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Review: Saints Row IV

I’m something of a recent convert to the Saints Row series – a friend eagerly encouraged me to play Saints Row 2 back when it was the latest instalment, but it wasn’t until Saints Row the Third that I finally gave the series a shot. And I’m certainly glad that I did, because the series is far more than the GTA clone that I originally took it for.

Saints Row IV, the latest in the inconsistently-numbered series, originally started as a standalone add-on to Saints Row the Third, similar to Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen or Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare. Later expanded into a full title, the game now assumes the role of the series’ next numbered instalment.

Saints Row IV sees the Third Street Saints reaching an all-new level of power as the Boss (that’s you) becomes the Commander-in-Chief. Apparently controlling a gang, then a corporation and then an entire city wasn’t enough for the Saints, because they now occupy the White House in true Saints style – pet tiger and all. It’s not to last however, as before you even finish your first walk-and-talk you’ll find the roof torn off the First Crib and alien invaders pouring in. Zinyak, the leader of the Zin Empire has decided to claim Earth as his latest conquest, and begins by abducting all the key members of the Saints — including your Presidential self.

From here, the game proper begins. You’re thrown into a virtual version of SR3’s Steelport and expected to do as you’re told, a suggestion which doesn’t sit well with the Saints. After a brief detour through the Boss’ (hilarious) worst nightmare, you’re unleashed on the town and set about to bring the simulation down so you can take revenge on Zinyak. The world itself is almost identical to the map you remember from the previous game, a reminder of the game’s start as a DLC instalment. Changes have of course been made to the environment with the addition of massive alien structures, glitches affecting the environment and clever propaganda and imagery replacing all of the prior game’s advertising and other background content in the game world.

Thankfully, much of the gameplay content is different from the title’s predecessor. This is thanks in large part to the addition of in-game powers. The Saints’ pro hacker Kinzie finds a way to mess with the Simulation’s code to give you access to a host of new abilities, reminiscent of the powers acquired in the Crackdown games. You’ll gain super-speed, a powerful jump move and a host of elemental attacks to help you mess with the Zin. Powers are unlocked and upgraded by collecting fragments of code represented by glowing balls of light, scattered liberally across the city. This works great as an encouragement to re-explore the game world, as from any given fragment you can usually see three or four others to grab. I found it surprisingly easy to forgo in-game missions to instead wander around upgrading my powers instead. These powers really turn combat around in the game – you still have a selection of guns and special weapons, but personally I barely used them. It was far more fun, and far easier, to leapfrog around and use elemental blasts or area-effect attacks to take out enemies than it was to point and shoot. The only weapons I consistently used were the melee ones, because with super-strength upgrades this easily becomes a one-hit kill weapon.

When it comes to the game’s missions, it’s a little odd to find that almost nothing occurs in the game world. All of the initial missions around rescuing your crew are pursued in ‘other Simulations’, and most other story events either follow the same trend or occur in the real world, to essentially the same effect. Usually this also involves losing access to your super-powers, forcing you to commit to the more traditional Saints Row gameplay. I found it a little telling that it was only by removing access to these abilities that the designers could really promote traditional combat instead – and as fun as it was, knowing I could far more easily zip about and complete the mission in seconds if I weren’t being artificially restricted definitely coloured the experience.

Alongside the core story events, you also have the traditional side-tasks to complete. Two of the only mission types to carry over from previous titles are the Insurance Fraud missions (throwing yourself at cars and other objects to rack up insurance money) and general destructive missions where you take down as many vehicles, NPCs and so on as possible in a time limit. Both of these are vastly different thanks to your powers; take a flying leap into the stratosphere before ragdoll-ing to rack up a massive insurance bill, or augment your gun-based destruction with ground-pounds and fireballs. These additions modify the missions enough to make them feel as fresh as all the new side-missions they arrive alongside, and with your crew offering rewards for completing certain sets of these side-missions you’ll find it easy to plough through them.

All in all, Saints Row IV is a lot of fun, but it occupies a weird space. Halfway between full retail title and DLC instalment, it’s more comprehensive than you’d initially expect but not quite as long as you’d like it to be. As fun as new inclusions like super-powers are, they alter the basic chemistry of the game. As a result, SRIV feels much more like a sequel to Crackdown 2 — with a better sense of humour — than it does a continuation of its own franchise. I was a little sad to find I had no investment in vehicle and weapon collecting and customising, because I really only used them when I was forced to by the game. Given these were some of my favourite parts of the previous game – and the fact that this title has further customisation for your weaponry available – it seemed a pity. None of this to say that Saints Row IV is a bad game, of course! It’s a blast to play, and the series’ sense of humour is still going strong with reference humour a-plenty and just the right level of ridiculousness. With further DLC for the title on the horizon I’m interested to see if Saints Row IV will become as well-rounded as Saints Row the Third was, but it’s still worth a look-in either way.

And yeah, it sucks that we got the game late and in a modified condition… but honestly, I don’t think the game suffers for it. The cut content we’re looking at here is one extra DLC weapon and one side-mission late in the game. Overall there was still a strong flow to the story, and I doubt you’d even notice it was missing if you weren’t looking for it. Plus, it means Saints Row IV‘s Australian Edition comes out within a week of Grand Theft Auto V for double your carnage! Isn’t that reward enough for us players, and punishment enough for sales?

Oh, and enjoy the ending (I certainly did). Did you really think they’d stop escalating just because you got to be President?

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About the author

Matt Gosper

aka Ponk – a Melburnian gay gamer who works with snail mail. Enthusiastically keeping a finger in every pie of the games industry. I'll beat you at Mario Kart, and lose to you in any shooter you can name.