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Saints Row IV has some big shoes to fill. About two years ago, Saints Row: The Third broke all expectations when it revitalized the series through absurdity. Yes, that was basically the game’s theme, and it worked out better than Volition could have imagined when new fans started pouring in, eager for a taste of something different. Fortunately, Saints Row IV carries on this new legacy proudly, while celebrating both Saints Row of today and yesteryear, and marks an explosive end to this particular Saints saga.
After taking the world by storm through aggressive merchandising and capitalist know-how, the Saints have moved out of Steelport to Washington D.C., where they now occupy the White House. That’s right, the head of the Third Street Saints is now head of the United States. Too bad running a country isn’t as easy as it looks, especially when you’re a borderline sociopath like our Saint. Luckily, political sensitivity means a lot less once aliens invade Earth. That requires a completely different set of skills.
President’s Got Superpowers
Okay, so the game still feels the same when you’re actually playing it. Saints Row IV is still Saints Row and the familiarity sticks, no matter how insane it gets. And believe me, things will get so insane; the kind of insane that leaves you drinking donkey beer whilst seated atop Satan’ ladder, with absolutely no recollection of how you ended up there. All the killing, driving, and general mayheming carries over rather well, even after your Saint (now the President of the United States) gets superpowers. Many of the new activities around Steelport revolve around these powers, which can be upgraded over time like all your other abilities, just with the use of data clusters rather than money. If you’re wondering how POTUS winds up imbued with godly powers, just look to the nearest army of alien invaders. Knowing the plot of The Matrix would also be beneficial.
I won’t reveal much more than that, because spoiling these little plot details would be a huge disservice to Keith David, the game, and anyone hoping to play it. The point is, your Saint becomes a god among men (some would argue s/he already was), armed with fancy moves like Super Speed, Telekinesis, Force Shield, DEATH FROM ABOVE, and more. Freeze your enemies, light them on fire, or send them flying with your mind; the options are nearly limitless and all equally fun to play with.
Still, these phenomenal cosmic powers come with limitations, ensuring that POTUS never feels too strong until you’ve invested enough time to earn that privilege. Sure, you can feel like a god without God Mode, but getting there requires work. Power upgrades become progressively more expensive, like the numerous tiers for cooldown reduction, improved damage, and so forth. Data clusters are mercifully easy to acquire, however, and can be found scattered across nearly every corner of the city. By the end of the campaign, after completing a modest 39 side missions over 17 hours, I had collected well over half of the superpowers and their corresponding upgrades, with plenty more data left (I’m saving up).
All powers are rewarded for completing missions, and most are unlocked simply by going through the campaign. A few can only be earned by completing quest chains given by your crew. Surprisingly, none of your early powers really feel outdated as the game progresses, even as you acquire new ones. Some situations might require switching powers for the sake of tactics, but by the end of the game, my favorite power was still Ice Blast, the very first combat superpower you get.
Taking Back Earth
In Saints Row IV, Steelport has been overrun by aliens, and they’re a lot tougher than rival gangs. See, the city – and presumably the rest of the world – has come under totalitarian rule by the Zin Empire. Emperor Zinyak runs the show now, and you can’t break many laws without the new order taking notice. When your notoriety meter goes up, the Zin won’t hold back in stopping you, and trying to get away from an army equipped with superior tech isn’t easy. To offset this, notoriety can be wiped by destroying a specific alien robot on the map, and its location will be marked whenever you start attracting unwanted attention from the authorities. Catch this robot, kill it, and your meter will go back to zero.
Keep that advice in mind, because you will be getting into a lot of trouble, seeing as how mayhem is the best way of taking back your turf. Stores are all locked and must be hacked before they’re accessible to the President, and participating in the countless activities around Steelport further weakens the Zin’s control on the world. These activities do include a lot of missions seen in previous Saints Row games – such as Tank Mayhem, Fraud, and Trail Blazing – in addition to some new ones tailored around your superpowers. The new Professor Genki activities, for instance, make use of those fancy telekinetic powers by having you throw people, objects, and props through colorful rings, like a screwed up, murderous matching game. Rifts and towers, platformer-esque activities require skillful application of your speed and jumping powers.
The number of activities available in Saints Row IV can be pretty overwhelming for some, but they are introduced gradually over the first hour or two of gameplay, during which your crew will help you become acclimated with this brave new world. The game does encourage you to keep doing activities throughout by making them into side quests for your homies, but they’re still entirely optional. The rewards are generally pretty great, though.
Poking Fun at Mass Effect
Saints Row: The Third had its share of satire, but any such commentary we’ve seen before pales in comparison to the comedic relief in Saints Row IV. One of my favorite moments, when I laughed until I cried, involved a Metal Gear Solid reference during the game’s satirical take on stealth games. Not surprisingly, Call of Duty is also thrown into the mix.
Above all else, however, the game relentlessly parodies Mass Effect through crew interactions and romances. Yeah, you read that right. In Saints Row IV, you can romance every single homie, from long-time friends to new allies, without any actual work. Each character seems to only have one romance scene, and the majority of them are really quite humorous; silliness aside, I like to think Johnny Gat and my POTUS had something special. All the characters are pretty enjoyable to listen to, though, and the lighthearted banter tossed between them gives Saints Row that unexpected heart it’s known for.
Video game relationships aside, you’ll be recruiting additional crewmates one quest at a time, and they all have unique loyalty missions. Granted, this formula is yet another jab at Mass Effect, but the recruitment/rescue missions and follow-up assignments from your crew are actually very well thought out. For returning favorites like Shaundi, Benjamin “Motherf*cking” King, and Johnny Gat, we actually revisit locations from previous games and relive past events in a bizarre adventure down Saints Row memory lane – might be a few more rocket launchers than you remember.
Volition parodies more than just the recent blockbusters, of course. Many of these story quests dial back the decades to a simpler time when 2D brawlers and top-down shooters were the pinnacle of the gaming experience. At one point, you’ll actually be fighting in a virtual setting (again) as DOS commands scroll over the top of your screen, altering the world around you in real time. Another major quest sends you through a text-based adventure in order to free a potential crewmate, and chatter between Zinyak and POTUS make the whole experience all the more hilarious. Moments like these are seriously what make the Saints Row experience so damn great.
Better with a Friend
Co-op is back in Saints Row IV, as it should be, the game caters to cooperative play in much the same way Saints Row: The Third did. All missions can be done with a buddy, and co-op only activities can be sought out in Steelport, giving social gamers some additional content to roll around in. One such activity is Death Tag, during which two players must use limited powers and weapons to kill each other, even as cops and civilians bumble through their 1v1 deathmatch. What could be more entertaining than lighting a good friend on fire, and then shooting them with an assault rifle as they run around screaming with their hands in the air? Nothing, that’s what.
Story missions support co-op as well, meaning you can recruit a buddy to help you out at any time should the escorting and Zin waves become too much. Unfortunately, if your partner disconnects during the mission, you’ll be forced to start over. Additionally, players cannot join a game mid-mission. Pretty annoying, for sure, but also understandable, given that the missions do scale based on whether you have one or two players in the game. Outside missions, the co-op is pretty seamless, and players can drop in and out on a whim. Conveniently, you may also split up, where one person enters the world while the other is still on the ship.
After the events of Saints Row: The Third, not many of us can imagine how Volition might progress. Not surprisingly, the developers decided to go big, making the fourth game even crazier, but also capitalizing on lessons taken from The Third. Whereas Saints Row: The Third felt like an episode of self-discovery for the franchise and often aimless in its madness, Saints Row IV is much more deliberate in its delivery, more controlled. It's still crazy, just much better at it.
For me, Saints Row IV was easily the most anticipated game of 2013. Saints Row: The Third was, after all, one of the most memorable games I’ve played in some time. Now, after so many sleepless nights spent groin-punching aliens through the atmosphere and romancing Johnny Gat (Keith David was playing hard to get), I can honestly say that Saints Row IV does not disappoint. Everything we loved about Saints Row: The Third is here, and the numerous throwbacks to Saints Row and Saints Row 2 are the perfect touch to this chapter – concluding at least one narrative in the greater Saints Row universe. I honestly can’t think of a more appropriate ending, either, or a better nemesis than Zinyak.
I honestly haven’t enjoyed a game quite so thoroughly as Saints Row IV, nor laughed as hard at one. On that note, Saints Row IV has my vote of emphatic approval for doing what it does so well: making us laugh until we cry.
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