Doing so not only nets you experience and cache, but also upgrades each of your team with their own superhero abilities.
Weapons in Saints Row IV do not take a back seat, and some of the new firepower available perfectly complements your newly discovered super powers. The Energy sword makes an appearance alongside the new Tentacle Bat with its huge writhing tentacle is IV’s version of the Dildo bat. Alien pistols, SMG’s, rifles and RPG’s do not require ammo, but instead require a cooldown period once used. My personal favourites are the Abduction Gun and the Inflato-Ray. Fire off the Abduction Gun, and a beam of light appears sucking anything directly under it up and away to some hidden UFO to undoubtedly be probed (quite possibly with a Tentacle Bat), and the Inflato-Ray’s concentrated fire will cause your enemies to swell to outlandish proportion until their eyes bulge before finally popping in a satisfying spray of viscera. The Dubstep gun is the most well known, and thankfully if you get bored of the same song playing out over and over and causing mass destruction, a quick visit to Friendly Fire will allow you to customise it, which not only changes its look, but also changes the tune. All of the guns in the game have multiple customisation options with few exceptions, so you can play around with them until they look just the way you want them.
A large part of what makes Saints Row what it is, is their ability to both revere and poke fun at their contemporaries and their driving influences alike. It is no random act of chance that the very man who played Anderson in ME, and Julius from SR1, has a leading role in this iteration, playing as your vice president. Keith David’s inclusion allows for Volition to make a playful yet almost reverential pilfering of many aspects of Mass Effect, and simultaneously poke fun at its own expense. It is this level of self deprecating humour tinged with the “in your face” dialogue that makes this series such a joy from start to finish. In particular, an appreciation for one of my favourite and more low key James Cameron movies permeates the entire world, and even has a specific level designed around it, with the introduction of a wrestler turned movie star in a surprise cameo role.
Alongside the video game tributes contained within, the movie references flow from the game like liquid gold. With the obvious riffs on The Matrix making up a large part of the context given the game environment, you can also find Volitions honorary tip of the hat to such greats as Robocop, Terminator, Blade Runner, Star Wars and most other staples of the sci fi genre. The customisation tools allowing me for a short period to be running about dressed as a particularly recognisable “Ransom Collector” weilding Dual Renegade pistols that bear a striking resemblance to weapon of choice of one of our generations favourite anti-hero’s. I will refrain from mentioning any more for fear of spoiling too much.
As with each iteration, a lot of the best bits you will remember about this game are a combination of scripted interactions and how your choices in character design influence them. The sing alongs make a come back, with several laugh out loud moments and one particular moment etched into my brain for eternity. Having made my choices at the beginning I found it both simultaneously disturbing and hilarious when my character started dueting with Peirce to Paula Abdul’s Opposite Attract. For some, this may not have the same prevalence but given that I had chosen to make my character sound like a cockney Joe Pasquale, it couldn’t be anything but memorable.
Audio, as I highlighted earlier, plays a large part in making the world come alive. Much like the Power and Your’e the best Around sections from Saints Row III, there is a fantastic use of licenced tracks to accompany key moments in the game, but once again, it is those moments outside of the scripted that are truly extraordinary. Super Sprinting around, leaping 100ft in the air and destroying every Zin in my path with my newly acquired Super Stomp ability would possibly not have been as enduring in my mind, had Blur’s “Song 2″ not been playing at the time. This balance of fine tuned audio and gameplay are aspects for which Saints Row is renowned.
Gameplay tweaks have obviously been made to accommodate your newly acquired superhero status, but the game hardly stalls for a moment. Only during the most hectic or fast paced sections did I even notice the slightest of frame lag, and not so much as to be detrimental to my enjoyment. The controls are tight and responsive. It is most telling of how well a games controls are designed by how little you actually think about them and in all honesty, if I did not have to, I probably would have never given them a second thought. As your character progresses and levels up, so to do the enemy forces, so at no point do you ever feel overpowered. The risk/reward balance is constantly maintained throughout and only during the final stages of the game, when the hordes of enemies really start to feel overbearing, were there any concerns about a difficulty spike. That said, I had fully upgraded and superpowered my crew, so if you decide to skip these Loyalty missions, I can foresee a lot more frustration in the end game.
Once you have completed the main campaign, there is still plenty for the Obsessive to do. Much like its predecessor, Virtual Steelport is full of distractions and challenges, with literally thousands of collectibles throughout. From Audio Logs of your crew, self aggrandising statues of Zinyak to destroy to the thousand plus data clusters available to collect and use to upgrade your powers, there is at least 30 plus hours of entertainment contained within.
Finishing up my run through with twenty six hours on the clock and a 95% completion gives some idea of the scale and promise contained within this title. Fans of the series and those who have not yet played a Saints Row game but enjoy open world gameplay should easily get their moneys worth.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: Xbox360/PC/PS3 Release Date: 23/08/2013 (20/08/2013 in the US)
Disclosure: Midlifegamer were provided a copy of Saints Row IV for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of a week on Xbox360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.