Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review - Saints Row IV (2013, PS3)

Voliton's followup to their 2011 hit Saints Row the Third further escalates the cartoonish silliness of their open world action series while delivering some massively improved gameplay. With each game in the Saints Row series, Volition moves further and further from their original "funnier Grand Theft Auto" title to "cartoon villain simulator," ending up with the most recent installment of the series actually giving you superpowers to wreck the city of Steelport up with. On top of that, the self-made Boss of the Saints has risen from street-gang leader to the President of the United States.

Saints Row IV opens with the Saints riding high on the publicity they won from saving the city of Steelport at the end of the third game. The Boss, along with series regulars Pierce and Shaundi and newcomer Asha, leads a covert mission to take out a terrorist planning on blowing up the United States after his plans were foiled in the previous game. It's a fantastic opening mission that starts out very plain and erupts into something wonderfully, stupidly ridiculous, culminating in a world-saving triumph that wins the Saints the hearts and minds of the American people. Soon after, The Boss trades their title for that of Mr./Madam President.

To no real surprise, The Boss, who has filled their cabinet with current and former gang members, runs the country terribly. Their approval ratings plummet, the cabinet is frustrated with their boss's incompetence, and to top it all off, an alien invasion breaks out during a press conference. Zinyak, the spiky leader of the Zin Empire, abducts the best and brightest (or at least most interesting) people the Earth has to offer, sticking them in a variety of simulated computer environments. The majority of the game focuses on rescuing your friends from their simulated hells, wrecking up the simulation (which, unfortunately, is almost entirely a recycled version of Saints Row the Third's Steelport), and taking the fight to the Zin Empire. Within the simulation, the Saints' tech expert Kinzie hacks the system to give The Boss superpowers including super speed, massive jumps, gliding, telekinesis, fire/ice attacks, and mind control. Players are given a really nice variety of abilities that are almost all fun to play with.

The alien invasion plot is a lot of fun and it's entertaining to see characters you've grown to know thrown into a new situation that's completely out of their element. Because almost all of the action in the game takes place within a simulation, The Boss feels a lot less psychotic than in previous games since no one gets hurt except for alien soldiers specifically trying to hunt and kill you. The setting works well, though The Boss seems to have gotten dumber as time goes on, leaving Kinzie (and eventually Matt) mapping out and planning your missions almost single-handedly while you serve more of a grunt role. It's an odd reversal, especially considering how much the game builds up The Boss as a world leader, but it's not a real problem. The bigger problem is that aside from Kinzie and Matt, both of whom are extremely well written and entertaining, the rest of the supporting cast doesn't get to do a whole lot.

You've got a large crew with you in this game, but most of the recruitable homies that join you only exist in the simulation and play little role outside of single scenes. Major characters like Shaundi, Pierce, and Johnny Gat return, but outside of their rescue missions and brief loyalty missions never play much of a part in the overall story. Johnny's return was hyped up massively by both the game's developers and the characters in the story, but once you free him from the simulation he proceeds to have no influence on the main story. Shaundi, who spent much of The Third pining over his "death," doesn't even interact with him here outside of dialogue that plays if you take them both on a random mission. Shaundi's main role in the story is an attempt to explain why her character's personality changed so much between the second and third games in the series, which means more time is spent reconciling her actions in previous games than is spent doing anything new with the character. Most of these characters have extremely fun missions associated with them (I loved the monstrous boss battle in Pierce's and the visual style in Johnny's) but it's unfortunate that the main story is essentially all Kinzie, Matt, and The Boss.

When it comes to gameplay, Saints Row IV is a bold game. It's possibly the most fun I've ever had in an open world action game and; I actually completed 100% of the side content here, something I almost never do, and still kept playing. Simply flying around town, running up buildings, and collecting data fragments to level up my powers was a ton of fun. The game's sense of speed and scale is wonderful, new powers are introduced often enough that it never gets old, and it's still fun to screw around with the game's character creator regularly. Cars and trucks are almost useless in this game, so it's nice to have the option to listen to the in-game radio while on foot too. The only gameplay I didn't enjoy was during a mission for Asha, one of the game's few new characters. It's a badly designed stealth mission leading up to an obnoxious boss fight. On top of that, Asha herself is an extremely bland character and the weak link in the crew.

While the gameplay is thrilling, the game's writing unfortunately plays things very safe, and feels weaker than The Third's. Outside of Asha, Emperor Zinyak, Keith David as himself, and the sleazy orb-shaped robot CID, the game features no new characters in important roles. Its cast consists entirely of callbacks to the rest of the series, and while I understand that it's meant as one big love letter to the fans of the franchise, it gets a bit boring when so many conversations focus on what happened in the previous games instead of what's happening in this one. The amount of fan service in the form of callbacks is unprecedented for the series, and SRIV at times feels far too focused on its own continuity than on trying something new with its story.

It's possible to play The Third without playing the previous two games first and quickly figure out who everyone is and their history with each other and then launch into a new adventure; enough new characters are introduces regularly that it doesn't feel like you're missing anything major. This really isn't the case with SRIV. Fans may love seeing and hearing about everyone from the previous games (whether in physical or virtual forms) but I'd rather have seen Volition try to introduce more compelling newcomers. Asha and CID don't really cut it. Zinyak, at least, is an enormously entertaining ham of a villain.

Saints Row IV spends a lot more time on specific parodies and references than the rest of the series does. If callbacks to the Transformers animated movie thrill you, there are a couple of moments you'll absolutely love. If you've seen They Live, you'll get the joke behind an extensive fight scene with Keith David. If you haven't, the scene feels like a non sequitor. If you don't know who Keith David is at all (you've definitely seen him in movies or heard him as a voice actor whether you know his name or not), his whole presence in the game feels confusing, even if he does some great voice work as usual. In The Third, you could choose zombie groans to replace your character's regular voice. In SRIV, you can choose Nolan North playing himself as the game's joke voice. If you don't know who Nolan North is, there's no joke. If you do, there's still no joke 90% of the time, since almost all of his dialogue is the same as Male Voice 1's. Asha's sloppy stealth mission has a bunch of Metal Gear callbacks.

I found a lot of these reference jokes very forced, and while some were funnier than others, they didn't really do a whole lot for me. The Touch kicking in during a big moment as a callback to Transformers didn't get me pumped the way Holding Out for a Hero did in The Third, where the song was used to amplify the corny, over the top action-hero silliness of the game's climax. Here, the main joke is "I know that song!" And it's not a bad song, but there's not a whole lot more to it than that. When the game focuses more on the characters and less on the easy reference jokes, it's a lot more funny. Yes, the premise of the game's simulation world is obviously The Matrix, but we don't need six separate Matrix jokes. Too much of SRIV's humor feels like The Third's "Burt Reynolds is the mayor! That's the joke" scene extended to an entire game. Far more humor could have been gained from more time spent actually attending to presidential duties, but the fact that you're playing as the President of the United States doesn't really matter after the first hour; maybe it would have been better if the alien invasion happened halfway through the game instead of almost right at the beginning.

There are also a lot of little bugs in Saints Row IV that range from minor to horrible, and extend across all of the game's platforms. Sometimes, subtitles don't even come close to matching what your character is actually saying, which drove me nuts in a couple of scenes. A more important problem is that this game hard locked by PS3 quite a lot, especially later in the game when there was so much more happening on screen. It actually locked it to the point that I'd have to either eject the game disc while playing or pull the power cord, I wasn't even able to bring up the system menu to exit the game. After a while of playing, a random audio log I picked up along the way would play every single time I started the game. There are also some unintended visual glitches, such as your character getting stuck in a floating pose while walking, but at least there are some intentional, wonderful visual freakouts too, especially when civilians get too close to the game's dimensional rifts.

I don't want to sound too hard on Saints Row IV, because honestly, I think it's one of the best games of 2013. The gameplay's stellar, the music's great (though Kanye West's Power as heard in Saints Row The Third would have worked better as this game's theme music than it did in that one.) It's just hard to overlook writing that feels noticeably weaker than The Third's, and the overbearing focus on nostalgia both wears old and feels incongruous with the game's story, which spends a couple of missions focusing on how horrible the past was. SRIV continues to have great, well written women, a rarity in any game, let alone an open world action game. In a parody of Mass Effect, you can romance almost any of your crew, male, female, or robot, and the romance scenes are generally really funny; this is satire that actually works, since it doesn't matter whether you're familiar with Mass Effect or not. It's impressive that you can sleep with everyone you know and it never feels creepy or uncomfortable. In spite of a few slip ups, Saints Row remains one of the few video game worlds where sexuality is something real and fun and not just embarrassing pandering, something the Mass Effect games almost never got right.

It's hard for me to recommend Saints Row IV to someone who hasn't played any of the other games since so much of its writing relies on knowing them, but at the same time it's an amazingly fun game to just mess around with and go nuts in even if you don't know what's going on. I feel that playing at least The Third before jumping into this one is a good idea if you care about narratives in games. If that's not a big issue, or if you've played any of the other games, I endorse this one 100%. In spite of my groaning about its writing playing it too safe, Saints Row IV is still an extremely charming game full of fun characters, even if Volition does a poor job introducing them to new players. SRIV gets right what a lot of licensed super hero games get wrong, and I'm absolutely excited for future DLC to get a chance to jump a thousand feet in the air and then throw exploding snowballs at aliens once again.

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