September 7, 2013

Virtually Unstoppable – Saints Row IV Review

Yep, it's Saints Row all right.


Saints Row has a long reputation of being one of the finest, if buggiest, GTA imitators. Beating Rockstar’s titan to the previous next-gen platforms with its 360 debut, Saints Row was a bit of a buggy mess that still had great amounts of fun to be had. Its sequel, Saints Row 2, was shipped just months after GTA IV, bringing the same flawed but fun gameplay to the table, rivaling its chief competition. Finally, in 2011, Volition found they had nailed it with their next at-bat, Saints Row: The Third. After crushing most bugs, game-breaking and minor, they had produced and insanely high-polish title that was  a clear champion of the open world genre, providing non-stop laughs and incredibly fun gameplay the entire ride. Now Volition’s back with a full game extended out of planned SR3 DLC featuring an alien invasion and a Matrix knockoff, and they’ve pulled out what few stops were left.

At the outset, the gameplay is highly similar to SR3, but within an hour it all gets turned on its head as the player starts developing super powers. With their introduction the gameplay diverges from standard open world fair and quickly turns into incredible sandbox fun. Half of the powers are devoted to offensive abilities, with the other half for mobility. The latter half prove to be surprisingly fun, providing a huge portion of the game’s enjoyment. Running around at super speeds and leaping over buildings to glide to other ones all just feels so satisfying, mostly due to the fact that it’s incredibly precise and allows you to freely move about. You can point to any spot you see and almost always hit exactly where you wanted with minimal effort. The movement feels so incredible that the hours spent running around the city picking up collectables were a simplistic and fulfilling joy. This makes it ironic that a game based around the concept of grand theft auto will actually see you in cars only when missions require it, lest you ruin your enjoyment of bouncing around town.




The offensive powers are also plenty enjoyable, and Volition manages to make basic powers act very differently by slotting in different “elements” to each one, causing different effects. The variety is fun enough, although throughout the 20 hours of gameplay it’s rare that you’ll end up using more than the first two powers they give you beyond the, “Kill X aliens with power Y” challenges the game throws your way. The powers granted from halfway through the game and onward are simply additional ways to kill people, though they’re actually far less effective, and nowhere near as fun.

In contrast to powers, there are a few new weapons added to the game that do little more than add a novelty value to using them. As an example, there’s a gun that fires concentrated dubstep at your target, as well as a gun that will abduct everyone in a radius around where you fire it. All of these silly additions are humorous to use once or twice, but they pale in comparison to the effectiveness conventional weapons like pistols or SMGs. Those, in turn, are highly ineffective compared to just lobbing a fireball into a group of enemies and having them explode upon death, catching those around them on fire as well.


Don't call it a robot.


The whole reasoning behind having super powers and crazy weapons is absolutely insane, and therefore, it fits the Saints Row branding. After becoming the president of the USA, the boss of the Saints is abducted when aliens attack the Earth. After imprisoning the majority of Earth’s population in their ships, they set up a Matrix-esque simulation where everyone is trapped in their own personal hell. When one of the Saints who’s adept with computers decides to hack the simulations, super powers are doled out and the aliens start to lose their grip on Earth’s population. If the plot sounds fast and loose, that’s because it is. How does destabilizing the simulations actually defeat the alien menace? Just because. That’s the justification for almost everything in the game and if you’re going to question it, you might not want to play a Saints Row game at all.

This actually leads to some interesting situations where the aliens seize control of the simulation or you’re actually doing missions outside of it where you don’t have any of your super powers or ridiculous weaponry, and instead have to rely on gameplay much more in line with previous titles. They’re actually very refreshing because after a certain point of being brokenly overpowered, it’s pleasant to get slammed back down with segments where the best you can do is try to line up headshots.


That's one big promotional tie-in...


If there’s any detriment to the fact that you’re so overpowered it’s that the game is jokingly easy. I completed 98% of the game without a single death, and the only four mission failures I received were due to a glitch where one of the side activities was completely broken. The enemies pose no threat, even the toughest ones that the aliens throw at you. Even if you do find yourself low on health, there’s an element for your telekinesis power that will simply let you pick up someone and drain their health, almost completely healing you. The fact that the difficulty is laughable isn’t really a bad thing per say, but it certainly means if you’re looking for any sort of challenge you may be disappointed.

The main missions are the obvious gems of the game, each taking you through rescuing one of your crew members from their own nightmare simulations, with additional loyalty missions following afterwards to grant them their own super powers. The side missions are wonderfully written and really add immense depth to already beloved characters. This is aided with dozens of throwbacks to the older Saints Row titles. If name-dropping the Sons of Samedi and Veteran Child, as well as the Vice Kings or Maero doesn’t mean much to you, than it’s a safe bet the game won’t fully satisfy you. It’s because of these reasons that it’s almost impossible to recommend playing Saints Row IV prior to playing Saints Row: The Third, and if you even went so far back as to run through Saints Row 2 you would cement your requisite knowledge for all the in-jokes the game will throw at you. There’s just barely enough context given to each callback that it makes sense in the context of the mission, but never in context of the entire series. Saints Row IV is certainly a giant piece of fan service to long time players of the series.


At absolutely no point was this optional.


This is also apparent in the activities you can do outside of the main missions. Old favorites are back like mayhem and insurance fraud, but most of them get a new twist to them. Insurance fraud in the previous titles consisted of ragdolling your character into cars to rack up points, and in this one it’s the same except you can now throw yourself several city blocks in one dive. It makes the activity trivially easy, but it’s mostly so that players who once played by the rules can just sit there and laugh in awe at how incredibly, wonderfully broken it has become. Assassination missions are now targeting characters like the default Saints Row 2 player character, and mayhems now take full advantage of new super powers.  These old activities are augmented by a few new ones, including semi-Assassin’s Creed style climbing challenges, and new abtract virtual world challenges, such as platform jumping or a mini-game that is essentially the Battletoads turbo tunnel for several minutes. Unfortunately that’s about as fun as it sounds, and the other new activities in cyberspace are about the same.

As far as the game’s presentation goes, it’s highly similar to SR3. It looks nearly the same (aided by the almost completely recycled use of the city of Steelport), if a little bit more polished and fancy in technical merits. The real shine comes through in how Volition abuse the fact that you’re in a virtual world. Textures on buildings swim and shimmer every so often. Cars and people sometimes become extremely low resolution and blocky, only to quickly melt into their higher resolution selves. Pedestrians around town sometimes bug out, some having eyes twice the size of their head, some having horribly deformed meshes, and others simply walking upside down. The game wears its new clothes unbelievably well, and it just feels right when you’re being attacked by a missing model or a wireframe character. The team that did Deckers.die in the past title were clearly on point for Saints Row IV‘s abstract virtual worlds, and while they do look fairly nifty, they’re not really as interesting or wonderful as the few odd appearances there were in Saints Row: The Third.


The game looks good, no matter which virtual world you're in.


The fact that most of the previous city was reused for this time around means that the level design team had a lot of time to make new places to go, most of which are varied and interesting. The first time out in the real world on the alien ship is fun, but subsequent journeys out there are less and less exciting and more tedium, up until the final one. However, the main missions and loyalty missions take you to a variety of fun new places. A brief return to Stillwater from the first two games or a trip to the 1950’s are a few of the standout cases.

Ever since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City licensed a whole bunch of amazing 80’s tunes, licensed soundtracks have just been what open world games do. Saints Row: The Third had a wealth of tunes filling its virtual airwaves, and just listening to the radio in that game was a joy. It’s unfortunate to say the same doesn’t hold true in Saints Row IV. While you can listen to the radio at any time, no longer requiring you to be in the cars you’ll spend ten minutes total in, there aren’t as many songs as there were in the previous installment, nor are the radio stations as varied. It seems that most of the key songs in this game were licensed for use during missions, and the rest was just picked off of lists for what a radio station in that genre would play. Its use of songs in missions is impeccable though, and to echo the sentiments of other gaming journalists, this game made me actually enjoy Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, a song I had previously reviled for years.


Most of this 'console' sequence is references. It's great.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have copies on any platform except the PC, so we cannot say with any firsthand certainty of console performance, but our peer sites have had nothing but negativity for the console versions of Saints Row IV. It has reportedly low, choppy framerate, and generally runs much poorer than the PC version. This can cause issues with things requiring precision, such as movement or combat, and the game allegedly hitches when autosaving or just at random intervals. What we can attest to is that the PC version runs incredibly well, even on hardware a few years old. In short, if you were able to run Saints Row: The Third without issue, you won’t have any problems here. There were some minor technical issues encountered, including reliable CTD’s after a few hours of play. Also noted were issues with the game’s scripting or gameplay after a few hours, such as a telekinesis driven event no longer allowing the player to pick up objects required to complete it, and mission or activity triggers no longer working. In the minor bug category, every load would start by playing the last audio log picked up, and in a recent patch weapon selection was broken, completely disallowing access to certain special weapons.

All in all, Saints Row IV is a love song. It’s sung from Volition to both its series, and to the players who have stuck around since the very first initiation beatdown. There are incredible amounts of jokes that anyone picking up this game as their first for the series will miss, but that’s most likely to be expected if you’re playing a sequel. It seems as if Volition simply sat down after making Saints Row: The Third and said, “You know, that was pretty great, but now let’s just go wild and make it as functionally broken as possible.” To that end, you get exactly what you’d expect: A game that’s insane amounts of fun because it’s simply insane. It’s full of intentional bugs, sharp and witty writing, and more heart than just about any other game on the market. Saints Row IV is a game created specifically for certain people, and if you happen to be one of those people, it’s an ode to you. It’s not without its flaws, and it feels like certain parts weren’t quite baked long enough, but it’s still a beautiful melody that will ring sweet in any veteran fan’s ears long after the last notes stop.

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