Review: Saints Row 4

Volition follow up the wonderful Saints Row The Third with expansion-turned-retail-title Saints Row 4. Superpowers, belligerent aliens and a Dubstep gun all feature. 

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The blustering balladry of Kanye West’s Power found an ideal home boomed through the radio in Saints Row: The Third. Not since Crackdown had a developer so completely granted players dominion over the world around them. Steelport adhered to a rulebook that alleged adding a suppressor to a machine-gun ‘increased damage and reduced recoil’ and granted handguns the ability to carve a tank in two. If two minutes slipped by without something or someone exploding, then chances were Saints Row: The Third had frozen.

Saints Row 4 does absolutely nothing to revamp that winning formula.

This time out aliens have annexed planet Earth and confined humankind to a series of Matrix-like simulation worlds. Fortunately for our purple cabal of thugs-turned-politicians, the martians are about as Machiavellian as a pail of sick and thwarting their Scooby-Doo master plan demands precisely the protocol that served so well in previous games. Chiefly, make everything and everyone explode (and in doing so gradually reclaim the city). The enemies may look like rejects from a Gears of War casting call – and the world may be painted in crimson hues – but the rulebook hasn’t changed a jot.

Steelport too remains largely indistinguishable, save for a few monstrous alien citadels stretching out from the urban tangle; a familiar lattice home to lofty skyscrapers, ghettos and suburbs somewhat deprived of personality (not that it matters much). Though not nearly as engaging nor memorable as a Liberty or Arkham City, Steelport’s verticality and long, yawning roads play ably into the hands of the game’s most innovative new feature.

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Like in Crackdown and Just Cause 2, Volition have transformed the fundamental act of travel into its greatest asset. Negotiating Steelport is a thrill, owing to your newfangled super speed, knack for gliding and ability to leap over all but the most colossal skyscraper. These superpowers begin life with the dial tuned to 9, and it ends up wound somewhere in quadruple figures. Time was a jaunt across Steelport involved a few minutes of powersliding and boosting through traffic. No more. You’re now never more than thirty seconds from anywhere and it’s testament to just how much of a pleasure it is to gallivant around that the idea of collecting 1200 hidden orbs isn’t met with indignation but glee. Think Crackdown’s agility orbs.

New too are a raft of madcap weapons that work harmoniously with combat powers like electric telekinesis, flame bullets and a stomping manoeuver that transforms your character into a human nuclear missile. There’s the Singularity gun that spits gaping black holes capable of slurping in everything from lampposts to martian tanks and UFOs, the Inflation Ray, which causes enemies to rapidly expand then burst and, of course, the Dubstep gun, a weapon so outrageously devastating it almost earns itself a place at the WMD dinner table.

These gonzo weapons cast a long shadow over those of a more buttoned-down variety, and while there’s certainly no shortage of rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers and handguns, they’ve been tamed dramatically to shift the spotlight over to the unorthodox weapons and superhuman powers.

And it’s the combination of these weapons and powers that make up for a surprisingly prosaic set of core missions. While The Third relied on a dependable yet uninspiring set of objectives to flesh out its mission roster (defend, protect, drive, snatch three), the often comical circumstances and combat atoned for that. Here, the onus rests squarely on the shoulders of the excellent combat. It’s funny, sure. But it’s not that funny (barring an excellent Nyte Blayde cameo). Only a handful of the 40-plus missions are of much note, and there’s a sizeable hole left in the wake of characters like Zimos, with nobody in line to plug the gap.

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It’s the downtime that serves up most of Saints 4′s finer moments, with collectibles and extra-curricular activities in abundance. These diversions task you with, among other things, rampaging through Steelport in an alien tank notching high-scores for damage dealt, or committing insurance fraud by hurling yourself in front of speeding lorries – the ragdoll physics transforming hit and run into a human rendition of Peggle.

New additions to the stable of mini-games aren’t such a success. In kowtowing to the superpowers, they eschew the mad in favour of what you might reasonably expect from a waggle-friendly mini-game compilation: a riff on the endless runner, five minutes spent tossing things through coloured hoops, jumping and landing in the centre of glowing platforms. They are entirely serviceable, but when you’ve a healthy catalogue of quality mini-games in reserve, it’s less forgivable that so much space has been dedicated to the unremarkable.

Outside of missions you also have the opportunity to upgrade weapons, superpowers and your abilities, which adds value to pursuing the game’s myriad hidden items. Dawdling vehicles can be pepped up with nitrous systems that transform even the most undesirable cars into speedy contraptions, while weapons can be modified and power-specific enhancements are available as a perk for both engaging in the game’s diversions and hunting doodads.

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So, could Saints Row 4 have been an expansion? Probably, albeit a generous one that would have shared a stable with the likes of Gay Tony. No faint praise. Certainly, the use of mini-game compilations as missions betrays the game’s initial status as an expansion, so too does the fact Volition have done little to redress the technical hitches that hindered The Third. Hard freezes, camera glitches and moments where control is wrestled away leaving the character open to attack were far from rare during my time with the game, while the frame rate, bless it, couldn’t hope to keep up with the pandemonium on screen.

But then The Third with the addition of superpowers was probably the logical next step for a franchise that emerged from under the shadow of Grand Theft Auto to answer the cries of those disillusioned with its march away from the inane. It’s been two years since, but it remains the case that few games outside the Arkham and now-dormant Crackdown franchises offer such a beguiling sense of power, and this fourth instalment is no exception.

8/10

This review was originally published on BeefJack

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