Sunday, September 8, 2013

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
It’s very difficult to get the super human sandbox sub-genre right. Games like inFamous and the original Crackdown nailed it with central thematic game design, while others such as Prototype stumbled with a lack of focus. This is what makes Saints Row IV so interesting. Departing from its conventional yet outlandish roots, Volition seeks to out-do The Third, which stands as one of the best sandbox games of this generation. Super speed, super jump, and a whole host of super powers, Saints Row IV aims sky high… literally, but not without occasionally forgetting what made the third installment such a fantastic game and what this sequel set out to do in the first place.
Saints IV begins to develop an existence in spite itself almost from the very beginning. Soon after stopping a nuclear threat, planting your ass in that seat in the oval office, then getting abducted by aliens and thrown into a Matrix-a-fied version of Steelport, you gain the abilities to trample directly through traffic at high speeds, and leap over buildings in a single bound. This effectively amputates the need of vehicles immediately, and later on more gameplay options ahead.
This begins to highlight Saints IV’s biggest problem. It serves you an entire pizza dish’s worth of content and gameplay options that’s often dwarfed by its bolstering super powers. Some can be ignored while others have to be suffered through the main story line.
A great example is that from very early on in the game, you’ll spend so much time booking it on foot, and shortly thereafter, gliding in the air, that whenever you’re forced to hop behind the wheel, it feels like a chore rather than a thrill no matter how fast or how cool the vehicle is. Given the opportunity, I went out of my way to avoid jumping in a car. There are certain side missions ask you to deliver a vehicle over to any one of the selected garage locations throughout Steelport. Wait, you want me to DRIVE there? Fuck that shit. I’m just gonna use my telekinesis powers and carry it on over.
I’m not gonna steal it, just gonna toss it over a bridge.
The more powers you get, the less interested you are in entire categories of upgrades. You can easily get away with divorcing yourself away from vehicles entirely, and fellow Saints have little use next to your super human abilities.
It’s difficult to blame Saints IV for being different, especially in an industry where samey sequels are so scrutinized. But what added to The Third’s value were the bevy of upgrade options available – many in which aren’t as relevant here. And acquiring and piloting certain vehicles was rewarding and gave a great change of pace in the last game, however now you'll entertain yourself more playing catch with them. Super powers are much appreciated, but not entirely at the expense of the inadvertenly relinquished enjoyment of what it’s like to be human.
Saints IV’s pacing is jarring thanks to uneven mission design. The main storyline takes you to reconstructed fabrications of your homies’ imaginations. Your powers are often taken away forcing you to engage in competent to downright boring sequences. Shooting down choppers and blowing up enemy vehicles with a rocket launcher? Yes please. Mowing down wave, after wave, after wave of foot soldiers? No thanks. It isn’t until the end that your powers take center stage, but narrative linarites are no match for player agency freedom.
Well… at least the main story has bro-mance.
Got that? Good. Now here’s what makes Saints IV still a hell of a lot of fun.
Your time is better spent satisfying your crew’s deranged and often impulsive desires, letting the main story take a back seat as side missions give you the widest degrees of freedom to use your powers to the fullest (with the exception of awful hacking mini games). Not only do they lead you to activities that allow you to fuck with the city in various ways, they also reward you with valuable weapons and power upgrades which encourage you to return to the city and demo your new acquisitions.
Saints IV is at its best when you’re busy enacting crowd control. Using telekinesis to launch vehicles across city blocks or running around using said items as destructive wrecking balls, earthquake stomping your enemies into oblivion or using an anti-gravity version to shoot them down while they’re suspended in midair, all these fuel your addiction to cause ceaseless destruction that never gets old.
With just a simple wave of my hand…
A good chunk of the enjoyment in Saints games are the arbitrary activities, and Saints IV has brought back some of your favorites. Mayhem is the best platform to display the extent of your powers, and leaping 50 stories in the air and then watching your body descend and flail into traffic makes the new Insurance Fraud the best Crash Mode the Burnout franchise has never had.
My new favorite is the telekinesis based Prof. Genki’s Mind over Murder (M.O.M.) where you rush to different locations around a section of the city launching humans, vehicles, Genki and other mascot heads into the appropriate rings. Other new additions warp you to a Tron-ified alternate digital space through rifts where specific powers are put to the test. These side missions are designed around your special powers and challenge them enough to be far more than enjoyable.
Despite the level of destructibility available at your fingertips, weapons are still very relevant in Saints IV.  Favorites are bound to be the Abduction Gun which lifts targets into the sky, never to be seen again, the Dubstep Gun that emits sick devastating beats in undulating waves of dub-step, and the Inflato-Ray that can magnify enemies to hilarious proportions before they explode. My path of carnage relied heavily on the space phenomenon firing Black Hole Launcher, and the Disintergrator which erases enemies out of existence. Yes, I like to leave little evidence indicating I was even there. Both gave me the excitement of a “win button” feel without actually guaranteeing it. And that’s a testament to how well balanced and highly aggressive the AI can be.
Combat and control is exceptional as always in Saints IV. You’re combative success is only as good as how well your fingers can react to the action on screen. Momentous animations have no interference here. I performed at my best when holding a car in mid air with my telekinesis while gunning down foes at the same time. The action can clutter, mostly by your hand, and even slow the framerate at times, but it never compromises your engagement in battle.
Movement never lets you down, even with Saints IV’s wide range of mobility. Need to escape fisticuffs with angered citizens? Leap or sprint out of harm’s way. Miss a platform scaling one of the extra-terrestrial towers? Glide, vertical wall run, and super jump until you reach the top. The controls also make your time spent collecting data clusters to purchase new power upgrades as seamless and enjoyable as possible, bringing back that purposeful Crackdown orb hunt pass-time feel.
My city.
The Saints Row franchise – particularly The Third and the game here in question – bask in their crude humor. Saints IV becomes quite comfortable and self-aware, seeking to out-parody video game and pop-culture parodies. Forced vulgarity in lines such as “I think I broke my dick bone” fall flat, and modern day references like “I’m the one who knocks” feels a little late to the game (mostly thanks to Borderlands 2). But its heavy handed Mass Effect (particularly the Mass Effect 3 elbow jab made me drop my controller in laughter), Star Fox and other game references I hesitate to spoil range from quick deliveries to entire sequences. All are well appreciated and do a fine job in living up to the reputation Volition has tried so hard to maintain.
The Bottom Line
Saints IV isn’t as good as The Third. While leaping from building to building and gliding across bridge wide rivers cutting through Steeport, you’ll pass over sports cars and will spot the occasional air craft that will give you fond memories of the joy rides you have once had before if you’ve played the previous installment. As a stand-alone game, the new abilities are still awesome, employing another level of city interactivity and destruction, both being the reason why Saints IV is still a good game. But the main storyline doesn’t properly facilitate your new powers, often taking them away for ludicrous narrative reasons. Saints Row IV is better served as a traversable and interactive plaything rather than a consistent package, staying true – no matter the cost – to a definitive sandbox title.
+ Still funny as hell with the occasional flat jokes
+ Super powers and an entire city to mess with
+ Side missions that make you appreciate super powers
- Main missions that often don’t care for super powers
- Much of what the game has to offer becomes obsolete

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