A Good Game, Or At Least An Incredible Simulation Of One

by Arthur B

Saint's Row IV turns the dial up to 11 by dialling it back a little.
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The general rule that even-numbered Saint's Row games are much better than their odd-numbered counterparts remains true. For both the first and third games, developers Volition cooked up entire new cities to play with and seemed to rush the rest of the content, leaving game 1 feeling like a generic Grand Theft Auto clone with better character customisation and game 3 feeling like it was trying way too hard to play up the comedic aspects and over-the-top disregard for realism that had spiced up Saint's Row 2.

The second game, of course, had the advantage that by setting the action in the same city as the first game they could get away with just giving the map a light update and concentrate more on stuffing the game with interesting content that gave a fresh spin on the concept. The fourth game repeats the trick by reusing the map of Steelport from the the third game and adding a whole new dimension to the game.

Specifically, it gives you superpowers.

The premise is that as a results of the events of game 3, the player character has become not just leader of the Saints but of the free world too, having been elected President with Keith David as your running mate (the logic being that since Keith David can play anything, he could probably handle being Veep). Just as you are about to give a press conference to announce a major policy initiative to either cure cancer or end world hunger - you get to choose which - the world is attacked by the alien Zin Empire, whose leader Zinyak abducts you and most of your crew and implants you into a Matrix-style simulation of Steelport.

Luckily, you have a wild card - Kinzie, the master hacker ex-FBI agent you recruited in the first game and took on the job of Press Secretary when you became president, has managed to stay free, steal a spaceship, and hack the system. It isn't too long into the main plot before you end up rescued from your Matrix pod, only for Zinyak to blow up the Earth. With no other source of backup, it's down to you to invade the simulation, disrupt Zinyak's systems by causing sufficient chaos in there, infiltrate the individualised prison-simulations your buddies are being kept in and free them to assemble your crew and take down the Empire.

Of course, since this is a riff on The Matrix, Kinzie is able to hack the system to give you superpowers.

This is a move which makes a great deal of sense. Open-world games with superpowers added are basically their own subgenre now - see Infamous, see Prototype, see Crackdown - but Saint's Row 4 does at least have the advantage having a very smooth and intuitive integration of the superpowers - in particular, the flying, jumping, and parkouring are perhaps the smoothest implementations of such powers I've ever seen in a game. There's no flat-out comedy powers either, though sometimes they can have hilarious consequences (the power which makes people explode, when you add the bonus that kicks off a chain reaction so that people in range of them explode in turn, and then people in range of them explode, and so on is particularly fun).

Where the comedy comes in is mostly from playing with the absurdity of the situation. There is a bit of self-referential humour about the way the series has toned down the more-transgressive-than-Rockstar tone the previous games went for - for instance, there's a bit about how the Saints try to present themselves less as terrifying sociopaths and more as "puckish rogues", and because Keith David voiced the protagonist's mentor/adversary Julius in the first two games there's jokes about him resembling Julius. But for the most part, the comedy stems from the interface of the personality of the characters and the bizarre scenario they are faced with, along with some nicely realised parodies of other video games.

For instance, much of the time when you are raiding other people's simulations in order to rescue them, their prisons are crafted in such a way as to parody other videogames. Johnny Gat, who Zinlak apparently kidnapped before his death, is stuck in a side-scrolling beat 'em up, whilst Asha - an MI6 agent you meet during the tutorial (itself a Call of Duty parody) - offers a section that brilliantly spoofs stealth-and-shoot games of the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid varieties. Whilst these parodies may sometimes be a bit heavy-handed - in Asha's bit you encounter a guard loudly complaining about how he's ordered to patrol the same specific pattern over and over again - they are saved by how well they adapt the gameplay of the games in question and from the fact that they seem to be coming from a place of genuine admiration instead of snarking for snarking's sake.

A major target for parody is the Mass Effect series - most notably, the aesthetic style of your ship that you inhabit in the real world bears more than a little resemblance to the Normandy from that series, and the lapdances and casual sex of previous games is replaced with a spoof of Bioware-style romance subsystems, where when you're exploring your ship more or less every NPC you encounter is romanceable, though rather than these constituting long conversations culminating with awkward Uncanny Valley sex scenes the sex takes place off-camera and the conversations are much more to the point and straightforward. This no-bullshit approach is epitomised by Kinzie's "Romance" option, which is probably my favourite.

Less commented on, but perhaps even more cuttingly, there's a mission partway along the main plotline where you end up giving a choice by Zinyak: destroy yourself by going through a door colour-coded red and he restores Earth and frees everyone, stay alive and keep fighting and eventually the human race will be ground down into extinction. Although aesthetically the room it appears in, full of video monitors of moments from earlier parts of the series, and the long-winded style of Zinyak's speech makes this a mild spoof of the Architect scene from the end of The Matrix Reloaded, at the same time the ostentatiously colour-coded choices are reminiscent of the end of Mass Effect 3 - and the "obey the entity behind the massive invasion force or be destroyed" aspect is much like the choice between the "canon" endings and the "Reject" ending in the Extended Cut version of Mass Effect 3. (Specifically, it's a spoof on how monumentally ridiculous it is for your badass violence machine to take the force behind the major threat to the human race at its own word. If you got through the red door you get a game over screen which says "Zinyak lied" and you get a trophy/achievement entitled "You Chose… Poorly".)

Another Mass Effect feature is loyalty missions for the NPC members of your team. Each such mission you complete with them unlocks superpowers for the NPCs to use when in the simulation, which not only makes them more powerful allies when you phone them up to give you backup but also makes them more useful in the concluding mission - and in a way which makes far more sense than the concluding mission in Mass Effect 2, which whilst it does diverge a lot in interesting ways based on who you choose to do what and whose loyalty missions you have completed at the same time is often kind of oblique in terms of the logic behind why stuff pans out the way it does.

Keith David's loyalty mission is particularly good - it's a spoof of They Live, which of course he co-starred in, and it actually kind of makes sense in context: like in They Live, Keith David has been brainwashed by aliens, like in They Live the Zinyak invasion force loves filling the simulation with very blunt propaganda (which is aesthetically shifted in the relevant mission to look more like the propaganda in They Live), and the soundtrack is similar enough that they can start playing riffs on the They Live soundtrack without it feeling ostentatiously out of place.

Most of all, it makes perfect sense that Zinyak's idea of Keith David's worst nightmare involves him caught up in a mind control scenario which he can only get out of by getting into an enormous fistfight with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. This provides a great opportunity for Volition to call in Piper for a voice acting cameo, and once you've done the mission you can call him up for backup and he'll have hilarious little conversations with your buddies. And that's got to be worth it, right.

What makes the game as good as it is, so far as I'm concerned, is that whilst Saint's Row 3 often felt like it was trying too hard, this feels much more relaxed - it's funny but doesn't feel like it needs to prove how funny it is, if you see what I mean, and the celebrity cameos are acknowledged but not overplayed. ("There but not overplayed" is generally the case for most of the comedic bits of the game; for instance, the narrator is Jane Austen, but they don't make a huge deal about how she's Jane Austen, she's just Jane Austen.) The Professor Genki mascot character, who was gratingly irritating in the third game, is much more sparingly used, and when he is it's clear that he's here because Zinyak is a fan; having Genki as something we're supposed to find amusing ourselves was obnoxious, but having Genki as walking evidence of Zinyak's terrible sense of humour both makes sense and is actually funny.

The better sense of balance is most apparent when you compare it to some of the DLC. (If you play the Re-elected special edition on the PS4, you get much of it for free.) The first major DLC pack is Enter the Dominatrix, which had previously been announced as DLC for Saint's Row 3 as an April Fool's joke before Volition decided to actually go with the Matrix angle. (The titular Dominatrix is an AI controlling the simulation - presumably an AI driven mad by the sheer load of porn burdening the network.) Presented as a series of out-takes from an earlier draft of the main game (complete with some scenes only being presented as storyboards and interviews and commentary from the characters discussing the footage and why it was cut), a lot of it riffs on the rather tiresome fetish jokes from Saint's Row 3 (including a rerun of the ponyplay race mission from that game) Not only is it refreshing to see the game more or less directly acknowledge that this stuff was kind of badly handled and corny, but it also makes you realise how much less aggressive sexualisation there is in the core game itself. The only mission in the main game where sex workers are even a major factor is one where a character from a previous game shows up and hacks the system to replace some of the randoms in the system with prostitutes, which is rather less tied in with real-world problematic stuff than the "people smuggling and pimping for lulz" missions of previous games.

The major DLC pack, Gat Out of Hell, is a huge full-length standalone disappointment, however. The plot is in principle a nice idea: after the end of Saint's Row IV, the Saints throw a birthday party for Kinzie and the Boss gets kidnapped to get married off to Satan's daughter, so Kinzie and Johnny Gat go to Hell to get the Boss back. You can play either Gat or Kinzie (though Gat is given way more prominence in the narration and so on, which is irritating given that it's Kinzie's birthday party), you can go around Hell and get superpowers glued onto you through a plot contrivance, you can do Hell-themed reskins of various activities and stuff, but all the character customisation; I didn't expect to be able to radically change the facial and bodily features of established characters, of course, but you don't even get to buy wacky costumes for them, and if you can't have wild and wacky costumes half the point of Saint's Row is gone. Between that and the blatantly rushed nature of the add-on compared to the main game, I stopped playing with in an hour.

I don't really blame Volition for running out of ideas there, though, because I'm not entirely sure where they can take Saint's Row after this. They may need to wait until someone comes up with a radically new take on the open world city adventure subgenre aside from "crime-'em-up" and "superhero simulator" for them to skewer, in terms of gameplay, and in terms of plot they seem to have written themselves into a corner. That said, at the end of the game the Saints do find a time machine; a time-hopping spoof of Assassin's Creed could be just the ticket.
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Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 15:00 on 2016-03-05
I wholeheartedly endorse this review (at least, of IV; I played it on Xbox 360 and haven't played Gat Out of Hell).

I would now put Saints Row: The Third in the same category as Dragon Age II: you need to play them once if you want to understand the transition between the events of the first good game (Origins/SR2) and the second good game (Inquisition/SRIV), but once you've done that (or if you don't really care about continuing storylines), it will probably just sit on your shelf collecting dust.
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