Also On: 360, PS3
Publisher: Deep Silver
Medium: Digital, DVD-Rom
All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism—it’s my least favorite quality, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.
Have you ever had that friend? You know, that guy who hates everything? How about ten-thousand of the ingrates, packed into a neat browser-sized box on whatever device you may be viewing their echo chamber on? If you’ve read some of the popular gaming forums out there, you know what I’m talking about. They purport to elevate the discourse of gaming, to encourage conversation.
More than not, they ruin games.
Not directly, mind you. Passive-aggression is the game, deciding to tear down developers, publishers, franchises, games—whether they’ve earned the derision or not. Saints Row IV was a great example of such, featuring masses of people-who-don’t-know tearing down the game for being a cheap cashgrab built on the foundation of glorified downloadable content based on a bad game.
Who am I to argue with the Pretty Hate Machine that is The Internet? Obviously I ignored my better sensibilities when I enjoyed the experience of Saints Row The Third, a game whose interests mirrored my own with nods to Kanye West, Hulk Hogan, and Bonnie Tyler vis-à-vis Short Circuit 2’s climactic chase scene. At the end of the day, Saints Row The Third had the humor down—just not the plot or the gameplay.
My first indication that something was indeed up with Saints Row IV came in the wake of SaintsRowMods.com administrator IdolNinja’s springtime visit to publisher Deep Silver. IdolNinja, a man who helped make the ultra-shoddy pc port of Saints Row 2 actually playable, was given the chance to play an alpha of Saints Row IV. Publicly, his online posts about the visit were calculated and measured to a point they only barely hid his palpable elation.
Two months later, the press preview build hit my email inbox. Feeling roughly equivalent to half of a game, my in-game time topped twenty-one hours and the completion percentage rose to thirty-three percent. At this point, I had to chat up IdolNinja. “That’s not even a quarter of the game,” he told me, laying out how I’ve barely seen anything.
Fast forward another month and a half, and the review build hit my Steam account. Right between vacation and business travel. The window of time was small, and aside from one hitch (read the post-script for more on that), I had a dumb grin on my face while marathoning Volition’s newest open-world adventure. In fact, the metaphorical flow of enthusiasm between IdolNinja and I reversed. Repeatedly I’d gush about the game, while he retorted with a calm-now-that-he-could-discuss-it “told you so.”
And really, the enthusiasm is entirely warranted. While Saints Row started off as a middling Grand Theft Auto clone, it quickly corrected course with the exceptional sequel. Well executed character creation and development proved paramount in making Saints Row 2 a critical success. Saints Row The Third decided to eschew a lot of the development in lieu of humor and epic moments, which barely made up for the loss. Saints Row IV delivers with a package that covers everything good about its predecessors, with only a bit of bugginess reminding everyone of the franchise’s weaknesses.
Even issues with the prior chapter are retconned, repaired, and rewritten. Shaundi’s transformation from drugged-out tramp to serious business sidekick? Explained, with Shaundi herself becoming self-actualized in the process. Johnny Gat’s unsatisfying off-screen death? Never happened, and leads to some of the best-written dialogue in the game. A lousy villain with near-zero incentive to defeat? Replaced by a homicidal, musicidal, genocidal alien overlord with a taste for classic literature that you can’t wait to destroy.
Thankfully, the ability to kill/maim/destroy swaths of baddies has also improved. Weapons have upgrade paths with special abilities, missions unlock better ability rewards than ever before, and new-to-Saints-Row superpowers make for fun times in Virtual Steelport.
In most games, weapon skins are largely superficial color swaps with little to no effect on gameplay. The same could be said of Saints Row IV, given the skins don’t affect gameplay, but they are varied and specific enough to influence the player’s experience. Sure, the game doesn’t change when you use Robocop’s pistol, Mal’s gun from Firefly, or a Pulse Rifle from Aliens, but your need to show your nerd pride overrides any of that silly rational thought. With a variety that spans decades of pop culture as well as a couple original works, nearly every weapon skin is well-done and worth sporting.
Superpowers, on the other hand, are a true game-changer. While a solid game on its own merits, the introduction of superpowers to Saints Row IV is such a disruptive force I’ve come to describe the game as “Prototype, but fun.” Super-speed, super-jumping, and the sub-powers of air-dashing and wall-running make the city feel far larger than its square footage would make you believe.
Offensive superpowers are a bit more straightforward: elemental blasts, super-strength stomps, and telekinesis allow for far more offensive options than melee or firearm alone. One of the more effective crowd-control techniques after a few upgrades is the super-simple freeze blast (upgraded with increased area of effect) followed by a shattering ground-stomp. Not only are these powers useful in regular combat, they’re essential for fighting Wardens—a group of Doomsday lookalikes who serve as midbosses.
As the story weaves in and out of the Matrix-like Virtual Steelport and the Real World, the immediate goal becomes clear: break more allies out of the simulation. In a twist that feels somewhat like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, every simulation is custom-built to torture the captive with their deepest fears. Gat is trapped in his failed rescue of Aisha, Boss is stuck in a gentrified 1950s Steelport, Pierce is fighting with his own fame—to name some of the situations.
Post-rescue, optional Loyalty Missions come up. Taking the Dream Warriors comparison a bit further, these help the relevant Saint find peace with themselves and earn their own sets of superpowers in Virtual Steelport. Sharp writing and extremely varied gameplay in Rescue and Loyalty missions makes for some compelling moments that tie up loose ends from previous chapters.
In fact, the majority of plot threads in the Saints Row franchise are resolved in this game, which for all of its reunion-and-resolution structure feels like a final chapter. It assumes the player has delved into prior titles, and several moments could be lost on non-fans. Lacking knowledge of continuity, the writing could be construed to be as weak as Saints Row The Third’s.
After the dust settled, and the credits commenced, I thought about my own mass media consumption. I watched WWF Superstars on Saturday mornings, collected Transformers, obsessed over Streets of Rage, witnessed the overwrought evolution of Metal Gear Solid, and spent long afternoons in the arcade ripping spines out with Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat. With all the sheer personality Saints Row IV puts out, I could tell a few people at Volition shared those moments.
And for that, warts and all, Saints Row IV became my favorite gaming experience of 2013. Cynicism couldn’t hinder that.
As any Marvel Zombie would know, there exists a race of beings called the Watchers whose sole duty is to observe and make record of the entirety of the universe. At no point are they to get involved, although they somehow always find a way to break that oath. The same could be true of games journalists, and in this case even I led my way down that questionable path of taking action.
At no point during the pre-review process did I give much thought to my relative ease of access to all that was Saints Row, including contacts in the modding community, development, and even the promotion of said game. Nor did I take pause when I managed a forum thread about the game, before I had gotten a commitment to review code.
Because when it comes to writing, I can put aside my prior biases and build an article and opinion independent of myself. That’s called Objectivity. So what made me second-guess myself?
What made me question my own Watcher-like oath was a showstopping bug that showed up one hour, four missions into the game. Letting the game auto-set visual effects to the recommended levels for my system (a decent gaming laptop from late 2010) made for a framerate of 17 frames per second (fps). This didn’t seem terrible, as the game does well in hiding any choppiness. In fact, other than feeling a little slow, the game ran perfectly fine.
Until the fourth mission, wherein the Saints hop into a spaceship and make a harrowing escape from the Zin mothership through a series of closing doors. At 17fps, the section is impossible–the doors close faster than the ship can move. At 30fps, the doors aren’t even a threat.
This is where the ethical dilemma comes in: do I, as a journalist, report the issue to development and PR, or simply peg the game as broken in a pithy review? Is getting the game fixed now worth breaking my promise not to interfere? In the end, I decided to report the issue and hope for the best.
As of current, the issue still exists. And is still easily remedied on the player side.