It’s hard not to look back and think about how much of a break Saints Row: The Third was for the series. What was once just a technically-proficient and cartoon-y Grand Theft Auto-like became a collection plate for every bizarre game idea developer Volition could think of. Like dildo bats. Since the series has become a race to become the most ridiculous sandbox game ever, I wondered what was left to do – or what could be done – in a sequel that finds itself in storefronts less than two years after its predecessor. The result is Saints Row IV, a game that simultaneously feels more ridiculous and less adventurous.
Sometimes The Same Is Different…
After a black ops mission in a remote desert terrorist complex – more Bond than bin Laden – the Saints find themselves in the White House, you as the leader of the free world. Months later, your approval ratings are on the decline, handling hostile Congressmen boils down to a fist to the crotch, the halls of the historical home are decked out with debauchery and, oh, aliens invade. The bug-eyed and brainy Emperor Zenyak, who happens to be a Shakespeare aficionado, traps the Saints and a huge chunk of humanity in a virtual recreation of Steelport, a slightly modified version of the last game’s locale.
When the game lets you off the tutorial leash, you realize that Volition made the minute-to-minute gameplay very different than previous games. All of Saints Rows’ customization, clothing and vehicles are back, but once you’re given the ability to run super fast and jump super high, the game becomes a pedestrian adventure similar to Crackdown and Infamous. By letting you move anywhere in Steelport lickety-split on foot, Volition created a layer of friction in ever using a car, truck or airplane, despite the fact that the game kept dumping them in my garage and taunted me to use them. There are plenty of collectibles littered throughout the city, but like Crackdown, et al, developing your character’s super powers relies on finding glowing data clusters, some of which are hidden behind barriers only broken with abilities gained through the campaign. You can sidequest all you want, but you’ll still need to advance the narrative to become truly powerful, something that seems better tweaked than previous games, which became cakewalks as you edged toward invulnerability.
Saints Row IV incorporates an extra layer to combat with super powers. While never enough to replace your firearms, which you’ll still need to purchase and upgrade to be an effective killer, these powers supplement your combat abilities well. Endgame missions will require you to juggle between them, so your D-pad will always stays warm. Like the inclusion of vehicles, being able to summon other Saints to assist you around town feels like a vestigial feature considering how powerful you become with icy blasts and telekinetic throws.
…But Mostly, It’s The Same
While you’re encouraged to traverse it in a very different way, Steelport is largely unchanged from the last game. The day-night cycle of any open world game has rarely affected gameplay and locking Steelport into a permanent dusk gives the city a distinctive look while making the game feel smaller. In an attempt to compensate, the city’s lighting shifts from red to blue as you complete tasks and acquire territory. It’s very similar to The Saboteur‘s calling card, in which a WWII-era occupied Paris transformed from black and white to full color as you dispatched the Nazi threat, but it’s so subtle here that despite knowing it was going to happen, I didn’t notice it until after I’d taken over a huge chunk of the city. That’s not all, though: you’ll also need to scale alien towers and dismantle alien military hotspots that have taken over some of Steelport’s parks.
While The Third‘s campaign shifted from taking down to a crime syndicate to a zombie massacre and back, Saints Row IV bets the house on a timely and relevant homage to The Matrix. Without diving into spoilers, you’ll find yourself entering and exiting the Steelport simulation through magical glowing doors to a much cleaner version of the Nebuchadnezzar that serves as your mission hub. (Sadly, it’s not nearly as sparkly or interesting as your variety of digs from previous games.) Despite a re-introduction to the Saints and the fact that previous games have a linked lore, you’ll be missing out on many of the game’s story beats if you’ve never played a Saints Row game due to a plethora of in-house references. This may be the first sandbox game I recommend you not play until you’ve caught up with the back story.
Seemingly hand-in-hand with how quickly Volition iterates with these games, Saints Row IV is home to a variety of challenges from the ‘throw shit at the wall and see if it sticks’ school of game design. Favorites like Insurance Fraud return, but some of the new mini-games are either undercooked or frozen entirely. Platforming between circular platforms in an endless void is kinda interesting the first time; a lane-switching gem collect-a-thon is lame; all the telekinetic chores are tragic; the Super Hero Fight Club and Professor Genki challenges are terrible despite some pretty hilarious voiceover.
More, But Less
There were fears that Saints Row IV would just be an expansion pack’s worth of content to The Third and I can safely say those fears are unfounded. It’s a confusing game to review because as much as I enjoyed its predecessor, for every new idea this brings to the table, it introduces something unexciting or underdeveloped. Despite the fact that I completed the campaign and every challenge in Steelport within 21 hours, a rather small number for a sandbox game, I did so in just over a weekend of nearly non-stop playing. While the game ran fine on my aging computer, the graphics are nothing spectacular. Had both games released on the same day, they’d be on equal footing, but being nearly two years later, Saints Row IV feels like a lesser title.
There came a point in the campaign – and you’ll know which one when you play it – where I longed for the older games. I longed for a time where a car was required to get anywhere or where ragdoll physics gave you useful feedback on how your bullets were interacting with enemy gangsters, rather than being a cheap show as bodies are flung into space as you race by at 200mph on foot. In Volition’s race to become the most ridiculous sandbox shooter, it seems they’re throwing out too much that made the series fundamentally great in favor of some wild guesses that sometimes pay off. As fun as these games have been, I wouldn’t mind a tongue-in-cheek reboot that eschews this game’s conclusion in favor of a highly-polished game in which you shoot thugs and conquer a city.
Maybe that’s called Grand Theft Auto V.