Commander in Chief
I’m not someone with a huge degree of fondness for the first two Saint’s Row games. While they had something to offer budding action game players out there, they felt more defined by the game they were trying to imitate than any original ideas they had themselves, acting as timid “me toos” to the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Then Saint’s Row the Third happened and all of a sudden the series blossomed into something altogether more inventive, ludicrous, and distinct in its personality. Saint’s 3’s goal of delivering a cocktail of over-the-top ridiculous moments blended perfectly with the often silly and grandiose nature of video game and hip-hop culture that the game drew from. Following in the footsteps of this giant is no walk in the park, but Deep Silver Volition manage to do so more than capably with Saint’s Row IV.
The game's opening sets up The Boss of the titular Third Street Saints as the new President of the United States, with the rest of the gang having taking on various high level governmental positions. This glorious rule only lasts for so long however, as the White House is gatecrashed by an evil alien dictator called Zinyak who traps the denizens of Earth in a virtual reality version of the city of Steelport where his forces rule with an iron fist. The Saints, not ones to be told what they can and can’t do, turn the emulated reality to their advantage with a little hacking expertise, effectively giving you, The Boss, superpowers within the cyber Steelport with which to break humanity out of the simulation and generally give the finger to Zinyak.
Virtual reality and superpowers are by no means new concepts in the world of video games, but they fit so uncannily well into the mould of Saint’s Row you’d almost believe that the ideas on display here were developed specifically for this game. Saint’s Row IV manages to use its virtual environment macguffin not just to justify its gamier elements and its revisitation to the same world as Saint’s 3, but also as a means to execute on many of its more absurd concepts. This game and its predecessor are able to come across as off-the-wall as they do not just because they present of a bunch of crazy ideas, but also because they’re able to ground this madness in something approximating the real world. This virtual environment allows the game to have a bunch of pink cat heads appear out of thin air, give you superhuman abilities, or do whatever other nonsense thing might be cool at the time, but without completely shattering the idea that Saint’s Row has some semblance of reality behind it.
The nature of the superpower game mechanics here should be familiar to anyone who’s played Prototype. Among them are the abilities to run around at super speed, jump enormous heights, and run up walls. This capacity to say a complete “Fuck you” to the traditional boundaries of an open-world environment and just steamroll your way across the map is a perfect match for the attitude of Saint’s Row and it makes simple navigation of the world a joyous experience. There were plenty of times I wanted to keep playing just to move from A to B and there’s not many games I can say that about. The enjoyment of moving around the city is also bolstered by the way the game treats its collectibles. Saint’s IV’s “Clusters” are used as currency to upgrade your powers, and far from being hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the world are placed out in the open and very plentiful, meaning your sprints and flights across Steelport are punctuated with these constant and gratifying harvests of resources.
Of course, when you can leap across rooftops and bolt through the streets like Sonic the Hedgehog, vehicles largely become a redundant form of transportation. You might drive because a mission demands it, or on a rare occasion to protect yourself from gunfire, but really cars, bikes, and trucks are put to one side. This makes a lot of the game’s options to upgrade vehicles feel rather pointless, but it does change up the game in a pretty serious way, turning it from a driving-based TPS to more of a straight action-adventure. It’s impressive to see such a big alteration to the series’s core attributes, although in one way this game very much needs it. As you may already know, Saint’s Row IV actually started life as a standalone expansion for Saint’s Row the Third titled “Enter the Dominatrix”. The expansion was to use the same virtual incarceration plot eventually used in Saint’s IV and spent months in development before it was finally announced that its content would be rolled into the fourth Saint’s Row title as to better expand out its ideas. Unfortunately, this history shows.
You can see bits and pieces in this game taken from Saint’s Row the Third, but more than anything it’s the use of the very same Steelport as the game’s setting which stands out. The devs at Deep SIlver Volition have added a few new alien structures here and there and a darker graphical overhaul, but it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the environment is just a rehashed version of the city we’ve already conquered. Here is where the superpower mechanics swoop in to save the day however. There’s only so much Volition can do to disguise the fact that they’ve copied over the setting from the last game, but what they can do is change your perspective on the city and how you fundamentally interact with it. To their credit, this works for the most part, but there’s usually at least a quiet voice in the back of your head telling you “You’ve seen this all before”.
Your newfound powers aren’t just there to change how you move around and view the world however, they really do seep into every part of the gameplay. What were once a more repetitive and moderately fun selection of side-activities have been given an injection of variety and exhilaration, with asides such as a Mayhem mode that has you hurling enormous metal balls into traffic, or the Speed Rifts in which you must chase alien hoverbike riders through Tron-like computerscapes. And when it comes to combat, there really is nothing like being able to use your powers to freeze enemies on the spot and telekinetically throw cars at their heads. The way you manage your health in fights has also had a bit of a revamp and its now possible to prop yourself up by collecting health pick-ups that drop from enemies. In fact, a lot of the time you’ll need to if you want to stay alive. It’s an intelligent design decision which keeps you shifting about during fights, and means that recharging health doesn’t require you to break up the run-and-gun action to go find somewhere to stand and do nothing. For those who think collecting giant blue health symbols from the ground and kicking aliens a few feet into the air still makes a little too much sense, the game provides a few new weapons guaranteed to cause more intense pandamonium like the Black Hole Launcher and the Dubstep Gun. The only big gap in the gameplay here is that between all the upgrading and switching of powers and weaponry, you sometimes have to drop in and out of menus more than seems ideal for a game that’s meant to be about continuous and relentless enjoyment.
While the fights and various optional activities in Saint’s IV provide a lot of fun, the centrepiece of the previous Saint’s Row game was the main mission content and that remains true here. Once again, it’s not just the fact that Saint’s Row manages to make its big moments so insane and ambitious that makes it what it is, but also the creativity which goes into these moments. The story is full of wonderful surprises and the new loyalty missions allow you some more intimate explorations of each of the cast. The animation on certain character interactions can seem rather stilted, but there’s a real sense of quality in the dialogue and voice acting for returning characters, from the amicably irritable Kinzie to the friendly and laidback Pierce, although I didn’t find that all the new additions to the team resonated quite as well.
Keith David does a fantastic job playing himself in the game, serving as a wise but undeniably cool mentor figure, but socially detached AI CID and no-nonsense military woman Asha Odekar just don't have that Saint's Row feel to them and possess personalities that overlap with existing characters. CID’s robotic nature feels like it robs him of a lot of the animated humanity which has helped make the other characters so memorable, and his general social obliviousness is already something we’ve seen in Saints members like Kinzie. Asha isn’t exactly ill-suited to the Saint’s universe, but she’s mainly an amalgamation of the badassness of Shaundi and the protocol-minded nature of… Well, Kinzie again. On the upside, I appreciate the lengths the game goes to with its story to pay homage to The Matrix, of which I’m a big fan. One of the biggest ways this manifests itself in the game’s layout is giving you the capability to exit the Steelport simulation at almost any time to return to a Nebuchadnezzerish spaceship where side missions can be turned in and the main cast can be found. Many of these optional missions are just compilations of the game’s various side activities, which may seem a little cheap at first, but it ultimately gives you more motivation and reason to tackle the optional objectives.
As a complete package Saint’s Row IV stands up very strong. Some of its newer characters may be underwhelming and its setting feels like a bit of a cop-out, but the gameplay design here is all around better, the new abilities bestowed upon you add a whole new dimension to the gameplay, and the story is just as wonderfully out of its mind as it was during Saint’s Row the Third.