Game Pile: Saints Row IV

Strange for a person talking about how much he values the new experiences videogames have been giving him, I’ve actually been doing a large amount of replaying lately. I did my three-day monument to Hate Plus, I replayed The Knife of Dunwall (oop, should write a review for that) to get the Ghost achievment, I replayed Bioshock Infinite to show someone the cut-scenes. And because I liked Saints Row III, I’ve been playing Saints Row IV.

Did you see what I did there?

It’s facetious, but everything about the entire Saints franchise fails to take itself seriously. In all the best ways, Saints Row IV is a videogame. It gives you big flashy explosions, character customisation, upgradeable, ridiculous weapons and the means to charge through crowds of bad guys with your feet on fire. You get superpowers, you get customisable cars, you get hookers you can crash into, you get clothing options and subcultural notes that I’m sure people get if they’re not as painfully Not American as I am.

In all the best ways, Saints Row IV is a videogame about videogames. Characters are broad, simple archetypes, but they still have enough character depth to keep them interesting. Characters change and have priorities, even if the change is still within that narrow videogame-action-movie aesthetic.

A side note on satire. Proponents of Grand Theft Auto have told me that it’s satire. Now, I know I’m not allowed to have opinions on The Holy Son Of Rockstar, and I know it’s dreadfully hurtful to your feelings for me to say what I think (horrors, stop him!) so instead I guess I’ll talk to you about very briefly about Satire. In Saints Row IV, the tropes of the games it parodies are boiled down to their most essential points, and they are done in total freedom. There’s no pretension towards seriousness in Saints Row IV. The moments of character drama you experience, such as Shaundi’s trauma, are themselves done with the same melodramatic style as the rest of the game. There is no point where a little sign drops on screen and tells you This is a serious bit. Therefore, when Saints Row IV boils entire romance arcs of a character down to “Press A Button: Receive A Fade-To-Black,” and lets you Romance everyone (gender, species, or physical sexuality be damned), it holds up a mirror to those games and franchises that attempt to do the same thing, with the same payoff design. Saints Row IV challenges the other games by making itself look ridiculous, as if to reflect the other work. Does GTAV do that? Does it ever challenge, or does it just wallow? I don’t know, and obviously, I’m not allowed to have an opinion about GTAV. On the other hand, Saints Row IV never lets you sexually assault impoverished sex workers for points and calls it a mini-game.

Saints Row IV is just so weirdly positive in everything it lets you do, in part because you can play a fat black woman as well as a lean Scarface ripoff. You’re a sociopathic reprobate, and the game calls you on it, even as it sets up opposition so excessive as to justify you being the option. The narrative of Saints Row IV is typical bead-on-a-string design, where each bead represents just another excuse for a cool scene or a cool line. I normally decry this kind of writing – I feel that far too many works are ruined when scenes are set up to justify a line like a bad pun or a snappy comeback. In Saints Row IV, though, the deep commitment to excess just keeps it holding up.

If I had to criticise Saints Row IV in any meaningful way it would be that there really is too much everything. Saints Row III was a game that went over the top with its hacking game and toilet transformations, its Luchadora and Zombie apocalypse, so where was there for Saints Row IV to go? Even further. Assassins’ Creed Brotherhood felt like a very flabby, excessive production, with all of its elements pulling you to equally stupid mini-game directions, and Saints Row IV risks that particular aim. There are cars, with radios you can listen to, but you’re not going to. There are dozens of guns, but chances are you’re not going to use more than, say, three. There are some powers, but you’ll probably only use only one, over and over, unless the puzzle calls for you to use something else. The problem that presents is that you can’t just say ditch that and make the game better because the game is so much about needless, ridiculous excess. There needs to be this bloated, unnecessary level of What The Fuck or it wouldn’t be a Saints Row game.

You might notice I haven’t spoken much about anything specific in the game. Trust me, you don’t need to. You will either love a game that includes UFO bombing missions alongside telekinetic murder game shows, or you’ll hate it, and chances are there’s nothing to surprise you coming in Saints Row IV‘s box. I do recommend that you play it with a friend, because friends are great, and the game’s vast, spreading sandbox of fuck-aroundery is a great way to share time with one.

I think this is the last Saints Row game. I hope it is. I hope the people who made it move on to bring this level of love, and this devotion to a theme, to their next game project.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You really liked Saints Row III and not II
  • You’ve overloaded on more ‘realistic’ modern videogame fare and want a break.
  • You’re interested in the existing characters and want to watch them interacting again.
  • You genuinely have no idea about the franchise and want to dive in.

Avoid it if:

  • You really liked Saints Row II and not III
  • You need to feel like a game is taking you seriously.

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