I hate to be a downer, but Saints Row IV was a disappointment, especially relative to what I thought of Saints Row: The Third. It's got heart and some solid high points, but too much of the game just felt sloppy and phoned in.
For every mission with a memorable set piece and great writing, there are two or three in which you're running through glorified side content while listening to what sounds like B-team writing. I played this game over the past week, and I could maybe name five legitimate high points, and a lot more "come on, really?" points. It would be one thing if it was just the secondary quests that ran you through side missions, but for fuck's sake, Johnny Gat's loyalty mission is a copy-pasted Dr. Genki arena from The Third, and most aren't that much better.
How many times did this game repackage the same "hold triangle to disable these generators while praying something doesn't shoot you" gameplay? When one of the last missions had me doing that while the game made a self-aware joke about it, I was rolling my eyes, because making a joke about your lame game design doesn't make it any less lame. When the final boss had me doing it again -- and in what may be the single most frustrating piece of gameplay I've experienced all year -- Volition was actively burning my good will toward the game.
I may be remembering Saints Row: The Third with rose-tinted glasses, but beyond the introductory side mission primers, I remember most of the main story missions being fun, original content. Most of Saints Row IV's main story missions were, quite frankly, boring. The core gameplay in the Saints Row games is unbalanced, easy, and fairly bland once you're accustomed to the amount of power you're given. These are games that thrive, more than almost any others, on novelty, and Saints Row IV didn't have much novelty to offer.
It doesn't help that this game has some serious technical and polish problems. The game straight-up crashed on me at least twice (always while entering the simulation), and I managed to get the menu stuck in an unresponsive state at least four times. I had to manually restart several missions after the scripting broke, and almost every mission failure was a result of a character suddenly dying. On several occasions, the map got stuck not showing collectibles until I restarted. I had cutscenes and moments (such as the singalongs during the Pierce loyalty mission) ruined by out-of-sync audio or broken animations. The audio mix was a mess -- I was constantly leaning forward to adjust the volume since cutscenes were inexplicably way quieter than gameplay, and I missed a bunch of dialogue under incongruously loud music. I'm not a framerate snob, but parts of this game just plain ran badly in a way that significantly impacted the gameplay -- the final boss battle being a memorable example. For some reason, every time I booted the game after the first menu lockup, the last audio log I found played. The game ended with my character awkwardly holding Zinyak's head for so long that I was about to pause and load a checkpoint.
Even the writing and scenario design doesn't feel as well-executed as The Third's. Part of what made The Third's humour and general craziness work was the way it was taking place in the real(ish) world. Skydiving through the front window of a plane and dodging hundreds of SUVs falling through the sky was funny because it was ridiculous in the context of the real world. Same goes for destroying an entire skyscraper for revenge, crashing a rooftop party via parachute, stealing a VTOL jet, and the rest of the cavalcade of insanity the game presented. Because Saints Row IV takes place in a world in which anything can happen, nothing's all that crazy. This may have more to do with the design effort put into them, but the most memorable moments in IV were those that took place in the real world: the nuke climb, the What Is Love-accompanied Star Fox 64 segment, and the skydive into Zinyak's throne room. But again, those kinds of unique, heavily-scripted missions were the exception, not the rule. When Saints Row IV is firing on all cylinders it's great, but 90% of the time it's not.
Saints Row IV does deserve credit for the amazing amount of mobility it gives you. Jumping, air dashing, wall-climbing and gliding were fun and incredibly empowering. By the end of the game, I felt completely in control of my movement in a really satisfying way. Making getting around as easy as they did largely prevented the commuting fatigue I typically run into in open world games. Making a mockery of your open world isn't a trick every game can pull off, but I really enjoyed it here.
I don't want to put too fine a point on this, because I know very little about Saints Row IV's development, but it has the feel of a DLC expansion for Saints Row: The Third that got split into a separate project and rushed to completion as THQ's creditors circled the wagons. I feel for all of the shit Volition's gone through, but it doesn't change the way the product I paid money for felt slapped together.
For Saints Row IV to be as endearing and fun as Saints Row: The Third while taking place in the same city, engine, and gameplay framework, it needed to do everything noticeably better. Instead, while it makes some great improvements, it's a noticeably less fleshed-out and polished game. A few funny cameos and pieces of unique gameplay don't make up for the excess of monotony and half-assedness padding the experience.