'Jumped the shark' doesn't even begin to cover it. What was once a laser-guided parody of one game now sets its satirical lens on several, from obtuse 80s text adventure to gung-ho space marine oorah. In effect, Volition's fourth instalment has more in common with Scary Movie than GTA.
Here, alien race the Zin have destroyed Earth and murdered seven billion people. Steelport, the last game's locale, exists now as a virtual construct governed by Zinyak, the Zin's British-accented leader. As one of Earth's last survivors, you'll jack in and destabilise it by completing batshit missions. Oh, and you're President of the United States. For an opening gambit, you can't say it's not bold.
After 20 minutes spent frantically explaining its own rules - the golden orbs you catch to lower wanted levels, vulnerable enemies who should by rights be invulnerable, the fact this Steelport simulation exists at all - the game willingly throws in the towel. At one point your character literally says, "I'll just accept this and move on."
You should probably do likewise, because this virtual-virtual world gives fresh license for madness. You bent the rules in Saints Row: The Third, but its sequel lets you snap them in half. Superpowers are the difference maker. Although you're treading the same turf, albeit drabber under perennial red skies, your engagement with it shifts dramatically. Super-sprinting, for instance, is more immediate and thrilling than driving ever was, especially when you're kicking dump trucks out of the way like empty cans. Similarly, the ability to leap 20 stories means you'll spend more time above the city than within its urban throng, bounding vertically up glass skyscrapers and scouting flat rooftops for data fragments, Crackdown-style.
More offensive powers like lightning, telekinesis, fire blasts and insta-freezes, meanwhile, transform combat: enemies attack in greater numbers, and new elemental minibosses called Wardens can only be damaged by a specific attacks.
ROW STREET RUNNER
However, you can't keep tossing fresh ingredients into the pot without spoiling the mixture a little. The downside to super-sprinting is hundreds of redundant vehicles. You can steal them, paint and upgrade them, but who wants to drive at 40mph when you can run at 80mph? The waves of change carry through to radio stations, where incongruous gems like Aerosmith's I Don't Want To Miss A Thing, Blur's Song 2, Biz Markie's Just A Friend, and What Is Love by Haddaway, will go unlistened. And due to your greater clout in combat, followers and friendly NPC's have reduced roles. As it introduces new elements, Saints Row IV compromises existing points of appeal.
The campaign wins out by sheer variety, though, never lingering too long on a scenario for you to notice its flaws. It's lucky dip game design: you'll ride a TRON-ish lightcycle through a computerised world; proposition Keith David - playing himself - for sex ("I think that would just be weird, don't you?"); pilot a space ship through a narrow cruiser as instructions to 'do a barrel roll' flash on screen; or smash waves of robots in a malfunctioning mech suit. Control schemes change, genre warps, perspective alters, visual filters swap in and out - it's like Volition gave their logins to an army of deranged modders.
While story missions are creatively madcap, sidequests grow tedious. Some three-game-old ideas make unwelcome returns in the forms of insurance fraud, tank mayhem, wave-based survivals and races, but new additions are at least fresher. Professor Genki's latest carnival of crazy sees you fling person, vehicle or mascot through hologram hoops, while blazing foot races have you hurtling down packed streets, collecting boost orbs and avoiding fire.
Sidequests do, however, use the setting well. Some tasks concern the 'assassination of rogue programs', or the 'flushing of subroutines'. These translate to less nerdy endeavours: kill a glitched out pedestrian who resembles a toilet wielding an AK-47, or dispense of men with massive spidery limbs. They are Saints Row IV in a microcosm: brilliant fun with diminishing returns. Although optional, you'll need to complete dozens of these if you want to earn new superpowers, win cash (here 'cache'), and unlock weapons.
GOOD OLD ARSENAL
Speaking of which, your arsenal is better than it's ever been. The Inflato-ray (inflate body parts to bursting point), Violator (a Japanese version of the heralded dildo bat, now a flopping tentacle), and Rebound gun (bullets bounce between multiple enemies) are wildly inventive, even if they are effectively novelties. They're toys to occupy you while superpowers cool, to keep up the damage between bouts of air-stomping and car-throwing. Upgrade your weapon's accuracy, damage and fire rate at gun shops, however, and their utility increases. Visual modifications, on the other hand, are purely cosmetic, letting you turn baseball bats into lightsabres, or disguise rocket launchers as guitars.
From game-changing superpowers to genre-bending setting, Saints Row IV is the only logical answer to the last game's excess, even if, like The Third, it too often feels like a comedy without a straight man. This is a game in reckless pursuit of crazy, yet for all its blinding slapdashery, it never loses sight of its prime directive: riotous, outrageous, indecent fun.
Saints Row IV loses sight of its identity, but crucially retains high levels of hair-brained hilarity.
- The campaign is energetic and consistently entertaining
- New superpowers transform traversal and combat
- A vast amount of collectibles and upgrades to keep you busy
- Saints Row's traditional points of appeal - driving, listening to the radio - become options you'll forget are even there
- The appeal of side quests fades fast