By EMMANUEL LOPEZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After battling luchadores, fending off assassins disguised as strippers and standing up to a highly trained paramilitary force, it only seems logical that the Saints street gang would spend Saints Row IV battling aliens. Who or what else could stand up to The Boss and company?
Five years after the events of Saints Row: The Third, The Boss is now The President, perhaps the biggest electoral head-scratcher since the 2000 election. The White House is staffed by various allies The President has encountered in the three previous games. A short prologue mission ties up some loose ends from the previous installment, and quickly establishes the bombastic tone for the rest of the game.
Invaders from the Zin Empire, led by the affably evil warlord Zinyak, capture the Saints along with the rest of humanity. The President ends up imprisoned in a virtual simulation of Steelport, the city from the previous game. Think of it as The Matrix, but with more Furries and the part of Neo being played by a green-skinned crossdresser whose voice sounds suspiciously like Nathan Drake, or an anthropomorphic inflatable doll with a soothing Southern drawl. It’s your call. As with other Saints Row games, the protagonist is absurdly customizable.
Even though you’re in the same Steelport, it doesn’t feel like it. By exploiting glitches in the simulation, your character gains superpowers and suddenly the entire place turns into your personal playground.
Saints Row IV does a masterful job of making you feel like a superhero. The entire world can be traversed and explored in a hop, skip and a jump. Crushing traffic with a tank seems mundane when you can sprint at supersonic speeds and vault buildings in a single leap instead.
Later, you gain the ability to hurl elemental blasts, manipulate objects with your mind and more. You upgrade your powers by collecting data orbs scattered throughout Steelport along the vein of Crackdown, or by completing certain side missions.
Despite The President’s growing abilities, the game finds a delicate balance between making you feeling like a superpowered badass and presenting some degree of challenge. The President’s powers don’t supplant the more conventional means of dispensing smackdowns — guns, melee weapons and even your bare hands — but rather complement them. You’re never punished for having a preference, be it hurling tanks with your mind, vaporizing aliens with explosive dubstep beats or mowing them down with a Super Soaker.
Only in a Saints Row game would taking down extraterrestrial invaders be such a letdown. The enemies — an assortment of alien soldiers and robots — are dreadfully bland compared to the colorful rogues’ galleries in previous games. It’s still hilarious to smack an alien with a sex toy baseball bat, but it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as it could be.
Driving and shooting still comprise the majority of missions, but because the game takes place in a computer simulation, it isn’t shy about leaning heavily on the fourth wall. One mission will have The President kicking butt in a 2D beat-’em-up and another is a hilariously executed riff on Metal Gear Solid. It’s a thrill to see what kinds of absurd twists Saints Row IV will throw at you.
It should be noted the game does suffer from a few technical issues. The frame rate occasionally dips when the action gets too intense and audio clips are occasionally dropped. Sometimes the game would seize up altogether, which is thankfully mitigated somewhat by the auto-saving system. Nonetheless, it’s a terrible buzzkill when you’re going a million miles an hour and leaving a trail of destruction only for the mayhem to grind to a halt.
Along the way, The President will assemble a crew from homies rescued from the aliens. Shaundi, Pierce and others from the series join a few new faces — including actor Keith David playing himself as the vice president (a gag that gets a lot of mileage) and a friendly A.I. — in the fight for humanity’s survival. Unfortunately, several characters didn’t make it for this go-round, but some of those who do come back (Benjamin [bleep] King!) will genuinely surprise Saints Row fans.
Developer Volition isn’t abashed about mining popular culture for laughs, most notably taking shots at Mass Effect and The Matrix, while also cheekily slipping in references to everything from Firefly to Harry Potter. None of it feels particularly ham-fisted or malicious and sometimes they blend together in some laughably bizarre ways. What’s a high-speed spaceship chase without “What is Love?” by Haddaway playing in the background?
Even the older Saints Row games aren’t safe from lampooning and longtime fans will enjoy the callbacks. It’s like a person laughing at embarrassing pictures of themselves in high school. Between the main storyline and the smorgasbord of side missions and activities, expect to log in around 25-30 hours doing everything there is to do in fake Steelport.
Volition is clearly confident with the identity it’s crafted for the Saints Row series and that swagger shows. Saints Row IV is all about taking the slapstick humor and bombastic gameplay from the last game and giving it whatever they were handing out at the Biogenesis clinic. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t you ask you to either.
“You got the touch, You got the poweeerrrrrr!”
“Saints Row IV,” rated M, is $60 and available on consoles for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and on PC through Steam. For this review, I played the Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher, Deep Silver.