Saints Row IV is the best unintentional Marvel/DC superhero game in the industry’s long and storied history. Freeze enemies solid, vault over skyscrapers, soar on the wings of American freedom, throw objects with your mind, or, you know, harass innocent civilians. In Saints Row IV, your dreams – your power fantasies – become reality. The virtual world of Steelport is yours to conquer, even doing the Crackdown and Prototype properties more justice than their respective developers. Rest assured, any doubts players may harbor about Saints Row IV's origins as DLC will be assuaged through plentiful powerbombs, bizarre weaponry, and dancing. Never have I played a game more absurd, more bombastic, more unadulteratedly ludicrous and sure of itself.
Giant robot mechs AND Predator aliens? Your move, Grand Theft Auto.
The team at Volition is still not above a little respect-fueled mockery. The extended tutorial parodies A Game of Thrones, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Mass Effect, and Modern Warfare’s slow-motion sequences, while the character creator packs in a suite of recognizable suits – Leon Kennedy’s Resident Evil 4 outfit, Jim Carrey’s Dumb and Dumber tuxedo, and Han Solo’s swanky duds to name a few. I could go on, but there are good things to be said about a narrative that assaults your senses with a novel’s worth of pop culture references and still maintains its own sociopathic identity. Only a title so cheerfully demented could meld superpowers, 1950s sitcoms, choose your own text adventures, monster trucks, and furries into a story about an alien invasion and somehow have the plot remain coherent.
Coherent is one thing, of course; sensible, on the other hand, never penetrates Volition’s vocabulary. After the Saints’ coup of Steelport, their faces became an international brand and the only place left to go was up – or Washington, D.C. to be exact. As the player’s custom “boss” passes off presidential duties on cabinet members while campaigning for a second term, the galaxy’s fiercest extraterrestrial threat attacks, suspending Saints in virtual realities of their worst nightmares. The President, in the meantime, is dropped into a fictional depiction of Steelport where the Zin Empire’s egomaniacal leader, Zinyak, may alter the world and its inhabitants on a whim.
The town is never want for excitement, at least because of its mission variety. Within 20 hours, I fought evil clones, rode a Tron light cycle, and helped the world’s second greatest hacker rehearse his vampire hunter fan fiction. That might be spoiling too much, but that barely scratches Steelport’s raving insanity. Technical glitches, sell the city’s digitized makeup, with civilians sporting elongated limbs, big heads, or driving pixelated cars upside down. I worried that my video card was on its dying legs until I realized the terrifying visual effects were intentional.
I'm driving a flaming purple monster truck. Your argument is invalid.
Also new to the neighborhood (and less frightening): superpowers. Here, Saints Row IV really stands alone. Cast fireballs, sprint with speeds approaching light, produce crater-forming ground stomps, or siphon health from enemies telepathically. Switching between these abilities is a cinch, and they enliven third-person combat in ways only Saints Row can. Why fend off aggressors with bullets when I could jump ten stories in the air, then rocket back to earth and detonate with the force of a nuke on impact? What was that? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of lightning shooting out of my hands!
As entertaining as it is to play football with citizens’ bodies, the superpowers seem limited upon first use. Until they grow more fatal, firearms cause more commotion, and unfortunately for your alien overlords, a bevy of upgrades wait to be unlocked. Like Saints Row: The Third, money buys health, weapon, homie, and vehicle improvements (yes, explosive pistol bullets return before you ask). Superpowers, on the contrary, require "clusters." These data packets – a whole 1,200 – clutter the city and boost your talents considerably, widening each freeze blast’s radius, magnifying ground stomp shock waves, increasing telekinetic throw distances, and more. Testing enhancements is an outright thrill, but rarely is it so much fun to dash, to jump, to fly, to simply traverse one’s environment as well.
No small feat, either, given other well-regarded open-world games, but Steelport is the purest form of sandbox entertainment. Players could perform endless wrestling finishers on pedestrians, mow Zin down in monster trucks, destroy Zinyak’s statues, or complete one of the many side activities or challenges at their leisure. While I cannot list every optional mission from memory, vehicle heists, foot races (because no one needs sports cars when running hundreds of miles per hour), wave-based firefights, insurance frauds, and assassination opportunities comprise the tip of the giant dildo bat. Best of all, every quest can be launched with a co-op partner, and if anyone’s eyes lit up watching fire and shrapnel illuminate their screens before, the mayhem two "Destroyer-in-Chiefs" unleash will put players into an epileptic coma.
The best part about the Dubstep Gun: It can't fire until the bass drops.
The activities also double as side missions that rescued Saints send their esteemed leader on, and they may seem tedious until you unlock bigger, badder, more homicidal toys. Ever wondered how much havoc a mech, black hole, or tentacle bat could wreak at a four-way intersection to the lyrics of Stan Bush’s “The Touch”? Ever imagine whole streets breaking into a choreographed dance at the mercy of a Dubstep Gun before an Inflate-O Ray makes people’s heads explode? Dream no more, as some thousand or so explosions later, Saints Row IV never gives in to repetition.
Granted, gratuitous mayhem does grow wearisome when laser tanks and hovercrafts no longer phase my character. Luckily, the writing often proves why gamers need nonsense like Saints Row. The Saints would die for one another, though they are the biggest bunch of assholes in existence, and I love every single one of ‘em. Whether stoner Shaundi is agreeing to date a robot, Zinyak is ruining sing-alongs, or Pierce is fighting 50-foot soda cans named Paul, every quest put a big damn smile on my face.
Not that anything could wipe the idiotic grin stretching across my face from ear to ear right now anyway. Saints Row IV does show slight imperfections – enemy AI is generally oblivious or relentless, and the audio occasionally falls out of sync with cues on-screen. Nevertheless, Volition’s latest is unchecked immaturity, a masterpiece of stupidity, and proof that even as the next cycle of consoles approaches, graphics do not (always) define the experience. Through folly and ingenuity, with a city I never tired of exploring and a story I never lost interest in, Saints Row IV is dumb, crass, even offensive at times, but I wouldn't change a thing.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Deep Silver Volition
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Number of Players: 1-2 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Review copy provided by publisher.