Friday, September 6, 2013

Review: Saints Row IV (2013)

Saints Row IV (2013)

Available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Price: $60

One mission in Saints Row IV has you, the celebrity leader of a street gang turned major-league crime syndicate, storming a military base in the Middle East, where a rogue general is ready to launch a nuclear strike on Washington as part of a coup. After a flurry of parodies of military shooters, the mission climaxes with you leaping onto the nuclear missile, climbing it in flight in order to disarm it, all while Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (aka "the song from Armageddon") plays in the background. After you somehow survive this crazy suicide mission, you get elected President as a bona fide war hero.

And before you worry about spoilers, know that I am not giving the ending of the game there. That is the very first mission in this game. And that's one of the least crazy parts.

Saints Row IV is a landmark accomplishment for this series and for gaming in general, though not in the sense of how that term is usually applied. While the first game was a decent Grand Theft Auto clone that was only really distinguished by its in-depth character customization, the sequels embraced the more over-the-top elements that GTA IV largely abandoned, evolving into its own beast of pop culture mayhem. The third game, quite famously, allowed the player to wield a giant purple dildo and use it to whack enemies into submission, while taking part in a hyper-violent Japanese game show, fighting zombies, and performing stunts that would've made the makers of The Matrix throw their hands up in bewildered awe. This game, the fourth in the series, takes the increasingly crazy elements of its series to their logical conclusion, weaving a plot that involves an alien invasion, virtual reality, space opera, superpowers, and dubstep that barely even tries to be internally consistent. Like past games, it throws everything and the kitchen sink at the player, with near-infinite customization options and upgrades galore. It is probably the most batshit, head-trauma crazy video game ever made, and it will likely hold that title until Volition figures out a way to somehow top themselves. I mean that in the best possible way, as it was that pure insanity and sense of humor about itself that helped to smooth over a fairly rough gameplay experience and encourage me to plow through this in under a week.

Returning from past games is a fully-featured character customization menu that rivals most MMORPGs (for the non-gamers, think World of Warcraft) in pure depth. Your player character, known in-game only as the Boss, can be anybody you want him or her to be -- male, female, and everywhere in between. Every feature can be adjusted and fine-tuned, allowing you to play as a hunk from a romance novel cover with a thick Cockney accent, a gorgeous French femme fatale, or an absolute gonk that would be barely recognizable as a human. There is a bottomless pool of clothes available to purchase (all of which can be worn by either gender, whether they're muscle shirts or mini skirts), dozens of hair styles (ditto -- you can play as a girl with a flattop or a guy with pigtails), and seven voice options -- three male, three female, and lastly, voice actor Nolan North (known for Uncharted and God knows how many other games) playing himself and riffing on his past roles. While this selection isn't that impressive in light of past games in this series, it is still a taste of what is to come.

What follows is the most gut-bustingly hilarious experience I've had playing a video game in a long, long time. Saints Row IV rises above the last game's over-reliance on Adult Swim-esque toilet humor and violence to spend more of its time riffing on popular games and movies both old and new. Extended parodies of They Live!, Modern Warfare, The Matrix, old-school beat-em-ups, and text adventure games fill large sections of the game, and the smaller shout-outs are almost too numerous to count. Even outside of virtual reality, the game mocks Mass Effect's romance options by allowing you to sleep with almost everyone on the crew of your spaceship, in exchanges that never fail to entertain. Nolan North is hardly the only celebrity cameo in the game -- Keith David plays himself as your Vice President, Rowdy Roddy Piper shows up in the aforementioned They Live! parody, and everybody is in on the joke. There are also countless references for fans to past games in the series, from characters to a level that returns the player to the old setting of Stilwater from the first game. Most importantly, while Saints Row IV frequently crosses the line of good taste, it never goes out of its way to be mean-spirited or offensive, like so much lesser "black comedy" is wont to do. If it does offend, it is equal-opportunity, subjecting its male and female characters to the same laughable degree of objectification.

And then you get into the superpowers and new weapons. New to this game is all manner of sci-fi alien weaponry, including black hole generators, miniguns straight out of Terminator 2, rifles whose bullets bounce between targets, and my personal favorite, the dubstep gun, which fires deadly wubs that get enemies dancing while blowing up cars. Furthermore, these weapons are more than just gimmicks -- when they've been upgraded, you'll find that these "quirky" guns easily outmatch a lot of the more conventional weapons, and you'll want to try every one of them for a mission or two. Fun, and kick-ass. Meanwhile, the superpowers that the Boss gets access to further separate Saints Row IV from past games in the series, making it feel more like inFamous or Prototype than GTA. Most of your stock comic book superpowers are represented here -- super speed, energy blasts, telekinesis, the ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound -- and they change up the gameplay to a significant degree. Early in the game, you'll be using them mainly to back you up if you're in a tough spot, but once they're upgraded, you will be capable of creating a wall of destruction that will make you feel invincible. Traveling through the city by jumping and flying is incredibly fun, especially when those abilities are upgraded, and perhaps the only problem I had is that it makes automobiles completely redundant. Once you can outrun traffic and knock it out of the way, you will never need to drive a car again outside of certain missions, which kind of defeats the purpose of all of the car customization options (almost as in-depth as the character creation menu). Having super speed and especially super jumping carry a much higher stamina cost, especially before they're upgraded, would've kept the cars useful for a longer stretch of the game, increasing variety and making the development of those skills feel more valuable.

This game isn't flawless. Far from it, in fact. To begin, the core gameplay here is seriously starting to show its age. Aside from the aforementioned superpowers and new weapons, the basic driving and combat mechanics are largely unchanged compared to the original, which came out seven years ago and already felt pretty rough around the second game, released around the same time as GTA IV. Vehicle handling is floaty, damage modeling for said vehicles is still simplistic, shooting is largely your basic run-and-gun without even a cover system, most guns have to be heavily upgraded before they're more than pea shooters, and enemy AI is so braindead, relying solely on sheer numbers and resistance to damage, that once I was in the swing of things I had no trouble beating this game even on the hardest difficulty. As noted earlier, cars aren't very important outside the very beginning, so the crude driving model isn't as much of a bother as it once was. However, you will be chiefly using your guns for most of the game until you really develop your powers, so the simplistic combat stings. Furthermore, the UFOs that you get access to early in the game, bristling with rockets and lasers, give you an "I win" button for many, many early missions, especially before the enemies start deploying aircraft of their own. This is exactly the same problem that the last game had, where you had tanks and fighter planes from an early stage, and it's only exacerbated here by the fact that you can simply warp into any vehicle you own rather than have to pick it up from a garage and drive/fly it to the fight.

Furthermore, the game relies heavily on reused assets from past games, particularly the third. Steelport, the third game's setting, returns here in all its ugly, bland glory, still not holding a candle to the expanded Stilwater from the second game (Stilwater only shows up in one mission as a reference to the first game). While Stilwater had a varied environment, with ghettoes, suburbs, a Chinatown, a mall, a gentrified downtown, a shore, an arena, and a university campus, Steelport is a samey sea of grimy gray and industrial brown, one that this game's color palette only makes worse. Furthermore, most of the side missions are recycled from past games, only goosed up by the addition of superpowers and/or aliens, so the novelty wore off more quickly. Once you've beaten all of the side missions, flinging cars with your mind and divebombing the game's stupid enemies only stays fun for so long, especially when they are so outmatched. I can still play GTA IV and have fun surviving the police for as long as I can, but it was only a few hours after I had beaten the last side mission here when I started getting bored.

Lastly, this game is buggy. I'm sure most of these problems will be worked out via patches in the coming weeks, but this game crashed on me so often that I lost count, occasionally in the middle of long missions that I had to start over. Given the aforementioned reuse of assets from previous games, I'm surprised that what came out here still had so many problems. Admittedly, some of these bugs are deliberate, with buildings and pedestrians fading in and out to highlight the fact that you're supposed to be in a virtual reality, with the bugs piling up as the simulation starts to break down. Truth be told, it's difficult to tell where the deliberate glitches end and where the real issues begin.

Score: 4 out of 5

For all its faults, Saints Row IV still flies high on the strength of its humor and its diverse gameplay. It's not for everyone, but seek this game out if you can.

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