By Dustin Urness
The Saints have been on quite the journey. Starting out as an Xbox 360 exclusive in 2006 to fill the gap left by a still-in-development GTA 4, it has gone on to become one of, if not the only, game series to stand up to the GTA juggernaut, and do it well. A series that started out as a similar clone has now spread its wings and become a power fantasy that asks “How far is enough?” and ends up too far away to hear the question by the time you’re done asking it.
Saints Row 3 was a very polarizing game for fans of the franchise, and I include myself in the group that wasn’t very fond of it. The criminal gangland story set in the first two games had me hooked as they seemed to perfect the balance of a good story mixed with offbeat humor and a dash of well-built gameplay. However, Saints Row: The Third kicked it in a direction that had me scratching my head a bit. It was set in a new city, Steelport, that came off as more drab and industrial than the more colorful and lively Stillwater. Also, the criminal antagonists of the previous games were long gone, replaced by new gangs that were more supervillains than thugs. By then, the Saints had become more of a corporation than a street gang. The game’s few redeeming qualities for me being that the gameplay mechanics of Saints Row 2 were still there, and even more polished than before, coupled with endless customization options and a few new characters that broke the mold a bit. Aside from that, its repetitive missions, less-than-impressive story and short length left me a little peeved at where the franchise was going. Needless to say, I was apprehensive going into Saints Row 4.
Within the first hour of SR4, my apprehension was nearly gone. I fully immersed myself into a world that didn’t care what you thought, only setting out to wow and impress you by doing what it does best, and that’s being weird, fun and shameless. The Saints now run the United States, your character recently being elected president, and your crew in various positions of governmental power. During the lead-up to a speech, Earth is set upon by aliens known as the Zin. Their leader, Zinyak, is one of the most charming villains ever in a game, and plays the part extremely well. He sees humanity as a sort of amusement for himself, and proceeds to abduct what he considers the most interesting humans and places them in a simulated recreation of Steelport. There is some leading up to this, but I won’t spoil it for you.
Once realizing the simulation, the Saints begin helping you hack and slowly chop away at the simulation, giving yourself superpowers early on, the first being Super Speed. Your powers grow quickly, but once again Volition has achieved a balance in this game that’s extremely hard to pull off. Once you have a handful of powers, you are a powerful, yet very vulnerable superhuman. Your powers will range from actives such as Ice and Fire Blasts, Telekinesis, powerful Ground Stomp and the weapon-enchanting Buff power, as well as passive powers like the Super Speed, the Super Jump, a Dash Shield and my personal favorite, the Death From Above. However, enemy AI is surprisingly intelligent, and will at a lot of times prove very difficult to get past, despite your insane amount of power. If you’ve played Hulk: Ultimate Destruction or Prototype, the control scheme will have you feeling right at home.
One by one, you free the other Saints from the Simulation and go back and forth between the Sim World and the Real World, a la The Matrix, doing both main story missions, side missions, and loyalty missions that will also give your crew superpower capability, which brings me to another aspect of this game that impressed me thoroughly. This game satirizes, parodies, and pays homage to other games and media in a way that pulls it off nicely, something most games that attempt this fall horrendously flat in doing. It manages to even parody much-loved franchises like Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid without being insipid, and with just enough self-awareness to tell you they’re in on it without making that fact the only punch line of the joke. There are also collectible, crunchy-pixelated text adventures that are playable as multiple-choice games, as well as a side-scrolling beat ‘em up to look forward late in the game that so wonderfully captures the essence of the late-80s arcade brawlers that, had it been released back then, could’ve held up as a standalone game.
This game could not have been a better way to turn it around from what I felt was a misstep with Saints Row: The Third. This game provides the kind of uninhibited fun that will make you look twice at the clock once you realize you’ve been playing it for a four hour stretch, and gives you the right amount of diversions that will change it up for a short while without feeling like a slogging detour. This game is a labor of love that was done by a group of people who love video games and bent over backwards to pay respects to everything it pokes fun at. This is a proper way to do a game whose generation is now in its twilight, and getting ready to make way for a new set of consoles. Saints Row came in somewhat quietly in 2006, and went out with a bang in 2013, and I’m looking forward to what Volition and Deep Silver will be capable of with the new coming hardware.