Saints Row IV is the successor to 2011’s Saints Row: The Third, an excellent open world game driven by mechanical insanity and an extremely sharp sense of humor. But with a shift from urban gang culture to parody science fiction, a relatively recent shift in publisher, a slightly troubled pre-release reputation, and a somewhat short development cycle, I was justifiably nervous that the sequel wouldn’t nearly live up to a predecessor that was undoubtedly my favorite game of two years ago.
Thankfully, Saints Row IV isn’t anything close to a bad game.
Since their foray into celebrity several (in-game) years ago, the Saints have further risen in power and their leader, you, has ascended to the role of President of The United States of America. After taking office, aliens attack Earth and place you in a simulation of Steelport, the setting of Saints Row: The Third. While the plot is fine and carries plenty of fine moments, it mainly acts as a basic means to justify crazier gameplay and the series of parodies and bits that this game is comprised of. I won’t spoil a single amazing joke or awesome moment that IV provides (expect tons of musical set pieces, multiple brief genre-shifts, and Volition’s take on several classic franchises), but those on the fence can at least be assured that the level of humor you got last time is still entirely here.
The most important aspect that the plot offers, however, is that it gives Volition an excuse to give your character superpowers under the justification that the new, simulated world you’re trapped in doesn’t operate under the same rules as the real world. Among these powers include super speed, super jump, telekinesis, elemental blasts, ground pounds, and more. Those who have played Crackdown should feel right at home, as the powers all work fluidly and perfectly. The jumping and speed in themselves are useful enough to make vehicles of all forms obsolete, and throwing ice down to freeze enemies before smashing them with a dildo bat is exactly as fun as it sounds. On top of that, powers can be upgraded to shift elements (like going from ice to electricity), gain power, and more. Weaponry is also brought to new extreme levels, with crazy additions like the Dubstep Gun and a mech.
And speaking of upgrades, Saints Row IV takes a certain level of pride in them. Upgrading your character to the point of breaking the game and destroying all difficulty is at least as pertinent as it was last time (though potentially much more so with the new powers), but IV also introduces a few tricks of its own. Weapons can now be given customizable skins (including making pistols golden and turning an RPG into a guitar case), and further upgrades can be found in weapon capabilities and vehicle mods (assuming you even enter a car after the first hour of the game).
But as with most open world games, the world itself is arguably the star of the show, and Steelport is no exception. Well, it was the first time I played it at least. Turning Steelport into an alien simulation carries some changes: the art direction accounts for it slightly, the sky is now a dreary dusk color (which is as bland as it sounds), some new alien architecture plagues the city to provide some new activities, and there really is no longer a gang structure. Outside of that, the Steelport in Saints Row IV is nearly identical to the Steelport in Saints Row: The Third, and it’s unarguably the most disappointing thing in the game.
Unfortunately, the laundry list of things borrowed from Saints Row: The Third doesn’t end there. While none of the activities are quite ripped from its predecessor, Saints Row IV’s activities are mostly twists on things you’ve done before to once again take over the city. Instead of regular ragdoll Insurance Fraud, now you can use superpowers to break it; instead of racking up damage with a tank, now you’re doing it with a mech or with your superpowers; instead of racing with a car, now you’re doing it with your feet. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong, they are still fun and there are still some unique activities like climbing up towers using your abilities and superhero death matches. In addition to the activities though, IV has online co-op that barely feels iterative, the clothing and character customization is mostly the same, some of the UI is nearly ripped from the last game, and even some of the hilarious and fun stuff feels a bit similar to the hilarious and fun stuff you did last time around. On a slightly more depressing note, the game isn’t even as long as the previous entry – the story clocks in at under 10 hours by itself, and taking over the city and seeing most of what the game has to offer took me a bit under 20.
Yet somehow, a weak Saints Row game is still better than most other video games being released. Although the return is a diminishing one, the mechanics are still impossibly tight, the new powers work great, the writing is sharp, the jokes hit hard, and I still had fun throughout my time in Steelport. But even though I truly believe Saints Row IV is a good game, I can’t help but wish it were great.
PS3 review copy provided by Deep Silver. Saints Row IV is available from August 20 on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.