- Editor's Rating
- Genuinely funny parody of modern games
- Hugely enjoyable to play
- Wide variety of abilities and things to do
- Loses steam towards the end
- Freezes and has other technical issues
- Open world structure can feel too familiar
Quick TakeSaints Row IV is one of the funnest and funniest games you’ll play this year. It’s a mad send up of familiar gaming cliches that’s just as entertaining to behold as it is to play.
If Saints Row is a franchise that was borne out of Grand Theft Auto, then Saints Row IV is the scissor that cuts the umbilical cord. It’s a break from the series’ “best of the GTA clones” roots, a game that instead picks and chooses the ripe bits from more games and movies to count.
It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of parody that riffs on everything from Mass Effect to Metal Gear Solid to Streets of Rage, a comedy that puts popular entertainment’s absurdities under a magnifying glass and giggles as it sets them afire like ants in the sun. It’s stupid, brilliant, offensive, charming, frustrating and joyous all at once, and most of all, it’s just pure fun.
But at its core, it’s still Saints Row. This is a sequel, after all. You’re still controlling your own created character around a big city sandbox. You’re still able to make him or her look like an absolute weirdo, and you’re still able to suit him up with a truckload of wacky weapons and outfits.
You’re still completing missions and side quests for a variety of secondary characters, most of whom are familiar faces from past games. There are still lots and lots of events and mini-games to complete, from street races to hunts for various collectibles to battles over particular strongholds to destroy-everything-you-can mayhem missions. You’re still gaining experience and cash for everything you do, which you’re still using to level up your abilities and weaponry.
You’re still playing the role of an amoral psychopath, but you’re still finding him strangely lovable because of how genuine he is in causing cartoonish levels of destruction. The tone is still goofy and playfully crass. (Developer Volition has never met a d___ joke it didn’t like.) And the vision is to still be the smartest game 12-year-old you could ever dream of. You’re still laughing at it, and then laughing at yourself for laughing at something so ludicrous.
For better and worse, the framework hasn’t changed. In fact, using the word “changed” at all would be a little nebulous here. It’d be more accurate to say that Volition has amplified everything about Saints Row to an even greater point of absurdity, taking the farcical extremes of past installments and launching them into the stratosphere. But by letting the already loose series become completely unhinged, it’s made Saints Row IV’s action and its brand of comedy much more effective. It’s hard to think of another game this unpredictable.
Rather than playing as the leader of the world’s most recognized gang, you’re now the leader of the free world as the U.S. President. Instead of taking on rival gangs and corporations in a battle for the streets, you’re taking on an alien empire for control of Earth. Instead of roaming through the hustle and bustle of Steelport, you’re going back and forth from a desolate alien spaceship to a virtual reality simulation of that same city, Matrix-style. And whereas you were once an unstoppable force with an arsenal of guns, cars, and blunt objects, you now have all of that, plus otherworldly weapons, vehicles and superpowers. Because of course you do.
Those superpowers are the highlight here, not only because of how varied, fluid and satisfying they are, but because they fit so well with Saints Row IV’s end goal of sending up every video game power fantasy that’s come before it.
At a time when so many traditional action games fall on their faces trying to say something, man, Saints Row IV graces your comically depraved character with a comically excessive amount of strength, and it’s refreshingly honest while doing so. Not for one second does it pretend to say anything other than, “You’re playing a video game. Here’s every ridiculous thing we could think of. Don’t think too hard. Now go wild, because you can.” Its lavishness is both subversive and endearing.
In practice, these powers turn Saints Row IV into a mutant hybrid of GTA, Crackdown and inFamous. You get the first of them–a lightning-fast sprinting ability and a positively majestic super jump–early on, while the rest of your supernatural suite steadily reveals itself over the course of the game.
By the end of it, you’ll be leaping up skyscrapers with a single jump and zipping through city blocks in seconds, leaving a tornado of debris in your wake. You’ll run up buildings and force tremors to emerge from under your stomps. You’ll freeze, burn and control the minds of your hapless alien enemies. The alien soldiers, hunters, cyborgs, beasts, tanks and UFOs will challenge you in overwhelming numbers, rendering your mini-map pointless–as they so often are–in a sea of red dots, but you’ll take them all down with overcharged wrestling moves or tosses of telekinesis each time.
All the while you’re combining these powers with six shooters, muskets, alien blasters, lightsabers, a phallic bat, a gun that shoots killer dubstep beats, a gun that inflates people into exploding balloons, and an army’s worth of explosives. Those are then mixed with hovercrafts, tanks and spaceships. Then you get a stable of partners who also have superpowers. Then you get to use a mech suit. Then there’s more. You can bring a friend in to play co-op with you too. Eventually you’ll cycle through your tools of destruction on instinct, making things go boom like a more diverse and more outrageous Devil May Cry. And you’ll crack wise while you do it.
Sometimes it feels like you’re playing a mod, until you realize that’s the point. This is closer to what a “god game” actually feels like. Yes, Saints Row IV works in a standard open-world template, and its central setting, the alien-controlled VR Steelport, doesn’t have much of a personality. But this is a game builds an exorbitant amount of momentum on top of itself. It tosses you into a ball pit of madness and lets you flail around with a smile on your face.
Yet what keeps Saints Row IV’s dumb fun from ever feeling too stale is the fact that it really isn’t as dumb as it looks. Thankfully, the over-the-topness of the whole thing isn’t just aesthetic. There are tons of nods to pop culture and video game tropes here, and while they’re as subtle as a brick to the face, they manage to bring the laughs by gently mocking the inanities of Saints Row IV’s more serious counterparts.
Take the create-a-character screen, where you get a dedicated voiceover option that’s simply titled “Nolan North.” (And it is him, you see, because he’s everywhere.) Or the “romance” options you have with everyone your crew, which are nothing more than blunt requests for sex. Or the capital-i Important Choice Moment that comes in the middle of the game, where it makes it painfully clear that you have no freedom at all. Or the requisite stealth mission, where the patrolling henchmen might as well be lobotomized. Or the one mission just before the end game that is literally described as “stretching out the gameplay more.” It goes on and on, continuously pointing out the many follies of its contemporaries.
Everything here is a goof on something, from the hollow sentimentality of the Armageddon-esque intro, to the preposterous amount of icons that fill up your world map, to the slapstick mini-game that rewards you for flinging your character into oncoming traffic and not caring about his well-being. Saints Row IV feels like one ongoing string of non sequiturs, but it retains a clear sense of purpose throughout. It’s out to make you laugh and have fun, yes, but it’s blowing up as many gaming cliches as it can find along the way. (Even its special editions are absurd.) It succeeds the vast majority of the time.
Then you make it to the final act, and things begin to crumble. The last few missions too often fall back on the formulaic setups the rest of the game mocks–you’ll kill everything here, collect X amount of MacGuffins there, and escort these people over there. For whatever reason, Volition decides to strip you of your powers at various points, drastically dragging the fun down. You’ll become somewhat accustomed to the process by this point anyways. You’ll likely have suffered through some wicked slowdown and a handful of game crashes too.
The game still derides the mundanity of these setups–your character wonders something to the effect of “Why am I always blowing up a certain amount of stuff?” at one point–but that doesn’t provide punchlines so much as it points out how boring your objectives have become. As far as narrative missions go, there’s a shelf life here. The central story and cast of characters are good, but not strong enough to hold your attention on their own. And a good joke can only be harped on for so long.
But like any good joke, Saints Row IV has to be experienced for its magic to be appreciated. And you should experience it. It’s one of the funnest and funniest blockbuster games to come along in some time. It’s tethered to familiar style of sandbox game, but it freshens that arrangement up by taking it to its farthest extremes. It’s just as entertaining to play as it is to behold, but either way it’s going to show you a good time. It’s stupid in the most intelligent way.