Revisiting Saints Row 4 – Still an absolute blast

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Developer: Volition; Publisher: Deep Silver

Release Date: August 20th, 2013; Reviewed on: PC

Hardware: Core i5-6500 3.2 GhZ, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070

 

Saints Row 4 is exactly an over the top fun experience the gaming industry largely forgot how to make, filled with a sense of humor, fast-paced action and an excellent soundtrack to sweeten the deal. It blows expectations out of the water, distancing its nature as far as possible from competitors on the scale of silliness, and never stops surprising during its playtime. It is a game i find myself frequently coming back to, simply to unwind from heavy exposition or storytelling of modern games, and its bombastic nature brings out all the best in action gaming. You’d feel like riding a giant roller coaster made up of explosions and swearing: one that never shows signs of slowing down for even a moment. The gaming industry produced far too few exhilarating experiences since, and years on, Saints Row 4 is still an absolute blast to come back to.

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Starting the game you might be forgiven for thinking of Saints Row 4 as an expansion pack to its predecessor, and it is of sorts, if you remember the state of its development. Tasked with taking out a terrorist organization, the game plays very safe with its tone, but only for about 10 minutes. Next thing you know you’re climbing up a nuclear missile high up in the air, and then crash land into the White House, setting the Saints on a course to rule the world. Saints Row 4 goes from one to ballistic almost instantly, with no pause for breath, and keeps throwing at you its silly ideas throughout the course. Naturally, you don’t get to enjoy your presidency much, as aliens soon invade the planet, and you’re dropped into a digital version of Steelport from SR The Third. In its explosive intro, Saints Row 4 references Armageddon and The Matrix so well you almost don’t notice it through all the silly things you do, but the experience is well worth undertaking the ride for.

Familiar sandbox doesn’t mean you’re stuck with a rehash of Saints Row: The Third, however, and the fourth installment sets an entirely different tone to its predecessor. It’s still wacky fun, but Saints Row 4 is that turned up all the way to 20 in an explosion of purple, with superpowers, insane weapons and engaging sandbox activities. There are few instances where I’d shoot for 100% completion in an open-world game, and this is one of them. It helps that Saints Row 4 sets excellent pacing throughout its campaign, where getting into activities is brief, and many are simply a part of the overall simulation. The sandbox doesn’t take away from the experience, and fully compliments the over the top play style. You might be gliding between scyscrapers of Steelport, only to dive below and cause a nuclear blast on the streets, sending various mascots flying in every direction.

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Saints Row 4 is unintentionally the best superhero game you can get your hands on, although I often feel like I’m playing a super villain even if I’m technically on a mission to save the world. By granting your character superpowers in the Steelport simulation, the game elevates itself in gameplay, unlocking vast possibilities for movement and messing around in the world. Take a super jump ability for instance, which initially only lets you hop from place to place, but further upgrades to include wall-run and extensive glide. Then there’s setting enemies on fire or beating them down with super powered melee, which never gets old no matter how many times you’ve already done it. This encourages experimentation with fights and level design, and the more you put into the game, the more you get out of it.

Because you can now run with a speed of sound, it renders some game mechanics obsolete. Using cars is essentially pointless after the prologue, as your character can easily avoid the web of streets and all its commotion by flying over it. To that extent, the improved car customization from Saints Row: The Third unfortunately never sees much light, becoming an extra activity in case you want to showcase your talent. Since you also won’t be spending any time in a car, radio stations have been tweaked to play at any point in time, filling the world with a sweet soundtrack of your choice. A few design choices seem to have been an oversight for the gameplay systems, but since they don’t detract from the experience in any way, it wouldn’t matter if you don’t intend to use them.

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Story missions are diverse and well executed, always giving players crazy objectives and unique settings. There are more things you’d do in them than what isn’t there, and they flow nicely against the backdrop of open world activities. Packed full of parodies and gaming references, these missions have stuck in my memory for a very long time, albeit driven by the fact I’ve replayed Saints Row 4 about six times now. Yet their wacky humor nature never stops being entertaining. When you save Johnny Gat for example, his mission is faithfully modelled after the 2D Streets of Rage titles, and at another point, you’re basically playing a piece out of Metal Gear Solid. Breaking out of the simulation for the very first time leads you to a UFO flight section backed by “What is love” by Haddaway, which is simply fantastic. The abundance of gaming and pop culture references makes Saints Row 4 stand out from the crowd of serious games, but it doesn’t try to rip any one of its influences off on design ideas. I wish the game didn’t make some contrived reason all the time for your super powers to not exist during story segments, but at least the open world makes up more playtime than the actual plot.

Saints Row 4 wouldn’t belong to the series if it didn’t have some incredibly fun side activities. As in the past games, you’ll participate in things like insurance fraud and tank mayhem, here augmented by your super powers and alien weapons. If you ever wanted to completely break game physics and rapidly spin your character into another half of the map, it is entirely possible here. Some challenges simply make use of your fast run and super jump abilities, but don’t feel redundant. Blazing down streets of Steelport with unlimited stamina isn’t completely outstanding, but gives you a real sense of movement superpowers before you’ve unlocked their full potential.

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To compliment the splatter of side activities, Volition have included lots of open-world activities that exist as points of breaking down the simulation you’re stuck in. Eliminating each of these targets allows you to gain control over a block of influence, which adds to 100% completion. It isn’t completely necessary to complete these, but you’d want to do them anyways, as they’re both fun and unlock more customization. There are enemy control zones, where you quickly have to eliminate all aliens in an area, and bigger maintenance hubs for the simulation, surrounded by force shields you have to disable and lots of baddies to go through. Other distractions include stealing vehicles, scaling up tall alien towers, and collecting audio logs among other things. There is simply a big wealth of content here, and side activities in Saints Row 4 are most memorable I’ve had in any open-world game.

Character customization isn’t lacking, although it is a Saints Row game, so you can’t expect any less. With hundreds of options for clothing, where you can mix and match items for hilarious combinations, spending time at Planet Zin stores can easily turn from a few minutes into an hour by experimenting with different overlays. For those who can’t wait to get out into the world and cause more chaos, preset outfits make it easier to select your favorite look, and stick with it until you get bored. Switching up your character is also straightforward by simply popping into a surgery clinic and altering face, body and build sliders, although you won’t be able to stray terribly far from a preset selected at the start of the game.

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Combat is made engaging through a vast set of different weapons and superpowers Saints Row 4 lets you use, which lead to some interesting combinations in disposing of large waves of enemies. With an array of silly alien weapons, shooting sections never get boring in the slightest, and while I mostly stuck with a single set of weapons, there is lots of room to experiment. You could beat baddies with an alien tentacle bat, for instance, before sprinting up to the remainder of the group and tearing them up with powerful melee. Alternatively, shoot them with an inflato ray that makes their heads explode. Then there’s the awesome dubstep gun, which fires actual sound waves while playing a tune, music has never been so deadly. Any of the weapons can be upgraded with damage, rate of fire and reload time stats, but what you’d really want to look at is various design types available for each. These don’t only drastically change the look of a gun, but give it an entirely different type of attack. If you’ve upgraded an SMG into a nail gun, it will start shooting nails, and an assault rifle converted to a rail gun will fire powerful blasts. A lot of detail has gone into weapon designs, and keeps the interest in combat going throughout the entire game.

There’s simply too much to like about Saints Row 4. It didn’t have the strongest design when it came out, but is an absolute blast to play over and over, and its very few shortcomings never resonated with me. With an over-the-top campaign, funny dialogue, diverse activities and superpowers, Saints Row 4 incredibly fun at its core, proving that a game focused just on that can shake up a serious gaming market. The excellent execution of its gameplay, where everything comes together splendidly well makes the game all that much enjoyable. Open world activities never feel like clutter, adding meaningful variety to the experience of a linear campaign, and provide excellent targets to use a vast array of super powers on. Saints Row 4 is still the most fun I’ve had in a game through all these years, and doesn’t lose its charm no matter how many times you would have replayed it.

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