Saints Row IV

Steelport returns with a new paint job. I’m not the first person to call it Saints Row 3.5, and SR3 was a disappointment to begin with. For a game that feels like an expansion pack on the bad Saints Row game to launch with an MSRP of fifty dollars is plainly wrong. It also fails to address SR3’s problems.

Vehicles haven’t changed. The game has the same library of gaudy tattoos and poor-fitting suits with no customization of the individual elements. There are no new options for the homies: there’s really just a dozen members of the Saints now, and all the peons are virtual automatons. The safehouse customization is gone, and that I don’t mind, because it was crude and limited in the past: you ultimately “upgraded” every building into a strip joint, which is just about the most depressing environment I can possibly imagine living in.

The criticism I made of SR3–that a great script or cutscene is way less brilliant or appealingly ridiculous than freedom to be ridiculous in gameplay–is still absolutely true. Characters would keep telling me to cause some mayhem to disrupt the system, and all I could think was that in doing so, I was following their rules to the letter.

I did have a lot of laughs with the story. The one-liners were great, of course, but the intent also felt better–they retconned Gat’s death and at least addressed the whole Shaundi thing (though not entirely adequately; they didn’t undo it). This time they got someone to mimic Eliza Dushku for a “Fun Shaundi” (she sounds like she has a sore throat), which still has that taste of interchangeability. I couldn’t even imagine a world where Volition would attempt to bring Gat back without Daniel Dae Kim. But at least it brings everything out into the open and adds a new dynamic to Shaundi’s awfully-written SR3 character. Thankfully, the Christmas DLC sort of redeems these choices by satirizing itself and including a future-Shaundi with yet another voice actor, and it’s Tara Platt, extending Shaundi to the conclusion of the path SR3 put her on by making future-Shaundi even more joyless–theatrically so.

The weapons and major missions are the only things that seem to have been created with love. Alien abduction and dubstep guns are fantastic ideas, and missions like the side scroller beat-em-up were rare sparks of genius. I enjoyed the parodies when their shallow implementation didn’t interfere with making the game fun, as was the case in failing the Metal Gear Solid parody level by getting detected, or in the tediousness of having to keep running back to the ship to speak to my crew members for a Mass Effect joke but only getting one line out of them when I did, instead of the lengthy conversation with a dialogue wheel that Mass Effect would’ve had.

I have to say though, the satirical “romance” system where you can instantly have casual sex with everyone honestly feels more mature than the typical Bioware game, where you’d go through a lengthy process of scoring points in a relationship where sex is the ultimate goal.

My opinion on the super powers lands somewhere in the middle. They’re the one significant change to the Saints Row gameplay. Moving around fast is fun, and the Prototype-style maneuvering handles well enough. But it makes me want to have a discussion about instant gratification and the legwork of games.

Compare Minecraft to Skyrim. In Minecraft, every block you place is one you dug up somewhere else. There’s a lot of legwork. But it’s meaningful and creative, and doesn’t feel especially tedious. Rather, that relationship between those aspects of your work is appealing. In Skyrim, however, the basic nature of gameplay is… what? To check boxes on a list? Quest Giver A needs Object B from Location C. It’s not meaningful or creative, but they’ve provided fast-travel, to “soften the blow”, so to speak. After all, you’d probably resent having to walk far to do something you didn’t really want to do anyway. (You’d think someone would try to soften that blow in SR4 by removing the 15 seconds before a race begins.) Skyrim’s quest log and compass, compared to Morrowind’s messy chronological journal, was just another example of this streamlining, with the ultimate conclusion of this trajectory being a boring game that can play itself.

SR4 is absolutely on the Skyrim end of that spectrum, with the instant gratification of running fast, instantly copying cars to the garage, instantly summoning aircraft and not even having to climb inside them for yourself. It removes a lot of the legwork between activities nobody wants to do, such as Mayhem, This Time Using Only Your Stomp Power.

In addition to the stomp, powers include an aura effect, a blast, and telekinesis, each with a couple elemental variants which didn’t change the basics or see much use. They’re slightly more fun than the grenades they replaced, but they don’t really revolutionize combat–I had more fun upgrading my guns, setting up an armor-piercing pistol for killing robots, that sort of thing. Combat in general wasn’t very fun, apart from a few situations where I stormed in and dubstepped everybody, or used my alien abduction gun on myself and did a nuclear divebomb on a group of enemies, but the novelty wore off.

While cars were hard to justify using, made obsolete by the powers, I would still occasionally use them. There’s still a complexity and appeal to driving in games. It’s easy to see why so many games are based around cars: the complexity of weaving through traffic, trying to avoid damage, taking the fastest route, watching little environmental details like traffic lights, balancing use of the accelerator, the brakes, doing handbrake turns and drifting… it requires more skill than shooting guns, and honestly never gets old. Driving is probably the one element of mainstream gameplay that unadventurous publishers can never run into the ground. It maps well to a traditional controller, too. But if it’s ten times faster to just hold the stick forward and sprint through traffic without worrying about getting hurt, or to glide over buildings to move in a straight line to your destination, then even if this is less fulfilling than a car, who could justify driving for very long? SR3 had this silly Snow Crash-inspired gang that would move around on roller skates by grabbing onto the backs of cars. If they really wanted to reinvent movement, they should have looked further in that direction–something like Just Cause 2 and its grappling hook.

The DLC was passable, unlike SR3’s. There were only two mission packs, and I already mentioned my favorite parts of the Christmas one, but the text adventures were also nice. I’ve seen enough edgy reinterpretations of Christmas for one lifetime, so it wasn’t ideal, but it was more entertaining than the Dominatrix DLC, which wasn’t terrible, but seemed like it was built up from lampshade-hanging and unworkable ideas that developers were unwilling to discard.

The worst thing I can say is that it isn’t a joy to play. Now that we’ve had four Saints Row games, only one of which was excellent–and which we’ve been trending away from–it’s hard to see this as a series of continuing promise or vitality. True, combat wasn’t really any better in SR2, and you were doing frustrating Mayhem and Insurance Fraud runs there, too, but they weren’t so played-out yet at the time, and there was no overt statement then that those activities were supposed to be fundamental elements of the series in a game that was fun because you could enter a cutscene butt-naked apart from a giant rasta cap, or turn on cruise control, get out of your car, and ghost ride the whip.

So here’s my Saints Row 5 wishlist:

  • The same things I wanted in Saints Row 3: the little things. Heavy clothing customization, like layers. Choose my own socks and the angle of my hat. Shared radio and dialogue chatter in co-op. Have some actual variety of taste in customization, so the tattoos and safehouses can represent me better.
  • Make the player work for things again. Earn cars like in GTA 4, and make cops slightly less trivial, because we’ve somehow looped around to GTA being more fun than Saints Row. Lose the powers–no super-sprinting through traffic. Add a hookshot or something that’s fun without trivializing things and making the game too easy.
  • No collectibles scattered around the map, unless they have some unique dialogue or cutscene or challenge or something associated with them. Collect maybe 50 instead of 1200, a suggestion I also discussed for Brutal Legend.
  • Scale back combat so you aren’t just instantly killing seas of enemies and only getting killed when there’s too much chaos. Make melee fun and feasible instead of just launching black holes everywhere. Study games where the shooting is universally praised; add some melee abilities that compliment the guns instead of canned animations that lock you out of your controls for a few seconds. Let people shoot guns in midair. Further gun customization, with either-or choices and add-ons, might be nice.
  • I have no doubt that the next Saints Row will have a funny story and ridiculous premise, but extend this ridiculousness to the environment. This is a world where anything is possible: time-travel thousands of cars and guns to ancient Greece and set your game there; do an Assassin’s Creed parody or something.
  • Don’t pad the game out with the same old activities. I don’t want try blowing up as many fences as I can within two minutes in Mayhem, nor do I want to aim my ragdoll body at trucks on the freeway anymore in Fraud. Go with the classics: clearing out rival gang hubs will always be as fun as your combat system, and car racing will always be as fun as your driving mechanics.

Hopefully next time I can get at least one of the things I want.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

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