STAFF REVIEW of Saints Row IV (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Saints Row IV Box art Comedy is hard. Quite simply, it's tricky to get right, in any medium. Even raunchy, low-brow humor can fail miserably at amusing its target audience if the line delivery isn’t just right, if the slapstick and pratfalls aren't perfectly timed, or if the audience can see what's coming well before it happens. Last but not least, to truly "get" and appreciate every nuance of that comedy when it all comes together, both the performer and the audience need to speak the same language and share the same culture. Clearly, Saints Row franchise developer Volition truly knows their audience, and with what is likely their finale to the Saints saga, Saints Row IV, they have exemplified just how well they speak the many dialects of our gamer tongue, and how to make them not only fun, but funny. If Saints Row IV were a movie, it would be the mash up of The Naked Gun (for its fearlessness in embracing the silly and the absurd), Scary Movie (for the sheer amount of game and film genres it manages to cram in), and Hot Shots (because Charlie Sheen was “winning” even back then with his smartest guy in the room attitude); and it probably would earn a surprise nomination for best Comedy at the Oscars and Golden Globes as well, but sadly, because we don't live in the future where games are fully accepted as art, Saints Row IV will have to settle for the funniest videogame ever made.

(F.Y.I. If you just heard a bunch of chairs screeching and the rumbling of many footsteps headed out the nearest door, those were the fans of Saints Row leaving to pre-order their copy if they haven't already done so, because what I just said should be all the convincing they need. The rest of you, the curious, the skeptical, and perhaps even the doubters and haters, come closer and let me talk to you. Let me tell you why you need to buy -- that's right, BUY (not rent, borrow, or steal) this game.

The story of Saints Row IV picks up five years after the conclusion of Saints Row: The Third. Inexplicably, our favorite anti-hero street gang The 3rd Street Saints have risen from media moguls and unlikely Heroes of the People to most powerful crib in the world, The White House, and their leader, simply referred to as "The Boss" has been elected President of the United States. Of course, as karma would have it, one act of lunacy begets another, and just as The President and his ballin' cabinet have begun to adjust to the more menial, everyday duties of public office, an alien warlord named Ziniak and his vast army of warships literally appear out of nowhere and commence a ruthless invasion of the planet, capturing and or murdering much of the population immediately and abducting a select group of the planet's "best and brightest" (which strangely includes core members of The President's staff) for further study (read torture) aboard his mother ship via virtual simulations. And just for kicks, after some consideration he abducts The President too, for amusement more than anything else.

Thankfully, the President's trusted tech-expert, Kinzie, is quickly able to circumvent Ziniak's protocols and manages to free herself and The Boss from the simulation, allowing them to commandeer a small alien craft and vanish off the grid within the Mother Ship. Ironically elevated from "Leader of the Free World" to "Humanity's Last Hope", The Boss (with Kinzie's help) must now venture back into the simulation and exploit any crack that can be found in order to find and release his crew so that The Saints can be reunited and ultimately overthrow Ziniak. Much like in the plot of the Matrix (which the game blatantly steals from and gives the player several knowing winks while doing so), the situation seems utterly hopeless, but things get interesting very quickly when Kinzie realizes that by stressing the simulation to its breaking point she can also grant The Boss access to weapons (earthly and unearthly), vehicles of many kinds, and yes, SUPERPOWERS.

And so begins the ridiculously absurd, open-world hijinks that the Saints Row games are known for, except with a few new kinks. As with all past Saints Row games, The Boss is fully customizable; gender, ethnicity, body type, sex appeal (ahem), hair and clothing are just some of the features that can be molded by the player in the game's Inauguration Station engine, and while it is all very "Mass Effect" in nature, the level of selection and variety is so far beyond that franchise that it would make the folks at Bioware blush.

Meanwhile, Saints Row IV isn't bashful at all about flaunting its legacy, as it even offers up a multitude of outfits and costumes from the previous Saints Row games, including Saints Row: The Third's VR skin, a mo-cap suit, pimp suits, gimp suits, big-head Johnny Gat masks, and mascot outfits (read FURRIES). You can dress The Boss in drag opposite to his or her gender (right down to the stiletto heels) and give him or her up to six default voices (two of which belong to returning voice actors Troy Baker (from The Last of Us) as Default Male 1 and Laura Bailey as Default Female 1 (in a near dead-ringer for Mass Effect's Femshep). You can even alter the vocal pitch to a higher or lower octave, or best of all, you can give your Boss the ultimate default voice: Nolan North. Just the idea that Nolan North and six other actors have voiced every line that The Boss speaks (and sings) in this lengthy sandbox game is both hilarious and mind-boggling. Of course, you can just skip the initial character customization and stick with the game's default male or female avatar, but should you get bored with your character's look later on you can still go back and alter it completely once you have unlocked one of the many plastic surgery clinics within the main simulation for a nominal “cache” fee. How convenient!

If one were to best describe how Saints Row IV is played, the majority of the game is an even cross between the aforementioned Mass Effect, Saints Row (which has evolved so much over the past three games into its own entity that it no longer needs comparison with GTA anymore) and a game whose name still has a special place in the hearts of the Xbox faithful: CRACKDOWN. (F.Y.I. Another large group of readers just got up and ran after the first group to go pre-order. Crackdown fans, obviously. Really. You're still here. Very well, on with the review.)

The game's ultimate goal of getting the band back together to push back and defeat the Alien threat is VERY Mass Effect, so much so that you might initially find yourself looking for the dialogue wheel during cutscenes, but the story that you'll be experiencing will be wholly engaging for a completely different matter...they are rip-roaringly hilarious, and the cast of characters are actually much deeper than an outsider to Saints Row would expect at first glance. Just like the throwback costumes that players can outfit The Boss with, the cutscenes, dialogues and events of each mission draw back on seven years of story and character development over the past three games, so whenever The Boss is trading jokes, insults or physical blows with his friends, you know that there is a significant enough amount of baggage behind them to make sense. When necessary, the game also uses rapidly quick, expertly cut narrative montage summaries that use footage from the previous titles to double as explanations of mission objectives, simultaneously informing players as well as catching them up. And in another tip of the hat to Mass Effect, each character's optional Loyalty Missions and collectible audio drops hidden in the simulation give even further insight into each character's backstory, further endearing them to the player and adding to the drama (as ridiculous as it may seem). In fact, it's this reviewer's personal opinion that Volition may have purposely scripted all the references to the franchises' past events just to get players so intrigued that they'll want to go back and purchase the previous games and experience The Saints' tall tales for themselves -- something I’m sure that publisher Deep Silver or Volition would have no problems with.

Taking up much of the story however is the main simulation, a virtual representation of Steelport, the Saints' old stomping grounds, but in this reality the humans that inhabit it are indoctrinated, strangely carrying on their lives as normal even though evidence of every aspect of their lives being controlled by Alien rule is standing them right in the face on every billboard, poster, and name of almost every establishment. The Saint's bar hangout, The Broken Shillelagh, is one of the few remnants of the real Steelport that Ziniak has left largely untouched, perhaps as an insult to the Saints, and it only takes a little mayhem caused by The Boss and his or her crew to bring Ziniak's overpowered forces to the assistance of the police and the army. If you thought dealing with armored vans, tanks, and military helicopters in Grand Theft Auto's Liberty City was tough, add Alien troops, armored vans, tanks, AI drones, murderbots, missile-launching UFOs, shielded mini-bosses called Wardens and reinforcement-vomiting wormholes and you have Ziniak's version rapid response in Fake Steelport.

Good thing The Boss eventually gets superpowers, like super speed and super jumps that will allow him or her to quickly escape situations when they get too hot. Of course, as the player completes more missions, more powers, abilities, upgrades, weapons and allies will become available for the player to unlock as they accumulate wealth in the game's three currencies, the previously mentioned "cache", "XP" and "data clusters". Cache is obviously the “cash” of the game, and is awarded along with XP and other bonuses for completing missions, but can also be earned simply by destroying and killing things in the simulation, including of course, innocent civilians (that's how these games roll, yo). Cache can be used to buy weapons, upgrades for both you and your crew, as well as passive and active bonuses. XP naturally represents the player's level of progression in the game, and access to certain superpowers, upgrades, and abilities will not be available to the player until they reach a required XP level. Finally, data clusters are loose parts of the simulation scattered about Fake Steelport that The Boss can collect and use specifically to unlock new superpowers and superpower upgrades (which are all AWESOME, by the way) once they become available.

That's where the Crackdown part comes in, and the beginning of a potentially obsessive-compulsive disorder. With well over 1200 data clusters to collect in Steelport, they are pretty much hidden in plain sight, and as soon as you've mastered The Boss's super jump, you'll find yourself hopping across the city from rooftop to rooftop trying to collect as many glowing data clusters as you can between missions, even during missions, and oh yes, even when you aren't in the simulation, you'll be thinking about collecting them, even if you've maxed out all your currently available powers and have over 100 data clusters in stock waiting to be used. It's Crackdown's glowing orbs all over again, and if you had a serious addiction with that game, God help you here. Don't be surprised if you fail a few missions here and there because that damned data cluster on the other side of town fooled you into abandoning your objective at the worst possible time.

Then there are all the other activities to distract you even when you temporarily tire of collecting things or completing story missions. For example, Blazin' races have you racing alone and ON-FOOT across the city at super speed while against the clock and avoiding obstacles (who the hell needs a car or opponents when you're The Flash?). Mayhem missions allow you to wreak glorious havoc in particular areas of town or across town with an alien vehicle or specific weapon under a time limit). Simple hacking missions (think Bioshock) allow players to take over businesses and provide The Boss with more locations to shop and customize his or her look and vehicles). Fraud is a hilarious cache-generating activity where The Boss can intentionally use ragdoll physics to bounce his or her near- invulnerable body into oncoming vehicles, earning more lawsuit cache for the amount of time spent airborne and sustaining the back and forth momentum for as long as possible. Then there are the Professor Genki/Fight Club game shows, and more.

Certainly, it's easy to get overwhelmed by choice in Saints Row IV early on, as the game opens up almost immediately after players enter the main simulation, and the game is clearly designed to consume most of your spare time (and makes no apologies for it -- at one point a mission description in the quest log even jokes self-referentially: "We're stretching out gameplay!"). That said, one of the most refreshing aspects of Saints Row IV is how the game acknowledges that your time is important and respects it. For example, there are five floating alien towers in the simulation where the player must climb to the summit and convert to The Saints’ control in order to significantly progress in level, and their difficulty is intended to encourage players to upgrade their super jump and super sprint abilities early on in the game. However, at no point does the game dictate how the player must get to the top. Players can easily jack a low-flying enemy UFO, fly it to the top of the tower, convert it, and even collect some of the data clusters hidden in the tower on the way down simply by landing on them. Based on their position, some data clusters may only be attainable by climbing or descending the tower by hand, but if the player's abilities are not yet to the point where they can be easily collected, they can be bookmarked on the game map for a return trip later on. There are even waypoints in several spots along the climb that once accessed will allow players to warp back to should they fall all the way back down to the bottom, saving them time and frustration.

Also, because most of the game takes place within the simulation, once a vehicle, ally or group of allies has been unlocked via a mission, they can be instantly summoned to the player’s location simply by making a request by cellphone. No need to worry about getting killed while waiting for your backup to arrive. And if you request a vehicle, it will instantly materialize AROUND you so that you can instantly drive or fly away in it, or start causing mayhem in it. Much like The Boss himself (or herself), Saints Row IV just wants to get to the awesome stuff. It understands that gamers these days don't want to spend a lot of time waiting, and if they must wait, there should be something amazing for them to do while they wait.

Of course, the game still uses checkpoints, and while it will auto-save collected items and XP progression, mission progress checkpoints only remain active as long as the mission itself is still in play, so quitting the game or turning the system off in the middle of a mission means having to start the mission over when the save is reloaded. You can't expect everything to be easy, friends.

(F.Y.I. Dude, you're the only one still here. Oh, yeah, "The reason why you should buy this game." Sheesh, this freakin' guy!)

The reason why Saints Row IV needs to be bought and played is because it is simultaneously a celebration and lampooning of all that is awesome about videogames, and even celebrates a lot of what is wrong with videogames as well, but makes no apologies for it, and rightly so, because no matter what sort of stupendously lewd activities you may get up to in Fake Steelport, you are bound to have a blast doing it. This was the case with Saints Row: The Third as well, but Saints Row IV takes things to a whole new level with its superpowers and virtual reality. It's very hard to describe just how the game does this without major spoilers, so I will summarize it as best I can by clarifying that Fake Steelport is just the MAIN simulation of the game, not the only one. Throughout the course of the story as players fight to liberate their fellow Saints and defeat Ziniak, The Boss will have to navigate and survive many other simulations, and nearly every one of these simulations represents a completely different genre of gaming, and sometimes even a different generation or era. And because they are different, different rules apply, meaning that at least temporarily, The Boss is stripped of his or her superpowers and must work within the much stricter confines and rules of that game world, regardless how silly or stupid they may seem to a gamer living in the modern era (whom clearly The Boss is meant to represent).

The situations and dialogue that emerge as a result will have gamers crying tears of laughter (many mixed with nostalgia) as the writing savages games from years gone by, riddled with memorable quips like "Why would I waste two bullets shooting out the lights when I could waste just one on the guard?!?". Perhaps even more ironic is how well these "games" look and play through the retrofitting the Saints Row IV engine (there is a particular throwback to a classic Sega game that will have the jaw of anyone who's ever played it hit the floor once the initial laughter at the title screen subsides). Bottom line: You need to go and play this game before all the video reviews, YouTube vids, comment threads and other evils of the internet spoil this game for you.

(Hmm...You’re still here. Ah're right, how silly of me.)

Okay, the bad news. The game's not quite perfect. There are a few bugs of note that I experienced a few times over the course of the review. Occasionally, a waypoint or character interaction that was necessary to proceed to the final section of a mission would glitch inside a building, or simply not appear at all, forcing me to quit the game, and since mission checkpoints are only saved while the mission is in play, I had to start those missions again from the beginning. There was also one occasion where a line of subtitled text became frozen on screen and would not disappear, even after resetting, and was only resolved after I turned the system off completely and reloaded the game. Embarrassing glitches to be certain, but not game-breaking, and hopefully they are issues that a speedy post-launch patch will fix.

The only other negatives are those that can almost always be expected of a game that attempts to do as much as Saints Row IV does. Superpowers are incredibly fun, so much fun that some other parts of the game that don't take place in the main simulation pale by comparison, despite how entertaining and engaging the story may be. It's also strange to play a third-person shooter that doesn't allow you to take cover or shoot from cover, which are handy things to have in a shooter when you don't have superpowers. Finally, there are times in the game where the controls feel a bit loose, which doesn't really affect the main story, but becomes more of an issue when trying to get Gold status on the game's many re-playable activities. Thankfully, Bronze status is all that is needed for players to advance through mandatory challenges, permitting them to move on and revisit those nagging activities for a better score once they have attained new abilities, powers and upgrades to make the going easier.

In conclusion, if purchasing Saints Row IV is not on your to-do list next week, you need to correct that mistake right away. This game is a must-buy, must-play, must-experience game for any gamer just for the comedy alone (in this reviewer's honest opinion it's at a level of sophistication unprecedented in gaming), and even after that novelty is put aside there still a rock-solid, highly-addictive and entertaining open-world action adventure that is strongly representative of the genre and well worth plunking down the $60 for.

Just two last pieces of advice. Play your first run through the game with subtitles on, as there is so much amusing dialogue that takes place during action scenes that you are bound to miss 75% of it without them. And whenever a character plays Paula Abdul's late 80's hit Opposites Attact on the car radio, pull the car over and won't regret it.

Overall: 8.8 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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