I make no effort to hide my love for Saints Row: The Third. While that game had its fair share of issues, it easily had more heart than any other game of that year. The unbridled passion that seeped out of every pore of that game was infectious. Saints Row: The Third finally carved a sizable niche for the franchise in the open world genre, developing its own unique personality instead of continuing to copy Papa Grand Theft Auto. The future seemed bright for the sequel to The Third, codenamed "The Next Great Sequel in the Saints Row Franchise" (Which is the best title for a game I've heard of since, well, "Saints Row: The Third.), even if it was kinda weird that the expansion pack "Enter the Dominatrix" was being combined into it.
But then developer Volition's owner and publisher THQ went bankrupt in the middle of the development of this highly anticipated sequel. Rumors were abounded that EA and Activision, perhaps even Warner Brothers were seeking to purchase the developer and THQ's lucrative Saints Row franchise. Who sized THQ's crown jewel? Deep Silver, a B-tier and generally unproven publisher, whom's only claim to fame was the Dead Island games. My outlook on Saints Row IV was fairly bleak at this point.
Yet I was ever hopeful that Volition would somehow pull it off, crafting a worthy sequel to the charming Saints Row: The Third. With Saints Row IV out now, and having played through it, I can reassure you that Saints Row IV is great and overall a better game than its predecessor. Even if it bares a few distracting scars from its unfortunately chaotic development, and other weird issues.
Saints Row IV begins shortly after the ending of the last game. After having defeated all of their competition, the pop-culture phenomena Third Street Saints gang have grown bored. So naturally The Boss, your male/female created character, decides to run and become the President of the United States of America and fills his/her cabinet with members of his/her gang. Things are proceeding swimmingly, until an alien invasion enslaves the Earth and abducts The Boss and his friends and traps their minds in separate The Matrix-esque simulations. Your objective becomes not only to break yourself out of your simulation, but to free your homies as well to defeat the aliens and save Earth.
Because it's a simulation, Saints Row IV gives you the ability to earn super powers. This includes running faster than any other vehicle in the game, jumping over buildings, throwing fireballs, and other such goofy nonsense. The powers feel great, especially the ones related to your maneuverability, and it's simply a joy to run around, gathering the various Crackdown-like orb collectibles which upgrade your powers even further. So while the gunplay feels better than the last game, and there's more variety in your armory (Including the Dubstep Gun, which is the most inventive weapon I've used in a shooter in recent memory.), the super powers fix one of my primarily issues with The Third which was it wasn't that fun to play.
There's a fantastic structure to the game. While I loved Saints Row: The Third, I barely touched the side missions because I didn't really feel compelled to. In comparison, I did every single side mission in Saints Row IV. The reason for this is because side missions are organized into different groupings, where by completing an assigned chunk of these optional pieces of content you unlock new powers and weapons and costumes. It's a really smart way of encouraging people like me to experience all of the content, but it's a bummer that most of that stuff kinda sucks.
The only missions I enjoyed were the Virus missions which are basically horde-mode like endeavors, but the enemies which are thrown at you are crazy and fucked-up glitches, so blasting them with my Dubstep Gun felt like doing God's work. Everything thing else though was an exercise in tedium, and I simply wouldn't have done them if they didn't have a cool prize for completing them. On one hand it's a cool way of structuring this stuff, the other I have to wade through a bunch of crap to get the unique reward.
The highlights of the mission design are the main story quests and the loyalty missions. The objectives are absurd and the writing is still topnotch, continuing to produce the best comedy in videogames. And the new loyalty missions continue this trend where, like Mass Effect 2, you can go on a mission with different individual members of your crew to solve some issue which grants you the ability to call them in as Super Homies (Homies with super powers, obviously.). There are some fantastic moments in Saints Row IV, which never really surpass its memorable predecessor, but a couple do at least match those, especially when carefully selected bits of licensed music is tied to them.
Though the biggest problem of the story for me -- apart from it feeling remarkably similar to the general plot progression of The Third -- which constantly disrupted my enjoyment of it was how tightly the events and characters from the first and second Saints Row games were tied into it. For many people, Saints Row: The Third was their entry point in the series and served as a good standalone way to enter the franchise, indeed it did for me. But the myriad of explicit references to those first two games were distracting, and frequently made me feel lost in what was going on and a decent chunk of the jokes were completely lost on me because I didn't have a history with this franchise before The Third, as I think will be the case for a lot of people.
In terms of production values, Saints Row IV is pretty rocky. The game has a fantastic soundtrack and the excellent voice cast really sells the absurdity. What could be the biggest hang-up for people is that you're playing again in the city of Steelport, the world you explored in the last game. And while it's a bit different because you're inside a computer, the basic layout and key locations are generally the same. The super powered traversal does make it feel at least different to explore it, but it's a bummer that you're seeing the same sights again from the last game.
Even worse is how bad the framerate is on the Xbox 360 version. It's never game breaking, but the game consistently runs below 20 frames per second, and the game frequently freezes for a few seconds while it auto saves which is a bummer, making you feel a lot less super as everything runs so poorly. To be fair there's a lot going on with super powers and wubwubs flying across the screen, but that doesn't truly excuse it for me. You probably want to play the PC version of this, if possible for you (It ain't for me.).
I will make no effort to hide my love for Saints Row IV, but I would be lying to myself if I claimed that there aren't some noticeable problems with it. It's easily the most fun I've had with a game this year as the super powers are incredibly entertaining to use, and traversing the world is thrilling in a way that almost no other games are. The story, at least the parts that weren't explicitly tied to past games, were frequently laugh-out-loud funny and have some brilliant moments in it. But the technical issues are legion, the first time in a while that I've played a game so screwed-up, and you'll being missing some awesome abilities if you don't suffer through some of the really terrible side missions.
Saints Row IV doesn't have the spit and polish of other big open world franchises like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, but it has more heart than all of those games put together. The Next Great Sequel in the Saints Row Franchise is the most exciting, enthusiastic and soulful game that I've played probably since Saints Row: The Third. It feels like a game that the developers had a blast making, and wanted to make sure you felt the same way while playing it. But there's just too many things in the game that got in the way of my fun which ultimately held it back from True Greatness.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)