Saints Row IV Review
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery; but what does it say about the one doing the imitating?
Saints Row 4 is many things: Insanely fun? Check. Irreverently funny? Check. The thing is, it is hard to tell where the parody ends and Saints Row begins.
Anybody who plays games (in general, not just Saints Row games) will instantly be overwhelmed with an odd sense of familiarity from Saints Row 4. Many cut scenes play themselves out as a shot for shot remake of other popular video games. Even the gameplay is some form of amalgamation of every open world game that you’ve ever played.
Saints Row is a series that has evolved in an interesting way throughout these last four titles. Where most games attempt to streamline their gameplay, cutting out that which doesn’t work and highlighting the features that do, Saints Row has opted to keep everything while still piling on top. This creates an unfortunate effect that MMO players are all too familiar with—a concept that other gamers may never have heard before: Power Creep.
Power Creep is a problem that occurs when a new expansion is released that raises the level cap of a game and introduces new character elements that are, often, better than the ones that are currently in the game. As more expansions come out, the original product becomes more and more irrelevant. Without proper, and frequent, balancing, Power Creep can overwhelm a game and ruin many of the features from the original product.
How does this virtual plague of MMOs affect Saints Row? Well, as Saints Row has grown over time, Deep Silver has taken the base of their previous installments and simply piled the new games on top. You can feel the contrast most starkly when the game first begins—as Saints Row attempts to introduce you to its new features.
Anyone who has played a past Saints Row or a Grand Theft Auto (or any of the countless GTA clones) will be familiar with the opening of Saints Row 4 (at least the parts after the blockbuster action star opening). Giving you the freedom of an open world, the game gives you cars to steal, guns to acquire, and people to kill. Eventually, in the not too distant future, it throws sanity at the wall and lets you unleash your inner Super Saiyan.
You see, this time around the, the 3rd Street Saints are trapped inside a computer program—allowing for all sorts of fun manipulation of the Matrix. The driving and guns fade into the background, making way for gameplay lifted straight from the code of games like Prototype and Crackdown.
If there is one thing that all great open world games need, it is a way to either make area traversal fun, or cut it out completely. Grand Theft Auto opts for allowing quick travel via taxicabs. Saints Row says **** that, and just lets you hulk jump from one end of the city to the other. This new mechanic is what makes Saints Row so damn fun, and it’s also the guilty party for bringing the power creep to the table.
After acquiring your magic computer powers, cars become pointless. Just like other Saints Row games, you can steal anything, drive anywhere, and customize everything. Too bad you never will. The thing about fun traversal is that it preempts the use of the less fun alternatives. I can run a thousand miles per hour, leap skyscrapers in a single bound, and create earthquakes from my fall. Why would I want to limit myself to the cramped confines of a motor vehicle?
Features, like the driving, that have been unintentionally nerfed through this power creep aren't a per se flaw in the gaming experience. The issue is the focus that the game draws on these features at the start of the game. The first twenty minutes of the simulation is dedicated to teaching you the features associated with cars--how to hijack your car, how to save your car, and how to use garages to customize your car. After I gained my powers, I couldn't help but feel that the game had done nothing more than waste my time with its tutorials.
Strength of legs is not the only advantage to living in a computer world. Ice, fire, and the ability to throw things with your mind will also be available to assist in dispatching your enemies. To the benefit of the game, these powers are balanced so as to not make the use of guns irrelevant. On the contrary, you will use the power of lead combustion to solve most of your conflicts with the magic only there to supplement.
To complement and contrast your arsenal of guns, specialty weapons are present and as flashy as ever. I, personally, fell in love with the dub step gun—an explosive combination of music and strobe lights that induce dancing and destruction in civilians and enemies respectively.
Quest structure is where Saints Row tends to be lacking. If you’ve played Saints Row the Third, then you know that the game was full of over the top mini games to fill the downtime. These mini games were available as a compliment to the plethora of side quest and story related missions. Saints Row 4 does away with side missions completely, in a sense. In their place is a list of available mini games, followed by some companion dialogue. This side quest structure is, frankly, lazy design intended only to hide the fact that there aren’t any real missions to supplement the main story.
These shallow experiences are the biggest disappointment with Saints Row. The computer simulation you are locked in gives an overwhelming sense of loneliness. There are no interactive events in the computer simulation to allow you to be part of the world. No mission pick-ups to trigger cut scenes to show you that other people do exist. There isn't even a home base for the 3rd Street Saints, inside the simulation, to provide an anchor for the character. All that exists is a world full of more mindless than normal NPC's. Computer generated images that experience glitches from the Matrix. It's an odd sense of inception like loneliness that really got to me the longer I played the game. I may have been surrounded by a city full of "people," but knowing that they were all just fake people in side of a computer simulation...
The game is so steeped in parody that it is possible that this feeling is intentional. If it was, then I applaud Deep Silver for the most poignant representation of the hollowness of computer interactions that I have ever seen. If this wasn’t intended, then it is representative of poor world design, as I have no reason to become attached to my surroundings.
What Deep Silver didn’t put into the world, they made up with character. Not character like Marcus Fenix is a character, but character as in the game's personality. As it is so hard to put into words just how charming this game is, I’ll try to do it with this video:
Did you start singing along? I did. That might be the single most feel good moment that I have had in gaming in a long time. Things like that video, pop culture dialogue like my avatar saying, “I AM THE ONE THAT KNOCKS” in the middle of a firefight (my favorite line in all of television, FYI), all of these things combine to just make this game so damn enjoyable.
- Game has an identity crisis problem
- Empty, lonely, open world
- Power Creep
+ Over the top mayhem
+ Familiar Parody
I could nitpick about this game all day long. Saints Row 4 is a game that is full of flaws. Shallow gameplay, meaningless abilities, brain dead AI, story that begs not to be scrutinized, etc. But, in the end, Saints Row 4 is one thing that a lot of other games aren’t. Saints Row is something that AAA gaming has, seemingly, left behind. Saints Row 4 is fun--pure, unadulterated, fun.