The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saints Row 4 Review

Open world games need to deliver two things: Power and Freedom. Saints Row 4 delivers both, along with generous helpings of style and humor.

Top of the World

As the opening remind us the Third Street Saints have gone from thuggish street gang to something more akin to an international multimedia empire. The series has followed a similar trajectory, starting as an off-brand Grand Theft Auto and evolving to embrace an ever escalating level of absurdity. Anyone who played the third game might ask, not unreasonably, where the series can possibly go next.

The answer is straight to the top and over. The opening mission concludes with the Boss (the player character) disarming a nuclear missile in mid-air to the tune of Aerosmith’s "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing". Events then jump five years into the future where the Boss has (improbably) parlayed their heroism into a successful run for the office of US president.

Choices, choices.
There’s a brief pause here to allow for SR4’s ridiculously detailed character customization. If you enjoyed spending hours tweaking brow and chin sliders in Mass Effect you’ll find plenty to keep you busy here. Appearance and even voice and gender can be changed later for a token fee so don’t spend too long sweating over it. Scores of unlockable clothing items also allow you to dress your custom Boss in whatever fashion you see fit, from business casual to biker gimp and beyond. 

Commander in Chief

We rejoin the story in the middle of an average presidential day of signing bills to cure cancer, discussing policy with Vice President and talented actor Keith David, and punching obnoxious senators in the groin. Sadly before we can finish out the term in the shoes of the POTUS an alien invasion arrives. Despite a brief, valiant battle through the White House the Boss and the rest of the Saints find themselves captured and imprisoned in a series of virtual reality simulations. 

The Zin empire bought their vehicles straight from the TRON surplus sale.

You see where this is going? Every time it appears events have hit the level of maximum absurdity the game boldly states: “That’s nothing. Watch this!” Even if whatever is going on doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense the energy is infectious. Like a hyperactive friend rattling off directly from their stream of consciousness SR4 is clearly having so much fun it’s hard not to get carried along by the enthusiasm. 

All this setup is an elaborate excuse to turn you lose in a virtual version of Steelport, now featuring hostile red Tron lines and an alien mothership hovering ominously overhead. Of course any computer program can be hacked and manipulated. After a mission or two of getting your bearings the Boss finds themself armed with what amount to superpowers.

Man of Steel

Once you obtain your first set of powers the Boss can sprint up the side of buildings, glide from rooftop to rooftop, and hurtle vast distances in a single bound. Cars and even helicopters quickly become obsolete. These powers put SR4 more in common with the Prototype and Crackdown series than its crime-themed themed roots.

Melee enemies at super speed to trigger a brutal takedown.
Moving around the city is a kinetic joy. At full speed the Boss can effortlessly plough through fences, pedestrians, and even oncoming cars, giving you a perpetual and destructive right of way. Few enemies approach your level of raw mobility and disengaging from a losing fight is just a charged leap away. Literally hundreds of collectables scattered over the city rooftops encourage exploration and using your powers to the fullest.

SR4 hurls concepts like balance boldly out the window in the name of joyfully broken, chaotic fun. The power to materialize a tank at will (available quite early) is but one of the least of your abilities. Basic enemies serve more as physics props than a combat challenge. Once you’ve secured a few upgrades the difference between a squad of alien warriors and a squad of alien warriors that are exploding, on fire, and hurling through the air all at the same time is less than two seconds.

Why drive when you can glide?
Guns remain useful but superpowers are unquestionably the stars of the show in combat. All are fun and tremendously satisfying to unleash on hapless Zin troopers or random pedestrians. Icy blasts turn foes into frozen statues, shattering at the slightest touch. Telekinesis (one of the better implementations of this kind of ability I’ve seen) turns enemies and vehicles into improvised projectiles or simply lets you send them soaring over the horizon. Even simply ploughing through a pack of infantry with super speed engaged knocks them over like bowling pins.

Dangerous Toys

Outside of the more linear and scripted missions you generally have the freedom to tackle enemies in whatever way you see fit. If you want to faff around on rooftops and pick at guys with the sniper rifle that’s certainly an option. You’ll probably have more fun calling in a squad of backup Saints and wading in with powers and guns blazing. As mentioned powerful vehicles are available quite early on, so summoning the appropriate ride and obliterating the opposition with hovercraft missiles or tank cannon fire does the job nicely.

Cultured but ruthless alien emperor Zinyak fills out the antagonist role with style.
Completing SR4’s missions and activities supplies a constant stream of rewards beyond just XP and cash. Weapons, powers, vehicles, and allies are all doled out at a steady clip, ensuring you’ve always got something new to try. Their actual effectiveness can range from purely cosmetic to ridiculously overpowered, but as is appropriate for an open world game there is no shortage of toys to play with.

City control returns, bringing with it a host of optional activates that let you wrest control of the simulation away from the Zin piece by piece. There are an embarrassment of things to do, though the super-speed racing and telekinetic object hurtling stand out. Success rewards you with an ever increasing regular income, generic Saints backup in areas you control, and the satisfaction of slowly turning the city from hostile red to soothing blue. 

Wardens take a combination of superpowers, concentrated fire, and a QTE to finally take down.
Since much of the game, even within its own context, takes place within a VR simulation there’s little reason not to run amuck whenever the mood takes you. While you can’t demolish buildings the various cars, pedestrians, and smaller environmental props can all be hurtled, ignited, and exploded at whim. Causing enough chaos eventually causes a hulking “Warden” mini-boss to be dispatched to the scene. These creatures provide a much needed combat challenge at first, though the quick-time event required to finish them off eventually becomes a bit monotonous. 


SR4 is unafraid to wear its geek cred on its sleeves. The game is unashamedly crammed with references from stock material like the Matrix and Mass Effect to more eclectic cult favorites like They Live. Fans of the series will enjoy a host of returning characters and nods to previous games. Even amid all the superpowers and general lunacy the game takes a few moments to make peace with its gangland origins and tie off dangling plot and character threads in satisfying fashion. 

A great many characters, gangs, and locations from previous games show up at one point or another.
The often playful back and forth between the Boss and the rest of the Saints is the core of the game’s humor. An open-world game can conceivably get away with minimal cast and characterization but SR4 delivers consistently strong character work and dialog. There is a level of fourth wall breaking meta awareness that may annoy some tastes, but it’s generally used with an appropriate level of restraint. 

Even with a cast of strong characters (including some returning fan favorites) alien emperor Zinyak earns his place as a memorable and worthwhile antagonist. His introduction establishes him as a more than credible threat: intellectually, physically, and technologically superior to the Boss. Excellent voice acting presents him a man who maintains a thin veneer of culture and playful civility over a core of utter ruthlessness. Every time Zinyak and the Boss square off it’s a treat, and he stands bulbous head and spiky shoulders above your average video game villain.

SR4 never misses a chance to lampoon another game.
Past the introductory set of missions the core structure becomes an oddly effective Mass Effect Two parody/homage. Each member of the Saint’s crew needs to be rescued from the simulation and, once secured, bolstered with a loyalty mission. These missions allow some one on one time and character development with each member of the gang, but also let the designers and writers to cut loose and fit in as many loving parodies of other games as possible.  Keep an eye out for the excellent side-scrolling beat-em-up. 

Riding Dirty

While a beautiful example of the open world genre there are a few issues with SR4. The super speed and jump, while ridiculously fun, are frustratingly imprecise at times. They’re fine for traveling vast distances but can be infuriating when trying to pluck a collectable off a narrow surface or perform any sort of other precision maneuver. Some sort of setting between the sluggish normal movement and blisteringly fast and powerful super-movement might have helped.  

All clothing is purely cosmetic, so free and breezy (with built in censoring) is a legitimate way to play.
Late game rampages also become awkwardly paced. As you processed through missions the game shifts from throwing large numbers of basic troops at you in response to open world chaos to deploying smaller numbers of tougher and more specialized enemies. Alert levels also seem to ramp up much more quickly. It starts to feel like you can barely get a good rampage started before you find yourself facing a Warden. All this can make grinding for the many kill related challenges and achievements a pain, if you care about that sort of thing. 

Finally a few of mini-games (particularly the bomb tossing one) are more annoying than fun. None of these things should dissuade you from trying the game if you enjoy open-word style gameplay at all. Saint’s Row 4 consistently delivers over the top fun with a healthy dose of genuine humor and serves as a worthy capstone to the long running series.

Reasons to play: Excellent navigation and combat superpowers. Huge toybox of weapons, powers and vehicles to play with. Hilarious characters and dialog. Infinite cosmetic character customization. 

Reasons to pass: Movement superpowers can be frustratingly imprecise. Grindy challenges and achievements, especially in the late game.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.