At first, I was skeptical about Saints Row IV. It hasn’t been that long since the (excellent) third game, and I had heard that this iteration was just an expanded version of some DLC originally intended for the third. I assumed that SR4 was just an attempt to use whatever work had already been done in the Saints Row: The Third engine before moving on to the next generation of consoles. So yeah, I was skeptical. Boy, was I wrong.
Saints Row IV naturally assumes that after the events of the third game, The Boss and his Saints have moved from being media moguls to becoming the President of the United States and his cabinet. The game opens with The Boss, Shaundi, Pierce, and a new character hunting down the previous head of S.T.A.G. from SR3, who has been building nukes with terrorists. The opening scene culminates in The Boss hanging off a nuclear missile while Aerosmith plays in the background. It does a wonderful job of setting the precedent and tone for the rest of the game. Somewhere along the line, aliens attack and kidnap your pals, while leaving you to go crazy in an obviously Matrix-inspired virtual world. And so the stage is set: break out of the simulation, save your friends from their respective simulations, and murder the alien leader in the worst way possible.
Saints Row is the Fast and Furious of video game franchises. Both properties have cast off the silly notion of taking themselves seriously (and normal continuity) to instead take fun characters to Looney Tunes-level heights of outrageous exploits. I can’t express how refreshing it is to play Saints Row IV. It’s not serious, nor is it meant to be taken seriously. Yet somehow, in spite of that, it manages to present us with very interesting characters who are strikingly well-written and, believe it or not, you actually care about.
In that respect, it’s a lot like Mass Effect 2. Instead of assembling a team of specialists, you’re rescuing them, but the idea is the same. In fact, each member of the Saints you rescue even has a Mass Effect 2-style loyalty mission where you get to know the character a little better. A game like Saints Row IV really has no right having such good character interactions but, lo and behold, the loyalty missions have them in spades. But the Mass Effect references don’t end there. You even have your own Normandy of sorts where your crew gathers as the game progresses. Then again, it could also be considered a nod to the ship from The Matrix, since you’re hacking into an AI-controlled virtual world from it.
During one of the early missions, where you first get your ship, you’re tasked with flying it out of the main alien ship. As you take control, The Boss tries to get a radio signal for some music even though they’re in outer space. Somehow, it actually works, and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” starts to play on the radio as you fly the ship. It’s an outrageous and wonderful moment, and at that point I suddenly felt like Saints Row IV was planned, designed, and developed specifically for me.
Just when you think the game can’t get any crazier, your hacking of the virtual world results in The Boss acquiring super powers. It completely overhauls the way you move around in an open-world game. What’s the point to driving cars around when you can run faster than the fastest car in the game? Add in the ability to jump hundreds of stories and glide across whole districts and the game’s sense of momentum causes it to become something that feels entirely new.
Adding in the combat super powers makes it even better. Why use a gun when I can throw fireballs? Make that double when my fireballs cause dudes to explode and ignite more enemies, creating a chain of explosions and death. That’s not to say the guns in Saints Row IV aren’t cool. It’s chock-full of great references to sci-fi weapons. I noticed the pulse rifle from Aliens, Harrison Ford’s pistol from Blade Runner, Captain Reynolds’ pistol from Firefly, the railgun from Eraser, and a few others.
Being in a virtual world, the developers were able to add in a ton of weird stuff to SR4 and at the same time ground it in the rules of the game. Portions of the virtual world will glitch out and cause pedestrians to twist into hilarious shapes, giving them elongated limbs or giant eyeballs. Every now and then the world will artifact and get fuzzy for a second in a way that’s so believable that at times I wondered if my video card was dying. Naturally, these effects stop when you exit the simulation to walk around your ship.
I don’t feel I can heap enough praise on Saints Row IV. It’s amazing where this series has gone since its humble roots of a San Andreas-esque open-world gang game. Even more surprising is how aware SR4 is of its past. There are dozens of references to the first two games in the series, which is surprising considering most people didn’t even pay the series much heed until Saints Row: The Third. But if you’ve played those first two games, there’s a ton of content in here that will surprise you. Remember how Shaundi used to act? Yeah, that’s addressed. Remember how Keith David voiced Julius, the founder of the Saints? Well, now Keith David himself is a character and is your vice president, and the fact that he voiced Julius is acknowledged in-game.
The game is so full of references that it would not be possible to list them all, nor would I want to spoil them. Despite heavy influences from The Matrix and They Live, Mass Effect is probably the biggest reference in the game. Not only do you have a ship and a team but you can romance your team. It doesn’t matter who they are; all you have to do is walk up and press the dedicated “romance” button. It’s pretty funny.
Saints Row IV is one of the last big games to come out before the launch of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and it’s full of references and jokes to one of the most beloved series this generation. Mass Effect references aside, the prospect of where the Saints Row games can go from here is even more exciting than SR4 itself. The revelation of who the game’s narrator is and what the game’s ending could lead to is insane.
I could keep writing all day about how amazing Saints Row IV is, but at the end of the day you just need to experience it for yourself. If you’ve been with the series all along, SR4 is like a hug and a high five from your best bud. If you’re new to Saints Row or started with the third game, it’s still a highly entertaining and endlessly funny piece of entertainment. If you’ve felt bogged down by the self-seriousness of games during this generation, Saints Row is here to let you know that everything is all right. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you find something that feels made just for you while playing it.