Saints Row IV: Kitchen Sink Gaming
Things you can do in Saints Row IV: Use a phallic tentacle bat to kill guys wearing giant pink cat mascot heads while listening to “The Boys are Back in Town“*. Jump across floating mechanical citadels while alien police on hoverbikes blast at you to the tune of “Swan Lake“. Sprint at 300mph through traffic and leaping through the air to collect glowing power-up globes as Machine Gun Kelly yells in your ear. “Romance” (a popular euphemism for “attempt to have sex with”) every character you meet, male or female, human or alien or robot, and even Keith David. Switch from exploring stuff to blowing up gargantuan amounts of everything in the middle of town to flying a ship in an on-rails sequence to taking over territory for your gang to irritating QTE garbage to farting around in the character creator/clothing accessorizer to make the ugliest player avatar imaginable. Make fun of everything from Mass Effect to Battlezone to Metroid to Metal Gear Solid to Jurassic Park. If you can’t find something fun to do in Saints Row IV, you’re probably Cooper Lawrence.
Who cares about consistency? This game is a confusing mish-mash of every dunderheaded idea the people responsible could think of, and it somehow works. Saints Row IV takes excess to new heights with its caricature of gangsta rap aesthetic, collectathons with trillions of doo-dads to find, a plot and dialogue seemingly written by a 13-year-old from LiveJournal who watched a lot of Invader Zim, and topped off with any miscellaneous weird crap the creators could throw in whether it fits or not. It’s so refreshing to see something so self-awarely rude, crude, and lewd after playing gobs of self-important big-budget games that are convinced that they have the most profound messages to offer. Leave that nonsense to the indie platformers, guys; I’ll take the “random” low-brow comedy if it will at least keep me occupied and my brain uninsulted.
The real heart of the gameplay lies in several paths well-worn in video gaming: wandering around causing damage willy-nilly (the main appeal of the whole sandbox genre), progressing through the main quest (obviously of secondary importance), and going on side missions to gain optional items (mostly to increase the number of options available for when blowing stuff up). And there is a plethora of material to work with. This game is a blast.
There’s plenty of insane consequence-free violence here to be had. Even within the narrative of the game most of the story takes place within a fictional computer simulation where your character has super powers and can destroy and murder his/her surroundings without the tiniest bit of guilt. So even if your already-sociopathic character had any qualms about causing pandemonium, that reluctance can be safely quashed if you tell yourself that it’s just a game within a game, so it’s ok to act out your id. In fact, the destruction you cause within the “simulation” has an in-game purpose of not only being crude fun but also somehow hurting the alien computers.
Saints Row IV likes to change gameplay genres from time to time. Unfortunately, this also means occasionally removing your character’s super powers so that you can’t easily win these new game modes. It wouldn’t do to have your character able to easily hyper-sprint through a level when you’re supposed to be using a TRON motorcycle. This makes for an uneven narrative, but since the game already is a nonsensical conglomeration of unrelated ideas lifted from various segments of pop culture, it doesn’t affect the experience negatively. The threw enough darts at the board for some of them to land in the bullseye.
Make no mistake, however. There is nothing truly new to be found here; the Saints Row series owes everything it has to 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III. Much like how after Half-Life everyone started saying “first-person shooter” instead of “Doom clone”, the public has now seemed to settle into the groove of calling Grand Theft Auto III clones “open world” or “sandbox” games instead. But Saints Row IV is a more refined, more overall satisfying experience than any game from the series that is its clear inspiration.
Little touches make everything more user-friendly. You can use the in-game radio whether or not you’re in a car. Power-up orbs are scattered absolutely everywhere around the map. The glowing line on the map leading to your next destination becomes a GPS as soon as you step into a vehicle, giving directions correlating with road travel rather than a straight path. They had to do something to differentiate it from other sandbox games, right?
Even in the character creator, Saints Row IV‘s juvenile sense of humor breaks through. For your character’s voices there are three for men, three for women, and one for the ubiquitous-in-video-gaming Nolan North. And any of these voices can be pitch-shifted until it sounds like a Ween album. You can alter the size of a male character’s package, just because. And it doesn’t stop after you get into the game itself; you can buy more clothes to form the most hideous wardrobe possible. You’ll fit right in with the guys walking down the street in furry suits or gimp outfits.
Like I said before, I enjoy this game’s soundtrack. Good music exists in all genres and all time periods** so granting the player a generous variety of sounds is only a good thing. The ability to switch between several radio stations at will (including one with pretentious dorks snootily quoting Shakespeare) can keep you entertained as you zoom from place to place demolishing things. Fortunately, you can keep listening to the radio even when outside a vehicle.
I’m sure it was a lot cheaper to license music from the likes of Biz Markie than adding to the vast treasuries of one of today’s interchangeable billionaire pop rappers. It also makes Saints Row IV‘s soundtrack far more tolerable. Even the incidental music is quite good; there’s a punch and dynamicism to the aural experience that would hold its own even without the licensed music that steals the show.
Childish, unsophisticated, and more than a little derivative, Saints Row IV will not go down in history as some wonderful revelatory experience. It is video game junk food, but at least it’s like Carl’s Jr. and not McDonald’s.
* “Jailbreak” is probably the best rock album ever made. RIP Phil Lynott, there was no one else like you.
** OK, you got me; you’ll probably never hear a good grindcore song ever. No, AC’s song titles do not count.