I’ve always been somewhat aware of the Saints Row series of games although I’ll be honest and say that I have, for the most part, ignored them. It’s not that I have anything against them in particular, indeed I played Saints Row 2 a bit when it came out, it’s just that open world games aren’t usually that appealing to me. Still it’s been hard to miss the controversy that surrounds Saints Row IV and by all accounts it’s been well received by the community at large so I had to wonder if I was missing out on something. Whilst my time with Saints Row IV might not have turned me into an open world convert I was amazed at how far Grand Theft Auto’s poor cousin had come since the last time I played it.
Saints Row IV takes place shortly after its predecessor putting you, known only as The Boss, in the middle east to track down Cyrus Temple who’s gone insane and is hellbent on kill all of your crew. Before you can get to him however he launches a nuclear missile at Washington and you, being the charismatic hero that you are, leap onto it and disable it mid flight. This wins you the praise of the American people, catapulting you into the oval office with the Saints as your cabinet. 5 years later however the world is invaded by a ruthless alien race and you’re the only one that can stop them.
It’s clear that Saints Row IV has been engineered towards fast paced game play as even with every setting dialed up to the highest possible setting it still looks and feels like a current generation console game. It’s a world’s away from the horror show that was Ride to Hell: Retribution but it’s still below the level I’ve come to expect from current generation games, even open world titles which usually dial it back a little for playability. This is made up for however by the surprising amount of detail that’s been stuffed into every scene something that becomes quite apparent when you’re driving through the numerous winding streets. The graphics were obviously not their primary focus however as there’s a lot more to the game than just the visual experience.
Like previous Saints Row games you’re given a pretty extensive amount of customization options for your character, many of which go far beyond that of what you’d normally expect. I was just going to go with the default settings however after browsing through the available skin colours and finding the fetching blue hue you see above I couldn’t help myself and set about creating Dr Manhattan. This was probably for the best as my last character, a geriatric white man who’s default look was sheer terror with a voice that certainly didn’t match his appearance, ended up becoming a distraction more than anything else. Dr Manhattan on the other hand seemed to fit in with Saints Row IV’s ludicrous nature.
If there’s one theme that runs through everything in Saints Row IV (and I’m not just talking about the story here) its that nothing should be taken seriously and that there are no limits to what the developers would mess with. Now this presents something of a conundrum for me as much of the longevity I get out of games like this comes from the fact that they take their world seriously and, once I’m bored of that reality, I can set about sowing chaos and destruction. In short Jerk Mode is a key part of my experience for these kinds of games however Saints Row encourages you to be a giant dick to everyone from the get go and indeed that becomes a central part of the overall game.
The vast majority of your game time will be spent inside the “simulation” where your primary goal is to disrupt it as much as possible. There are numerous ways for you to go about this, indeed the first 4 hours of the game are pretty much dedicated to introducing you to these mechanics, and they’re all about breaking the rules and generally running amok. These are all essentially mini-games that you play to gain cash, experience and unlocks that will make your time in Saints Row IV easier and, possibly, much more enjoyable. Unfortunately like all open world games these quickly start to lose their sheen and fast become repetitive tasks which are no where near as fun.
Of course you don’t have to do all these side missions as once you’re past a certain level it’s next to impossible for you to die and the weapons you have at your disposal make all but the hardest enemies evaporate instantly. I made the mistake of trying to clear out my side quests initially which turned out to simply be an easier way to find the various challenges scattered around the place. After that I instead went to focus on the story line but even that just became a way to introduce new types of challenges into the simulation. It was at that point that I started to lose interest in Saints Row IV and is the primary reason why I didn’t finish it.
The combat of Saints Row IV is primarily of the 3rd person shooter variety with hordes of enemies throwing themselves at your vast arsenal that includes both regular guns and ludicrous weapons such as the Dubstep Gun. The AI isn’t particularly smart or innovative, usually standing in the same position and taking pot shots at you, and the challenge usually becomes finding them rather than dispatching them. If you prefer you can also go toe to toe with them either using your fists or one of the few melee weapons available to you however the melee combat system feels really clunky, to the point of being unusable.
The problem stems from the fact that your normal walk speed is heinously slow and while sprinting you can’t use any weapons at all. This means that approaching an enemy involves sprinting right up to them, stopping and then waiting for your character to switch into melee mode. If you rapidly press the fire button while sprinting you’ll perform a super power take down, something which is effective in its own right, however if you’re trying to take out multiple enemies at a time it’s by far the least effective way of doing so. Thus whilst there is a melee combat system it feels decidedly lacklustre and is only made worse when you’re forced to use it in some of the challenges.
There are also large swaths of the game that seem to be completely irrelevant. Like Grand Theft Auto you can steal cars and even upgrade/customize them however once you’ve got a couple levels in sprint there’s not a lot of point in driving them around. Indeed if you’re chasing data clusters, the little things that let you upgrade your super powers, you can’t be in any kind of vehicle in order to pick them up. There was allusions made to the fact that there might be races using them however I never came across one so any money sunk into improving your cars seems like an utterly pointless endeavour.
The story is pretty much as you’d expect although I get the feeling I’d be getting a lot more out of it if I had seriously played some of the preceding Saints Row games. Indeed much of this game relies on past events to drive the current narrative so those of us who are only tangentially familiar with the Saints Row story are likely to be left wondering why certain things are the way they are. The romance options are pretty hilarious though, even if you don’t need to do anything more than press R to activate them.
Saints Row IV starts off strong with its complete disregard for seriousness and emphasis on just having fun. However that quickly wears thin as the game throws repetitive challenges at you making every task feel like just another grind for experience and cache. I’m sure long time Saints Row fans will find much to love in the current title but for someone like me I just couldn’t get into it past a superficial level. I tried to stick it out, honestly I did, but the repetition and lack of any investment in the characters or story just wore me down and I couldn’t continue playing it.
Saints Row IV is available on PC, PlayStation3 and Xbox360 right now for $69.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 6 hours of total game time and 21% of the achievements unlocked.