Saints Row IV has the same problem as Superman. All things considered that’s a fairly good problem to have, because it stems from awesome powers like being faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. But the thing many comic book fans find a little boring about the Man of Steel is that if you’re basically a god, nothing can challenge you – and what’s a hero without a challenge to overcome? That same boredom eventually proves to be Saints Row IV’s kryptonite. Developer Volition has made us living gods in an open-world city, and it’s great for a while, but it renders much of what makes Saints Row The Third so much fun feel pointless.
In the beginning SR4 is very much the same parody-packed third-person action game. In the first hour our hilariously customizable Saints boss character pushes the increasingly over-the-top premise of an idolized street gang well past its limits in a quick series of linear levels: you single-handedly bring down a nuclear missile, become President of the United States, and battle an alien invasion led by a British-for-no-reason warlord. It’s so absurd and liberally peppered with well-executed gags and references that it works.
After that you’re trapped in a Matrix-like recreation of the open-world city of Steelport, and Saints Row IV effectively becomes an entirely different game through the introduction of those genuinely cool superpowers. Super-leaping and gliding over the city (an alien-renovated version of the one used in SR3) is hugely liberating – there’s nowhere you can’t go on a whim, and dashing through the streets at amazing speeds feels like a glimpse of the Flash game I’ve always wanted. And those are just the first couple of powers you get.
That’s combined with a sense of near-invulnerability. Unlike the regenerating health system of SR3, in SR4’s virtual world enemies drop health pickups like candy from pinatas, so as long as you buy a few health upgrades and keep up a
respectable pace of killing (hard not to do given the arsenal of infinite-ammo alien weapons) dying is something you usually have to work for. Even enemies with superpowers of their own quickly become pushovers, and all you ever have to do to get out of trouble is leap. It’s only during minibosses fights where health is scarce that I was given cause to play carefully.
Even though I rarely needed weapons, SR4′s gun selection has some winners. Beyond the pew-pew-pew of the alien pistol, the Disintegrator (borrowed from Red Faction) and the Abductor (which sucks everything into the sky) steal the show… even if the promising Dubstep gun ends up being an ineffective disappointment. I also love how most conventional weapons come with multiple cosmetic model options, such as pistol homages to Blade Runner and Firefly.
Yet with great power have come great drawbacks, as so many good features carried over from SR3 now feel completely vestigial. Why do I need gun upgrades when I can shoot fireballs from my hands? Why should I bother summoning homies to help me in combat when I can throw tanks with my mind? What good are customizable cars with afterburners when they only slow me down?
What’s worse is that going back to reality to do story missions causes whiplash. “What do you mean I can’t super-jump? Running is so sloooooooow here! This sucks!” Even driving the new stompy robot suit (cribbed from Volition’s own Red Faction: Armageddon) feels like a handicap. Yes, the withdrawal pains are so bad they have me complaining about a robot suit. I couldn’t help feeling like a spoiled child who’s sick of all his expensive toys, yet cries when they’re taken away.
It’s a mistake to give us the most powerful and game-transforming abilities first, because Steelport almost immediately loses the sense of place and character it has in SR3, and that leaves around 20 hours of story missions to play through without really caring about the world. Letting us literally jump over the entire map is a waste of a major asset.
Volition seems aware of this, and attempts to lure us back down into the streets by littering the city with a boggling 1,400 collectible glowing things used as currency for upgrading powers. That trick works for a while, as gobbling them up has a rewarding Pac-Man feel to it, but eventually their numbers thin out and the cost of new powers rises to the point where collecting feels like the chore it is.
It tries again with dozens of opportunities for side activities, as is Saints Row’s custom. Many are recycled, like destruction-derby Mayhem missions and the masochistic Insurance Fraud (which feels kind of broken and floaty with superpowers). A few new ones make use of our powers, like super-speed foot races and super-jump platforming courses, but climbing the enormous alien towers is the stand-out – it’s one of the few times where precise use of your powers actually matters in an interesting context. (It feels inspired by Far Cry 3’s radio-tower climbs.) It also highlights how difficult it is to control exactly how high and far you jump – but again, that rarely matters.
Since Steelport is largely rehashed, most of Saints Row IV’s variety and personality comes from its unique mission maps. You rescue the Saints crew from virtual imprisonment, including a hellish 1960s sitcom world, a Splinter Cell parody, and even revisiting the original Saints Row’s Stillwater. There’s another one I won’t spoil, but it really stands out as a clever and visually awesome homage to old arcade games. Settings are often great, but mission design as a whole is rarely more than standard-issue, and it’s really only the superpowers and ridiculous context that makes them feel interesting.