Saints Row IV

Forethought:

Saints Row the Third was an incredible renaissance for the Saints Row franchise - the entry that finally turned what started as a Grand Theft Auto parody and made it a unique, ridiculous game of its own.  Saints Row the Third remains one of a handful of games that have made me laugh out loud, and everything I've heard about its sequel makes me excited for it to do the same.

Saints Row IV

Wow.

The next great sequel in the Saints Row franchise.

For all of the dildo bats, dubstep guns, inflato-rays, "murder-time-fun-times", Mascot killing, nude scenes, and sex jokes, Saints Row IV is one of the smartest, funniest games I've played in years.

You play the leader of the Third Street Saints, who (after the ridiculous events in Steelport in Saints Row the Third) has become the President of the United States, and has appointed his friends and coworkers as cabinet members.  The world is invaded by the alien Zin, ruled by the ruthless (but classy) Zinyak, humanity is enslaved, and the leader of the Saints is thrown into a virtual simulation of Steelport.  We are now ten minutes into the game.

Saints Row IV is largely built on the structure of SR3.  The city is nearly identical, although it has been Zin-ified, the gunplay is much the same, and many of the weapons make a return.  But what the developers add to this game make it a tremendously improved experience.

Because you're in a virtual Steelport, you have super powers.  Plain and simple.  Although there are many that are combat-related, such as fire and ice blasts and telekinesis, the most important in terms of affecting how the game is played are Super Sprint and Super Jump.

Totally looks bad ass, too.

The most frustrating aspect of open world games, for me, is getting around.  I love a good drive around the city, but when every mission seems to be miles away from where the last drops you off, it gets frustrating.  In Saints Row IV, Super Sprint allows you to run much faster than any car, and Super Jump allows you to leap over buildings in moments and glide to your destination.  Getting to any destination in the city never takes more than a minute or two.

And these powers are given to you within the first hour or so of gameplay.  And that's what makes Saints Row IV so smart.  Everything you want to do, it lets you do.  Every time you think it can't get bigger and more ridiculous, it does.  There's a moment in the plot about halfway through the game that is pretty much the biggest thing you can do to the protagonists, and the game just keeps trucking.

God damn it, game.

The gunplay feels solid, the powers make you feel like a complete badass, and the movement around the game world is faster and more  enjoyable than almost any open-world game I can think of.  But this is a Saints Row game, not an Infamous game.  All of this wonderful design exists to support the humor.

See, humor doesn't really work if it exists in a product that's frustrating.  That was the main problem with the Deadpool game that came out earlier this year, and countless games before it - you can't make fun of a cliche of a genre if you yourself are using the cliche without adjustment.  Deadpool would comment on how irritating certain gameplay systems while using those systems.  Saints Row IV, by comparison, parodies and mocks gameplay features by absolutely destroying them. 

The dubstep gun, for as overused as it was in commercials, is actually really fucking funny.

And the parodies are incredibly well-done.  There are innumerable references to Star Wars, Men in Black, Firefly, and any other franchise you can think of that's even peripherally related to anything in the game.  And many that aren't.  For whatever reason, there are a ton of references to Jane Austen, and if you turn on the Classical radio station, sometimes the main antagonist will read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice.

My favorite parody in the game was also the most opaque, and that's a mission that's a complete play on Metal Gear Solid.  You sneak through a compound, your companion telling you to shoot the lights before you sneak up to take out a guard, the leader of the Saints baffled by the requirement to shoot these lights.  And then this exchange:

"Quick, shoot out that light."
"Asha... that light... has a family."
"Then shoot the guard."

It's quick and clever, and brought brilliantly to life by the voice actors (of which you have seven options, the obvious choice of which is Troy Baker.)  But the most wonderful thing is that it just happens.  There's no dramatic zoom or any sort of pause in the action to call attention to these things.  The characters just talk as you move along.

Accompanied, of course, with the Metal Gear alert sound.

One of my biggest problems with Saints Row the Third was that many of the side missions were kind of a slog, and that has been greatly remedied.  There are no more escort missions, so all of the destruction and murder missions move at a very fast clip.  SR3's over-the-top Genki Bowl side missions, which had you murder as many mascots as you could in each arena, have been replaced with an appropriately absurd side mission type where you must use telekinesis to throw people, cars, and giant cat heads through colored rings. 

What.

My favorite part about those missions in particular is the return of commentary by the unbelievably funny Mike Carlucci and Rob Van Dam as Zach and Bobby.  Although they start off with the same bravado and love of murder as in the previous game, over the course of the side missions they slowly unravel, and talk about how they're breaking or how they miss their wives.  It's a genius subversion of what players expect, a theme through the entire game.  On its face, these missions are as blissfully stupid as it gets, so its all the more wonderful when you're shooting mascot heads and hear:

"It's murder, mayhem, and mascots!"
"The doctor sure does love alliteration, Bobby."
"I thought that was assonance!"
"Assonance... is when the words begin with vowels, Bobby."
"Well, you learn something new every day, Zach."

The game is full of moments like this.  And I love it.  Everything about the style of the game is clever and subversive.  Prior to the game's release, the studio tauted that there would be a romance system so that you could try to woo any of your teammates.  In-game, you walk up to a character, say "wanna fuck?", and they jump your bones.

That's it.

That's genius.

Graphically, the game looks fine.  It isn't significantly more impressive than SR3, but that wasn't a bad looking game either.  Personally, I don't think there's enough variety in the main environment, since it's mostly washed with the retro-future black-and-red look, which as you complete quests becomes black-and-blue.  But the game takes you to Pleasantville, and to cyber world, and to a 2D brawler, so there is some variety.

All in all Saints Row IV is an incredibly successful game.  I have seen divisive opinions on whether or not it lives up to the high standards of Saints Row the Third, but for my money, the progress it makes in world traversal, combined with humor that is largely unprecedented in the gaming world, makes it the best game in the series, and makes me incredibly excited for whatever comes next.

I can't say I'm going to revisit the game, since I literally completed every single thing there is to complete.  I grabbed every 1100-odd collectibles, beat every side quest, and I'm ready to say goodbye until the first DLC, Enter the Dominatrix, comes out later this year.  I am so glad that I have

Completed

Saints Row IV.  Tomorrow, expect something a little different.