I’ve been a fan of the Saints Row series since the first game’s release in 2006. Originally a gritty but sometimes humorous interpretation of gang culture, Saints Row 1 is often seen as one of the many Grand Theft Auto clones that used to litter the market. With the release of Saints Row 2, developer Volition pushed the series to a point where GTA fans, like myself, admired its combination of humor against a violent gangster crime story. I don’t believe I’m alone in believing that Saints Row 2 contained everything that Grand Theft Auto 4 was missing.
Saints Row IV (PC, 360, PS3)
Developed by Volition Inc – Published by Deep Silver
Three years later, Saints Row: The Third released and all comparisons to the GTA series were tossed out of the window. Volition pushed the series outside of the bounds of ghetto, gang humor and into an area more akin with Adult Swim. The leader of the Saints rose up the gangster ladder and has reached celebrity status. What more could he or she hope to achieve? Well, in Saints Row 4, the Saints have occupied the Oval Office. Now they run the country, that is, until an alien armada came to Earth… what the hell happened to this series? A lot for the better if you ask me.
Saints Row 4 begins with the leader of the Saints personally dealing with a terrorist cell. The game starts off parodying tactical military shooters and then quickly thrusts you into Oval Office to attend to presidential matters. Cure cancer or solve world hunger? This is the first moral choice in the game. Does it have an affect on the story? Who knows? Fuck cancer.
It isn’t long until the White House is invaded by an alien army called the Zin. The Zin are led by a wonderfully British-accented alien overlord named Zinyak. Que shooting spaceships in the formation of the classic arcade game Invaders, watching them blowing up the Washington Monument, having my character curse the whole time, and then fist fighting an alien. Saint’s Row 4 starts with a memorable bang.
The plot of the game centers around the leader of the Saints being put into a virtual simulation of Steelport. The reasoning and logistics of why Zinyak would allow the Saints to tamper with a simulation he himself created and not put all of the rules in his favor is briefly mentioned and acknowledged by the characters as illogical and nonsense. The plot sets the foundation for gameplay overhaul in Saints Row 4. Directly parodying The Matrix, Saint Row 4 introduces the ability to have superpowers by modding the rules of the digital world. Super speed, super jumps, running up the side of buildings, and ice blasts are among the powers that I unlocked in my demo. Funny enough, Saints Row 4 plays like a better Crackdown game than Crackdown 2.
As fun as Saints Row: The Third can be, one of its biggest flaws was progression: the player is given too much firepower too soon. By doing so, Volition hurt its own game. It wasn’t long until I felt no incentive to complete any of the side missions, because I had unlocked resistance to damage and infinite ammo for many of my guns. They made it far too easy to unlock powerful bonuses. My initial fear with Saints Row 4 was that Volition would make the same mistake again, no doubt because of the game’s focus on superhuman abilities. But, surprisingly enough, from the time that I had with the game to unlock its superpowers, I felt a much more polished level of progression. Now, this could easily change in the full game when I spend weeks playing it, but the the level up system for guns, abilities, and superpowers felt balanced enough that it will take more time, take more effort, to become an invincible character. This is incredibly important to longevity and I hope I’m not wrong about it.
A greater sense of focus can also be found in the writing itself. Character dialogue and narrative progression is still filled with wacky stuff, but it feels smarter and better conceived than in The Third. One section of the demo includes the leader of the Saints being put into a 1950′s era simulation where his or her dialogue became extremely polite and filled with cliches of that era. The main walking animation is changed as well. If the full game has more scenes like this: running jokes that clearly show a strong commitment to detail, Saints Row 4 will be quite memorable.
Saints Row has found its niche. With a bunch of serious, dramatic games releasing this year, it’s time for a big ball of ridiculousness to remind us that it’s OK to be stupid. Stupid is fun. Saints Row 4 is stupid, but not in a bad way. All of the zaniness found in Saints Row: The Third has been amped up, but with a lot more focus this time. Narratively and gameplay-wise, Saints Row 4 is kookier than its predecessor, but developer Volition seems to have found the right tempo in how they deliver their latest game.