Saints Row IV Xbox 360 Review
In the opening scene of Saints Row IV, we get a SWAT team-like assemblage of the major characters in the series, set in a counter-terrorism setting. Immediately, this seems incredibly off. Why are the Saints, our sociopathic protagonists, being government watchdogs? Last we saw of them, they were gaining pure control of Steelport with the player’s help, of course. After a surprisingly low-key shootout with some sneaking around and a wanton murder of a past villain, however, things immediately change. Saints Row IV isn’t merely different because of this setting, but because of what happens afterwards. It is a sound gag that is genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever heard and seen in a video game. Sure, Saints Row: The Third was amusing, but Saints Row IV’s greatest strength is its immediate willingness to go more absurd for a better comedic payoff.
The audacious aliens vs. humans storyline gives a greater series of targets for the franchise to parody, but most prominent is the parody of the Mass Effect franchise. Easily the most prominent of these parody elements is the presence of Keith David, though mocking the ship and the romance subplots also breed some fantastic cutscenes that fondly tease the form of video game storytelling. Volition has never seen a reference they can’t suddenly throw into a scene, whether it is the references to They Live inside the world you eventually house or taking elements from Prototype, Metal Gear Solid, and 16-bit beat-em-ups for the levels. It’s hard not to see Saints Row IV as a living TV Tropes page instead of a game at times.
Yet that deceives the real truth of Saints Row IV: that it is fun as hell. While the Saints Row franchise began as a blatant take-off on the Grand Theft Auto sandbox formula, the self-aware streak that permeated the third installment also changed the sandbox factor of the series. Borrowing liberally from Prototype only serves to make the open world environment all the more fantastic to inhabit while removing that Prototype took itself maybe a bit too seriously.
Saints Row IV is not subtle with its jokes by any means. Either a player will dive in or immediately be alienated by this style of storytelling. While not exclusively reliant on knowing references, there is more to be had by knowing about the filmographies of the cast (mainly Keith David), professional wrestling (mainly people that co-starred in movies with Keith David), other video game franchises (like that aforementioned one with voiceover work from Keith David), and a general love of the absurd (Vice President Keith David).
Without this base, Saints Row IV can be tedious. While there is a nicer variety of level options than an average Grand Theft Auto game, Saints Row IV expects you to know where its references are from, unlike many modern games that stress accessibility. Saints Row IV is accessible, but it is not an experience without that knowledge. Instead, it would just be jumping around a city collecting items and complex Leave It to Beaver parodies. Thus, it is hard for me to really measure the gameplay without really thinking about everything else.
That said, the controls are as sharp as ever, essentially unchanged from the rock-solid controls of The Third. Even the new powers generally work with solid accuracy, especially considering the potential bugginess that could come from placing these ideas in motion. It does feel like the powers are sort of tacked on to the game’s universe, which is not a bad thing, but by a certain point, cars and commands like the “Warp to Shore” button while swimming become useless. The world isn’t totally undone by these new additions, however, as the fun they provide far offsets any disappointment.
Ultimately, Saints Row IV is an experience that I personally found glorious and that molds into one of the funnier, joyous experiences I’ve have had with a video game in a long time. Saints Row IV remembers the absurd and cranks it to 11. We need that sort of initiative more often from the video game industry.