Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Released: PS3, Xbox 360 – August 2013, PS4, Xbox One – January 2015
Ohhhh, the Saints just wanna have fun.
I think there’s something funny in the water cooler at the offices of Volition, because games like Saints Row don’t come from the minds of anyone rational; they come from the minds of loonies. Maybe their offices are attached to an actual insane asylum, and the inmates enter the premises unattended to create their own vision. It would explain the visible shift you can see the series take during its progression, as the crazies begin to infiltrate the production team.
For those of you who’ve missed it, presenting the plot so far, up to and including Saints Row 4 in less than 150 words: In the city of Stilwater you join the 3rd Street Saints as a lowly gang member, and begin rising up the ranks. Then you get blown up. 5 years later, you wake up from a coma and revive the Saints (almost immediately too, your character has an insane work ethic), leading them to take over the city and hunting down those who betrayed you. Enter Saints Row: The Third, where the Saints have become celebrities and pop culture icons, which doesn’t sit well with The Syndicate, a group of ne’er-do-wells native to Steelport. You murder the crap out of them, you meet Burt Reynolds, you inadvertently cause a zombie outbreak, and ultimately you save the city from STAG, a domineering military force led by Cyrus Temple. Somehow, after all that wanton destruction, the people begin to love you even more than they already do…. Stockholm syndrome, I guess.
Cue Saints Row 4, which sees you hunting Temple in the Middle East, in what can only be described as “sticking the boot in to Call of Duty”. After saving the entire world without really trying, because the leader of the Saints is a damn badass, you become President of the United States. I don’t know how American Politics work, but I imagine it’s nothing like that. What, does saving the world instantly make you a candidate in the next election campaign? Perhaps you saved up enough Tesco Clubcard points to reward yourself with a term in office?
After electing Keith “They Live” David to be your Vice President, along with the rest of your gang in other positions, the Saints are running things… Until the aliens show up. Remember when this franchise was about gang wars? Me neither. After alien overlord Zinyak places you in a simulation of Saints Row: The Third’s Steelport, with a couple of modifications, the whole game suddenly becomes a two part allegory for The Matrix and Independence Day, and that of course makes you Neo. Now, do you like super powers? You do? Good, you’ll need them to overload the Simulation, and save your friends. The Earth however? Yeah, about that…
Fans of the series will immediately recognise that the overall mechanics remain the same, except now you run really fast, jump really high and throw ice balls around like it’s a casual thing. It’s almost hilarious how much that kind of increased mobility and firepower kills driving and, to a much lesser extent, using weapons. However, Volition aren’t concerned with those kinds of oversights, they just wanna have fun… Ohhhh, the Saints just wanna have fun. THAT’S ALL THEY REALLY WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNT!!
Yeah, expect a bunch of pop culture references along the way. They Live being one of them (even to the point of seeing “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in his full Hotrod wrestling attire), a karaoke session to Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract is also on the cards, and let’s not forget Neil Patrick Harris rocking up as stoner and wannabe villain Veteran Child. I can’t possibly fault the humour and tone of game that sees you escape from aliens whilst listening to Haddaway’s “What Is Love?”
The gameplay and missions on offer here are symbiotically linked to the absurd nature of the franchise as a whole. In order to obtain the loyalty of super hacker Matt Miller, you must act out a simulated version of his NyteBlade fan-fiction, the latest TV show adaptation of a comic book. Thankfully, all you do is kill some denizens of an evil cult, and not have sex with the guy… Though there are Romance side-quests for almost all the Saints… Keith David-Senpai refuses to notice you. Of course, it’s all an elaborate bit to riff on the Mass Effect romance scenes, and to further the joke, Saints Row simplifies the process: you walk over, you press Y, you start bumping uglies. Take that Mass Effect, and my never ending quest to bone Liara. No need for 20 hours of dialogue here!
Moving back on to the gameplay, you may find that the default difficulty offers only a slight challenge, more so during the start of the game when you’re relatively weak next to the all-powerful deity you become by the end of the game. Saints Leader, President, Destroyer of Worlds… Is there anything you can’t do?
If I had to criticise this game on anything, it’s that I feel like the decisions made within the “Saints Row Universe” have backed the franchise into a corner with nowhere to go, or at least, nowhere that resembles where it came from. The humour and gameplay are fantastic fun, sure, but this is the moment that Saints Row “Jumped the Shark”. They even go so far as to reference that they’re doing just that. I’m not saying the zaniness hasn’t been good for the franchise, because it has, but I always enjoyed the slim tie to reality that Saints Row had. For me, Saints Row 2 and The Third walked the line between lunacy and reality, though The Third had more than a few deviations. In Saints Row 4, that line is a distant memory, as the game tries harder and harder to become more schizophrenic in tone. And I do love it for that, no question about it, but I’m concerned about the future. The brightest flame burns quickest…