The Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto franchises are back to do battle; this time on next-gen systems. In 2013 Volition struck the first blow with their fourth installment of Saints Row beating GTA V to last-gen consoles by only three weeks. Recently, Rockstar dazzled open-world gamers with a stunning next-gen remake of GTA V, and sure enough, Saints Row IV was quick to follow suit. While their next-gen remake is not nearly as impressive as what GTA delivered, Saints Row IV: Re-Elected remains just as fun and wacky as ever and now includes a year’s worth of DLC and the new standalone DLC; Gat Out of Hell.
While it might be hard for existing fans of the fourth game to double-dip, Deep Silver is using the digital marketplace to offer some creative ways to revisit the game; allowing you to purchase the core game and/or the standalone DLC individually or as a digital bundle. Retail copies of the game automatically come with the Gat Out of Hell expansion.
The core game is just as fun as I remembered, but the last time I played this was in a world where GTA V didn’t exist. Seeing what is truly possible with open-world sandbox games, Saint’s Row IV struggles to remain relevant in 2015. What dazzled and amused us two years ago seems less than impressive despite some HD enhancements. And sadly, those minor visual improvements are overshadowed by new bugs and glitches. For some reason, this new game seems to frequently lock-up my PS4 – six times over the course of the main game, and we are talking hard locks where I had to pull the plug on my PS4 (not recommended but the only way to reset) and then rebuild database. The game does save after every collectible pick-up or significant action so you never lose progress; just your time and potential corruption of your system.
From the opening prologue mission Saints Row IV will engage you with its polished gameplay and ultra-refined shooting mechanics and completely confuse you with its WTF story and seemingly random presentation. The first level has our unnamed hero totally decked out in combat armor invading a secret military base trying to stop Cyrus from launching a nuke at Washington D.C. The daring success of this mission lands our action-star in the Oval Office…literally…and that is where the story really begins; with the Saints now in control of the USA and the sweetest crib in the country.
But before you can rule a nation you need to create your alter-ego and once again Volition delivers one of the most robust character creation kits in the biz. You can spend hours and hours tweaking your character, choosing from countless body mods, wardrobe changes, seven voices (including Nolan North), and an awesome collection of physical compliments and taunts. As always, these mods can be changed later with a quick and relatively cheap visit to the plastic surgeon and/or a clothing store. For those who want to dive straight into the game there are a few male and female Presidential presets offered up as magazine covers.
After an amusing opening camera shot homage to The West Wing that gives us an all-too brief look at the daily burdens of being the President, aliens invade your D.C. crib and abduct your friends whom you’ve all assigned positions of power. You do your best to fight them off, but when the alien overlord, Zinyak towers four feet above you and has telekinetic powers your capture is inevitable. Now, you are a pawn, subjected to living out your worst nightmare in a virtual simulation that can only be compared to the Matrix. Your personal hell is played out as a 50’s sitcom modeled after Leave it to Beaver (complete with audience laugh track), but in a world where only the police carry guns and swearing is against the law (and bleeped) how long can you possibly last.
Thankfully Kinzie has managed to hack the alien simulation and is able to coach and facilitate your escape, but only for a moment. Zinyak promptly tosses you into a new simulation; a recreation of Steelport where you are to live out your days in captivity for the amusement of your new alien ruler and his team of lizard-like wardens. Once in the Steelport simulation the game starts to look and play a bit like you might remember; especially when your first task is to jack a car and drive across town to a Friendly Fire to weapon-up.
For the next 30-40 hours your main mission is to screw with Zinyak by hacking his simulation. You’ll take over 32 flashpoints, secure 6 Wi-Fi hotspots, hack open 34 stores, locate 1255 data clusters, and engage in all sorts of crazy competitive challenges earning bronze, silver, and gold medals, and all this while checking off 37 core missions that advance the story. While this all sounds familiar, the guise of having it all play out inside a virtual sim creates some unique potential for gameplay and design.
Zinyak has eradicated all traces of the Saints in this sim, so you have no safe houses and no crew. Instead, you operate from your command center onboard a hijacked alien ship back in the “real world”. There, you can interact and romance your fellow Saints and plan your next mission before jacking back into the simulation via multiple gateways leading back to Steelport. And much like Neo in the Matrix, once you learn that “there is no spoon” almost anything is possible, and thus the introduction of “super powers”.
As you play the game and collect data clusters you can use these to power-up the President with amazing speed and jumping abilities at first, and later you will add powers like telekinesis, blast attacks, stomp, buff, and the devastating Death from Above that results in a mushroom cloud that can take out several city blocks. New powers are granted when you defeat Zinyak’s alien wardens (bosses) and you use the data clusters to increase their power and elemental buffs like fire, ice, and electricity.
Data clusters are just one of the many ways Saints Row IV crafts its intricate progression system. As you complete missions and kill enemies (or rob civilians) you’ll earn cash…excuse me…”cache” that can be used to upgrade weapons, purchase ammo, new clothes, and new personal abilities. You’ll also earn XP that increases your rank, and as new ranks are attained new items and abilities are opened up for you. Even though you are capped at level 50, you’ll still be trying to unlock and purchase new stuff even after the dance party credits roll on the main story.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic to the game, especially a game that was founded on shooting and driving is that you really don’t do a whole lot of either in Saints Row IV; or at least I didn’t. Once you gain the sprint ability, even at its lowest setting you travel much faster than any car, and when combined with jumping, gliding, and air dash, you can travel across Steelport with speed and grace that evolves from the Incredible Hulk to Superman. For those who played games like Crackdown or Prototype, you will feel right at home running up the sides of buildings and gliding across the city.
The weapons are amazing; almost as amazing as the flawless targeting and combat system that makes firefights some of the best moments in the game, but even guns take a backseat to your cyber-abilities. After all, when you can cast fireballs or freeze then shatter your enemies or stomp them into oblivion, why mess with bullets. In all fairness, the cool-down on your abilities does make firearms a necessary addition to your strategy in that you use your powers to negate shields then do damage with bullets until your powers recharge. The game will also frequently negate your powers, usually when you are inside someone else’s sim or back in the real world, forcing you to use guns.
The normal weapon selection is as vast as it is powerful, but you now have all sorts of alien weapons you can collect from Zinyak’s troops that are called in to back-up the virtual police when your notoriety reaches that third and fourth tier. Lasers, bounce guns, stun guns, disintegrators, and even a black hole generator are fun additions to your conventional gun rack and as always, all weapons have pages of upgrade and customization options.
Thankfully, you won’t be stuck in the Steelport sim for the entire game. Kinzie will start sending you into other simulations to rescue your fellow Saints, each trapped in their own personal cyber-nightmare. Matt Miller is first to get pulled out and is probably one of my favorite moments in the game as you play through a TRON inspired level with neon tanks and cycles only to be dropped into an old EGA graphics/text adventure, and finally a power-armor mech-suit firefight and a turret battle for the final escape. Other nightmares include revisiting the plane from the Saints Row 3 opening, the church from the original Saints Row where you get to fight the Vice Kings, a Ghost Busters-inspired level where a giant can of Saints Flow is attacking your penthouse crib, and even a stealth combat mission heavily inspired by Metal Gear Solid right down to the WTF sound effect and villain with an eye patch. Johnny Gat’s mission has to be one of the best with a flawlessly recreated 8-bit classic, Streets of Rage. And then you have three instances of fighting in the “real world”, once piloting your command ship, once in a gunnery turret, and the final showdown with Zinyak in some bad ass power armor complete with one of the best musical cues in gaming history…correction “THE BEST” musical cue – thank you Stan Bush.
Once you pull your Saints out of their sim and into the real world you’ll need to complete some “loyalty missions” in order for them to have their own super powers in the Steelport sim. These are nearly as original and fun as their rescue missions. Saints members also have hidden audio logs in the city and character-specific missions to further flesh out their stories and screw with the sim. You are free to use your phone to call in one or more of your team for back-up on almost any mission as well as recruit right off the street.
There are plenty of Challenge activities in Saints Row IV; some thrust upon you as part of the story line and others that merely pop up as diversionary activities to occupy your time. Of course the quest for Gold medals is usually the driving force, as you foot race through the city in Blazin missions, use your telekinetic abilities in ESPN-style commentated M.O.M. events, battle it out in Super Fight Club, or just engage in random mayhem challenges using special weapons, tanks, etc. There are also co-op activities like Cat and Mouse for two-players.
By design, the graphics are a bit retro and feature heavy contrast since 98% of the game takes place in a virtual night. The draw distance on next-gen consoles rivals that of the PC and the framerate is consistently fluid with minimal pop-up. You can reach some dizzying heights either running up skyscrapers, jumping the pads to climb the alien data towers, or even flying around the city in an alien fighter. Load times are fast when going from outside to inside shops or traveling from the sim back to the main ship via gateways. Menus are slick, colorful, and easy to navigate and I loved the mission-end screens with fun Presidential animations and hilarious titles like Game of Clones.
The audio package is as impressive as it gets. Sadly, the three male and three female voices will likely be overlooked with Nolan North’s name proudly displayed as a seventh option. His portrayal of the President is flawless, and if you do pick Nolan there are numerous comments and conversations that are specific to him…I’m guessing many are unscripted. The rest of the voice cast is pure perfection with Keith David, JB Blanc, Daniel Dae Kim, Terry Crews, and the late Michael Clark Duncan, just to name a few.
Then we have the music. The first time I exited a stolen car and the music kept playing I thought the game was glitching then I realized that Saints Row IV allows you to listen to music anytime. Sure, it may be unrealistic but considering that this new game design has you sprinting more than driving I can see why they did it, and I appreciate it because the music is freaking awesome! There are seven radio stations covering everything from modern rock to hip hop and rap to electronic, classical, 80’s and 90’s classic rock, rave and underground, and even a channel with nothing but reggae. You can even go into the system and pick your favorite songs from each station and make your own mix tape. And for those who loved the famous sing-along moments in Saints Row 3, they are back and even better than before; especially with the Nolan voice option. You won’t stop laughing as you hear the President and Pierce sing Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract, and Just a Friend by Biz Markie, and make sure to listen to the final credits for a group sing-along with the main cast, including a very embarrassed Michael Clark Duncan.
Saints Row IV took me just over 24 hours to complete, and by complete I mean 100%-ing all the single-player content including Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Save Christmas DLC. The game also has a fully playable co-op campaign with seamless and improved drop-in, drop-out two-player buddy action as well as several co-op challenges scattered about the city.
I have to admit it’s always been a struggle to complete past Saints Row titles. They have always been a bit overwhelming in scope, scale, and a somewhat repetitive task list, but Saints Row IV changes all that with its unique style, fast paced gameplay, and a smooth and steady progression system that kept the game fresh and new from one missions to the next. Nothing ever got boring or repetitive, and even when I was grinding away at the last 200 data clusters I was still able to lose myself in the elegant sprint-jump-glide gameplay and intuitive controls.
For that aspiring gamer who dreams of someday becoming the President, a superhero, or even a galactic overlord, Saints Row IV lets you live out all those dreams and more while packing in plenty of winks and nods to all your favorite movies, games, and other pop-cultural references. It might not be classic Saints Row, but this is easily the most FUN I have had with ANY open-world game including GTA V. And while this is a game that no Saints Row fan should miss, those who’ve already played it can probably skip or at least wait for a sale or perhaps just check out the Gat Out of Hell Expansion.