Sometimes, after a grim day at work, all you need is a big crazy slab of gaming to immerse yourself in. You don’t necessarily need razor-sharp AI, or cutting-edge graphics, sly wit or complicated control schemes – you just want something daft, entertaining and explosive.
Whatever its shortcomings may be, Saints Row 4 is just such a game: knowingly ridiculous, gleefully profane, and cheerily amoral, it’s a digital playground of weapons and flashy super powers. It marks the latest stage in the Saints Row series’ evolution to the GTA franchise’s oddball second cousin to its own kind of mad, bad and dangerous to know action sandbox – and with its gonzo leaps and superhuman abilities, it almost feels more like a spiritual sequel to the first Crackdown than something in the vein of Rockstar’s venerable crime simulator.
Picking up shortly after the previous game, Saints Row 4 sees its knuckle-headed protagonist ascend to the rank of President of the United States – only to have his comfortable world turned upside-down by an invading race of aliens called the Zin. After a valiant fight against the Zin’s leader – who, unaccountably, talks with a cut-glass British accent – comes to nought, our hero finds himself stuck in a Matrix-like virtual city (the Steelport of the previous game), a place overrun by aliens disguised as the police.
Fortunately, hacker sidekick Kinzie Kensington has managed to free herself in the real world, and serves as a guide through the game, doling out missions and tutorials as the story rolls on. After the opening missions hold your hand through more restricted bouts of corridor shooting and item collecting, Saints Row 4 opens out into a familiar sandbox city of cars to be stolen, passers-by to kill and objectives to complete. What makes the game so different from previous entries, however, are those Crackdown-like powers mentioned earlier; you can sprint down streets as fast as a speeding vehicle, leap across buildings or scale up the sides of skyscrapers, and even, if you feel like it, summon up your favourite car at the press of a button.
Rather than attempt to provide the impression of a living, breathing city, Volition’s more keen to constantly remind the player that they’re in the middle of a videogame; in fact, Saints Row 4 could be seen as a compendium of every videogame cliche to have emerged over the last 10 years. It happily mocks videogames’ tendency to borrow ideas from 80s and 90s Hollywood movies; the opening scene, which plays out to Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, is an unsubtle reference to Predator, while other sequences are straight out of The Matrix or Michael Bay’s back catalogue of syrupy action flicks.
The Zin are like a straight-to-video version of the Locust out of the Gears Of War series – hulking, pale-skinned, and obsessed with popping in and out of cover. One of the voices you can choose from the character creation screen is listed as Nolan North – and it really is Nolan North, turning in one of his trademark all-American good guy voices, which have themselves become a videogame staple of late.
(On a side note, we gave our character a very low, Cockney accent, which meant we got to play the whole game with the main character’s dialogue delivered in the style of Jason Statham – we haven’t laughed so often with a controller in our hand in years.)
Just as Quentin Tarantino movies are steeped in movie lore, so Saints Row 4 revels in its videogame lineage; it may be thumbing its nose at the silly, sub-Hollywood plots of most games, but it does so with fondness and an infectious sense of the absurd. When you’re driving around Steelport with your character singing along to Paula Abdul in one early mission, or flying around to the strains of 90s club hit What Is Love in another, it’s difficult not to at least chuckle at the amount of humour and personality Volition have manage to cram in here.
It has to be said that Saints Row 4′s eagerness to entertain often outstrips its technical prowess, though. The physics on faster vehicles are a little too floaty, and it’s easy to get a sports car stuck on a section of railing and impossible to shift. Similarly, the joyous sense of freedom afforded by the ability to leap like John Carter up the sides of buildings is sometimes deflated by your character’s tendency to just bump off an awning or outcropping and fall back to earth. The frame rate tends to stutter, too, particularly when too many aliens or law enforcers crowd their way onto the city’s streets.
In its favour, the game rattles along at an extraordinary pace, and refuses to leave you doing the same thing for too long – central missions are selectable from the main menu, meaning you can go through the story as quickly as you like. Side missions are lying around absolutely everywhere, and range from point-to-point races to wild kill streaks, where you earn points for causing as much chaos as possible within a time limit.
The overall objective is to gradually reassemble your old gang of teammates, who’ll then help you as you loosen the aliens’ grip over planet Earth, and in the process, you’re whipped from the simulated Steelport to the real world, from open environments to linear shooting sections, and from stealth missions to flying sections or frankly demented boss battles. It’s a game that refuses to keep still, and constantly introduces new powers, meaty weapons – a bouncing ball gun is one bizarre favourite – and constant injections of goofy humour.
A far cry from the gangster-themed, street-level action of its roots, Saints Row 4 sees the series again create its own version of the open-world adventure game, and it’s safe to say that it’s established itself as harebrained counter-programming to the GTA franchise rather than an imitation of it. At the very least, it’s refreshing to see a developer be brave enough to change its formula up to such a major degree.
It isn’t the most technically-accomplished sandbox game, and Volition’s all-out approach to this sequel, with its mecha and alien invaders, makes us wonder where the series can possibly go next, but as that big, crazy slab of gaming mentioned earlier, Saints Row 4 more than fits the bill.
Saints Row 4 is out on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC from the 23rd August.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.