Over the previous three games Saints Row has evolved from an unashamed GTA clone into a sandbox flagship in its own right. No matter how absurd or twisted you may consider its path, it has forged its own way in the world and has swiftly distanced itself from Rockstar’s opus. It has its own identity now, decked out in purple and supremely confident in its skin.
However, if the previous two courted success with septic tank spray guns, dildo bats and petting tigers, IV takes a somewhat different approach. Though by no means subdued, it instead focuses on ruining all other open world games. Once upon a time driving through a bustling city and causing chaos was the pinnacle of gaming, but since then being stuck in a car for long distances or persevering through shootouts with limp mechanics has become very wearing. Volition hands you an alternative; they hand you superpowers.
Within an hour of stepping back into Stillwater – albeit a digital simulation of Stillwater – I was dashing through the streets at supersonic speed, outpacing any vehicle that I might have been churlish enough to jack. Covering vast distances in seconds, buildings flashed by and pedestrians barreled out the way as I streaked past, yet it wasn’t just the speed that was most welcome. Unshackling such potential from a car removes you from the whim of physics. As such, control is far more reactive, making navigation a breeze; it’s a world away from forcing a bulky van to corner at pace.
Alongside travelling at such a lick that it would make Usain Bolt weep, your reprogrammed legs are also capable of sending you soaring to the rooftops. With huge, exaggerated leaps the Saints navigate the skyline, taking them where no road could lead and causing me to grin with the freedom it offered. Brazenly, the biggest draw up there are glowing clusters – definitely not orbs – that can be collected to enhance you powers. Their glow stands out against the dusk skyline and caused me all manner of detours as I sought to hoover them up. With some avid kleptomania soon I could run up the side of buildings and glide through the city skies, making the world not only more easily navigable but turning it into a playground through which I could skip without hindrance.
Distances of a couple of kilometres aren’t uncommon between mission checkpoints, and in other games this may have caused irritation. That’s a long way to drive, and even a well decorated world will only go so far. With Saints Row it was an exercise in extreme parkour, dashing headlong down the street through heavy traffic, scattering anything I touched, before leaping majestically across the river. Hitting a skyscraper on the opposite bank causes only a momentary pause before I’d be off again, this time vertically, pelting it to the roof from where I’d hurl myself off and glide towards my target. Time and time again I’d do it, not once getting bored as not only is it fluid but each leap throw you so far that the mini-map lights up with a whole host of trinkets and side missions.
Most are staples of the series, even if under new names. There are turf wars where you have to battle the simulation’s defenders to reclaim a portion of the city, assassinations that throw a series of tough rivals against you, and, my personal favourite, insurance frauds that see you throw yourself into oncoming traffic and then bounce off as many cars as possible. They’re twisted but with so many on offer it’s easy to pick and choose which, if any, you want to partake in. Each is an interesting distraction and introduced in turn along the main story arc too, meaning you’ll get to try each one at least once. As The Saints battle to escape the simulation there are myriad tenuous reasons quite why you have to, for instance, take part in a race against the clock or hijack a car and bring it back to base, though generally it boils down to your resident hacker insisting she “wants to see how the system reacts” as you unleash havoc upon it.
The main story missions are far meatier and revolve around rescuing your crew from their own corner of this imaginary creation. They also allow the designers to stretch beyond simply plotting missions round Stillwater. The joy of setting a game inside a bizarre computer simulation is that the levels can take you anywhere, and when you combine that with Volition’s devilish sense of humour there’s a potent combination. In the opening act there’s a recreation of a 1950s Stillwater, complete with all its bygone sensibilities, whilst at the other end of the scale worlds consisting of nothing but a series of floating, metallic platforms exist solely to test your speed and platforming prowess. Along the way parodies of Call of Duty and Metal Gear appear, poking fun at them with a beautiful selection of well-constructed jibes and often inappropriate soundtracks, whilst everything from 200-foot tall soda cans to bobble-headed cats are thrown against you. You may still be wielding a gun in a robust if uninspiring third-person shooter but with a combination of a good script and a continual change of set dressing the missions don’t feel as repetitive as it might otherwise be.
More so than that, however, it was there where the real challenge was offered. Out in the open of the main simulation superpowers soon include icy blasts and fiery explosions, both of which make short work of any group out to stop The Saints. Toss in a few fire balls, hoover up the health left behind, rinse and repeat, and the only real challenge was how quickly the grunts could be mopped up. Very soon only truly massed ranks or complacency cause issues. Strangely though the powers verge so close to feeling exploitative that there’s a sly glee about using them, as if you’ve somehow found a loophole and that the devs never meant you to be so dominant. Together with the verticality made possible by your superjump and the myriad ridiculous weapons, the focus switches more to that of a toy box and exploring what it has to offer rather than any hardcore test of your combat prowess. It grants a sense of power, one that is often taken away during primary missions, forcing you to remember what it’s like to have to find and use cover or, even more shockingly, something as primitive as a gun.
The story itself peeks into each Saint’s own personal idea of hell and is strangely nostalgic. For a game well-known for featuring porn stars and Burt Reynolds it demonstrates a sentimentality about its cast that I wasn’t expecting. Much is made of the past of the characters, harking right back to the almost unrecognisable original, the journeys they’ve been on and how they found themselves running the United States of America. It never strays into schmaltz, preferring rather to pull back with a heavy dose of crudity or violence should it every edge too close.
Saints Row IV isn’t revolutionary but a continued refinement of its brand. Originally slated as an expansion pack for the previous game before THQ went bust, this strong footing has helped greatly as it has afforded it the time to be polished and honed, which is evident by how quickly you get into the meat of the game and the lack of bugs that usually plague its kind. There’s a focus on instant fun as opposed to depth, and whilst this may hamper longevity while the spark’s still there it’s a hoot.
At its core there is still a traditional sandbox adventure full of potential chaos and passable mechanics, but – more so than ever – this is greater than the sum of its parts. Continually throwing variety at you in every possible aspect and backed by a strong sense of humour, Saints Row IV provides a definite alternative to a certain rival. It might not have the level of polish or finesse of a GTA, but the Saints have upped their game in other areas. It has ruined open world gaming for me, and the prospect of just driving around town or just entering a shootout now seems horribly mundane.