The Next Great Sequel in The Prototype Series.
Oh, Saints Row. Never has been there a series that has taken such ridiculous strides in tone this fast than the Saints Row series. Starting off as little more than something to fill the gap of a (then) next-gen Grand Theft Auto in 2006, it then slowly but surely grew into its own beast, filled with its own brand of surreal and referential humour, and an increasing focus on its 'Just do whatever' attitude.
Now to be frank, I wasn't the most enthusiastic supporter of 2011's Saints Row The Third. I found it to primarily be a lesser Saints Row 2, with its truly notable qualities being stuffed in the back half. And that's precisely what I enjoyed about Saints Row IV. To sum it up in a nutshell, Saints Row IV is like the 'Deckers.Die' mission from Saints Row Third--where you're fighting through a TRON-inspired virtual environment, complete with faux-glitches and text adventures--but you've got that level of creativity and sheer unpredictability spread across the whole game. Also, super powers.
Set sometime after SRTT, following the more upbeat 'Gangstas in Space' ending, SRIV opens up with The Saints being called upon to save the US of A from terrorists lead by an old enemy. Upon the eradication of said enemy, and the thwarting of a missile headed for the White House, The Boss of the Third Street Saints is then placed into the oval office itself as The President of The United States. Naturally.
However, it's not long into your Presidency that aliens invade Earth, abducts The Saints, and then places them into a simulation of Steelport. As such, the whole President angle is kinda abandoned pretty early on, and the premise of living within a simulated Steelport as a prisoner of evil aliens is what takes centre stage. But that's OK, because that then leads into what separate Saints Row IV from its predecessors. Now while it's still a pretty traditional open-world game, rife with side-missions and collectibles, Saints Row IV much more resembles something out of the Crackdown or Prototype series than it does Grand Theft Auto.
The most notary divergence is of course the addition of super powers. After only about maybe an hour in, you're introduced to the starting abilities of super sprint and super jump, which allow you to... well, y'know. Much like SRTT with its Predator Missiles, Saints Row IV is eager to hand what you'd think would be end-game abilities. But don't worry, there's still plenty more to uncover, and there's also a selection of upgrades tied to each power, so there's still a good bit of progression as you play through the game.
Your new found super-powers won't completely dominate your use of regular (and irregular) firearms, however. There's a small cooldown in place so you're not that overpowered, and you'll thusly find yourself mixing in TPS gameplay alongside your telekinetic and fireball-throwing powers. There's only a handful of stock-powers at your disposal, but each one has differing 'elements' to unlock. They vary in just how much of a difference they can make, but they'll at the very least give even more ways to completely bulldoze the evil Zin Empire. Such examples include altering your powerful stomp ability to now leave enemies temporarily suspended in the air for a little target practise, and altering your telekinetic ability so it can drain the health of your prey -- be it a person or even an object like a car.
The powers themselves and how you work them into your daily carnage and havoc-wreaking functions really well, too. Sprinting around at incredible speeds, before leeping across a breath-taking distance, and then lobbing a fireball into the unlucky crowd below is both incredibly fun and accessible to pull off. Once you soon add in the ability to run up buildings, traveling across Steelport soon becomes a breeze. Unfortunately, that also means that cars, bikes and, well, vehicles in general are useless. They're still available at your disposal and can be customised to the same degree as they could in Saints Row The Third, but it feels a little... hollow in doing so, while also being a waste of cache -- SRIV's currency for weapon/vehicle/character upgrades.
The guns themselves pack in a lot of equal-opportunity nonsense and variety as well. You'll of course start off with the usual requisite of pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles. But there also a heap of wonderfully weird alien weaponry to attain. Such standouts include the Dubstep gun, a weapon that kills (very effectively I might add) with the power of 'wubb', and the Blackhole gun, which does exactly what it says on the tin... It shoots blackholes.
Even the previously aforementioned pistols, shotguns and assault rifles allow for a bit more personality, too. Saints Row has long allowed players to upgrade the base stats of weaponry, though now can you not only increase a weapon's fire-rate and what have you, but can also apply a decent selection of skins. These vary from giving your gun a snazzier pallete, to changing the entire weapon itself -- such as turning your Uzi into Robocop's iconic fully-automatic pistol of choice, which in itself can also be given a different look. Even when you set the cosmetic doodads aside, there's still a handsome selection of toys to murder with. But compiling it all together, alongside your powers, and you've got an awful lot of options at your fingertips -- more so than any prior Saints Row game.
Of course, amidst all of the random mayhem you can ever so easily unleash, Saints Row IV does still in fact have a story leading the way. Once again starring The Boss, the male/female/anything in-between leader of The Saints, you're tasked with trying to rescue your compatriots from the vile Zin, and then take down the Zin overlord, Zinyak himself. The story itself is filled with parody, as it follows a suspiciously familiar setup, and the way it presents a lot of the biggest moments is what makes it so memorable. Since the game is now mostly set in a simulation of Steelport, Volition now have free reign to do pretty much whatever the Hell they want, to often hilarious results. It often felt like this was the Airplane! of video game stories.
Saving each of your allies from their own specially designed Hell (and breaking yourself out of your own) makes for a lot of Saints Row IV's best moments. One of which where current Shaundi and Saints Row 2 Shaundi attempt to get over their (her own..?) differences is actually one the more tame examples, but is still a treat because of the incredibly witty writing. Besides the actual rescue missions, you'll also then have the 'Loyalty Missions' to complete, which also hold a lot of the game's most creative endeavours.
While I've mentioned it already, I feel that I should again emphasise that Saints Row IV is a consistently funny game -- impressively so, even. From the very beginning right up until its charming end scene, I was often playing with a big dumb grin on my face. The core gameplay itself can be funny on its own, courtesy of all the silly guns and powers. But it's the writing that steals the show, as it manages to be both witty and profoundly stupid. Plenty of pop-culture references and homages are scattered all over as well. Mass Effect, The Matrix, and John Carpenter's They Live are the most prominent inspirations, but there's a lot of homage to be found in the simulated world of Steelport.
Not the least of which is references to prior Saints Row games. Saints Row IV, almost to a fault, gleefully revels in its own canon and characters across the whole series. There's the more instantly notable stuff, such as Saints Row 2 Shaundi coexisting alongside current Shaundi, to the return of Benjamin 'Motherfucking' King, but the fanservice runs deep in Saints Row IV. From prior villain cameos, to audio logs discussing previous events, character namedrops (so hey, anyone remember Donnie...?), to the weirdly recurring mention of Stilwater's 'Freckle Bitches' restaurant chain... While it's not necessarily vital that you have all this prior knowledge, anyone who's been following this stupid series from the beginning has a lot to look forward to.
Much like Saints Row The Third before it, Saints Row IV makes expert use of its fantastic soundtrack--both original and licensed included--to truly set the tone for a lot of its most memorable moments -- be they parodying a Michael Bay 'classic', to making you truly feel like an all-powerful God as you steamroll along in a
robot power armour. The icing on the cake is you can now (finally) listen to any of the radio stations whenever you please, which makes it incredibly appealing to attempt and tie your actions to the song that's playing. Charging through traffic at like 100 miles per hour only gets better when you're doing it to Blur's Song 2, or shooting down UFO's while Ode to Joy is blasting alongside you.
Besides the story, there's still plenty of other stuff to get yourself tangled up in. Activities are still littered throughout the city for you to partake in, and most are brand new and go a good way in forcing you to master your new found abilities. Even the classics such as Insurance Fraud are accentuated with the addition of super powers, as you leap high into the year and then proceed to use that momentum to cartwheel damn near across the whole city, easily raking in the bucks. You must also engage in a simple hacking minigame, ala the one from the BioShock games, to now open up stores. It can be a bit tricky at times, but it also feels refreshing to actually have to use your brain whilst playing a Saints Row game for once.
The most prominent alternative to the story are the collectibles, however. Much like Crackdown and inFAMOUS, Saints Row IV will dig its collectathon claws in you pretty hard, with a staggering 1200+ Clusters to collect. They're spread throughout the entire city and can be really hard to resist; I'm sure I won;t be the only who'll inadvertently spend about 5 hours doing nothing but collecting shiny orbs. Setting aside the compulsion, you're incentivised to collect them anyway as they're what you spend to upgrade your powers. There's more of 'em out there than you need, though, so don't feel pressurised into attempting to collect them all. And don't feel ashamed if you totally do that. Because believe me, you're not the only one. Besides the clusters, there's also the aforementioned audio logs, and some additional text adventures that delves into the history of Zinyak. They're pretty plain and don't show off the same flourish and personality as prior text adventures, buts its typically sharp writing was enough to incentivise that I keep a look out.
Now all the side content isn't a winner--Fight Club in particular is pretty clumsy and not very fun--but there's still a good source of variety in here when you look at what's on your plate. After finishing up and collecting everything, with some random acts of mindless destruction and slaughter on the side, I clocked at around 25 hours in total. If you primarily stick to the story, however, you should know that it's not especially lengthy on its own.
OK, so I've been laying on the positivity pretty heavily here. But, this isn't a five-star review, and there's a reason for that.
Now first off, and stop me if you've heard this before, but Saints Row IV looks an awful lot like Saints Row The Third. While the addition of super powers and being able to run up its skyscrapers, if not jump over them, adds a new dimension to how you view the city, this is still pretty much same Steelport circa 2011. Zinyak has at least added a bit of his own gloomy flair to it all, though, with a lot of Zin faces plastered everywhere and not-so-subtle imagery reminding you who's in charge. But this is still by and large the exact same Steelport, and it's a significantly smaller upgrade from what Stilwater went through between Saints Row and Saints Row 2.
Even discounting the city, a great deal of the assets regarding... well, everything, is the same as it was in SRTT. Now there is at least few new pedestrian models here--and even a few new vehicles, for whatever reason--but when you look at the whole picture, this doesn't quite feel like a full-fledged sequel. It would be a bit extreme to start labeling it as a glorified expansion pack, as there's a lot more original content in here than you may think. But the pervasive feeling of deja vu can be hard to ignore at times.
Unfortunately, what really drags the game down is its performance. Now don't get me wrong, I found Saints Row IV to be surprisingly playable more often than not. Even in the face of a highly inconsistent framerate, and an unattractive amount of jaggies--most prominently featured in the cutscenes--I was able to still have a great deal of fun soaring across the sky. However, across my 25 hours, the game hardlocked on me five times, there were two missions that broke because of AI scripting errors, and there were even a few occasions during cutscenes where the audio was lagging behind the action literally by like ten seconds. The final couple of missions also began to take a toll as well, where the game devolves into what was an incomprehensible mess. I could almost bask in the insanity, since it was more than fitting for the context, but when it started to get in the way of the gameplay, it got be to quite irksome. I was by that time just trying to brute force my way out of it into the next cutscene.
Frankly, it breaks my heart about the technical issues on the PS3 version, as I'd otherwise feel pretty confident in giving it the whole five-star shebang. Still, Saints Row IV make for a lot of good old fashioned mayhem -- more so than what I could have ever get out of Saints Row The Third. It acts as a ludicrous retrospective on the whole series, and offers a lot of surprisingly nuanced reflections on how the series has progressed from its humble beginnings. It's also a game where the main villain is essentially ''What if Frasier Crane was an evil alien overlord''. Saints Row IV is by and large the purest form of power fantasy -- with a lot of personality to boot. It may not be that difficult--in fact it's exceedingly easy--and it's got a lot of unfortunate rough edges, but it offers up so much variety and laughter to make it still feel worthwhile.