Disclaimer: Though this article features no direct spoilers for Saints Row IV, it does allude to certain missions in a way that, honestly, are better off experienced totally blind. Therefore, you may want to skip this article if you’re planning on playing, or have yet to finish, Saints Row IV. I have worked hard to avoid any spoilers, but it’s still best to experience it with no clue as to what’s going to happen. Everyone else…
It’s about f*cking time.
Folks, you know that I have been a big supporter of games growing up and telling more mature and serious stories. Games with weight and thematic depth that do more than just shoot non-descript Russians in the face with supposedly-accurate military hardware. Hell, the other game that I finally played in the time span of the last three weeks Thomas Was Alone and that has almost single-handedly sold me on higher-priced yet higher-quality games of a purely narrative experience – once I finally move into my university accommodation, I will finally bite the Papers, Please and Gone Home bullets – because its story (told through exceptional narration provided by Danny Wallace) was just that good. And other games I’ve played this year, like The Last of Us and Hotline Miami (because I’m a filthy console gamer), and last year, like Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead, have managed to tell extremely mature stories about very adult topics in a way that progresses people’s perceptions of what our medium is capable of. These are games that we should be supporting and championing, something I’ve spoken of in the past both here and elsewhere.
But man, oh man, sometimes I just want to play games and have some fun, you know? Real fun from a game that is proud to be a game-ass game. No pretentions to being a piece of art, no attempts at hanging a deeper meaning on anything, none of that. A game not designed by a committee, an idea that’s not been focussed tested to hell and back, a vision not compromised by executives desperate for that Call of Duty dollar and therefore take a game that did, initially, have tonnes of fun and personality and maybe even some originality and rework it into the most generic Gears Of War rip-off since Quantum Theory. No. Sometimes, I just want to play a game that’s designed to be fun and nothing more.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I absolutely adore Saints Row IV because I have not had this much pure fun at anything in a literal age.
Full disclosure time: Saints Row 2 is my favourite game of this entire generation, at least in terms of hours sunk into it. Dropping late 2008, at just about the time that I resigned myself to admitting that, yeah, Grand Theft Auto IV was kind of a massive disappointment, Saints Row 2 was the perfect antidote to that mostly ultra-serious downer-fest. It had colour, for one, and a world brimming with humour and personality. Stillwater was just the right size and had enough of a memorable design to make travelling from one side of the map to the other not feel the slightest bit like a chore. The characters were all terrible, terrible people but they had enough personality and humour and the writing was so good that I grew to love every single one of them. Side missions were varied and original, giving me something to replay whenever I got bored of causing chaos in Stillwater (not as often as you’d think). The actual missions were even better, escalating in elaborateness and craziness as the game went on in a way that felt natural instead of forced. Character customization was unparalled, at the time. Yeah, it’s extremely buggy and the PC port is broken beyond all measure, but the actual game was such fun that I don’t care! I still put a few hours into it every week or so because I just love playing it that much!
Saints Row the Third was my single most anticipated game of all of 2011, understandably considering what it was following, and whilst I did really enjoy it in the moment, it wasn’t until I finished the campaign that I realised The Third was actually a major step back from SR2. The game was much, much shorter, for one; it took me just under the 10-hour mark to clear everything compared to the roughly 18 it took for me to clear just the main story of SR2. Customisation had been disappointingly stripped back, removing the layers feature for some reason, which drastically cut down on the number of clothes to choose from. Its soundtrack was much, much weaker. The game was pathetically easy, which really did not help the shortness of the campaign. Steelport was a phenomenally dull city to play around in, citizens didn’t fight back if you harassed them and, inexplicably, the mission replay function was removed totally.
It’s not a bad game, not in the slightest, it’s just that most of it was a giant step back. This left the game to stand up almost exclusively on its characters, story and missions, which each came with their own strengths and weaknesses. Its story was kind of a mess and very undecided in terms of what it actually wanted to do, but the actual writing was hysterical which managed to almost make me forgive the… troubling character decisions regarding Shaundi and Johnny Gat. The missions were crazily inventive and massive fun to play in, but with no replay function (besides starting the whole game again), they were a one and done affair, and padding out the run time by forcing you to go through all of the side missions in a way that seemed like they were actual missions was super sh*tty. The characters were pretty much the only unreservedly great thing about it, with a large cast who all managed to make a strong impression, both returning and brand new (I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I have the biggest crush on Kinzie Kensington). Considering the overall pros/cons list, it was hard to read The Third as anything but a disappointment. Not helped, of course, by THQ’s extreme nickel-and-diming of the game with extensive DLC that just smacked of ‘cut content.’
So, in the lead-up to the release of Saints Row IV, I was attempting to reserve my optimism. Said attempts at reserving my optimism were extremely hard to do considering that the game kept pumping out footage consisting of super powers, mech suits, dubstep guns and Keith David as your frickin’ Vice President, but I ensured that this thought was always in the back of my mind. “They could screw it up again, Callum. They did so before. Just remember that. It might not be as good as everything they’ve showed off.” Nevertheless, I picked up my copy the Friday the game came out and, after the 10 minute wait to redeem the codes that came with it and the 55 minute wait to download the giant update that somehow went live in the previous four days and the further 20 minute wait for the game to install (because you can’t just buy a new game and play it anymore), I started the game hoping for the best (that it would rule beyond all measure) but expecting the worst (that it’d just be alright and clearly originating from expanded DLC).
It was about 10 minutes in, near the end of the prologue mission, that every single one of my fears immediately dissipated. In one action, with one hysterically over-wrought set of dialogue exchanges and one perfectly deployed music cue, Saints Row IV killed every single one of those reservations in my head dead. And it only got better from there.
Everything in Saints Row IV is designed with the duel purposes of fixing what went wrong with The Third and being stupid amounts of fun, with the former primarily there to support the latter. Available customisation features are much larger, even if you still can’t edit layers of clothing. The soundtrack is far stronger, full of tracks that could scientifically be designated as proper TUUUUUNEES!!! The game’s difficulty has been improved significantly, even if it is extremely hard to die (I only fell twice in the whole game); you, with your super-powers, are powerful enough to often be able to clear out enemy flashpoints in seconds flat but there are often just enough enemies who are just tough enough to be able to keep you on your toes. Citizens occasionally fight back if you harass them enough which makes going on chaos filled rampages that much more satisfying…
The headline fix, though, is the city of Steelport itself because, thanks to the addition of super-powers, navigating what otherwise would have been a dull world became extreme amounts of fun. Sure, it inadvertently managed to make navigating anywhere in a car almost completely useless, but, quite frankly, who cares when you can run anywhere faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound? And those are just the vanilla options. Upgrade those two starting powers as the game goes on and your Super Sprints can suck up any nearby objects and people in the tailwind as you blaze by, or you can gain the power of gliding effortlessly from your Super Jumps and even run up the side of buildings! It makes Steelport feel like the world’s greatest interactive playground because the simple act of getting to the mission start point is an unbridled joy, one that’s almost as fun as the missions themselves!
Combat with super-powers is obviously a blast, but the traditional guns you have to fire are almost as good. The ability to switch the design of otherwise bog-standard pistols and SMGs to the revolvers from Firefly and rubber band guns makes them feel individual and special. This is not even mentioning the usual Saints Row arsenal of ridiculous weapons. The gun that fires black holes, the gun that abducts your targets, the gun that essentially plays pinball on hapless enemies, the hidden gun that is absolutely not a rip-off of the tiny pistol from Men in Black… all of these are glorious creations that are as practical in combat as they are silly amounts of fun. But they all pale in comparison to the glorious power of the Dubstep Gun, which comes with three separate options of wub and is a certified over-powered game-breaker when fully upgraded. Not that I cared about that last part because the act of murderising alien scum with exploding wubs never ever, ever, ever got old. Ever.
Propping the whole game up, though, are the main missions and the writing that goes into them. Most of the main missions conspire an admittedly logical reason for taking away your super-powers (one notable example being the world’s most epic defend the objective quest), but I was always willing to accept that stipulation because each mission was so damn fun in its own right. One has you fighting a giant Saints Flow mascot named Paul, one forces you into a great parody of Metal Gear Solid, one takes you back to Stillwater, one traps you in a 50s suburban Hell, one is the best parody of an over-parodied 80s action flick that I have seen in forever, one is so fantastic that I refuse to even allude to it here because you deserve to reach it unspoiled. Through it all stands the game’s big bad, Zinyak. He gets little direct screen-time but he makes the most of every single appearance, both direct and through voice-over taunting. The guy is the perfect love-to-hate villain and manages to be the bad guy that Saints Row in general truly deserves.
So, I guess it’s time for me to address the thing that truly stands out in Saints Row IV, the absolutely stellar writing. What stuck out in The Third as a hysterical feature that deserved a better game to back it up finally gets its due here, taking a Saints Row 2 approach in tone but with content that’s of a far higher quality than in 2 thanks to the devs getting better at it as the years go on. From the instant the cold open begins right up until the post-credits stinger has sent you packing with one last belly-laugh, this game is utterly hysterical. One-liners fly every single which way, parodies hit their targets in spot-on fashion, every single character gets something extremely memorable to do, whoever is responsible for the music cues at Volition deserves the biggest goddamn raise they can find, character interactions are so funny that it’s genuinely worth actually calling up various combinations of homies outside of missions just to hear certain character’s dialogue with one another… It’s all delivered flawlessly, of course, by a top notch cast – I must give Laura Bailey, my Boss’ voice, extra credit for making her line reading of “I’m getting emotional, and that emotion is ASS-KICKING!” be one of my favourite things all year – but the material is strong enough that even a cast who would sleep-walk their way through 65% of the dialogue would be still be able to make this one of the funniest games of the last three years. Sweet lord, this game caused me burst out in super loud hysterics at a walk animation in one mission!
Yet, despite the sci-fi Mass Effect/Matrix theme that IV takes, it still manages to stay grounded throughout. This is not wackiness for wackiness’ sake. Sure, there are various missions that are just plain stupid and are clearly only there for the purposes of getting you to laugh – The Saints Wing takes the state of moral choice systems in most games nowadays to their absurd conclusion and ends with you shooting down alien spaceships on the front lawn of the White House in an anti-aircraft gun – but most have the craziness mean something, no more so than in the loyalty missions. One in particular starts off as yet another absolutely hilarious joke at the expense of the second of the Saints Row universe’s chew-toys but shockingly manages to actually become genuinely affecting by the time it wraps up, whilst never losing the gag factor. Another involves two characters trading barbs with one another before they start bonding in a way that managed to end up feeling legitimately sweet. A returning character’s loyalty mission is tinged with a permanent feeling of melancholy even with Thin Lizzy blaring in the background. There’s nothing here that’s anything on the level of The Walking Dead or anything, but I was surprised by how much the game managed to make me care supremely about its cast who, over the course of four games – all of which are referenced and given their due here; not overbearingly, but enough to make long-time fans have that extra emotional connection – have secretly turned into my favourite cast of characters in any game ever.
Or, to put it in a much simpler way that should sell anybody with a pulse on this game: Saints Row IV is the Airplane! of videogames but with an actual emotional heart beating in the centre of it.
By the time the credits rolled, a genuine sense of sadness washed over me. That this was it. This is the end of Saints Row because there is nowhere else for them to go and the ending itself had a definite sense of finality to the whole thing. But I don’t want it to end. I mean, I do, because that ending is perfect and trying to come back to the Saints Row franchise and do anything else with it will ruin the power of it, but I don’t. I’m having too much fun causing mayhem, I’m having too much fun navigating Steelport hunting for the last remaining collectables, I’m having too much fun browsing through Zinyak’s collectable journals – which, oh yes, are done in the form of a text adventure – and I’m way too attached to every single one of these characters to say goodbye. I am having too much fun and I don’t want to say goodbye because that would mean that Saints Row is over. That would mean that I would have to go back to various committee-designed shooters or Indie games with rudimentary gameplay that’s solely there to keep its stories from simply being interactive novels or, Maker forbid, sports games. And I don’t want that. I want to stay in the world of Saints Row IV because I haven’t had this much fun in forever and I seriously feel kind of at a loss whenever I’m not playing it.
I am going for the Fourth and Forty trophy and, by Maker, am I going to love every single second of it. I wonder how the game goes with the Cockney Male voice…
In Actually Important News, This Week: In the latest of a string of Star Trek Into Darkness creative personnel failing to take criticism on the chin and just get over it, the film’s director JJ Abrams criticised the recent Star Trek game stating that its failure “emotionally hurt” him and that said game “was something without question that didn’t help the movie and arguably hurt it” which is a stunningly original excuse for the crappiness of a movie, if nothing else. Mr Abrams, if the quality of a film’s tie-in videogame negatively impacted how people viewed the actual film, then The Cat in the Hat film would have been a steaming pile of… wait a second, I think he’s onto something, here!
Callum Petch is telling you the truth, he means it, he’s OK.