"Saints Row" was a relatively serious "Grand Theft Auto" clone with a few neat gameplay tricks and a bland, silent protagonist. In the second game the seriousness began to be eroded with the introduction of snarky dialogue, colourful rival gangs and off-the-wall open world gameplay such as "Septic Avenger" (which involved driving around the city in a septic tanker spewing filth over everything).
"Saints Row: The Third" ramped things up even higher with ridiculously over the top cut scenes and easy access to laser weaponry and VTOL jets quite early in the game. I will never forget the mission where you bust a pimp out of a brothel and escape in a cart pulled by a pony-boy, under hot pursuit by gun-toting villains in similar conveyances. The best part? The pony carts explode when you shoot them.
It would have been difficult for "Saints Row IV" to be bigger and bolder than the third game without completely breaking suspension of disbelief, but fortunately the writers found a perfect solution to that.
After the events of "The Third", the Third Street Saints have become global celebrities and public defenders. The game begins with them on a mission right out of a James Bond film to infiltrate a base full of terrorists (which has helpful signs on the walls saying "No infidels beyond this point") and deal with an old enemy. Events culminate with the The Boss clambering up a launching nuclear missile to the strains of Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing". As prologues go it's pretty epic and the use of music is absolutely perfect.
After a pause for character customisation (disappointingly I didn't find an option to import mine from "The Third") it's explained his or her recent heroics enabled the Boss to get elected as President of the United States. During a routine press conference the White House is attacked by a Shakespeare-loving alien overlord named Zinyak. He then abducts The Saints and locks them up in a Matrix-like computer simulation because he sees them as the only things standing between Zinyak and global domination.
With Kinzie the hacker's help The Boss begins to manifest superpowers within the simulation and disrupt the Zin Empire's operations from within. Can he free the other Saints and kick Zinyak's butt? Or is humanity doomed to be enslaved forever?
The game has a straightforward but highly entertaining story that borrows liberally from science fiction in general and "Mass Effect", "They Live" and "The Matrix" in particular.The addition of Keith David playing himself as the Boss' Vice President is an excellent callback both to the first "Saints Row" game and to "They Live", and both of these are lampshaded amusingly in the game's dialogue and events.
Volition use the simulated nature of reality in this game to write love letters to science fiction, video games and the previous three games in the unfolding story. For example, many of the weapons may be customised to look like directly recognisable variants of famous guns from science fiction. My personal favourite was the Rapidfire SMG that looks like Robocop's automatic pistol. The game also explores the relationships between the Boss and his or her homies in a way that hasn't been done before and includes quite a few faces from the past of the Saints Row games.
As well as the main missions the game borrows a trick from "Mass Effect 2" by providing a loyalty mission to complete for each of the main Saints homies. These were some very entertaining missions and definitely add to the gameplay.
The side missions were definitely less imaginative, largely consisting of a shopping list of open world gameplay tasks to complete. The rewards for doing a set of these is decent however, providing a much better incentive to tackle the open world content than existed in previous games: this was the first time I completed every single one of the extra challenges. I would have liked to see a few more side missions that didn't use this simple approach, however, and this is one reason I haven't rated the game more highly.
The best thing I can say for the story is that it's handled well and in a genuinely funny way. I laughed out loud repeatedly and often called my housemate into the room to see the latest crazy thing that was happening in the game.
The way the game works will be largely familiar to anyone who has played one of the previous games. You are free to move around the open world map playing the various events you find there, the completion of which grants money that can be used to buy neat stuff and upgrade your character and Saints homies. Missions, power ups and so forth are accessed from a phone interface as per the last two games.
One of the earliest abilities you get lets you 'save' any vehicle you drive and then call for it to be delivered to you. Rather than having to wait for a homie to drive it to your location this involves materialising it directly around you. As you can imagine this opens up a few fun tactical possibilities when you are able to 'save' a tank or alien UFO.
The handling of the superpowers is great and movement around the city feels a lot like the effortless sprinting, jumping and gliding of "Prototype". The suite of other powers makes you feel suitably godly, and lead to many organic moments of pure bliss when you manage to do something really epic to a bunch of Zinyak's henchmen. Literally taking off and nuking the site with a fully powered up Death From Above attack feels particularly satisfying. There are also plenty of upgrades available for your powers that can be purchased by collecting Code Clusters that are dotted around the map. They ensure you can't collect all of these in the beginning of the game by caching groups of code clusters in obstacles that can only be released with a power that isn't gained until midway through. Practically this means that new caches of clusters open up after each new power is gained, so you don't have to hoard points because you're worried about needing them for future upgrades. There are more than enough clusters in the game to buy all of the upgrades for every power.
There are quite a few new open world challenge types, too, many of which hinge upon superpower use. These include "Mind Over Murder", a telekinesis game that involves hurling people and objects through virtual 'hoops', and "Superpowered Fight Club" which requires you to fight off waves of super-powered enemies with only your fists and your powers.
There are also quite a few platforming challenges, but the developers have gone out of their way to make these challenging without being annoying or frustrating.
Several of the missions nerf or turn off your superpowers altogether. While this can be frustrating it's a good way to provide a range of activities in missions by forcing you to drive rather than just sprint or glide everywhere and to rely on your gun skills rather than your god-like super powers.
The alien weapons are also very fun, with more exotic ones being unlocked gradually over the course of the game. The Dubstep gun (which can be upgraded to fire explosive wubs) and the Singularity Launcher were two of my favourites.
The game does glitch occasionally, such as when you use the Stomp power and your character ends up somehow falling through the bottom of the level. I also had three or four complete game crashes though the game didn't hang my 360 when it crashed and my save games were completely fine.
I would like to give the developers special kudos for the 'romance' options available when interacting with each homie at the Saints' home base. Playing as a male character pretty much every homie can be 'romanced', including the guys, and this is often played surprisingly straight. It would have been easy for them to make a complete joke out of romancing the male members of the gang and in a couple of cases they do play it for laughs, but I was glad they made the effort overall.
Sound and Graphics
The game uses the same graphical engine as "The Third" but has some clever little tricks with lighting and textures to remind you that you're inside a simulation. Simulated people occasionally show a glitchy, pixelated look and the alien infrastructure is limned in red neon that turns blue as you slowly take over the city.
Signs are plastered everywhere that extoll Zinyak's virtues and command the trapped Boss to 'OBEY' etc., a deliberate call out to classic science fiction film "They Live". This is a deliberate homage as is made clear by one mission that involves both Keith David and Roddy Piper as themselves, the actors who played the two main characters in the film. This works well to remind you that you're not in the real Stillport anymore and maintains Zinyak as a constant threat and presence even while he's not on screen.
If I have any complaints about the graphics it's that some of the lip syncing and animations can be a little off at times; for the most part the game looks great.
Musically the game is a delight. Not only did Volition implement a system that lets you listen to radio stations both in and out of vehicles but also they use brilliant music choices as the soundtrack for various key scenes. This use of tunes put a grin on my face every time it happened.
If "Saints Row" was a GTA game with the serial numbers filed off then "Saints Row IV" is a blend of Mass Effect, Crackdown and Prototype. It's sheer fun to play and adds a very effective coda to the series. With an entertaining story, fun open world events and slick super-powered mayhem there's always something to keep you entertained while you're playing.
I would have ideally liked to see a few more types of secondary mission and there are a few bugs in the game that need to be ironed out but these do not detract significantly from the play experience.
Reducing its score a little for these minor flaws, I give "Saints Row IV" an overall score of 8.5 and thoroughly recommend it to newcomers and experienced "Saints Row" players alike.