Review

Saints Row IV

It’s Funny Because It’s True

Saints Row IV is an honest dealer of utter nonsense.

By John Teti • August 21, 2013

The day-to-day workings of society are lubricated by lies. You pretend to like your coworker’s new haircut. You feign credulity when your buddy claims that he only watches Swamp People ironically. Video games are greased the same way. Some of the lies they tell are mild, like the elevator rides you have to endure while a game loads the next section of a level. Others are more gratuitous, like a sidekick’s insistence that you have to “Hurry!” from a towering inferno when you know the script doesn’t call for the place to burn down until after the next cutscene. Saints Row IV avoids this low-level fraud by following the tradition of all great observational comedy: It spotlights the lies and takes them to their logical conclusion. You’ll rarely play a game that’s so full of shit, or one that’s so honest about it.

Prior to its release, the fourth entry in Volition’s open-world gang-warfare game was touted as a presidential affair, complete with a “Commander In Chief Edition” label on the box. This is a characteristic bit of monkeyshines: The game has very little to do with the Oval Office, as your presidency is sidetracked by an alien invasion that enslaves the human race—which includes you and the rest of your Saints gang, who had taken their own roles in the White House. The space jerks drop you into a vast simulation that looks like the urban playgrounds of past Saints Row games, with a veneer of Blade Runner neon and haze. You have to fight your way out.

Saints Row IV

The computer-sim storyline means that the city of Saints Row IV has even less obligation to verisimilitude than its already wacky predecessors. One upshot of this is that you can “hack” the system and give yourself superpowers. It’s like the world comes with a Game Genie built in. You can run at superhuman speeds and up the sides of buildings. You can leap so high that you might as well be flying. These locomotive wonders turn the entire city into a plaything and make cars obsolete. Gods do not wait in traffic.

The designers of Saints Row IV realize how dumb their premise is. More to the point, they revel in it. Early on, the hero expresses confusion over what seem to be huge plot holes until he (or she—I played as a dude, but you get to choose) resigns himself to just playing along. “It’s probably better that way,” your sidekick says, and she’s right. Having established in this early scene that nothing you see is going to make much sense, Saints Row IV pivots and, for the remainder of the quest, attempts to make sense of itself in increasingly ludicrous fashion. You get the earnest directive to murder a hundred big-headed kittycat mascots, for instance, with an explanation that this will give your techno-geek friend time to upload a virus into the mainframe. Obviously.

Saints Row IV

As you rescue fellow gang members from the simulation, they each bring their own idiotic narrative justifications to your high-caliber frolicking. Your vice president enlists you to smash up an intersection because it’ll be just like old times on the campaign trail. A throwback character from Saints Row 2 points you to a local batch of alien enforcers who need murdering because she needs to prove that she’s more than just a party girl. All of the side quests are a mélange of the same mini-games no matter who’s giving them to you. There are about 20 variations on the basic killing/smashing/racing/hacking themes. But even as the activities stay the same, the premises change, such that they’re as much a part of the comedy as the zany mayhem itself.

Saints Row IV hones this blunt silliness into pointed commentary when you explore the more involved missions of the main quest. Having cast a bright spotlight on its own stupidity, the game sends you into simulations inside the simulation that riff on the subtextual lies of other video game blockbusters. One such holodeck excursion is a thinly veiled sendup of the Metal Gear Solid series. Your partner for the mission tells you to shoot out the overhead lights before you kill the poor fellow standing guard, in the interest of “stealth.” Your pragmatic hero responds by wondering why he’d waste two bullets on light bulbs when he could just go ahead and shoot the guy in the head. This game is dumb, Saints admits, but are the other games you play really that much smarter?

Saints Row IV

Of all the games (and movies and TV shows) that the developers at Volition lampoon, the Mass Effect sci-fi epics come in for the most stick. The middle section of the game is modeled on Mass Effect 2, as you pick up friends to populate your spaceship and fight the outer-space threat. Saints Row IV even has a twist on Mass Effect’s coy “romance” options. Your hero is liable to walk up to a crewmate and ask, “Hey, you wanna fuck?”—an unsparing distillation of Effect’s stilted foreplay. (The romantic conversations also lead to the first portrayal, to my knowledge, of hoverdroid-on-man fellatio in a mass-market video game.)

The Effect structure provides more than gag material. It also gives Saints Row IV its heart, as you reconnect with your crew on optional side missions. At best, these “getting to know you” excursions add a layer to cracker-thin characters. At worst, they keep Saints Row IV from being a cynical enterprise. The threads of emotion can be hard to discern amid all the slapstick, so the heartfelt story isn’t more than an accent piece. It doesn’t change the fact that the game is best consumed in small doses. Play for too long in one sitting, and the sameness of the activities will gray out the liveliness of the comedy.

Supporting characters sometimes accuse your hero—and, by extension, the game—of sociopathy. That’s a bum rap. The mayhem isn’t driven by nihilism but rather by a comedian’s instinctive distaste for bullshit pretense. The contrivances of games and other fictions serve their purpose: They invite us to suspend disbelief and to explore the deeper truth of a story. But a work like Saints Row IV that holds those contrivances up for ridicule—mocking the lies we tell ourselves—has its purpose, too. When we laugh at the paucity of our existing ideas, it sets the stage for new ones.

Saints Row IV
Developer: Volition
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Price: PC—$50; PlayStation 3, Xbox 360—$60
Rating: M

Share this with your friends and enemies

Write a scintillating comment

  • Enkidum

    Might start playing #3 this weekend – haven’t gone through #1 or 2 yet, but based on what I’ve read they just get better in each installment. Looks kind of awesomesauce.

    • hcduvall

      Never played the first, but #2 was big fun, if you find that you like #3.

      • JamesJournal

        The review did have to compare Saints Row 4 to a bunch of other games to get its point across though.

        • DogSwallow

          Well, it’s a spoof though.  That’s like reviewing Airplane! without pointing out that there’s such a thing as disaster movies.

    • Raging Bear

      I kind of like 3, but the thing that’s killing me is the enemy spawning behavior, which, after being annoyed by the very same thing in Red Faction: Guerrilla, I think kind of seems to be Volition’s calling card.

      Still, I’m getting IV today, which is the first Saints game I’m getting new. I’m telling myself that even if the enemies pile on in continuous waves, it might at least be more fun to fend them off with super powers than with some guns.

      • CrabNaga

        In The Third, I found that (early on at least), enemy encounters were best served by killing your targets and then absolutely ignoring anyone else. Getting notoriety and having people chase you is annoying, since the gangs don’t pull any punches when you get to 3 or more stars. This is especially true in activities such as Trafficking and the one where you have to pick up people and bring them back to a safe zone that I forget the name of.

        I think it’s no accident that most missions in the Grand Theft Auto series don’t involve you actually getting a wanted level. Or if you do, escaping the cops is usually the crux of the mission. It’s just plain annoying to have to fight an enemy that only gets stronger the more you resist.

      • http://starttocrate.tumblr.com/ Http Lovecraft

        I have it on Steam.  CO-OP ANYONE??  I wanna get that ’5 hours of coop’ achievement that I never got on SR3.

        • Raging Bear

          If I weren’t on PS3, I’d gladly op the hell out of your co.

  • Jackbert

    After Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us and other gloomy games, Saints Row IV simply looks good because it looks fun. It’s hard to say any more that that. You can’t analyze fun.

    • hcduvall

      I dunno, I feel like the review analyzed fun pretty well.

    • SaviourMachine

      Dissecting such sort of a game isn’t something like over-complicating – it mocks most  cliches  and game limitations. The fun is not actually in gameplay but in  recognizingthese  things

      • Fluka

        I feel like it’s more that there’s always a certain inexplicable quality to fun, where you look at something and say “I like this.”  There’s lots to be discussed and analyzed in the game, but it’s also hard sometimes, when something is fun on a gut level, to try to justify said fun in words. 

        • SaviourMachine

           and that’s why on  some hazy level of discussion there appears this lousy contradistinction of “fun mindless games” vs “dealing with  serious themes games” and there always occures necessity to justify the first type.

      • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

        Not sure what you mean by that.  I’m a few hours into Saints Row IV and, while there is enjoyment to be found in catching the references and allusions to other games, I can definitely say that, for me at least, the most fun is in the gameplay.

        • SaviourMachine

           I haven’t played it yet, so that phrase was just about suggesting, that if a fun game relies on these cultural referencesallusions etc. so it’s worth explaining.However, if SR4 has some good game mechanics, that is great

  • MintBerry_Crunch

    Do you know what’s freaking wonderful (frenderful?) about Saints Row? Those cutscenes.

    Having that friend, family member, lover, celebrity, abomination, or id-unconstrained  character be given the cinéma vérité treatment as the Saints Row top dog movie superstar/President puts so many grins on my face. 
    Lights, lines, camera, ACTION MOTHERF***** 

    [Sorry]

  • beema

    Cursing in the teaser! 

    • HobbesMkii

      My ears! Or, rather, my eye-ears!

  • RyanTheBold

    Does that autotuned pimp character show up again? That should have gotten old but it did not.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

     I think of games like Matt Hazard or Duke Nukem, where there was criticism (among other things) of the games making a point to mock tired game tropes, but then immediately forcing the player to participate in those tropes.
       It reinforces the distinction of Making fun of, and making fun with.  Most attempts at meta-gaming seem to fall into the former.  Saint’s Row IV seems to do their best to make it the latter.
       And if you’re going to make fun of, don’t include the the object of derision into your game play.  If your going to make fun with, please, by all means do so with robo-oral sex.  

    • CrabNaga

      It’s strange and novel to see a fleshed-out homage to another completely unrelated game. Usually you’ll see little references here and there, like getting a Notched Pickaxe in Skyrim (or Binding of Isaac). Usually the more fleshed out references are the type that you brought up: things that poke fun at other games/genres. I love the idea of making a huge homage to Mass Effect 2 when there is honestly no reason to do so.

      • Fluka

        On the subject of Mass Effect, I’m hoping I get to make more serious moral choices with consequences in this game.  *Chooses to party rather than not to party.*

        • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

           Did you end world hunger or cure cancer?

        • Fluka

          @Chalkdust_TMAI:disqus Cancer, because FUCK cancer!

  • Fluka

    Well, ~1 hr (and some graphics driver upgrades) in, I can now sprint up walls, and I have begun to trick out my Smart Car.  Plus, I have Paula Abdul and Safety Dance stuck in my head.  So a thumbs up so far!

    One comment I’ve been hearing a lot about SR4, and which rings true so far, is just how in love with games it is.  Sure, it has parodies of TV and movies too.  But rather than trying to imitate cinema like so many other titles, it fully embraces its gaming heritage.  In a strange way, it reminds me of a very different game I played earlier this week, Gone Home.  Both stories (in addition to being surprisingly inclusive regarding gender and sexuality!) are told explicitly through the mechanics and conventions of gaming, and probably couldn’t be told in another format.  Both are signs of game makers gaining confidence in legitimacy of the medium, I think.

    I’m pretty sure Gone Home doesn’t let you punch people in the dick, though.  I think.  (*Checks walkthrough.*)

    • Raging Bear

      Gone Home used touching explorations of human relationships and insecurities as clumsy metaphors for dick punching.

    • http://starttocrate.tumblr.com/ Http Lovecraft

      Seriously, how necessary is the wall sprint??  Wall jumping when there’s a ledge at the top is for the birds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    Saints Row is definitely a game i’d spend money on.

    I wish it was released on the Vita though because Saints Row is one one of those games that you can spend hours playing on the bus or during a flight.

    Also, Kinzie Kensington is my new crush.

  • NakedSnake

    I feel like the anticipation for this game has been building on GLOG ever since Volition’s wild & exuberant response to the silly Q&A at E3. I like that Teti himself is the reviewer, too. Important to get this one right. Front runner for GOY?

    • Mookalakai

      One of the questions asked was “What would be in a $1000 deluxe version of your game?” Saints row IV has a real, $1000000 version of their game. Gameological needs to step up their outlandish questions.

  • Totes Liotes

    Great write up. Saints Row IV’s opening scene is eerily reminiscent of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and I feel like that was intended. It’s the first truly great comedy game since then.

    • MintBerry_Crunch

      I don’t know, there are entire games that don’t come close to the hilarious subversion of this scene from Portal 2.

      • Roswulf

        Portal 2 has great, funny material but to me it felt disconnected from the rest of the game. Funny things were said while I played a well-designed but not inherently funny puzzle game. A humorless Portal 2 would have been a solid game.

        I haven’t played SR4 yet, but part of what impressed me in Saints Row 3 was how integral the humor was to the gaming experience. I enjoyed the game’s psychopathic mayhem BECAUSE I was in a ludicrously funny universe. A humorless Saints Row would make me want to jump off a bridge. Judging from past comments, that game was called “Saints Row” the numberless.

        • MintBerry_Crunch

          That’s what’s great about it. It’s just a puzzle game with a wicked sense of humour. At no point  does it stop being its own great game design in lieu of something else.

        • signsofrain

          *PORTAL 2 SPOILERS*

          I think Wheatley’s warm well-meaning humour is meant to stand in stark contrast to GLaDOS’ simmering malevolence. It also works to up the shock value later when Wheatley goes nuts and you see GLaDOS’ warmer more Caroline-ish side.
          Basically I really don’t think Portal 2 has a tone problem, at all!

        • Roswulf

          @signsofrain:disqus Oh I don’t think there’s a tone problem either. What I’m questioning is whether Portal is a “comedy game” as opposed to a puzzle game with very funny writing, and I’m doing so based on the relationship between the gameplay and the humor.

  • Juan_Carlo

    I traditionally always play a 1970s Black Power chick with a massive afro when I play Saints Row games.  Because I always wanted a GTA set in the 70s ala “Interstate ’76,” but this is the next best thing.

  • SamPlays

    I know I usually give other game sites the benefit of the doubt but I’m kinda left speechless when “superpowers” are cited as a major plus and then the game is criticized for being “overpowered”. Reading this GS review was both a palette cleanser and a dessert. Thanks for a write-up with a bit of substance (and understanding), Teti.

    EDIT: Said review… http://ca.ign.com/articles/2013/08/14/saints-row-iv-review

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      What Stapleton is saying is pretty logically consistent. He’s saying that the superpowers can be fun to use, but they throw off the game’s balance and can make it too easy.

      • SamPlays

        It seems less a matter of logic and more along the lines of the game not quite fitting expectations. Specifically, the logic applied implies that the only purpose of having incredible superpowers is to overcome challenges that are relatively difficult yet palatable. From a logical perspective, if I have incredible superpowers, I should rarely, if ever, be challenged by anything because I can lay utter waste to anything/anyone that opposes me. It also means I can do cock pushups on top of a supersonic jet mid-flight while listening to Billy Idol and telekinetically run a warm bath for when I get home (this sounds like DLC to me). Given the pretenses of the game, it seems less about overcoming challenges and more about having a good time.

    • Roswulf

      I don’t know, that review made a great deal of sense to me. The joy of the game above and beyond the already fabulous Saints Row III comes from giving the player ludicrous abilities. But since the game doesn’t ramp up the opposition proportionately, the game loses all sense of challenge. Moreover, when the game wants to create challenge it has to strip away the very abilities that make the game so much exuberant fun.

      Now its entirely valid to say that you don’t care about being challenged by a Saints Row game. I used to like to play Warcraft II with cheats, power fantasies can be fun.  Or maybe you (like me!) suck so much at video games that you can be challenged by pretty much anything. But I think it’s a perfectly legitimate critique.

  • Cloks

    I played this game for about two hours last night and it’s incredible fun. There’s really nothing more that needs to be said.

  • JamesJournal

    I checked this one out of a Redbox today. I haven’t played any Saints Row game to completion, and I’m not sure that makes this more or less absurd. The last thing I remember doing before jumping back into the real world was rescuing Shaundi and resulting a scene that suggests she’s had character development or evolved or something that doesn’t make sense in this universe.

    I there was no way I could possibly resist selecting the Nolan North voice.

    What happened the Rare? We need a Conker game done almost exactly like this just more British and with a bunch of direct game/movie parodies.

    Saints Row 3 pumped up the absurdity to a level I just couldn’t get into. But now they’ve fixed it by getting even crazier. I’m a superpowered gangsta president fighting an alien invasion in a computer simulation.  YES PLEASE! If it were less vulgar it could just be NTSF the game.

    I like the weird parody of Mass Effect with the “romance option” but c’mon I don’t get to “see” any of it. If Bioware can give me Ashley and Miranda in a bra Saints Row can do something! 

    • DogSwallow

      Yeah, the next-gen sequel to Conker’s Bad Fur Day is sorely needed.  What a funny game… and that Normandy-style multiplayer mode was fun as shit

    • Dack

       I understand the Nolan North temptation, but I think I’m gonna go the Troy Baker route. Part of me really, really wants to hear Kanji as an actual hoodlum.

  • Swampgas_Man

    My character isn’t a sociopath, she’s more of a puckish rogue.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    “Having cast a bright spotlight on its own stupidity, the game sends you into simulations inside the simulation that riff on the subtextual lies of other video game blockbusters.”

    INSAINTION! BWAAAAAAAAAMP!

  • http://www.facebook.com/a.j.woolston Adam Woolston

    I’m glad they chose to recognise that the series took a creative left turn after Saint’s Row 2. That game certainly showed the team knew where they were going in terms of gameplay mechanics but in terms of storyline… yeeesh, it was a whole different kettle of fish.

    SPOILERS –

    When your crew calls you a sociopath in that game it’s actually kind of an understatement given the stone-cold decisions your character makes in the cutscenes and their dialogue. In terms of tone its more brutal and gritty even than the Grand Theft Auto series – in ‘negotiating’ for gangland territory a rival drags your buddy behind a car to the point where you euthanize him. So, in retaliation, you scar his face with acid and then kidnap his girlfriend and lock her in the boot of a car he accidentally crushes in his monster truck. Your response when the rest of your gang questions your actions – something like “Damn, I forgot to question her about the drug shipment first”.

    I also get the impression that one reason Elisha Dushku didn’t come back to voice the character of Shaundi is that the game repeatedly suggests her chief value only comes from all the guys she’s slept with [and of course needing rescuing].

    In he end, it was certainly for the best that starting with Saint’s Row 3 Volition chose to embrace the insanity of their setting with the storyline too. 3 still called for brutal gameplay but it takes place in a more self-aware and over-the-top atmosphere that focused less on drawing the player into the drama of a revenge and power-fueled character arc and more on freeing them to simply enjoy raising havoc.

    It seems number 4 takes this ball and runs with it all the way to the endzone, which is great. I mean, some would argue the GTA series makes its biggest tonally missteps when it embraces the grittiness of its Liberty City based installments: GTA 3 & 4. Personally, I think it has its place and that Rockstar should be encouraged to keep on with their attempts to create “Godfather-style” stories, as long as then lighten up when they go to Vice City or San Andreas with stories more akin to “Goodfellas”.   

    • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

      “I also get the impression that one reason Elisha Dushku didn’t come back to voice the character of Shaundi is that the game repeatedly suggests her chief value only comes from all the guys she’s slept with [and of course needing rescuing].”

      Funnily enough, there is a fairly inspired bit where SR3 Shaundi confronts the SR2 version of herself (who is henceforth referred to as “Fun Shaundi”) as part of her personal psychological, and the above statement is made, in-game, almost verbatim.

  • Matt Gerardi

    The Matt Gerardi official second opinion review: This game has lots of glowing things to jump around a city and collect, and it is very fun to do so. Fans of Crackdown might enjoy it. 10 out of 10. 

  • a_scintillating_comment

    ‘This game is dumb, Saints admits, but are the other games you play really that much smarter?’

    Not to be a debbie downer in the comments section on a seemingly silly game but this  line struck a chord with me. Most of the time I can overlook the lies that John is talking about–the false urgency when tasked with escaping your burning surroundings really is a big one–because as much as I may be engrossed in the story or task at hand, I suppose I subconciously know I’m at my computer or on my couch playing in a virtual world. A world that was constructed, is inherently rigid.

    Other times, when I’m given a task that just does not make a shred of sense, it’s really hard to not trip up on them.

    I suppose what I’m saying is it’s good to hear that kind of design is being ridiculed. I enjoyed that type of mockery in Blood Dragon–the collecting flags comment, collecting random items comments, etc.

    • Roswulf

       Saints Row 4 is so joyful that even the debbie downer commends conclude with praise for the masterpiece of the silly.

  • Halloween_Jack

    Being a huge Mass Effect fan and specifically a huge Jackmancer, I’ll get this just to make a character as close to Jack as possible. Something like this.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    hahahaha, I can’t wait to play this 

  • Joe Thirteen

    You can definitely load your character from the third game to use in Four right? I’d feel like I was betraying my character if I went on without her. Plus, I based her on Lady Bullseye (except she was Russian) and the chick looked bad ass.

    • Mike Wolf

       If you download the SR4 Inauguration Station, you can grab your SR3 character and tart them up for the new game, and it’ll all work just dandy.

      In theory at least; it’s not out here until tomorrow, so I’ve not been able to try it out.