Saints Row IV opens with a Jane Austen quote and gets from there to Aerosmith in ten minutes. If that doesn’t sound a good time, get out now.
Some years after the events of Saints Row: The Third, the Boss of the 3rd Street Saints is elevated to the position of the President of the United States. That seems audacious, but it’s nothing compared to what comes next. Leaving its GTA-clone origins in the dust, the game busts into full-blown science fiction, as reptilian aliens the Zin invade, abducting the Boss and his or her crew and placing them in a computer simulation of Steelport.
Betraying the game’s genesis as an expansion to the series’ previous entry, this is a Steelport nearly identical to that game’s city, reskinned around the Zin invasion. Alien structures litter the cityscape, Orwellian messages replace the billboards, and the day/night cycle is replaced by a perpetual red gloom.
Once your character is deposited in Steelport, the game introduces the major new mechanic: superpowers. Initially the player is given merely an enhanced sprint and jump ability, but later other, more explosive powers can be unlocked, and all powers can be upgraded using collectibles found around the open-world map.
It cannot be overstated how thrilling it is to run faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound, especially when the soundtrack includes a radio station almost exclusively made up of power ballads. The mini-boss battles feel like the kind of knock-down, drag-out, city-spanning fights from comics or movies – like gods waging war, or more pertinently, Keanu Reeves fighting a polygonal Hugo Weaving.
But while the central conceit borrows heavily from The Matrix, the structure is most reminiscent of Mass Effect 2. The main story revolves around rescuing and recruiting your abducted Saints crewmembers to take down the Zin leader and his alien brethren. There are plenty of familiar faces for players versed in Saints Row story mythology; for those not, it could be a little disorientating.
The rescue missions themselves are colourful and varied, and reminiscent of Psychonauts in that they’re set within your homies’ worst nightmares, with all the surreal absurdity that entails. Once recruited, crew members are available for talk, loyalty missions, sidequests and romance in a shipbound hub. Unfortunately, most of the so-called "sidequests" the game offers are loose shells in which to package the game's numerous diversions and minigames.
Those diversions, taken out of their half-assed context, are certainly diverting, ranging from returning race and mayhem modes to new telekinesis challenges and alternate-universe platforming. Like the rest of the game, they’re enhanced by superpowers, especially when adding super-speed to the already-preposterous Insurance Fraud ragdoll activity.
The game also features drop-in co-operative play that works for everything from free-roaming to main story missions. It's at least as much fun romping about the city with a friend as it is alone. Some activities are designed specifically for co-op, including the excellent Cat And Mouse, which sees one player cast as the heavily-armed "cat" in a helicopter or UFO, and the other as the defenceless "mouse" in a car or on a flying broomstick.
Comedy is hard, especially in games, and the comedy of Saints Row IV isn't the character- driven writing of the Portal or Mass Effect games, but a more batshit-insane approach. From character creation to NPC barks to the truly strange array of customisable weaponry, everything is colourful, gaudy, and stupid in the best way possible. My character, for example, is a long-haired, heavily-scarred Native American badass in an Elvis jacket and miniskirt, plastered with unicorn tattoos and wielding a Dubstep Gun that fires explosive wubs.
Complementing the insanity, the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, lit on fire, then made to dance. The central concept of the story can be interpreted as a game-within-a-game. Keith David appears as himself. References to pop culture litter the game, and fans of everything from Breaking Bad to One Million Years BC will have something at which to faintly giggle in recognition.
Sadly, the game often tries to parody clichés while not meaningfully subverting them in the gameplay. It feels disingenuous to label a quest “We’re stretching out gameplay!” while several quests actually do that. The joke hit rate is better than most games, however – while the opening riff on modern shooters falls flat, riffs on Metal Gear and Mass Effect are rather amusing. There might not be many belly laughs, but there are plenty of chuckles.
Unfortunately, the game sports a number of bugs, probably thanks to the addition of superpowers. Steelport just wasn’t built to have players leap up the side of buildings, and occasionally the Boss or his superpowered enemies get stuck in geometry or fall through the floor. Perhaps it’s a goof on the ubiquity of that particular bug; more likely, it’s not.
In a series whose idea of advancement until now has been increasing the size of the dildo with which you can wreak pugilistic mayhem, it's refreshing to see ambitious new gameplay elements introduced. The dildo bat is back, of course, enshrined on an altar at the end of a cave, but it’s much less fun than the superpowers. That’s perhaps a testament to just how much fun this game is.