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Review: Saints Row IV – Game of the Century Edition

Saints Row IV marks another stage in the loosening grip of reality on Volition’s franchise. Enemy gangs are now alien invaders, and you, the President of the United States, must master the power of the simulation in a way similar to but legally different from The Matrix in order to save your cabinet/friends and Earth. The gameplay is significantly shaken up with new features, and is an enjoyable place to mess around, but is the addition of a few new mechanics enough to mark a proper departure from Saints Row the Third?

Warning: This article contains spoilers

Gliding around the city is fun, but the cityscape below you is rarely a prettier sight than shades of blue and grey.

If you played Saints Row the Third, as I did, you will find Steelport instantly familiar, although now locked in a permanent night for dramatic reasons. The main difference  this time is you can fly and sprint through it, which is very enjoyable, with a sense of speed that doesn’t diminish, although this renders all the vehicles you earn as mission rewards mostly useless, unless you want to try them out of curiosity or are made to take the slow way to your destination by a mission. The other combat focused powers are very fun to use in conjunction with the series’ conventional weaponry, although being able to use weapons while also using your super movement powers would have been a nice little extra.

The main story is wacky without being stupid, and the missions are varied in ways you wouldn’t expect, as you free your companions from their personalised digital Room 101s. Unfortunately, Volition has made Saints Row IV very self-referential during the main plot, and this meant that the unfamiliar characters were reliving the good old days with my player character which I had not been party to, making me feel not only like the awkward new friend trying to comprehend a mountain of in-jokes, but also that beneath the bombastic alien icing, the story is a little meaningless. My guess is that this has been done so the newer Saints Row fans, like myself, are up to speed with the events from the less popular Saints Row and Saints Row II, giving Volition the ability to keep as wide a base of established characters as possible. They even brought Johnny Gat back from the dead, which renders a lot of Saints Row the Third‘s revenge story flat. This said, a ‘true’ friendship in a crime game, unlike the strained relationships in GTAV is kind of nice, and the loyalty missions, one of several ideas lovingly ripped from BioWare’s book, add even more variance for one-off events.

Outside the story, and these scripted loyalty missions, there are side activities, which range from enjoyable superpower based trials, or the plainer assassination, drive vehicle A to location B, or Insurance Fraud, from the older games. Insurance Fraud used to prove there can be an art in getting hit by cars, but has now been ruined by your super speed abilities, allowing you to achieve perpetual motion bouncing between vehicles, buildings and roads, breaking the laws of physics, or perhaps more seriously, taking some of the challenge and fun. Furthermore, these double up as the prelude to the far more interesting loyalty missions, each character making you perform three randomised sets of missions in order to give you rewards. By the end of the game, when I had done some of the missions of my own choice, I found I could instantly turn in some of the quests, because I happened to have met the prerequisites. This, is an unfortunate recurring theme, with Volition adding new mechanics onto the old game, but not really integrating them properly.

The worst part of the Saints Row IV experience is the DLC, the entirety of which I had acquired by purchasing the ‘Game of the Century’ edition. The story based Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Saved Christmas were short bursts of fun, although they added very little content overall, which certainly made their original prices seem a bit too much. The majority of the 29 DLC packs are the usual cosmetic junk, which is nice to look at, but not really worth your money, the rest being some new weapons or reskins of existing ones, some vehicles, the cast of the web series Hey Ash, Watcha Playin’? as ‘homies’ to call up in game for assistance, more cheats for the game (which is a bizarre thing to monetise), and the worst of them all  – the Element of Destruction pack. This adds some new modifiers to your powers, but these edge on breaking the game with their power. I never tried the money powered Bling modifier, because I didn’t need to, not with the Blast element available. Hitting enemies with an Blast imbued superpower turns them into a bomb, which then explodes, infecting nearby enemies, who then explode and infect more, and so on. Firing once into each group of normal enemies is an almost assured way to kill them, making large encounters a breeze, and the foot based Mayhem activities just as easy. This wasn’t fun, so I refrained from using it. I was deliberately not using part of the DLC I had bought in order to preserve the game’s level of challenge and my enjoyment, and that is not right. This is obviously not critical in a sense of balance as it would be in a multiplayer game, the only available form being Co-Op, but it’s still careless to let certain parts of the game become unchallenging.

This is one of the final abilities you unlock, and it is just as powerful as it looks!

The (base game) gameplay is the saving grace of Saints Row IV, but even this can be dreary, because the powers and your increasing levels of skill make it very easy anyway. I can count the number of times I died on one hand. I did consider at one point if adding in super powers would put Volition in the same spot with Saints Row as Ubisoft was with Assassin’s Creed after Black Flag, since the new temporary mechanic was now the most enjoyable part of the game. By the time I had fully upgraded myself however, I would long for the earlier hours of gameplay when I didn’t have the power to level buildings with a single ground pound, even when swarmed with enemies. I must add that you can only achieve such god-like power levels by collecting code fragments, of which there are 400 or more to collect, but it certainly doesn’t require all of them to start growing beyond the levels of your enemies. What you need to keep the fun is restraint, and restraint is the last thing you want in a sandbox like Saint’s Row.

Saint’s Row IV is a fine game to pick up on sale, it certainly will give you your money’s worth then. Unfortunately, new gameplay elements have severely tipped the balance in your favour in a fight, and if you fight at your maximum potential for too long, you will surely get bored as I did. The story is part fan service, and part re-introduction for the new generation of players, and has its enjoyable moments, but to get all of the story elements, you need to play through the dull bits. Judge it based on your own patience is the only advice I can give in that regard. I don’t know where the next game will take the franchise now we have superpowers, but I personally would be happy for it to be quite similar to this, only quite a bit more refined, and preferably with a final goodbye to some of the duller trappings of the game, (basically the majority of the side activities) so that Saints Row can focus on its strength in this genre, as a madcap open world with a surprisingly well developed cast you can actually like.