Saints Row IV starts shortly after the "save Shaundi" ending of Saints Row: The Third. Through an unlikely series of events, the Boss and the Saints have ended up rulers of Steelport — and the United States of America. The Boss has become the President, and most of the Saints form her cabinet. Before this new status quo can develop, an army of aliens known as the Zin Empire invades and takes the Saints hostage. The Boss wakes up in a Matrix-style simulated reality, and the alien emperor Zinyak wants to bend her to his will. She needs to escape, reconnect with her captured crew, and put her boot to the rear of the emperor. It's ridiculous, insane and over-the-top, but you shouldn't expect anything else from Saints Row.
The humor in SR4 is a departure from the previous games in that it dives deep into metahumor territory. In addition to some rather dated "The Matrix" references, the title is basically a long, loving homage to video games new and old, and your tolerance and enjoyment is going to depend on how much that appeals to you. As president, the Boss has gone from being a gangland leader to a lighthearted parody of Mass Effect's Commander Shepard, right down to giving inspiring speeches and hanging out with Keith David. The humor isn't subtle, and it falls flat in some places, but it's usually amusing. Perhaps the only place the game really stumbles is when it attempts to be serious. The switchover to a serious plot is so sudden and out of place that it's hard to swallow.
Most of the mechanics and design elements in SR4 are going to feel very familiar to anyone who played Saints Row: The Third. The biggest change is the introduction of superpowers. In a not-so-subtle nod to the "The Matrix," once your character is aware he's in a simulation, he gains the ability to break the rules. This starts slowly, with enhanced jumping and boosted speed, but beyond that, you have four other powers: blast, buff, stomp and telekinesis. Each can be modified with elements, and most powers can be leveled up. As an example, blast begins as a freeze blast to stun enemies and crash vehicles, but as you progress, you can change the blast to fire or mind control. Each power has its own cooldown, so you can throw a fireball and quickly switch to stomp to send enemies flying.
Superpowers completely break the rules of the game. Classic Saints Row mechanics, like car theft and summoning allies, are still in the game, but there's no reason to use them. You can run faster than any car or jet, and your allies are unlikely to contribute much when you're obliterating entire armies. The good news is that it's infinitely more fun to play with superpowers, but before long, enemies stop being remotely challenging. It would've been nice to encounter some powerful enemies.
A frustrating element is that superpowers only work within the Boss' simulation, so you can't access your superpowers for a large number of plot missions. Unfortunately, this makes the "regular" combat sequences feel much blander. When you have the power to shoot fireballs, lift things with your mind, and jump hundreds of feet into the air, it's not as interesting to be stuck in a normal body while wielding a machine gun. Most of these missions are interesting enough on their own merits, so you aren't too annoyed by the constant removal of your powers. The game also offers eight powers, but only six of them are anything meaningful. The last two, Death From Above and Dash Shield, are haphazardly thrown in at the last minute and feel like glorified upgrades to stomp and super speed.
Guns are still an important part of Saints Row. Your offensive powers alone aren't enough to take down every foe, and while super strength is fun, it isn't as effective as a good machine gun. In addition to your melee weapon, there are a few other weapon types: launcher, pistol, rifle, shotgun, SMG and special. There are multiple choices for each weapon type, and they can be upgraded with attributes like explosive bullets and extra knockback. One interesting addition is alien weapons, which function very similarly to regular weapons, but they have a heat mechanism instead of the need for reloading. Heat builds up as you fire and depletes as you rest. Alien weapons also tend to be absurdly powerful, spewing lasers of death across everything in their paths.
Virtual Steelport is where you'll spend most of the game. The city is large and completely open from beginning to end. If you like, you can spend your time wandering around and doing sidequests. Some will feel familiar, like the classic insurance fraud game from the previous title. Others are new, such as the superpower-only fight club, which challenges players to slay enemies with their superhuman powers. The sidequests in SR4 are fun but rather repetitive. In particular, the "Virus Upload" minigame involves fighting off a few waves of enemies, but you have to do it over and over and over. Sometimes you get something fun, like a fight against 101 manic Genkis, but usually, it's a regular collection of enemies who fight exactly the same way every time. They're a fun diversion, but it's very easy to burn yourself out on them, especially if you do them in a row. There are also some optional, co-op-only missions that allow you to team up with a pal over the Internet to wreak simultaneous mayhem on the city.
There's a healthy collection of main story missions to complete. While some take place in Virtual Steelport, most task you with breaking into other simulations or the real world. The mission gimmicks are simple but engaging, though some go on a little too long and start to wear thin. There are a few "go to a place and kill a guy" missions, but they're uninteresting, especially when you don't have superpowers to go with it.
SR4's biggest problem is that it doesn't feel like a sequel. The closest comparison I can think of is Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Instead of reinventing or redesigning the mechanics, SR4 feels like a batch of new mechanics was stapled — somewhat haphazardly — over the older mechanics. In many ways, it feels like a particularly ambitious mod or DLC rather than a full-fledged sequel. There's a sense that things are thrown together with little rhyme or reason, and that leads to obvious frustrations, like the lack of superpowers in plot missions or the somewhat lackluster implementation of sidequests. SR4 has a ton of heart, but the game design doesn't always live up to that.
I regularly encountered serious bugs. Vehicles stopped responding to any input, enemies were trapped in the floor, and enemy AI stopped firing or moving. Several times, the game froze up entirely if I opened the menu, closed it, and opened it again too quickly. During one mission, my system hardlocked for no clear reason. Most bugs were minor but frequent, and the few game-stopping bugs were tough to ignore. There is going to be a day-one patch that may solve some of these issues, but most of the issues I mentioned aren't covered in the patch notes. The frame rate was also incredibly inconsistent and would chug when a lot was going on.
At first blush, SR4 doesn't look very impressive. The character models don't look great, and there are often clipping errors and bad textures. There are some surprisingly nice little touches, though. The simulated Steelport is constantly morphing, glitching, and altering itself, so it's almost a living entity. Characters change to other characters, buildings change beneath your feet, and you'll even encounter weird and distorted enemies. It makes it feel like you're trapped in a bizarre simulation. The voice work is top-notch, and the characters chat like real people, so that really helps to sell their reactions to ridiculous scenes. The soundtrack is a mix of good original music and licensed songs. "The Touch" from "The Transformers" film shows up in the right spot.
Saints Row IV is a giant playground for gamers. The superpowers are a boatload of fun, and the metahumor is amusing and holds the gameplay together. On the downside, it's glitchy, and it suffers from many little problems that can add up. Despite that, the game is absolutely brimming with heart. If you enjoy spending hours toying with costumes, superpowers and vehicles, then you'll get a lot of value out of Saints Row IV. It's more like a toybox full of things to play with, but it's surprisingly good at that.
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