Let’s just get this said immediately – Saint’s Row 4 is going to be an incredibly divisive game, even more than the third entry. From the characters, plot line and all the way down to the gameplay itself there is a lot to either love or hate here. If you thought that Saint’s Row The Third had the fans all up in a tizzy about the various changes to the gameplay and setting, especially with the death of Johnny Gat and the incredibly wild changes to Shaundi’s personality and that’s probably going to be small potatoes to the reception this one will get.
The biggest problem most people will experience is that of the basic premise. At this point the series has abandoned being a crime story parody, leaving the Grand Theft Auto parody behind. It’s actually moved to being something more akin to an open-world superhero video game, more in the vein of Prototype than previous games in the series. You’re going to spend 90% of the game leaping across the city, gliding over rivers and delivering devastating dive bombs to devastate your foes. This will be a problem for some.
Whereas Saint’s Row 3 went all out in the very first missions, what with the intensely over the top airplane stunts, number four is a bit more reserved. This works to the games advantage as it can be reasonably debated that Saints Row The Third peaked a bit too soon in its craziness.
Instead you get a rather enjoyable, but not too crazy (for Saint’s Row anyways), parody of Zero Dark Thirty that has you assault a terrorist hideout for Cyrus Temple. Yep, that loose end from Saint’s Row 3 is cleaned up in the first ten minutes. Then it segues into you at the White House as president and proceeds to make fun of the controversial (or woefully underused as you like) decision making in the third game before all hell breaks loose. The alien overlord Zinyak arrives with his empire at his heels, subduing humanity in moments. After this point it jumps between gunfights, a hilarious Leave it to Beaver parody that mocks Heavy Rain-esque quick-time events and then, after all that, the game itself finally starts.
Saint’s Row 4 is basically split up between segments in the simulation where you slowly gain incredible super powers and a few segments outside of the simulation, which account for about 10% or so of the total gameplay. The non-simulation segments, or ones that take place outside of your super powered fantasy land, play very similar to the third game although with a very few minor tweaks mostly based around the alien weaponry being tricky to use.
But really it’s the simulation itself that makes up the bulk of the gameplay and it is amazingly fun. Leaping over buildings and running straight up walls are two of the lesser powers that make up this new gameplay. With enough time and boss fights you’ll be throwing blasts of ice or fire, flinging cars with the power of your mind or stomping the ground hard enough to send everyone around you flying a couple dozen feet. That’s before applying upgrades to make those abilities yet more powerful. It gets pretty amazing. It honestly gets to the point that you’re only going to be using your explosive weapons, like rocket launchers, or your powers to battle most of the enemies. There are a fewer late game enemies where upgraded sub-machine guns are more useful but the early portion of the game is mostly going to be utter power abuse.
Sweetening the whole package is just how much fun the game developers are clearly having. The whole game plays off the main setup in Assassin’s Creed (i.e. stuck in a simulation but exiting it to associate with partners in the real world), blatantly parodies the Mass Effect series including the ability to “romance” your homies (hysterical scenes in their own right) and a segment that plays exactly like an old-school side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Throw in a flying sequence set to “What is Love?” by Haddaway, an awesome appearance by an old foe of Keith David’s (the Vice President by the way) and another awesome sing-a-long with the Boss and Pierce and the game is just a joy to play.
There are a number of issues that prevent the game from entirely living up to its promise. First, and most notably, this game seems to have more bugs than the entire rest of the series combined. Either that or the bugs are just so common that it makes it feel that way. A number of bugs in the early release copy we played are going to be patched but one horrendous one involves the game freezing whenever you go your menu (the one from the back / select button). Entering this menu for any reason will prompt the game to just lock-up entirely at random. With this one glitch I must have wasted four hours of gameplay at least, thanks to it freezing up part way through really long missions.
There are others glitches, such as buggy cutscenes that have important NPC’s disappear, that ruin the atmosphere in what are supposed to be awesome scenes. It can be really disappointing to finish a difficult mission and be “rewarded” with a buggy, barely watchable action sequence.
Another issue, but one that will be a matter of taste, is the general lameness of the activities in Saint’s Row 4. Saint’s Row The Third cut down on them, removing favorites like Septic Avenger, but the ones that remained were still pretty awesome especially Trail Blazing. So of course the best thing to do is remove those too. The only activities in this game are races, another kind of race, a third kind of race, five different types of Mayhem activities (i.e. blow up the town with different vehicles / weapons) and a really lame Telekinesis bomb tossing event. It’s so bland and ridiculously repetitive that it turns the activities into a chore.
There are “targets” which are basically side missions that are more enjoyable, such as killing all the enemies guarding a device that will destabilize the simulation, but these are over and done with far too quickly to really count for much. Honestly gathering up the collectibles is actually more fun since the audio logs reveal a good bit of information on important NPC’s in the series and there’s even text adventure bits to find to learn more about the main alien bad guy, Zinyak. It’s a pretty sad day when the collectibles are more compelling than side activities but there ya go.
Luckily there are numerous side missions to divert your attention away from the main storyline. Each of your homies, after being rescued, even has a loyalty mission that is usually both fun and amusing. Unfortunately beyond these loyalty missions each of the side missions is really just a way for the game to send you to clear targets or get at least a bronze medal in each of the activities which is kind of lame. Honestly if the main storyline, and those loyalty missions, weren’t so amusing than the game would be less of an easy recommendation.
There isn’t much to talk about graphically since this seems to use the exact same graphics as the previous game did. There is one graphical effect that’s unique to this game though and it’s kind of an eyesore – when you are wandering around a Saint’s controlled neighborhood the graphics will spaz out and look like they’re about to break apart. It’s pretty painful on the eyes if you don’t respond well to over pixelated messes.
Luckily while the graphics may be more or less the same the sound has improved vastly. All of the voice overs sound damn good, even Shaundi who was definitely a mixed bag in the third game. More important than that though is the soundtrack which is freaking amazing. You’ve got stuff here from Men at Work, Nero, Kendrick Lamar and a whole slew of other great music. All Saint’s Row the Third really had going for it was Kanye West’s “Power” but this one really blows it out the park. Plus you can just listen to it while running around so you don’t need to be in a car to enjoy it (not that you’ll really use them anyways).
If it wasn’t for the glitches and the bland activities I would heartily say that Saint’s Row 4 is one of the best open world experiences on the market. Sadly these two issues really drag the game down to the point that it’s just a good game. While that’s more than can be said for a lot of recent releases I was waiting for (Gears of War: Judgement and Dead Island Riptide come to mind) it’s still a bit disappointing to see a game stumble and fall when it was so close to being one of the best.