Review: Saints Row IV is a game with great powers and tedious responsibility
When I finished up the first mission in Saints Row IV I was ready to pronounce it game of the year. When I was done with the third mission I thought their “Game of the Generation” marketing spiel was strangely appropriate.
Unfortunately, it would be highly irresponsible of me to score an entire game after the third mission. We have to play these things through until the fat lady sings dubstep.
Is Saints Row IV the best game of this console cycle? No. Will fans of Saints Row the Third be excited? Probably. I hope so.
A spoiler-free rundown
I promise not to spoil anything in this review that hasn't been a massive part of the game's marketing campaign already. If you're planning to go in completely cold, you might want to avoid this article entirely, but otherwise you should be fine.
With that said: Saints Row IV is the latest insanity-fueled open-world crime simulator from Volition Inc. Once again you lead the Third Street Saints gang, though this time around you've been elected President of the United States. Your unorthodox reign is cut short when aliens invade, capture you, and imprison you in a computer simulation, forcing you to roam the streets of a very lightly reskinned Steelport (the city from Saints Row the Third) and causing chaos in an attempt to break free of the alien's virtual prison. Also, you have superpowers.
Also, Keith David is your Vice President.
The bad stuff first
You know what? Let's just get all the bad out of the way first.
I'm mad at Saints Row IV. I'm mad because Saints Row IV doesn't even come close to fixing the biggest flaw in Saints Row the Third: the abysmal side missions.
Known as “Activities,” the best side missions in Saints Row the Third were good for a laugh the first time through, but quickly became rote and dull. The worst were a chore from the start—bland content with unpredictable difficulty spikes repeated far too many times.
Saints Row IV does not address this common complaint in any way. I'm sure it's not for lack of trying; with the exception of two or three activities that carried over from Saints Row the Third, every mission in Saint's Row IV is fresh and designed to take advantage of your newfound superpowers.
It doesn't matter. In my opinion, activities are still a giant, heaping pile of “Meh.”
Even worse, you miss out on a ton of great rewards by not completing these side missions. In the previous game you could just ignore the activities if you didn't want to deal with them. In Saints Row IV, you're forced to complete specific sets of activities to unlock some of the most creative weapons in the game—and a whole bunch of other character upgrades. The game tries to hide what it's doing by tying some tangential character narrative to the activities. Before each one, you'll hear a little snippet of dialogue. Then, later, you'll probably hear the same snippet of dialogue. And again. They just repeat.
I'll just say it: these are not really critical missions. You occasionally hear a character divulge an interesting piece of backstory, but most of it sounds like inane chatter to fill space.
By the time I reached the middle of the game I wanted to skip the rest of the ancillary missions and just mainline the story, but instead I felt compelled to see what other rewards were locked behind these missions. The answer: tedium.
The worst part about these unlockables is so many are just entirely unnecessary. Finish certain missions and you'll unlock cars. I probably spent thirty minutes driving cars during my entire playthrough of Saints Row IV, and then only because the game required it in certain missions. Unlocking vehicles is a needless holdover from Saints Row the Third, when that stuff actually mattered. In Saints Row IV I can literally leap off a skyscraper and glide like a flying squirrel to my destination faster than a car can drive, so why am I still unlocking vehicles like some sort of peasant?
Weapons can also be unlocked by completing side missions, but they don't feel like a meaningful reward. There's a fundamental “problem” with Saints Row's combat: headshots are almost always a one-hit kill. With any weapon. You can always wield something crazy like the dubstep gun, but why bother when you could kill the same group of enemies faster and more efficiently with a simple pistol?
The good stuff is still a blast
But when Saints Row IV is firing on all six bass-dropping, alien-murdering, donkey beer-swilling cylinders, it is a sight to be seen. A force to be reckoned with, even.
By adding crazy superpowers, Saints Row IV assumes some of the best aspects of Crackdown. Running at top speed before leaping into the air and flying over a few skyscrapers never gets old. It's silly fun, and I had a blast just rocketing around the city gathering collectibles. For the record, I snagged every single one (with the help of a map reveal that's unlocked way too early in the game).
Gun customization is also surprisingly fun. While a lot of games will just swap out a texture on the gun itself, Saints Row IV's weapon skins often modify the entire behavior of the gun. One of the pistols, for instance, can be customized to resemble a Star Trek phaser that will then fire lasers instead of bullets. It's an entertaining touch, and by the end of the game every weapon I used was customized in some way.
The soundtrack in Saints Row IV is one of the best licensed soundtracks I've ever heard (the best is still probably GTA: Vice City). I ended up leaving it on a station that I can only describe as “the best karaoke playlist ever” for most of the game, but all of the channels are of equal quality. I was skeptical at first about your ability to keep the radio playing even when you're not in a car, but considering how useless vehicles are you'll appreciate your character's ability to pick up radio waves with his head.
The best part is that it's more Saint's Row
Okay, still with me? Good. Now throw away all the bad stuff I said earlier: all the complaints about activities, broken unlockables, all of it.
I don't play the Saints Row games because the act of playing is fun or challenging—though Saint's Row IV does some have some fun and challenging moments. But it's all incidental, and while I'm an enormous Crackdown fan who really loves the way Saints Row IV adapts some of the ideas from that game, I'm primarily here for the story.
As I said earlier, I was ready to pronounce Saints Row IV game of the year after the first mission. When the writers nail it and all the components—smart dialogue, great voice-acting, high-concept lowbrow humor—come together correctly, the game is that damn good.
There are many, many amazing moments in Saints Row IV. Enough amazing moments that they mostly wash out the sour taste left in my mouth by all the trivial side missions. I'm making a careful effort to avoid spoiling any of them for you, but I believe we need more games that are willing to take some of these risks; to go to such weird, inventive places.
At multiple points in Saints Row IV I was so stunned by what I was seeing—that, for instance, a big-budget developer would reference something so niche that maybe a third of their audience will get it—that I had to pause the game and marvel at Volition's audacity.
Perhaps that's why the side missions gall me so much. They completely disrupt the flow of the main story, turning what should be a great 10-15 hour experience into a grueling 20+ hour grind. I'd love to see what the Saints Row writers could do with a linear, guided campaign instead of wrapping their ideas around a genre that fundamentally has no respect for pacing.
I'm not necessarily saying it would be better; in fact, I'm sure a lot of the Saints Row charm would be lost in the process. I'm just baffled at the disparity in quality between the structured missions and the optional activities—not just in Saints Row IV, but the previous titles also.
That's not to say the story is perfect. I actually think the writers go as far as they should down Satan's ladder, considering the game takes place in a setting where there are absolutely no rules. They sometimes play it safe when going for broke would've been more satisfying, and the villains in Saints Row IV are a bit one-note compared to the larger-than-life caricatures of Saints Row the Third. Evil aliens just feel rote after battling a gang of Mexican luchadores.
If you want a decent game propped up by an entertaining story, look no further than Saints Row IV. I feel like I loved playing this game in spite of itself; so many of its systems get directly in the way of what I enjoy most from the series: seeing what crazy stories, worlds and scenarios the writers can dream up.
In that respect I think Saints Row the Third was more consistently entertaining, in part because it was such a surprising tonal shift from Saint's Row 2. Saints Row the Third took people by surprise with brilliantly crafted missions that completely discarded popular game design conventions, and it's hard not to feel that Saints Row IV is just...more of that. It's good if what you want is more Saints Row, but fans of the previous games expecting a similar surprise will be disappointed.