Platform | Release Date
PS3, 360, PC | August 20, 2013
Developed by Volition
Published by Deep Silver
Following their involvement in [REDACTED TO PREVENT SPOILERS], the Saints were once again thrust into the lime light: only, this time they weren’t viewed as dangerous criminals but heralded as patriots. Riding their wave of popularity, The Leader of the Saints decided to run for the highest office…and won. Now the President of the United States, the boss has gone from the crack house, to the penthouse, to the White House.
From the first to The Third, I’ve stuck with the Saints from their original incarnation as a fairly serious gangster sim, to an exercise in all-out action lunacy. I’ve always felt that the series had something special to offer, making itself unique from Grand Theft Auto in ways that no other imitator managed or even attempted. Cliffy B might want Volition to make a Heat inspired action game, but I’m more than happy for them to keep making juvenile, brilliant Saints Row. That is unless this fourth entry is a sign of things to come.
I have two big problems with Saints Row IV. The first is the introduction of super powers. By virtue of the first truly ludicrous plot in the series, an alien invasion leads to your carefully customised Saint picking up a set of abilities that would make Superman jealous. Crackdown, inFamous, and Prototype all lend a power or two to the game’s mechanics. At first, this seems like fun. After all, who doesn’t want to leap tall buildings in a single bound? The answer – somebody who enjoyed the Saints Row franchise for its wild, exciting, extremely over-the-top shooter gameplay. They haven’t sold me three games on the back of freeze blasts, and it’s confusing that they’ve tried to now.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against change, especially when it comes to regular sequels. Here though, it’s tough not to feel like the developers have gone too far. Saints Row IV is a completely different game from those that preceded it. In a single release, we’ve gone from manic gang leader to one man army. Fighting is now about leaping above your enemies, flanking them with a hundred mile an hour sprint, before smashing a truck over their head with your telekinesis. It used to be about you and your homies rushing between cover, interspersed with great car chases and amazing set pieces. It’s like having a wizard in Call of Duty. Or Super Mario picking up a gun. The scenery might look the same, but the gameplay has been radically changed.
My second big problem was anticipated. Long before the eventual sale of their long time publishing partner, Volition were originally developing an expansion for The Third titled Enter the Dominatrix. This was to focus around the same enemy as features here, the evil alien Zinyak. However, when Jason Rubin stepped in as THQ boss, development was redirected into a full sequel. Now, although the Enter the Dominatrix content is said to be released as specific, separate DLC for this game, it’s still no surprise that a decision such as this has resulted in Saints Row IV being filled to the brim with padded content. At one point, a character even jokes that playtime is being padded out. Volition’s passion is still here, but it often seemed like I was on the receiving end of a rush job.
Very few missions feel like anything other than the standard set of Escort, Attack and Delivery objectives that plague open world games. It’s now very rare that you’ll enter a building, presumably because the city of Steelport has returned without many new landmarks. Nine times out of ten you’ll be up against an army of aliens that need to be killed before an objective can be secured. Deviations from this still fall into the same unwelcome super-powered category, from mechs to Qbert-esque platforming sections. Either I wasn’t very interested because I’d done it before, or I wasn’t interested because this wasn’t the game I wanted to play. None of it feels very Saints Row, and nearly all of it is an exercise in rinse-and-repeat super-powered nonsense.
Tellingly, the game is at its best when it strips you of your powers and asks you to relive the past. This happens in the side quests more frequently than it does the main storyline. It at least encourages you to stray away from the straight path where you’ll find the more interesting content. The traditional levelling system is gone. No longer do you have to complete side quests in order to progress, but funnily enough this is probably the first game where it actually feels like that wouldn’t have been a problem.
Super-powered protagonist aside, it’s really humour that saves the day. Dialogue remains hilarious, and Steelport’s animal costumes and casual nudity still create a dizzying mosh pit of cartoon sin. All of that great customisation stuff is here – cars, clothes, and flesh – even if its importance has been ripped to shreds given that you now fly among the clouds rather than swagger among the people. On the other hand there’s no cribs to decorate, which sucks, but at least I can still dress up in a rabbit costume and suplex a pedestrian. You just need to try harder to enjoy it. Literally, you need to put your feet on the ground, or it will all just sail by. If there was an option to turn off all the fireballs and ground slams I would have hit it. Repeatedly. Until it stuck.
With every subsequent release of Saints Row, Volition gave us more. More violence. More carnage. More choice. Now, they’ve served up different. In the process, they’ve completely diminished the value of the core product, almost creating a spin-off rather than a continuation. It’s still fun in places, mostly because of what has been left rather than what has been added, but I spent a lot of time sighing when I expected to spend it all laughing my head off. I wanted orgasmic, liberating chaos, not a pale imitation of other, lesser franchises. Should fans buy it? Yeah, probably, but they might become the first group of loyal players to ask for a reboot.
Sometimes writing a review makes you feel like a bad guy, and I don’t want to discourage Volition from trying out new things. But in the end, Saints Row IV feels like exactly what it is – a fun “What if?” style expansion that was asked to be something more than it could be. This is not the true evolution of Saints Row.