Deep Silver and Volition would have you believe that Saints Row IV is the Game of the Generation. It’s not. Saints Row IV is, however, the Parody of the Generation. That word–parody–has been tossed at the franchise before (perhaps rightfully so), but this installment is different. Saints Row IV doesn’t lampoon genre classics and industry mega-hits for mere laughs or well-meaning jabs. The concepts, mechanics, and tropes we’ve come to love in the last seven years–side quests, romance options, the Rule of Three–are injected with an almost irresponsible dose of instant gratification. The familiar is transformed into something altogether new and exciting. It’s impossible NOT to notice where Saints Row IV draws it heritage, but look away for just a moment and you’re having too much fun to care.
It’s a testament to Volition’s vision that all this homage-paying and love-letter-writing is any fun at all. Make no mistake–Saints Row IV is truly thrilling. I laughed out loud as my character cartwheeled through the sky at breakneck speeds. I grinned from ear to ear as I super-kicked an alien to Haddaway’s "What Is Love". I watched, astonished, as a single Fire Burst from my hand set dozens of people ablaze–and then those people each exploded in sequence, further devastating an entire city block. It’s violent, sure. And unapologetic, which it has every right to be. These are the kind of rare, treasured excitements that stick with you. In that blood-pumping sense, Saints Row IV is truly a roller coaster ride. Except roller coasters don’t last for dozens of hours.
In those hours (a shade under 17, for the main story and most side missions), I often found myself looking back on this generation’s defining experiences and drawing comparisons with Saints Row. Indeed, Saints Row invites these comparisons and offers subtle commentary. A sprint up the side of a skyscraper would remind me of Prototype’s wasted potential–and Cole MacGrath’s inability to do the same. The instant romance options–literally, press Square for sex–had me wondering why I spent several extra hours carefully planning to unlock a minute or two of awkward kissing and black screens in the Mass Effect trilogy. Using Super Jump and Super Sprint to reach mission objectives in seconds left me angry at the arbitrary minutes spent driving between missions in Grand Theft Auto IV. And Saints Row: The Third. And Sleeping Dogs. And L.A. Noire. Pick your poison.
Subtly critiquing the best of recent years while honoring their place in our hearts is where Saints Row IV draws its masterstroke. These moments, and much of the game at large, are nostalgia without the inconvenience, equal parts familiar and foreign, reminding you what’s considered the best before whispering, with a knowing confidence, "This is more fun, isn’t it?"
Indeed it is. Saints Row IV is a better Prototype game than Prototype. It’s a better open-world romp than Just Cause 2. Setting aside story, characters, and technical polish, it’s a better superhero game than inFAMOUS, and a better third-person shooter than Mass Effect.
Part of me wants Volition to drop Saints Row and make their next project a dedicated superhero game. Saints Row IV is that game in all but name and roots. Stealing cars, buying skills, expanding territory, ridiculous side missions–the Saints Row core hasn’t changed a bit from Saints Row: Third. Indeed, at first glance, it’s shocking how little has changed. Steelport is structurally identical. Vehicle handling still sucks. Stores sell the same merchandise. But then you get your first superpower, and everything changes. What Saints Row is–or rather, was–becomes old hat. Get your second and third powers, and you may as well be playing a different game. After I learned to combine Super Sprint with Super Jumps and gliding, it was hours before I bothered getting into a car again–and even then, only because a side mission required it.
This makes Saints Row IV a contrast to itself. There’s a case to be made that it’s just a blown-out expansion of Saints Row: The Third. The forced story, technical problems, and identical city don’t help matters. But the way you play Saints Row IV, alongside its moment-to-moment action, pacing, and setpiece design, make for something refreshing. It’s the kind of franchise reinvention that would normally scare longtime fans, but it somehow still feels distinctly ‘Saints Row’.
Chalk that up to the ridiculousness of it all, the only series staple that Volition saw fit to take and expand upon. You’re the President of the United States. Keith David is your VP. An alien emperor invades Earth and traps you in a virtual simulation of Steelport. There’s a gun that shoots dubstep. And another that shoots black holes. The simulation’s no-rules nature means you can listen to "The Safety Dance" while shooting acid ammo at a furry who’s set ablaze for standing near you. Or take a pile of cars to the top of a skyscraper and play telekinetic target practice with incoming enemy aircraft. Or freeze pedestrians and simply let them be because you’re a merciful god and you’re in a patient mood today, thank you very much. If you’re like me, you’ll do it all while dressed up as Solid Snake. Or Neo. Naked works, too.
Other core elements have been tuned. Health pickups create urgency and counter how regenerating health, which is gone, could have made Super Sprint totally OP. Activities still establish Saints territory, reward cash, and grant XP, but side missions from your crew offer further incentive for completing them. Teammates will often give you a checklist of three to six particular Activities, rewarding completion with a new power element, weapon, or some crucial upgrade. In Saints Row: The Third, Activities were necessary evils I had to complete so my cash intake would cover the upgrades I wanted. In Saints Row IV, these tasks–including several new ones–are disguised as assignments for your crew, and I frequently forgot I was actually filling out the Steelport map by working toward that next bonus weapon or increased time for hacking.
Tying important rewards to Activity completion demands a plethora of equally fun Activity types, but there are some stinkers here. I have nightmares about throwing cars, people, and mascot heads through appropriately colored rings. Saints Row IV’s take on endless running has sloppy controls and poorly communicates its scoring system. And why force players to drive even sloppier cars across the city, when everything else in the game reinforces the value and boundless fun of your superpowers? Other aggravations stem from Saints Row IV’s graphics and instability. The former is completely underwhelming and only reinforces the expansion argument. The latter is less apparent, but between two hard freezes, a few cases of audio drop-out, and several framerate dives, it’s rather clear that Volition’s latest is held back by PS3 hardware, poor optimization, or both. At least tonally appropriate music keeps you entertained in and out of vehicles, even if the soundtrack is a weak selection of EDM, classic rock, reggae, and other genres straight off the open-world checklist.
I wasn’t able to test cooperative gameplay pre-release, but I don’t want to wait until launch to dive back into the manic, memorable world of Saints Row IV. There’s a disappointing lack of technical polish, and the game’s foundation is copy-pasted from its predecessor, but this roller coaster ride is one I’ll eagerly take again. For every game concept and trope it lampoons, Saints Row IV respectfully asks, "What makes games fun?" And then it throws you off a tower and hands you a black hole gun on the way down, because it can’t be bothered to waste time answering the question. Neither should you. Saints Row IV is the answer.