What Is Love?
As a critic who has reviewed games professionally for over six years, I have on more than one occasion wanted nothing more than to tell the reviewing process to fuck off. Unsurprisingly, nearly all those moments came when I played a title from Saints Row. Its unapologetic, no-holds-barred, stick-it-in-your-craw attitude—a colossal middle finger to clean, proper, and respectful game design in the name of unadulterated fun in the purest sense of the word—has a way of rubbing off. To the point of chafing. Yes, I feel it for days.
Saints Row IV takes the previous installment to the next logical step, or as "logical" as Saints Row can get anyway. By the end of the opening tutorial mission, the 3rd Street Saints elevate themselves from mere pop superstars to a group so idolized by the American public that the entire crew becomes the cabinet of the White House, and you become the one and only President of the United States. As per your order, the Oval Office is decked out in purple, hallways are installed with stripper poles, and your staff handles every bureaucratic affair to keep your life as carefree and hedonistic as possible. That is, until aliens invade the world, kidnap everyone you care about, and give you a very handy reason for wanton destruction and kickassery.
Characteristic of the series, you will have a full customization of your character, replete with dials and widgets for facial, skin, and body customization. As I revealed in an earlier post, I created a facsimile of the Ultimate version of the X-Men Colossus, except shirtless and with a British accent (I was tempted to use Nolan North's voice), while one of my friends created a wrinkly, purple-skinned, big-breasted, blue-haired, panty-clad sex fiend who not even a mother could love. You can also import prior characters uploaded to your Saints Row profile from Saints Row: The Third and create characters prior to the game's release using the Initiation Station.
As you might expect, the humor is heavy on sexual themes, vulgarity, and self-referential jokes, particularly on the history of Saints Row. Numerous missions feature characters from prior installments or are modeled around spoofing another beloved video game series, to the point that Saints Row IV is a bonafide love letter to all things awesome in gaming and general nerd culture. Revealing any of these moments would unceremoniously spoil them, but suffice it to say, nothing has been spared.
The story is a running gag of epic moments. Just when you think they've exhausted one idea, they sling out another from the hat and dare you to say, "Well, donkey beer! They actually went there!" The oft-touted dubstep gun is just one of many ridiculous weapons, and the presidential plot thread is merely the appetizer to the full-course buffet of outlandishness. There's nothing quite like pulverizing aliens to "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss II or Haddaway's "What Is Love?". As Volition has stated before, there really is nowhere left to go after this finale, lest they climb Satan's ladder to who knows where. The developers will likely need to reboot the series if they want to make another Saints Row. [This paragraph is for you, Aubrey Norris. ~Ed. Nick]
This new version of the city of Steelport, while updated and rife with alien scum, should be familiar to any Saints Row veteran. The neighborly Friendly Fire still plants itself between tattoo parlors, various clothing stores, and plastic surgeons. A slew of activities and collectibles are strewn throughout the urban streets, pedestrians are well-versed in smack-talk, and Professor Genki returns with his spastic, catty antics. Committing crimes raises the notoriety meter, arrows appear on the road whenever you drive to a marked destination, experience and cash works towards earning character upgrades, and by and large, you're a total badass. For Saints Row, this is all standard fare.
So to take things one notch higher, you now have access to a full range of superpowers, including super jumps, glides, elemental blasts, and several others that are unlocked across the campaign. In effect, exploration is much like it is in Crackdown, jumping around the city capturing
orbs data clusters. Several missions and activities will challenge your prowess with the gamut of superpowers, asking you to perform precise platforming, sprinting, telekinesis, and super-powered strikes. Any data clusters you collect can be spent to upgrade your superpowers, and completing side quests and loyalty missions can imbue them with different elements with varying effects.
By the end game, your character would not be out of place in the Justice League, which actually isn't that far off if you choose to play with an equally super-powered friend in co-op. Let's just say that doing so makes hardcore difficulty almost a must, as it makes every mission and activity a breeze. Even better, both players gain credit for earning gold medals and clearing flashpoints, so the second player won't need to sacrifice much for joining.
That said, superpowers eventually make your character too powerful. The game practically admits to this, as more than several end-game missions take your powers away for the sake of keeping them challenging. The Warden, a beefed up enemy type, is challenging at first, but is easily dispatched with a fully upgraded shotgun. Since superpowers turn your character into a one-man wrecking crew, there's little reason to call in homies to the battle unless you want to hang with them for the hell of it. The empowerment and celerity of leaping and super-sprinting around Steelport removes any compulsion to hop into a jet fighter, let alone a car so that you can feel the thrill of traffic. Nor is there any concern for notoriety, since you can usually plow through enemies or easily escape by gliding to the other side of the island in seconds.
Another unfortunate problem is that in the review build I played, the game froze about twelve times, mainly on the in-game menu screen while loading. Along with several instances of stuttering framerate drops, the Day 1 patch should fix most of these issues, so it's a case of giving Volition the benefit of the doubt. (Besides, it could just be my old Xbox 360.)
Completing practically everything (well, 98% in my playthrough at least) in the game on normal difficulty, including earning gold medals on all of the side activities and gathering every possible collectible, takes around a week of casual play. Extending the campaign are several exclusively co-op activities, done either online or via system link, as well as various challenges that unlock extra skins and costumes. That said, the replay value is somewhat limited, though Saints Row IV only needs one playthrough to blow your mind.
If Grand Theft Auto is drama, then Saints Row is comedy. Both have similar sandbox designs, but their aesthetics are wildly apart. Yet just like drama versus comedy, the former is lauded as superior and the latter is seen somehow negatively as a farce. Those people don't know what they're missing. Saints Row IV is exaggerated fun in the loudest, proudest, awesomest, most fuckingest way possible. So if you want to give this five perfect stars, go right ahead. I won't stop you. Just make sure it chafes.