Saints Row is a very weird franchise. What started out in 2006 as a Grand Theft Auto clone with the gimmick of being on the then next gen consoles, has since diverged into its own wackier flavour. Saints Row IV continues this trend, but is it enough to stand out amongst previous entries in the series?
The game sets the tone very quickly by opening up 5 years after Saints Row: The Third with the Saints, appearing to be on a mission in the Middle East on some kind of assassination mission ripped straight out of a modern military FPS. Joined by characters both new and old alike, you infiltrate a base on the hunt for Cyrus Temple, antagonist from the previous game, who has conspired with terrorists to take down the United States of America. After some mishaps, you save the country and earn the adoration of the entire nation, customize your player character in the usual Saints Row fashion with fleshed out customization options series veterans expect, are introduced to Ben King from the original Saints Row, and Keith David (yes, Keith David plays as himself in SRIV). Then after more setbacks you’re dropped back into Steelport with one crucial difference this time, it’s not the “real” Steelport.
This time, Steelport is an alien simulation, inside which you are imprisoned by the evil alien emperor Zinyak. The city itself is largely unchanged, save for a few new alien landmarks here and there and the lack of the boundaries of reality. This means that as you progress through the story you slowly unlock super abilities like super sprint, super jump, super stomp, telekinesis and even a nuke explosion when you drop from a sufficient height. These abilities make for many great moments in combat and whilst travelling around the city, and can be upgraded by picking up items named Clusters, collectables akin to the orbs found in the Crackdown series, but albeit not as fun or satisfying to obtain. Co-op with 2 players also makes a return, with full support for every mission and activity in the game. Missions are accessed through a menu not dissimilar to the previous release but this time story missions are often set in their own special environments away from Steelport and feature even more zany situations either parodying other franchises, moving through abstract Tron-like environments or recreating scenes from previous games in the series, all while unravelling interesting details about each character’s pasts and personalities.
While the story is intentionally pulpy and nothing to write home about, the dialogue at times can be rather funny,
and the choice of making Kinzie, one of the lesser members of the Saints in the previous title, as probably the most important character to the plot is very refreshing. Zinyak, the evil alien emperor, on the other hand mostly takes a back seat, and is mostly reduced to a James Bond villain who messes with the Saints and their plans for revenge, but in very minor ways. Fans of the licensed soundtrack usage in Saints Row: The Third will also be happy to know that the soundtrack of Saints Row IV is similarly well chosen and effectively used, with one highlight being piloting a spaceship while listening to Haddaway’s “What is Love?”. The combination of the humour, writing and music use can come together so well that the missions are still great on multiple replays, it’s just a shame there isn’t a way to replay a mission without starting a new game and replaying them all.
The issues with Saints Row 4 become apparent the further in the story as you progress and the more character upgrades you purchase, and they seem to be result of simple lack of forward thinking than anything else. For example, once you have the ability to super sprint infinitely, what use are cars other than objectives in loyalty missions and activities? If cars are superfluous, what use are the car customisation options? If the player can glide after super jumping, what is the point in aeroplanes and/or helicopters? Why are the side missions just activities strung together with contrived reasons when the player has the ability to do each one on their own accord? Why is there no New Game+ mode or no ability to replay missions? Volition have gone on record stating that players can easily make multiple saves, but this is a poor workaround for a problem most other games have solved in better ways. The game also seems to be very buggy with menus that lock up, infinite loading screens, texture loading problems, and prolific crashes.
Score 5 (out of 7): Ultimately Saints Row IV feels like a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster. The addition of super powers can make travelling around the city exciting and fresh, and the story is very enjoyable, but towards the end of the game it becomes very obvious that Volition was too busy just throwing toys in to consider how everything worked together, which results in an experience that you don’t really want to come back to, especially if it means restarting from scratch.