Now is the part in the review when I mention that the Saints Row series began life (and more or less continued to be) as a Grand Theft Auto clone. As if you didn’t know.
Yes, yes, big, open world, criminal protagonist, ability to jack cars, kill just about anyone, wreak havoc, and all to your favorite tunes provided by your tunable in-game car stereo with a heaping dose of humor and satire of American culture tossed in for good measure — definitely more than just a nod to Grand Theft Auto. But something seems to have happened over at Volition, Inc. as the time came to plan out the latest iteration of Saints Row. It is as if someone over there said, “You know, our game is always being called a GTA clone. What if we just cloned everything, ever.”
The result is a game whose plot is largely lifted from The Matrix (with that of a bit of a few other movies’ more famous bits, like elements of Pleasantville, Ghostbusters, and even John Carpeneter’s They Live added into the mix. And a game whose gameplay Is lifted not only from GTA but from Crackdown, Prototype, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, and 2-D arcade beat-’em-ups of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The amazing thing is that all of this mixing and stirring of the ideas and mechanics of other properties works and works pretty well.
As the game opens, the player discovers that the nameless Saints Row protagonist has somehow absurdly managed to be elected the President of the United States. As he or she is on the way to deliver a speech, aliens attack earth. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the Earth is obliterated (as that happens in about the first half hour of gameplay), and the Saints find themselves inserted into a virtual reality simulation of Saints Row the Third locale, Steelport, Matrix-style, finding that they need to destroy the simulation in order to free themselves and what is left of humankind.
This framing of Saints Row as a simulation seems somewhat apropos given Saints Row‘s history of simulating another famous open world simulation and even more apropos given the aforementioned simulations of so many other movies and video games. What results, though, Is an open world game ala GTA in which you will rarely find yourself in a car. Instead, the game’s Matrix-style plot allows for a transformation of the game into a superhero open world game, in which you can sprint around at super speed or leap tall buildings in a single bound (you know, because you’re like Neo), while still wreaking incredible havoc on Steelport’s infrastructure and populace and all to your favorite tunes.
Cars are eschewed in the game as 1) super speed and super leaping become much more efficacious ways of moving through this virtual Steelport and 2) because very much like the open world super-cop game Crackdown, in addition to completing story missions and side quests, you will be spending a lot of your time locating data clusters (much like the floating orbs of Crackdown) that are located all over the place in the world (be they near the ground or high up on taller buildings) in order to further enhance these transportation powers as well as some other new powers that let you throw fire and ice at enemies or create huge shockwaves by pounding the ground.
Now, if all of this sounds pretty absurd, well, Volition began amping up Saints Row‘s absurdity with Saints Row the Third, which was a game that seemed to scream that it just wanted to differentiate itself from GTA by being bigger, crasser, and louder than GTA could ever possibly be. Unlike a number of critics (and a number of my colleagues here at PopMatters), I wasn’t wild about the hyperbolic stupid fun of Saints Row the Third, finding its humor flat and so obviously provocative that it all just felt (to me at least) like it was trying too hard.
Somehow, all of my objections to the tacky, hyperbolic, and self consciously stupid absurdity of Saints Row the Thrid has been erased by a surprising embrace of the similarly tacky, hyperbolic, and self consciously stupid absurdity of Saints Row IV. I think it may be because they have reinjected some really clever satire back into the game and that reinjection is largely due to the way that it integrates other familiar games and their mechanics into this one and really tweaks their noses cleverly. An extended stealth mission about three quarters of the way into the game that busts on a ton of the conventions and imagery of Metal Gear Solid had me laughing out loud throughout. However, my favorite bit of tweaking the nose of a famous fixture of gaming is probably the way that the game goes after the seriousness and thoughtfulness of the beloved friendship and romance simulations of the Mass Effect series.
When not in the Steelport simulation, your character can return to the real world to a ship (like The Matrix‘s Nebuchadnezzar) to visit and chat up your crew. Unlike Mass Effect‘s complex manner of interaction that features conversation wheels full of choices that effect your morality meters as well as how crewmembers feel about you and whether or not you can build an intimate relationship with one of them, here the game boils all of that complex window dressing down , making only two interactions available with each crew member: to “talk” or to “romance” that individual. Now, the “challenge” of Mass Effect Is to build relationships and loyalty and, of course, most importantly (come on, let’s admit it) to see if you can get it on with your favorite member of the crew. I am embarrassed to admit that I just barked out a hysterical laugh the first time that I clicked on one of the romance options in Saints Row IV. I clicked on the option to romance the computer hacker and lovable nerd girl Kinsey, and not bothering with any of the complicated coaxing and sensitive observations of a Commander Shepard, my avatar simply casually strode up and equally casually (and quite offhandishly) asked, “Hey, Kinsey, do you wanna fuck?”
Bringing low the serious tone and admired systems of one of the better known and played romantic simulators in American gaming in one crass sentence that cut to the heart of what that tone and system is all about (again, we really just all wanna know with who and how Commander Shepard is gonna get laid — that’s partly why we spend so many damned hours getting every nuance of conversation right in a Mass Effect game, right?) is one of the game’s great moments and a pretty good example of why this title works well when it uses, then pokes fun at, games that its audience knows well and often admires as well.
Sometimes stupid is just stupid. That was my experience with Saints Row the Third. However, sometimes stupid is also surprisingly stupidly clever, fun, and even joyously obnoxious. That has been my experience with Saints Row IV.