This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Saints Row IV.
Getting a hold of Saints Row IV in this bloody country was like trying to smuggle the Jews out on the underground railroad; they did that "refused classification" thing again. And what gets me is that I don't know what we're supposed to do about it this time. We've got an R18 rating for games now, we all worked very hard for it. So the government acknowledged that we're adults but still think that if we see a fictional character taking drugs and then not immediately choking to death on their own hip bones, that by the end of the day we might be crawling around under railway cars licking discarded cans of spray-adhesive. What do we petition for now? For the bloke at the censorship panel to receive taxpayer funded blowjobs so he doesn't show up to work in a bad mood wanting to exercise petty authority? Well, who cares? The nanny state somehow remains oblivious to international shipping, but now having played it, I think the censorship board had a point; wouldn't want people to try to mimic irresponsible behaviour, like shooting fire out of their bare hands or leaping twelve stories into the air or going into politics.
After a brief prologue in which he, or perhaps in your backwards universe she, saves the world from terrorists, the leader of the 3rd Street Saints becomes the President of the U.S. and starts running the country into the ground so hard that it threatens to tunnel right through the Earth and end up under China (in some starkly-literal visual metaphor for the global economy). But fortunately, aliens then invade, blow everything up, kidnap you and seal you in a computer simulation of the city of Steelport from Saints Row 3. How considerate of them to spare the developers the task of designing an all-new sandbox.
But unlike Crackdown 2 which copied the previous game's sandbox out of some conflicting desire to both make a new game and also sit around in its pants eating Kit Kats, Saints Row IV uses the old sandbox as a setting for new gameplay along the lines of...well, Crackdown coincidentally. With more than a dash of Prototype, albeit with a more philosophical approach to senseless death and violence I'd say. So after you fly across the city and sprint up a building, you perform 50-story powerbombs onto dudes dressed as giant hotdogs as opposed to grandmothers.
Within the first half-hour, Saints Row IV has managed to parody Modern Warfare games, Armageddon, Independence Day, The Matrix and Space Invaders solely through the medium of explosions and without a single pause to breathe. Well, it's a hell of a lot more grounded than Saints Row 3 was, I'll say that. No really, I mean it. Imagine a chart with one horizontal line labelled, "Saints Row 2: Quirky Crime Sandbox," and another above it labelled, "Saints Row IV: Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad," then Saints Row 3 kind of sine-waved back and forth between the two. Either sit in the car and enjoy the drive, or get out and stick your head in a satchel full of vodka-infused panda guts. Don't keep indecisively going from one to the other, you'll just ruin the upholstery.
Saints Row IV represents the final completion of the task that began with Saints Row 2, cleaning off the greasy and unpleasant coating of "Subpar GTA Knockoff". But having done that, it's weird that this game reminisces so much about all the stuff we've finally gotten rid of, with characters and scenes from every previous game showing up. Investment in the series is kind of necessary which fortunately I have, but for one thing, the game vastly overestimates my esteem for the character of Jonny Gat who stops just short of turning into Jesus Dalai Lama Christ.
But "Subpar GTA Knockoff" is now completely rinsed off to reveal the cock and balls patterned pyjamas of wacky comedy which can only be judged by the metric of whether it made me laugh. Oh you cunning sods, Saints Row IV! I was really looking forward to judging you for your shitty alien weapons and irritating knockback physics. Well, it generally made me laugh; it remains the master of the kind of comedy one extracts from twatting people into orbit with giant floppy cocks, but fell flat at times. Entire sections of the game try rather cockily to take the piss out of other video games, but these occasionally take a bit of a suck on Duke Nukem Forever's tainted armpits by failing to understand the difference between "parody" and "reference".
One brief chapter, for example, is an entire piss-take of Metal Gear Solid. At one point, you put on a cardboard box and shuffle around grabbing people from behind, but that's not a joke. That's just what they do in Metal Gear Solid. If you're going to mock through imitation, you need to at least stand behind them putting on a derogatory face while you're doing it. Or (and we're moving into advanced lessons) kick them in the bollocks. Otherwise you just look like the little dwarf version of Marlon Brando from The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Saints Row IV also gets a lot of use out of licensed music. The terrorist foiling in the prologue is leant a sort of charm by happening to the tune of that one Aerosmith song from the Armageddon soundtrack that everyone seems to be faintly embarrassed to admit is kind of alright. And there are several other examples, usually to such positive effect, but I eventually realized that the reason for it all was that they did the sandbox crime game thing and licensed a bunch of commercial songs to play on the car radios, before realizing that there is literally no reason to use vehicles because you can run like an escaped chicken through a redneck sex dungeon. So they crowbarred the music in wherever.
Having given us superpowers right at the start to enhance our sandbox fuck-abouty fun, the story mode then spends the entire game regretting having done so. About half of the plot missions contrive a reason for your powers to not work; you may wonder why you're even bothering to spend upgrade points on the things. But the final boss fight is a fittingly climactic superpower slamdown that rounds things off well, although one thing I liked is that you get health back by killing people. It keeps the pace up. Previous Saints Row games had that problem where your only recourse when wounded is to run to the bathroom for a little cry. But for no particular reason, that power is removed in the final boss fight, so it was back to spending half the time sitting in a ditch sucking my thumb.
On the whole, Saints Row IV wears a lot of hats; sandbox driving, sandbox superpowers, wacky comedy, sci-fi action, game parodies, character building, a metric twat-ton of features and gameplay modes thrown in, used once, then thrown away like it's happy hour at the redneck sex dungeon. And taken as a whole, it's a complete mess. But as the end result of a series that has been gradually moving towards a point of maximum mess, I'd say it does its job pretty fucking well. It's a mess, but it's a fun mess, like having rough sex with a bowl of warmed-up potato salad. And despite its best efforts to look like it couldn't give a shit for your rules, man, it's genuinely funny and the gameplay's generally challenging enough that I never felt overpowered. You see, it takes a lot of care to make a game that looks completely care-free. Yeah, fucking write that one down, Wikiquote!
In space no-one can hear you belittle: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I like how they never get around to explaining how my very strongly Cockney-accented protagonist managed to become President of the USA
It's asking for trouble to call your street gang something that rhymes with 'taint'
Extra: Escapist Expo
Hey, it's Escapist Expo time again soon! October 4th to 6th in Durham, North Carolina, just like last time. You'd almost think it's a regular thing now. Just letting you know I'm gonna be there again because it was a lot of fun last time and I'm looking to seeing open-quotes "all" of open-quotes "you" open-quotes "again".