Saints Row: The Third reinvented the open world sandbox game for me. In a genre where I previously struggled to stay engaged with several hundred missions, on-the-side silliness, and branching storylines, I never truly found a game I felt as though my likely undiagnosed ADD could vibe with. Strangely enough, SR:TT was that game. I fell in love with my Saints boss, Shaundi, Pierce, and Johnny Gat, and Steelport became my city. When the journey came to an end, I snapped up every shred of DLC I could simply to spend more time with my people, my city, and my ridiculous weapons.
When Saints Row IV was announced, I knew it would have to top its predecessor in many ways to keep me engaged. From its promotional materials, it would be the same hilarious ride I took back a couple years before. It would be the next chapter I was anxiously anticipating. Except, for various reasons, it was not.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Saints Row IV is still quite fun. Its an excellent cooperative experience and it delivers the franchise’s trademark juvenile, zany humor in droves. The boss of the Saints has somehow managed to strong arm their way into becoming the President of the United States. Keith David (yes, that Keith David) is the presidential advisor, and the rest of the Saints crew hold prominent positions in office. You can choose to cure cancer or solve world hunger. In a sense, you may as well be a superhero – perhaps that’s why you end up getting super powers later on in the game. The game is centered around making the player feel as awesome as humanly possible, and yet it manages to feel slightly hollow; a shell of what Saints Row: The Third managed to accomplish.
Perhaps it’s because Steelport is basically the same as we remember, and the lustre of zipping around the city is losing its appeal. Maybe it’s the hackneyed alien invasion trope seen in so many other games that gives the game a mediocre sci-fi lilt that, despite its earnest efforts to keep things as crazy as possible. Zinyak, the alien mastermind behind enslaving humanity and committing a hundred other heinous deeds, is a well-read megalomaniac who’s content to toy with the Saints leader in any way he can, including depositing him or her into a virtual Steelport that’s been conquered and is teeming with Zin soldiers.
It should be a wacky sendup of modern third-person shooters that take themselves too seriously, but it ends up succumbing to the exact same problems those games are notorious for. The entire game, in fact, feels like a last-minute dash to the finish to stretch content left over from planned DLC into a full retail release. Rather than expanding the game universe and offering new experiences, much of Saints Row IV is a retread of familiar pieces of the prior game, albeit with small tweaks here and there.
There are strokes of genius, such as the Saints boss being whisked away into a ’50s-styled sitcom world where “golly gee” is about as rude as one can get, the hilarious dubstep gun, and the text-based adventure game snippets found nestled within the game. But all of these shining moments quickly become forgettable when you must slog through shootout after shootout, generic mech combat, haphazard aerial missions, and loads of other segments that feel as though they’re poking fun at the subject material but are actually doing the exact same things. The fixation is on offering a wide variety of things to do, while sweeping the fact that some areas are low in quality under the rug.
The introduction of superpowers to the mix was a bizarre decision as well. While it’s empowering to be able to leap up tall buildings, slam into enemies with a lethal ground pound, or sprint through Steelport faster than a speeding bullet, these powers just aren’t all that useful in the grand scheme of things. Ice, fire, and other elemental powers are instrumental in incapacitating Wardens, larger Zin soldiers that wreak havoc on you if you amass a full wanted rating, and jumping across the city can be pretty exciting. But sprinting renders vehicles virtually useless. To top it all, most missions strip you of said powers before allowing you to take on rescue missions or infiltrate Zin bases.
Your only true playground is the virtual Steelport, where you always have to worry about amassing a wanted rating, especially during Flashpoint or other optional overworld quests or missions. Because of this, the powers feel little more than gimmickry, relegated only to areas where you can’t do too much damage, perhaps in a bid to balance things, but it ends up disappointing when you’re forced to leave the simulation and go back to “normal.”
These same motifs repeat themselves. Use the same weapons, wear the same outfits, play the same types of quests, and roll through the same Steelport from the original game, only this time it’s bathed in neon lights. There’s nary a daytime sky in sight in the simulation world, which makes zipping around the city feel a little bizarre. The lack of a day and night cycle seems lazy, and makes little sense considering Zinyak’s apparent eye for detail when it comes to everything Saints – why wouldn’t he account for daytime too? A lot of things make little sense in the game, but at least there’s fun to be had.
The leader of the Saints is consistently hilarious. “Romance” options, some great retro gaming references, and an excellent soundtrack accompany your jaunts about town, and if you’ve ever wanted to smack someone in the head with a writhing tentacle sword, this is your chance. There’s plenty to do in Saints Row IV, even though it all feels quite familiar. I’m pleased with where Saints Row has taken me before, but I’m ready for a new frontier. A new city. A new crew to run with. I had my fun with Steelport and the Saints, but perhaps it’s time for a new story. We’ll always have long car rides, er, sprints through the city.
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