Saints Row has changed. The first game was a vaguely silly Grand Theft Auto rip-off that had some neat twists, but was slathered in problems and flaws – most notably, “not being as good as Grand Theft Auto.” The second was an utterly superb game that focused on the ridiculous and managed to evoke regular laughs, both with its script and its missions. The third followed in that direction with a new city and a general focus on making things even bigger and more explosive – one of the very first missions gave you the ability to call down drone strikes whenever you liked, and that was just the beginning. And now, Saints Row 4 gives you superpowers.
Saints Row has changed, and – if you put your wank hat on – Saints Row 4 is all about celebrating that change and the past that led up to it.
When I previewed Saints Row 4 around E3, I was a little worried that the final product wouldn’t really be Saints Row. Yes, okay it looked like Saints Row and sounded like Saints Row, but… super-sprinting? Being able to leap up buildings, freeze people with ice blasts, and then charge through them to shatter them? Surely that’s not actually going to feel like Saints Row. I mean, what’s the point in using a car if you can run faster than they move anyway?
I was right, insofar as this is pretty different. There’s little point in using vehicles for most of the game. The world is really easy to traverse, in general. You’re so overpowered it’s highly unlikely that you’ll die. So no, it’s moved a long way away from its GTA-but-more-ridiculous roots at this point.
Instead, it’s one of the best open-world superhero games since Spider-Man 2, and a loving tribute to the entire series as a whole.
It kicks off in medias res with the Saints taking part in a black ops operation, which ends with the Boss getting the idea of running for the office of President of the United States of America. The action then leaps forward five years to when the Boss is president. His/her low approval rating proves to be the least of his/her worries, though, as the intergalactic Zin Empire turns up, abducts most of the Cabinet – including Keith David, playing vice president Keith David, in what’s somehow only the second most amusing celebrity cameo in this game – and then traps him/her in a virtual reality world in an attempt to break him/her.
Look, can I just call the Boss “her”? It’ll make this less confusing.
Anyway. This plonks the Boss in a hellish virtual world (specifically, a 1950s-era sitcom), and only by acting like a complete maniac can she break out of it. Unfortunately, this leads to Zinyak – the emperor of the Zin – turning the virtual city into a glowy neon version of Steelport. Fortunately, this lets the Boss get access to all sorts of superpowers and reality-breaking abilities that wouldn’t be possible in a non-virtual environment, through a little hack-based assistance from Press Secretary Kinzie Kensington.
From there, your goals are clear: take over virtual Steelport to give Kinzie further access to the Zin systems, save your friends, and finally bring down Zinyak in the real world. Which is a really boring way of saying “just fuck everything up in as entertaining a way as possible.”
See, the virtual world setting gives Volition license to do whatever the hell they want. Yeah, alright, this means you can have superpowers like breaking the sound barrier on foot, hurling flames from your hands, and gliding through the air… but it also allows the return of characters from previous games (even those who died in those games) as well as plenty of references to the past. And to save each of your friends, you have to venture into their own ridiculous virtual hells – ranging from a text adventure to a Ghostbusters-esque battle against a gargantuan piece of product placement.
I’m also happy to announce that the game is so full of fantastic moments and wonderful jokes that I can actually specifically mention events like that without ruining much. Seeing what’s next is a joy, and I’ve only spoiled a tiny, tiny amount of the setpieces that amused me. I haven’t laughed this hard at a game in quite some time.
Saints Row 4 also very, very clearly knows what it is, and isn’t about to let simple things like “reality” get in the way of the fun. One section has the Boss trying to get radio on a stolen spaceship. As Kinzie begins to explain why that’s probably not going to happen, the radio kicks into life, playing Haddaway’s What Is Love. And then you play a Starfox minigame to What Is Love. It is exactly as amazing at it sounds.
The characters frequently lampshade the ridiculousness of the situations, and Volition don’t really stop at mocking anything; obvious touchstones like The Matrix are obviously hit upon, but there’s plenty more, from Freespace to Metal Gear Solid. There are enemies that are horribly glitched and have stretched character models (which are terrifying) as well as Mass Effect-style romance options for every character on the ship. Which are also as amazing as they sound. Particularly if you try to sleep with Keith David.
My chief concern, back at E3, was that playing a game with all of these powers and nigh-invincibility would get kinda dull, in much the same way as playing a first-person shooter with invulnerability and infinite ammo on is fun for about half an hour and then very, very boring. What I forgot was that this game is built for this.
This load of enemies are getting blasted by a guided rocket launcher I’ve customised to look like a guitar case. I’m going to freeze the next lot and sprint into a car to send it flying into them, shattering them into pieces. Then I’m going to leap into the air and slam into the ground to kill the next bunch with a shockwave. I’ll use a melee takedown on the next one, smashing his head into gooey red chunks. And the rest? Well, I could use my pistols with explosive ammo, or my dildo bat, or my black hole generator, or my dubstep gun, or hurl cars at them with telekinesis. While Song 2 or Just a Friend play in the background. As far as general entertainment goes, it’s hard to ask for more.
That’s not to say that the general ease of the game isn’t a bit wearying at times. While it does a good job of varying up mission objectives, both in the main missions and in the sub-activities, you’re still usually just running around and either killing people who are no match for you whatsoever, or fighting a pseudo-boss that’s also no match for you whatsoever once you figure out its weaknesses. There are exceptions – side activities include a few races, some new Professor Genki murder games, Mayhem missions requiring you to use specific weapons or powers, some genuinely awful platforming minigames – but there’s not much challenge to most. The game also has an annoying habit of locking out your superpowers (because the characters want to, because you’re in the Real World, or because you’re forced to drive a car) which is Not Very Fun.
Then you climb the highest building you can find, leap off it, slam into the ground so hard the camera pulls back to show a nuclear explosion, and it’s suddenly very hard to care.
It’s also perhaps a bit glitchy, though some of that is hopefully down to pre-release code. The subtitles regularly didn’t match up to what my character actually said (which, in one case, completely changed the meaning of the conversation). I fell through the world in my first two hours of play. A mission target hid inside a wall, forcing me to restart the mission. Etc.
Then you switch on a power that automatically sets everyone around you on fire and run through the streets at speeds a jet would envy, leaving burning devastation in your wake, and it’s suddenly very hard to care. Again.
Look: I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I’ve criticised the stuff that’s sort of broken or buggy or doesn’t quite work. Now can I let loose some exuberance?
Here’s the short version: Saints Row 4 is a game that basically gives you a massive toolbox of things with which to fuck up everything around you. The virtual world setting has given Volition the opportunity to break all the rules and do whatever the hell they want, and it’s an opportunity they’ve grabbed onto hard.
It points out the rules that games normally force you to follow, giggles maniacally, and helps you lift your arms to give those rules the middle finger. It glories in the ridiculous far, far more than even Just Cause 2 did, offering you far more extensive methods of traversing a virtual world and killing everything in it than pretty much anything that’s come before. This is probably the funniest game we’ll see this year, and it’s hard to think of one that can match it for sheer balls-out entertainment.
If this is really the last of the current crop of Saints Row games – and it’s hard to think of a way to top this – it’s about as good a finish as we could’ve hoped for. Saints Row 4 is a loving homage to the past games that’s full of references to them and characters from them, and it caps it all off by probably being the most flat-out fun game of the series. It’s the first Saints Row I’ve very, very nearly 100%ed, which says just about everything you need to know.
Also, stick around after the credits roll. You’ll thank me later.