The Saints Row series is perhaps one of the greatest modern examples of “don’t judge a book by its cover” in video gaming history. The first game was widely written off as a GTA knock-off, and to be fair it mostly was. However, there were hints at greatness even then, from lightning you could summon with your cell phone to a voodoo priest that could revive dead allies as zombies. Having been there since the very beginning, it did my heart good to see the overwhelming positive reaction to The Third, and Volition has struck while the iron is hot with Saints Row IV. The project started as standalone DLC when the company was owned by THQ, and has now morphed into a full retail release. Many have been asking, is this worth the full price point knowing that? Yes. Yes it is.
Saints Row IV takes the boss of the Saints (you can import the character you uploaded in The Third if you’re playing on the same platform) straight to the White House, as the Saints are now the rulers of the free world. Then, aliens invade and you must use the White House’s anti-air defenses to ward them off. A little while after that, you’re jacked into The Matrix and gain superpowers. In true Saints Row fashion, the game’s narrative only gets more ridiculous from there. Your character can pull out even more ridiculous wrestling moves, they can wield at least one weapon from every sci-fi franchise you can imagine, all alongside your vice president, Keith David. Almost every main and loyalty mission in the game have something unique and insane going on, and all of those missions unlock new toys to play with in the city.
Almost everything that was packed into The Third returns here, even if it doesn’t make much sense. There are full car customization options, even if you never need a car once you gain super speed. You can purchase a stun gun from the same store that later sells you a gun that shoots black holes, and the game even acknowledges how useless that stun gun is. There are plenty of games that would have stripped out underpowered and depreciated features such as these, but Saints Row IV is proud to hoard features, gameplay elements, and characters. It’s part of the madness that the game creates. It is purposeful open world jank placed on top of the always present accidental open world jank. It is glorious.
This collection of features also extends out to the characters. It would be easy for Volition to go into full parody mode with Saints Row considering how insane every part of the game is. However, it’s clear that they still care about the narrative thread, even if no one else does. If you’ve played all of the previous titles in the series, you will get a lot more of the references and callbacks than someone who picked up the series with The Third. There are entire missions and character arcs based around the original title, which not only wasn’t widely played, but it was an Xbox 360 exclusive title. This dedication to fans of the series is admirable, and although they try to explain what’s going on for new players, a trip to Wikipedia to catch up on specific plot points would probably be advisable.
Of course, not every moment of the game can be 100% story driven insanity. The rest of the gameplay goes to side activities, which are helpfully strung together into sidequests by little bits of dialogue and a reward at the end of each path. It’s not much, but it made me want to complete every quest much more than in The Third, where they felt completely optional and the rewards were more hidden. Most of the activities are similar to previous ones, and the ones that aren’t are some of the weakest parts of the game. Platforming exercises and throwing colored balls around are both tedious wastes of time, although they are easy enough to slog through when you know you’ll be killing more things or blowing things up in a giant mech very soon after. Another poorly thought out feature are the platforming towers you can climb, which are sort of a mixture between Assassin’s Creed and Crackdown. Thankfully, the game allows you to bypass these challenges by flying to the top of them in an aircraft and then just hitting a button. This might be considered a bug in most games, but I have to assume that Saints Row IV just doesn’t really care.
A lot of the game is like that actually. Saints Row wants you to have a good time, and it doesn’t care that you can overpower all of its enemies well before the final mission. It doesn’t care that a majority of its audience will have no idea who Lin or Ben King are. It doesn’t care that it is basically copying powers from Crackdown and Prototype and injecting them into their previous game. What it does care about is good writing, funny jokes, and open world madness. If you liked any of the previous games in this series, you should play Saints Row. If you’re anxiously awaiting GTAV, nothing will make the days go by faster than playing Saints Row. If you enjoy pro wrestling, sci-fi, Stan Bush, singalongs, Shakespearean villains, marketing gone wild, and beating mascots with a baseball bat, you really should play Saints Row. I have no clue where Volition takes the series from here, but I’m eager to find out.