HIGH "Paula Abdul is my spirit animal."
LOW Frequent low-level glitches and technical weirdness.
WTF Seriously Volition… still no booty slider in character creation?
So let's get a real for a minute here: Saints Row: The Third was a pretty crappy game.
I know, I know… It was so fun, so insane, the big purple dildo, yadda yadda yadda, but even though something might be enjoyable, that doesn't mean that it's good. The Third's writing was the worst of the series, the "missions" were disconnected busywork, it felt rushed and sloppy, and it lacked a method to its madness. Crazy is great, but there's got to be a structure underneath it—it's not good design to throw everything possible at a wall (Gimps! Fisting! Genki!) and hope that something sticks.
If you're a fan of The Third, then I'm sure that you're already in the process of sending some nasty e-mail my way, but hold on for just a moment—if you thought that game was great, then I'm happy to say that Saints Row IV will blow your g*dd*mned mind.
Even better, if you're someone (like me) who was disappointed in that third installment, then consider IV to be a complete turnaround, and I'll tell you why: Saints Row IV is the ultimate example of how establishing the proper context for play can make the difference between having an experience and having a great experience.
The game begins with the player's character becoming president of the United States, but this political premise is quickly cast aside. Aliens invade earth in the first few minutes of play and plunge everyone into a very Matrix-like simulated environment while their physical bodies are held prisoner. With this structure as the starting point, it offers a perfect framework within which to set a wide array of situations and activities while still having everything make sense.
When within the sim-world, the player quickly gains virtual super abilities like being able to run at blinding speeds, leap incredible distances, and throw bursts of energy from their hands. With these newfound skills, the very nature of Saints Row play is fundamentally altered into something more akin to the cult favorite Crackdown—instead of driving cars and dodging traffic to waypoints, it's about running up the vertical face of a skyscraper, leaping from the top and gliding to the next objective.
It's absolutely invigorating to be freed from the stale formula made popular by Grand Theft Auto in favor of something that has no problem tossing the laws of physics out the window. Simply traversing the city is a joy, and while the range of destructive abilities available may not be balanced the way they would in a "serious" game, they do provide for a massive amount of sizzle. Annihilate two tanks and a dozen soldiers with one fireball before leaping away into the skies? Why not!
The icing on this cake is that when the player leaves the simulation and returns to the real world, the superpowers are stripped away and the formula reverts to what it previously was. It's a brilliant contrast.
In addition to the radical revamp of the base formula, setting most of the missions in this context of artificial reality lets the scenario designers' imaginations run wild without turning the campaign into weightless nonsense. I hesitate to give specific examples since spoiling the surprises in store would do players a terrible disservice, but I will say that Volition came up with some truly inspired segments that I did not see coming. Paula Abdul may have been involved.
Volition should also be praised for the incredible number of callbacks and references IV makes to older entries in the series, especially Saints Row 2. As someone who's played all of the previous titles, this was fan service of the highest order, and the level of detail that went into it was impressive. On the other hand, I suspect that many current fans jumped aboard with The Third. The missions based on previously-established events won't have the same relevance for newcomers, so they'll probably fall a bit flat for some.
Also worth noting is that the game chugs on 360 hardware, and I noticed numerous small-scale glitches during play. For example, the game would frequently pause for a second or two as things were loading, making me wonder whether the console had frozen. (It did, a handful of times.) Other instances included things like clipping through objects and getting briefly stuck, or the game randomly changing the appearance of my character. I generally play a female when given the option, so I did not appreciate my avatar appearing on-screen in nothing but a g-string, green vest and cowboy hat as my wife was walking through the room. It was awkward, to say the least.
Those things are only slight annoyances, though, and easy to forgive considering that the game stays in high-octane excitement mode for the majority of its running time. However, I do need to point out that the last two hours or so before credits roll are an absolutely miserable experience.
I have no idea why the developers chose to harsh the luscious mellow they'd built up to that point, but the final handful of missions go from good-time romps into tedious slogs with boring objectives, hordes of aggro cannon fodder, and a last boss encounter that's controller-tossingly atrocious. The game also skipped past a particularly dramatic scene just as the crescendo was building, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
I certainly don't mean to sound too negative, though. Even if the game doesn't manage to end on a high note, Saints Row IV was a generally joyous experience that exceeded my expectations with some of the most unabashedly entertaining play I've had all year. I have nothing but respect for the developers' attempts to right their listing ship, and with the best writing the series has ever seen, a fresh approach to the material and a strong structure underneath the crazy, they were wildly successful in doing so.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360 with donkey beer and Satan's ladder. Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. No time was spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language and use of drugs. While I sometimes think the ESRB overreacts to certain things, that's not the case here. This game is absolutely, positively not meant for kids. There's salty language in every cut-scene, tons of shooting and beat-downs, plenty of blood, loads of characters in skimpy clothing (sometimes nothing at all, with blurry pixel boxes over their bits), and the characters smoke drugs out of a broken level at one point. So… Not for kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All dialogue can be accompanied by subtitles, and all pertinent gameplay information is displayed on-screen with a mini-map that highlights enemies and directional indicators showing where damage is coming from. I did not notice any significant auditory cues during game play, so I'm calling this one accessible for everyone.