Saints Row IV Review (PC)

The church has really lets its standards slip when it comes to canonisation

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Saints Row IV is everything the trailers have led you to believe. While the first game was a serious tale of rising up through the ranks of a gang, the second was about domination and gang warfare, the third was about lunacy and excess, the fourth is one giant power fantasy. Giving you superpowers and hugely overpowered vehicles almost from the start, Volition have decided this is the only way to top the last title. I’m not even sure if it’s possible for them to outdo this one.

Starting off with a brief explanation of how you’re president and an epic opening up there with ‘The Third’s amazing heist and plane escapade, Saints Row IV’s plot isn’t  particularly clever and is definitely never subtle. There are excellent characters, with a kind of ‘best-of’ collection from the entire series making an appearance at one point or another, and all of the new characters standing up just as well as many of the familiar faces. Voice acting and script writing is a real strength, and each character feels distinctive and likable, with their own little quirks and likes and dislikes. Sadly this doesn’t translate very well when you’re playing alongside them, particularly when you tend to be jumping across city blocks while they constantly teleport to keep up with you. This is a shame as you miss out on many of the moments that made previous entries so great. One of the key moments from Saints Row The Third is basically repeated here, but there’s nothing new to take its place or move the idea forward too much.

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This is the biggest issue with Saints Row IV, it’s trying to be too much and while each part is executed almost perfectly, they never quite gel. There’s moments of real drama in the plot but they’re defeated by the over-the-top gameplay. The superpower gameplay is great fun, but the objectives are often dulled by tedious activities that are required for the plot. Crackdown faced this problem too, and got around it by having the plot barely above the surface of the game, instead bubbling away while you did whatever you wanted to do. Saints Row IV attempts to tie a plot in with the incredibly freeform gameplay, and it doesn’t work as well. The game even mentions its own failings if you pay attention to the dialogue and bits of texts that appear here and there, but then it doesn’t avoid those failings. Just because you know something is stupid doesn’t stop it being stupid.

That being said, the game is a huge amount of fun to play and this cannot be overstated, in the 17 hours it took me to 100% all of the missions and side missions as well as getting at least a silver in every activity (there are over 1200 collectables and a lot of gold medals to get in the activities which eluded me) there was no point where you’d want to turn the game off. Everything about it is compelling, none of the missions go on too long and every activity requires skill rather than luck to get through. From Audiosurf-style races through cyberspace to Insurance Fraud challenges there’s plenty that’s familiar to the series as well as a bunch of new modes that make the most of your new powers. Fans may be saddened by the absence of some of the old favourites like driving through checkpoints on fire or or using a muck spreader to paint the city brown but every single activity that did make it into the game is a lot of fun. Even the wave-based infection events give you a chance to try out combinations of your powers and weapons while never presenting too much of a challenge. If you don’t like games being too easy you’ll definitely want to set it to hard from the start.

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Customisation is back and as compelling as ever allowing you to choose almost everything about your character, including using one of seven different voice actors (including Nolan North who even refers to himself by his real name at times in the dialogue as kind of an in-jokes for people who play too many games like us). As you can tell in some of the screenshots, we went with a Heisenberg character after watching Breaking Bad’s return and the editor is powerful enough for you to make a pretty good likeness. Whoever you create is used in cut-scenes and the dialogue is different for each voice which could add a fair amount of replayability once you’ve let the game cool off a bit after finishing.

There’s a huge collection of weapons for you to make use of through the game, and alongside the effective (and customisable to many famous movie guns) standard firearms there’s also a few new sci-fi styled machines such as the dubstep gun and the abduction gun. Most of the new weapons are hilariously powerful but come with a limited charge rather than ammo. This means you’re not constantly searching for rare ammo, but if you ever find yourself in a pickle you can whip out a bit of wubwub and clean up.

The powers are fantastic and add a lot more to the game than you might think. Super speed and jumping allows you to traverse the map with ridiculous ease, upgrading them eventually gets you to a point where you can literally leap across islands in the city or run across the sea. Offensive powers including freezes, mind control, fire blasts, telekinesis and buffs to make your shooting more potent. While each can be useful in its own way (ands the game does a good job of forcing you to use different powers at points without seeming too controlling) the freeze blast is an early unlock and makes nearly every firefight simple. Just freeze your enemies (if you hit a flying target, including the huge flying saucers, you take them down in a single hit and then mop up with whatever gun you have to hand, shattering them all as you go. The powers are upgraded by collecting orbs in a very Crackdown-esque fashion, but just like in that game they’re a lot of fun to hunt down and after a while they appear on your map so it’s never a chore (although as mentioned previously, there are 1200 of them). By the end of the upgrades you can cause nuclear explosions by falling and throw tanks into the sky. One of the joys of single player games is that they don’t have to worry about balance so Volition have let their imaginations run wild. At various points in the game some of your companions partake in using powers and it’s good fun to watch them throwing things around and setting people on fire with their minds, while they might struggle to keep up with you, they can definitely hold their own in a fight.

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Superpowers might serve to fulfil your wish to prance around like Superman or the Flash and take on gangs as if you were Sub Zero but they also damage one of the best bits of Saints Row, the driving. There’s still a fully-featured customisation shop for any vehicle, and you can save any vehicle you get into by holding down on the D-pad, but why would you get into a car or even a helicopter gunship when it’s quicker to run and jump and your guns are more powerful than many of the vehicles’? Some of the best missions in the game required you to drive and that lets you see the city properly, enjoy the Hollywood style handling and get in truly exhilarating situations. When you have superpowers you can always just jump away and find somewhere to get health, you never feel in danger. Not once in the entire game was I in a non-scripted car chase. Generally we don’t like to criticise games for what they don’t offer but it feels like an essential part of Saints Row is missing. There’s no boats or trains (despite there being train tracks), there’s only one flyable plane (although there are a few alien aircraft) and although the cars all handle great and are customisable with spikers, nitros and neon lights, they’re definitely not in the spotlight anymore.

As you’ve hopefully worked out by now, the game takes place in a simulated version of Steelport. This allows for much more gamification of the world with enemies dropping health, things being able to warp in at any point and you being able to summon whatever you want whenever you need it. It never makes sense (but you probably weren’t expecting SRIV to make sense) because the simulation is controlled by your adversary you demonstrates right at the start he can destroy what he wants within it, but then struggles to take care of you and your plans, but it makes certain other elements work better such as taking over parts of the city and explaining away collectables. Sadly because the world isn’t real (within the game) it all seems to matter less. It’s hard to care about your gang when they don’t exist within the game world, and none of the streets seem like real streets thanks to some graphical effects where things glitch out all the time. Walls shimmer, pedestrians are often wearing crazy outfits and at times everything goes to hell and people start floating around, or have giant eyeballs, or their limbs stretch out all over the place. This is entertaining for a while but I longed for something more solid as it felt like everything you do in the game doesn’t really matter, it’s just an arcade shooting gallery with a lot of giant explosions.

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Graphically the game is very clean, running at 1080p60 without any trouble on our i5,7870,8GB Ram machine with only shadows and AA not on the highest setting. This is a big achievement for a series that has historically struggled with optimisation. The reflections on the damp roads look brilliant and when you’re moving at speed there’s very little pop-in and the draw distances are impressive. Animation isn’t so great and character’s faces (even some of the main characters) are notably stiff, with only the eyes and mouths moving. Volition have evidently worked hard to make sure the game holds up with a lot going on, but this has taken its toll on the fidelity of the world, often leading to some weird graphical glitches such as clipping and a few stretched textures. At many points in the game I simply fell through the world, which may be believable within the simulation but it was definitely not meant to be happening.

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Throughout the campaign the gameplay changes up repeatedly, and often you’re stripped of your powers or thrown into another type of simulation. Without spoiling anything many of them are great and seeing the simulations created for others characters are probably the highlight of the game. Interesting that these are also the times when you get your powers taken away from you. There’s tonnes of references to pop culture including Star Trek, Twilight, Streets of Rage, Splinter Cell and more, but there’s a particular emphasis on Mass Effect with a whole section of the game devoted to making fun of it or at least paying homage to the series in its own way. If you’re heavily invested into this culture you’ll enjoy the nods but there’s barely any real satire and it feels as though they could have gone a little but further. The interactions with your team are well worth making the most of though.

We haven’t had a chance to play co-op yet due to the game not being out but you can join at any point in the campaign and there are a few activities specifically for two-players, giving them a chance to compete against each other in games of Cat and Mouse or what appears to be a deathmatch.

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Much of this review sounds negative, but that shouldn’t put you off. If you enjoy the insanity of Saints Row, then this game has it in buckets. It’s been a long time since I played a 17 hour game all the way through in just three sessions, but there’s so much to do and everythings so well paced it’s almost impossible to put down. It’s just frustrating that the world feels so limited and intangible compared to some of the finely crafted worlds we see in sandbox style games in the last few years. It feels like a step backwards and quite an odd one. The map feels tiny thanks to your superpowers, and if you zoom out the city only takes up a quarter or so of the screen, all the way through I was hoping it would open up to be much much bigger, but sadly that never happened. Volition promised to do things bigger and louder with this entry, and they succeeded. The only issue is that it cost them something important, some grounding that gave you a reference point to make your actions more dramatic. This is like playing a video game, in a video game.

Verdict 8

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