I went out and bought Grand Theft Auto III after playing it for five minutes at a friend’s house. Being able to drive all over town, running people over and gunning them down with no provocation or reason while listening to silly music on the radio just felt like an excellent time. Little did I realize that this screwing around was just that, and the game itself was brutally hard and completely unfair most of the time. I wanted to like it more than I actually could like it, but I kept buying the new ones as they came out, always hoping that those moments of blissful goofing off would blossom into something that the game focused on. It wasn’t until Saints Row 2 came out that I first felt the bliss of playing a game that focused on being silly and goofing off, and it was there that I fell in love with the open world game again. They managed to make the game even sillier for Saints Row the Third, and I wondered how they would ever top it for Saints Row IV. They did, though, by making the ultimate goofing off simulator.
How do you reinvent a series that already uses a dildo bat and has a gun that shoots sharks? The first and most important thing you need to know about Saints Row IV is that they added superpowers into it. It was something I never knew that I wanted, but as soon as I was running down the street knocking cars out of my way, I knew that I’d fallen in love all over again. On top of all your regular thuggish activities in the game, you’re given access to a variety of different powers that give you super speed, a ridiculously high jump, the ability to glide, and various fire, ice, and telekinetic powers. It takes a game that, in all honesty, was starting to feel a bit like a more involved expansion pack and turned it into something amazing.
Being able to fly and run added some much needed variety into the typical driving and shooting that fills most open-world crime games. It also adds whole new ways to mess around with the people within them, as I can now kick cars out of the way while running down the street, or I can just pick up cops and start throwing them around using telekinesis. Beyond that, I find I just like flying around with my character, gliding like I did while playing Prototype, or climbing up sheer walls at a full run and then looking out over the entire city as I hurtle over it. There’s just this sense of incredible power and purpose when you pick up this game; that you can do anything you want to the beings inside this world. Sandbox games are often described as being toy boxes for your amusement, and the super hero powers easily make this the most fun sandbox game I’ve ever played.
The powers sound like they would make you a bit too God-like, don’t they? The game has factored your powers into the levels and challenges of the game, doling them out to you at fixed intervals so you don’t get game-breaking powers at the very start of the game. Once you have access to more powers, the game tends to throw enemies at you that require the use of your powers to damage them effectively, such as by giving shields to some enemies that can only be broken if the enemy is frozen or things like that. It’s all balanced surprisingly well considering how much more powerful you’ve actually become, and is part of what makes Saints Row IV stand out from Saints Row the Third — something that felt really important considering it still uses the Steelport of the latter game for its setting.
That’s not to say that you can’t completely unbalance the game. All of your powers, guns, and abilities are still open to be upgraded through optional sidequests or just by earning enough money/levels to acquire them. If you’re the type of gamer who likes to go out and complete optional missions as soon as they become available, you will find yourself growing in power to such a degree that you can completely steamroll the main missions. If that’s something you like and you just want a couple of targets to shoot at, then by all means go ahead and overpower yourself by playing the side missions. If not, you don’t actually have to activate any of the powers or abilities, as you have to choose to unlock each one rather than just have them unlocked by levelling up. It was a nice touch, as players can easily cater the game’s difficulty level to their taste with a couple of unlocks. Just be aware that you can’t shut off an ability once you activate it, so be careful not to make the game too easy on yourself.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to become overpowered, to be honest. I played through an early mayhem mission and got gold on it after playing through the game’s first real mission in Steelport. Upon completing it, I was given an alien spaceship that I could use at any time. ANY TIME. I could call this spaceship up just by going into the menus and requesting it, allowing me to use a powerful gunship any time I felt like it and was outdoors. If I came across an enemy hideout on a rooftop or something, I could just call up the ship and blast it to pieces without a sweat. This was after the very first mission in the game.
Then again, not every stage takes place in Steelport where you possess your powers, as Steelport only exists in a Matrix-like simulation in your head while you’re being held by evil aliens. Yeah, the game starts off with you becoming the President of the United States, and then you’re attacked by aliens who want to hold you because…it’s Saints Row IV? I personally would have shot my character into space the second I’d picked him up, but whatever. Either way, there are quite a few stages that take place in the real world where you don’t possess any of your superpowers, so the game forces things to balance out a lot better at those times. It feels a little disappointing to lose your powers, but to be honest it was a little refreshing to just play a straight third person shooter for a little while at those times. Given how much time I’d spent as a superhero, it was just something new and fun, as odd as that sounds.
Whatever, the real world is stupid. Getting back into the simulation, you’ll find that you have some interesting activities you can get up to. My favorite, Insurance Fraud, is still here, and is made even better with the addition of super speed. I can now hurl myself into trucks doing something like 300mph; getting so much air that I can cross most of the game’s map before slamming back to the ground. There have been some new additions to the activities by using your new powers, such as racing games that have you run through the city as fast as you can. They felt a lot like the ATV racing ones from Saints Row the Third, but lacked a lot of the explosions of the races in that game, which made them a little duller. Other additions use your super jumps to get up platforms or let you race through a computer system so you can upload a virus. Beyond them, there’s a handful of variants on the mayhem missions; all of which feel like the game was trying to make itself seem like it had more activities instead of just having a single mayhem mission where you could use any of your abilities.
I still like my old favorites, but I wasn’t especially impressed by the new activities that were added to the game. I understand that the focus had shifted to the powers, but jumping up platforms, running down a tunnel, and flinging projectiles weren’t exactly riveting entertainment. They’re decent fun, but I had a lot better time dropping off drug shipments or picking up hookers in the past games, finding that getting forced into using certain vehicles and weapons in specific situations added some nice variety to the game. I found that most of the new activities in Saints Row IV just aren’t all that engaging or fun to play, and that I would roll my eyes whenever a new one came up to play. I used to be excited for the side activities in this series, but the ones in this game just felt flat.
On top of that, the enemies also feel a lot less interesting than the groups of enemies from the last game. The gangs in Saints Row the Third were colorful and inspired, and it was fun to explore every new hood to see what the gangs there looked like. The aliens in this game all look kind of the same, and while it is interesting to see their technologies for the first time, I found that they got old pretty fast. There were still some solid fights with them, but overall the aliens all look pretty much the same — taking away a lot of the game’s sillier visual flare.
Compounding this problem is that this game does still take place in the exact same Steelport from the last game. The new locales when you’re outside the simulation do make it more interesting, but I think I would have liked to see a whole new world to play around in rather than play through one I’ve seen before. It gives the proceedings this feeling of being an expansion pack even if it does add a whole lot of new content with the super powers and new missions. There is a little sense of having done some of this stuff before as you reclaim your old shops and hangouts. I still had a lot of fun in Steelport again, but there were times when I found myself wishing for something more.
Also, the radio isn’t that great. It’s cool that you can access it outside of a vehicle now (since you’re living in a simulation you can have it patched right in through to you, which is also why you can warp any car to your location instantly), but there aren’t all that many songs on each station, and you’ll find them looping pretty quick. There were a few that even played on many other stations, as I often found the exact same song would play a few minutes later. There is some good music here that can be played for laughs, but beyond a handful of decent tracks I just left the radio off and didn’t bother to turn it back on again. A few more songs or some more funny banter with the DJs or advertising would have gone a long way to keep me listening.
Your character will have a couple of funny things to say that are worth listening to, though. The vocal customization has a few dialects on offer (And you can crank their pitch all the way into chipmunk territory for instant hilarity), and each dialect has its own phrases to toss around in conversation. They add a nice little touch that goes beyond just giving an English speaker an accent, using phrases that show that someone really did their research into various dialects. It was a nice touch, and hearing someone cursing in French just tickled me.
It also lacks much in the way of new clothing options. Poking through the various shops, I didn’t see anything that was all that different from what was in the last game. In fact, there seemed to be a few types of clothing that were missing. It’s not something that might upset many, but I really look forward to the in-depth character customization of these games, and having just the right amount of ridiculous stuff to put on my character is a must. Having no new options to make a wacky character was a real drag for me.
Despite the game lacking much in the way of new visual variety, music variety, or clothing variety, this series is still built on a solid backbone with tons of available options and things to see. The addition of the powers make this game more than crazy enough for those who’ve been playing this series before, as they give the player the options to go completely nuts on the city’s inhabitants. For those new to the series, I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that will prepare you for just how insane your adventures will be. Its focus on creating new ways to screw around in an open world were well worth the lack of new content in the other areas, as there is already a ton of stuff for you to play around with and enjoy. From the perspective of pure fun with a video game, you cannot go wrong by purchasing Saints Row IV. It may lack some things, but it makes up for it by letting a three hundred pound man wearing a tank top and Daisy Dukes fly across the city sky.